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Mzansi Music Ensemble play tribute to Victor Ntoni

The late Victor Ntoni was a brilliant composer and arranger. His widow Linda Ntoni has taken the initiative to explore his music further in staging a live musical extravaganza that is touring the country in the major theatres and the major centres. One single show with so many pioneering performers is something we have not enjoyed for three generations of our brilliant jazz tradition. Long live and safe travels for this joyous musical celebration.

Mzansi Music Ensemble Sings Tribute to Victor Ntoni opens to rave reviews …

In the epic gospel jazz song, “Sons and daughters” the female lead shouts out to the audience, “now we are going to church!” The song changes into a fluid improvisation. The call and response is between her shrill vocals and the trombone players playing with the funny sounds of his big fat mute. His head is shaking on his neck like a well-oiled toy or a seed pod waving in a wind that blows from all directions. Funny to see. Makes one think this young man is killing himself laughing as he plays. When sax maestro Barney peers over his shoulder to get a closer look at what is going on, one realises this is indeed the case. And when the improvisation stopped, the dancing started. The 6 male vocalists lead the dance from their positions directly behind the 6 female dancers. Their dance moves were continuous like the crashing of the oceans waves and dynamic like a buffalo in mock fighting. But musically it was humorous as they fed off the great bond of friendship that they clearly share. The female singers were understated and classy in their moves as they swayed in unison, a little like the 5 saxophone players who sat in the front of the horn section. Understated but deeply content in the love for the rhythm that they shared.

The three trombone players. The only members of the horn section to wear hats (and they all wore hats) invigorated by the hilarious solo of their mate, swayed together from side to side in such profound unison that even the string section, upright, reserved and generally uncollected caught a fire and enjoyed themselves in movement. But, it was the 4 trumpet players that showcased the greatest improvisation in the dance as led by the kid with the afro in the centre of the section, they raised their elbows in unison and did the highly vibrant chicken dance – pock pocking to the steady beat. And that was the end of the show.

The curtain goes down with the band jamming in the name of the Almighty and the audience on their feet, jamming too, all smiles; African Jazz Style!

But, it is important to note that this show was not only about fun, joy and celebration. From that important foundation, the musicians unearthed some exceptional musical jewels in their orchestral arrangements of Victor Ntoni's compositions. It was all very beautiful but nothing was more musically essential than the first ever showcase of Ntoni's composition “Codessa Files,” a musical showcase of the value of peace, love and respect in dialogue and negotiations. This song was led by the well-rehearsed horn section and showcased some startling solo's and dynamic musical interplay. The love of horns and that sensibility of the arrangements is something that Prince Lengoasa certainly adds to the ensemble, however the most outstanding aspect and the most authentic expression of Victor Ntoni's style is the vocal arrangements. Ntoni's enigmatic and deep baritone style was broadcast from a copy of his recordings through the speaker system for the vocal collectives to sing with in their contented manner, showcasing the powerful variety of sound from male and female voices.

Some of his compositions were sung in pure acapella. The composition eGoli was given a theatrical slant with enjoyable and romantic showmanship, but it was Ntoni's most famous composition Theta that really struck a chord as the baritone lead sung out his lines with a remarkable care over the pitch and tone he hit. His facial expression was tailored into an instrument of pure precision as he released his musical lines with the care of an archer shooting an arrow into the heart of an evasive lover, a flee-ing angel. These solo vocals backed up by the harmonic interplay of the female singers singing out the melody line with such love and joy gave one of the youngest on stage, 22 year old Siyabonga the opportunity to blast a funky and freewheeling saxophone solo. He was loving that, so much so his inexperience may have lead him to forget that silence is the key to the music. Such is the freedom in great beauty, but the care of the vocalists in sharing this composition was astounding. With their penetrating stare, they kept the exuberance of the young talent in check. This show, this tribute really mattered to them and all. It was heart-felt.

Rainmakers : A Music without borders... Review Live at Winnies 04/04/15

The stream of music that has gently flowed between South Africa and Switzerland is suddenly becoming a gushing river of opportunity for jazz musicians in both countries. The national tour by the Rainmakers quartet, happening this March and April 2015 is this healthy exchange, revealed.

The Rainmakers is a musical meeting which started when Eastern Cape drummer Ayanda Sikade won a scholarship from SAMRO in 2009 and took master classes with Makaya Ntshoko in Basel. There he met Swiss bass player and music educator Baenz Oester. When they met again on a Pro Helvetia funded tour to the Grahamstown jazz festival in 2011, late night jam sessions with pianist Afrika Mkhize ensued. A saxophone prodigy, Ganesh Geymeier from Switzerland joined the band, and Afrika gave them the blessed title of his royal Mkhize lineage (bringers of the rain), ‘The ‘Rainmakers.'

What bonds these musicians more than the lovely fluid loose and evocative style of jazz is the like mindedness. Afrika with his deep African ancestry, Ayanda with his marvelous Buddha-like wisdom, Baenz with his light hearted love and Ganesh with his earnest soul searching, adds a sense of super consciousness to the music.

“ The Rainmakers is one of the greatest events in my life. The way the music is moving, the direction is so clear,” said Ayanda.

“ We figure out who we are. We are all looking for the same things, trying to find ourselves,” said Afrika.

“ The music is really open and equal. As soon as we are on stage, everybody is creating. There is a very strong echo from the audience,” Baenz said.

Musically, a meeting point for the band is provided by folk compositions from Eastern Europe which has a close link to African music; technically due to the unusual time signatures, and emotionally due to the shared experience of lived atrocities. The sincerity and love of these real life emotions portrayed in these compositions is translated seamlessly into jazz music. One hears the passionate exchange between purposeful playing and soft and sultry tones on the rendition of the Swiss folk song ‘Wie di graue Naebel schlyche' (How the Grey Mist Creeps). Afrika's stirring composition ‘Be Still,' is a very sad song dedicated to the people of Syria. And the gypsy-style Balkan folk song, Lela Devla is a lovely compositional ground for improvisation.

The Rainmakers are a great brotherhood of musicians making rain in the true sense of the word because when it rains, cultivated soils blossom. In 2014 The Rainmakers recorded their second album ‘live at Willisau.' Klemens Schiess is currently filming an on the road feature documentary. They tour Switzerland and South Africa in 2015.

Audience noise, Poor Instrument quality and the disturbance of flash photography were some of the downfalls at Winnies soul jazz venue. And as a result, what should have been a celebration of music became a humbling journey of the soul – which is not at all unusual in jazz. Lesser musicians, would have quit on the spot and blamed the audience. But to their incredible credit, these four Rainmakers, soldiers of musical love and progressive jazz marched through their thrilling and extensive repertoire and posted a victory for the jazz lovers in the angelic kingdom.

After the show the musicians were gutted, particularly saxophone player Ganesh. He said, “I have been snuffed out,” referring to a candle that had just been extinguished. These musicians had given their all in quite trying circumstances and were not immediately aware of the results.

Even Afrika as he tucked into his delicious steak and steamballs said, the food was much better than the music. I generously gave me a taste of his food and it was mighty fine indeed. However I reminded him that from where I sat the music was actually better than the food. That was true. Because in the music we experienced an alchemy and a transformation. It is for these qualities that we live. It is the music that is the food.

It was during this show that I had witnessed, the full and complete emergence of Afrika Mkhize as a musical griot – a born musician. He did not once complain, but only muttered once under his breath, ‘how Joburg!” In the sound-check he repositioned the piano so as to disguise the first three letters of the venue name, WIN and expose only the last three letters NIE. Nie means “No” in Afrikaans. Afrika was saying ‘No' to the piano he was asked to play on. The Yamaha he was asked to play on was like a toy for beginners. Cheap, yet he played on it and by the end of the show he had worked its soft bits in the middle range into some delightful tinkling melodies. And he proved the great jazz dictum, “It is not about the instrument, it is about the man behind the instrument.” Afrika is a captivating performer. His musicality matches his presence. He is strong and dynamic. He is pure fire and brimstone. ‘Nie,' the big NO also stood for the tin drum kit Ayanda was asked to play on. It was twanging on the skins and tight on the cymbals, giving very little range and effect. This limited Ayanda's performance considerably. Once more it was the man who transcended his instrument. This is typical of South African Jazz. He worked the cymbals and brushes and with a call and response to shouts and calls to his brother in rhythm on the piano he kept the intensity of the music at a peak.

Band leader Baenz Oester stood in the midst of this startled ensemble and in the middle of the stage throughout. He is constantly present, constantly aware. A picture of pure musical delight, bliss and purpose as he walked the bass elegantly, poignantly and poetically through all the emotions.

For most parts of the show it was a trio performance. Afrika Mkhize was the virtuoso. He played the toy piano with complete and absolute mastery; juxtaposing rhythm and melody, childlike joy with an ancient wisdom. At time he played this instrument like an African drum, tickling it, belting it and feeding it with his limbs that flowed like water. He played the instrument like a 17 th Century classical composer on a harpsichord as he heavily fingered a few keys in trills, turns, single note adventures and simplistic ostinato's. His pointed shoes were all over the pedals, maximising every aspect of the instrument, his great hands pressing all the keys at once in a whirlwind of sound. And very so often the power of his effort would show as he would lean back dramatically onto his stool leaning on his hands like crutches, taking in a one or two beat breather and then back onto the job, working that instrument and then working his fellow musicians with shouts and calls.

Afrika cracked the Japanese manufacturors mass production code and found the key to the funky instrument he was asked to play on. At a point, he had literally transformed this toy piano into a honkey tonking spanking big sounded blues machine. It was an act of sheer genius that had brought the entire audience to the edge of their seats. Jazz is about friendship and togetherness.

Saxophone player, Ganesh was overwhelmed by the complexity of the sound and emotions at the show. Ganesh was like a cat on a hot tin roof all night, moving from his comfort zone on the side of the stage to the mic in three quick goose-steps to play his lines and then quickly retreat like John Cleese running the gauntlet. It was somewhat disconcerting however it is very difficult for the woodwind players to play in harmony when the accompanying instruments are twanging a touch, because woodwind players have to adapt to the subtle nuances in the sound with their lips. But then again in South African many a woodwind player has overcome such obstacles. Ganesh eventually did throw caution to the wind and produced a rambunctious solo right at the tail end of the concert. It like a scene out of Kafka's Metamorphosis as the tall saxophone player was transformed into a giant praying mantis that jumped from one leg to the next blowing out a verbose and rolling solo.

And then the show was all over. I guarantee that audience had never seen anything of the sort. What an education, for all of us in fact. Backstage the musicians looked a bit shell shocked like they had gone ten rounds with Buster Douglas. It didn't help that they had been living out of a bag for a number of days as they had toured the country flat. They have been all over the place, EL, DBN, CT and now JHB.

Also it didn't help that they had just spent 4 and a half hours jammed up on an aeroplane flying back from shows in Mauritus. Their manageress Kirsten says, they slept four hours on the plane and they ate on the plane. Is this the life of the musician? Jam packed itinary.

But for me, all considered being with these musicians is an honour. They are professional musicians complete - alchemists - I call them. So, I said to Baenz, “You guys cooked. And sometimes when there are very few ingredients in the kitchen and you produce a delicious and nutritious meal, that meal is more important and more memorable that when the cupboards and the fridge are fool of delicious goodies. This show was a meal we will never forget. A deeply humbling experience to partake in what was a truly generous offering. Thank you Rainmakers, a little bit more of your truth and power and you will transform the whole planet.

Umkhumbane Music Ensemble

The musical uMkhumbane was written by Alan Paton and Alfred Nokwe. It was performed in the 1960's. Theo Bophela worked alongside Todd Matshikiza in the rehearsing and staging of this musical. Long time associate, saxophonist Moses Sefatsa also performed in the star studded cast. Today, uMkhumbane is an all-star South African jazz band that has the power of preservation and stamp of authenticity. uMkhumbane is lead by Jerry Kunene on saxophone together with other musicians.

These Durban jazz legends performed at the Bat Centre: In 2010 it was a tribute concert to the legends on whose power and resilience we are witnessing a blossoming and a new birth of jazz music in eThekwini.

Theo Bophela plays a central role in the preservation of the Durban jazz legends. His music is marabi inspired. The sound of this music melts into a liquid clarity with the harmony of the horns and rhythm section. The music creates a sense of distinction and contentment within the listener.
The musicians were joined on stage by the uMkhumbane big band which blends mbaqanga and jazz in a Durban jazz sound that flows with its own vital energy. Heavyweight Johannesburg based musicians Afrika Mkhize, son of Themba Mkhize and Bheki Khoza were welcomed to Durban to join the stage too. Their contribution was high powered, fast melodic jazz, full of humour and inspiration. What was really exciting was the manner in which Afrika Mkhize led the band with his eyes widened doing the guiding and his hands doing the playing. He was playing keyboards, interplaying between resounding crashing chords in all octaves and gracefully twinkling melodies. The trust that was born on stage was so great that when Bheki Khoza took his solos the horn section would gather round listening intently like gents perusing a game of chess. These guys sounded. To cool the proceedings down a young songstress was sent to stage to join them. She dipped into a very gentle jazz standard with immediate effect. The song drifted along wistfully for a few moments and then the young pianist Afrika Mkhize’s eyes started to sparkle. He picked out a few melody lines almost miraculously from the keyboard and communicated them to the horn section. And a unique sound was born. The band sung as one to the audiences delight. One cannot be quite sure what transpired for Bheki Khoza to appear on stage to take over the piano playing. So melodic and harmonic and simply inspired was his playing that saxophonist S'thembiso Ntuli took time out from his post on the horn front line and wandered over to the keys to watch what was going around. From Manenberg to Jingle Bells, all sorts of melodies came racing
out from his dancing fingers. The band paid tribute to Bheki Mseleku in an orchestration of power and dignity. And they ended off in a typical Brotherhood of Breath kind of big bang with all the instruments hooting and tooting; and then silence; then the cheers and applause; and then
the excited chatter of hearts and minds racing at speeds unaccustomed. And Moses Sefatsa hardly left the stage the whole night. He can barely walk as his age is so advanced. He was first on stage. He set his stance adjacent to the microphone like a cricket batter to the bowler and he played all night. He blows like the flickering of a candle. Heart wrenching to see how his cheeks are withered to the breath. Moses Sefatsa stood tall and powerful in his bright green and yellow striped shirt. All the horns were doing their Zulu dancing between phrases and featuring S'dumo Ngidi playing pennywhistle in a jazz style. There was yet tribute to be played to Winston Mankunku and when the horns commenced with the melody of Yakhal ‘Inkomo there was a humongous and powerful sound that could move the heart and soul into forgiveness, courage and awareness.

Songlines collaboration Paul Hanmer and Wendy Oldfield Live @ Sophiatown Heritage Centre

With 70 years combined experience in the music industry, making beautiful music, the Songlines collaboration shows exactly what it is to make music. In a land of gimmicks, brand ambassadors and greasy grins, these professionals played the music and nothing else. And it is the music that matters. When they played the music, they opened the heart strings of the audience, which in turn magnified their enjoyment and together we had an extremely soulful occasion.

When the musicians first arrived on stage, there were no smiles. The smile only came right at the end of the show. Music is a serious business and if you treat it as such, from the first note to the last there will be music, beautiful heart centred music.

Wendy described Paul as a jazz musician and herself as an Indi-pop musician, and together they created a very extraordinary kind of soul music. These musicians completed each other. At the end of the show, Wendy gave the audience a good laugh when she said she needs to keep the playlist by her side because sometimes she doesn't know what Paul is playing. "That's jazz," shouted Bob from the audience. The Songlines collaboration is jazz meets pop to create soul.

Wendy Oldfield is no ordinary musician. She has stars in her eyes that shone right into the heart of everyone in the audience. Communication is the consummation of the pop star. After the show, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt remarked that in the early 90's he played in the ensemble "The Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow Band," and they would perform on festivals that Wendy Oldfield was performing on, and all the members of this boy band had a huge crush on her.

Not only is Wendy Oldfield a remarkable performer, but she has a deep empowering and humanising philosophy. To dwell on her lyrics would be a thesis in itself on 'humanity' and 'love,' as her lyrics never ceased to amaze and inspire with their pearls of wisdom exposed from deep with her framework of genuine sharing and caring.

And never missing a beat, nor an opportunity to accentuate this liberating joy, there is Paul Hanmer, understated yet ever present. His elegant fingers playing the chords and the phrases, keeping the pace and the theme. Head down and hard at work, we see how dedication is the magic that creates the music that lifts the spirits.

The musicians played a mixture of compositions, individual, together, new and old. On Paul's' composition, 'Trip to the Beats,' Wendy wrote the lyrics as "Trip to the Beach." The lyrics stuck, and Wendy described that it was Paul's' Rondebosch East accent that made her to write the lyrics differently, the audience erupted into laughter.

And that is the Sophiatown Heritage addition to this collaboration. It is a space of honesty and self love, whereby one can look at oneself and laugh at oneself. It is an authentic space, with a staff, management and vision structure that lends itself to heart centred musical expression, exactly the ideals that Sophiatown once stood for.

Jokes aside, the vocal dexterity of the songstress was extraordinary, crossing between an earthly Neo Simone blues style to an acid jazz, trip hop, spoken word, through a ditsy song and into a big band Squirrel Nut Zippers swing: all genre's, sweet, stylish, expressive, magnificent, fun, freewheeling, tasteful, joyful and heartening.

A spontaneous standing ovation closed the show. And when the rapturous applause dwindles Wendy said, "I didn't know if you were standing up to go or want another song." Such is the impressive humility of the great stars. They do not even take their roaring success for granted. We wanted another song for sure, and in fact could have listened all night. Hours after the show people were still sitting in their seats in case the great stars return. And they played us an encore. It was a delicate and pertinent anthem of human purpose and a genuine tribute to mother earth called 'Pale Blue Dot.'

Blue Note Tribute Orchestra ... "Music from those crazy guys who were way ahead of their time and way ahead of our time."

Marcus Wyatt, Siya Makhuzeni, Syndney Mnisi, Mthunzi Mvubu, Afrika Mkhize, Ayanda Sikade Romy Brautesh
Live @ The Orbit Even the musicians were surprsied at the intensity with which this project was presented, delivered, received and celebrated. It struck a chord because complex music was performed with such skill that it made perfect musical sense to the audience and revived a passion for heart centred collective, integrative South African jazz ... In a sense much may have changed in the last 50 years since the Blue Notes began their musical march, but when we saw the passion and power of the musicians, nothing had changed, and when we saw the class, culture and the beauty of the audience and the fine style of the venue, nothing had changed. We are still as hip s we were in the 60's. Only thing is we got colour photography!

The original Blue Notes formed around Chris McGregor, the centre piece aound which the musicians would play. Today the tribute orchestra is centred around Marcus Wyatt, the trumpet player.

He like MacGregor does not over play, but is constantly present creating the space and musical sense for his musicians to play around. And when he plays his solo's, they are understated at first, melodic and then when the tone his set, he exposes his great experience with a virtuoso quality that is breathtaking with his rapid three finger trills.

On the piano is Afrika Mkhize. He is a serious virtuoso musician. He voices his instrument with a quality of uniqueness, combining rhythm and melody in an exasperating combination of pure delight.

Marus took a minute to celebrate Afrika's style. He actually said to the attentive audience that the last time Afrika had played wit the Blue Note Tribute Orchestra was three years ago in Switzerland and he still remebers the songs.

The composition IMBIZO stands out for the fire and fury with which the horns dance together around a striking and vigorous musical theme that must be looked at closely as a great South Aftrican standard.

Marcus's self procalimed soul sister the multi talented Siya Makhuzeni makes the Moholo version of the Davashe standard Lakutshoni Langa her own with a startling vocal rendition that is modern and ancient.

And then much to my surprise the band play the blues. It is Blue Notes indeed but for me this style of jazz does not come from the blues, the state of musical meditation that overcomes a loneliness and yearning for freedom, but it comes from another emotion, another era, a state of mental inspiration where the music is the medium to unleash that power within. It is freedom born from an existing freedom.

The Blues is fun but it is the freewheeling jazz songs lead by furious horn lines played in startling proficiency and unison that makes this live performance universal, breathtaking and beyond time. The saxophone duo of Sydney Mnisi and Mthunzi Mvubu embody this quality with their vigorous, passionate and exciting journey's into unrestrained solo-ing.

As if to close out with a joke and a joy, they play a version of Tati's Gubu. Very fun and very jazzy. Another fascinating musical standard.

The Blue Note Tribute Orchestra is the beginning of a long journey for the re-evolution of jazz from this country. I long to see the day where the Blue Note Tribute Orchestra evolves into the Brotherhood of Breath tribute orchestra and a small tight and brilliant collective of superstars as they are today, evolves into a great family of musicians giving a platform for a musical explosion of independence, freedom, wisdom, knowledge, togetherness and love.

The original Blue Notes went to Europe to piece together their brotherhood and now the new Blue Note tribute orchestra is pulling together their brotherhood right here at home making for a very exciting future for South African Jazz .... !


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