Three Jazz Pianists, A Generation After Apartheid

Mar 28, 2015
Originally published on April 2, 2015 7:11 pm

In South Africa, the major art of resistance during apartheid was jazz: a melting pot where folk songs and hymns defiantly mixed with influences from South Asia, America and West Africa. South African jazz's central formula — its equivalent to the 12-bar blues — is a buoyant, four-chord progression that even seems to evoke a blending motion.

But after 1994, this all started to lose its revolutionary edge. Jazz musicians now enjoyed free rein, but played a less clear role in the national narrative. Today, as millennial musicians reach adulthood in a newly digitized South Africa, they're finding new areas of relevance.

This weekend's Cape Town International Jazz Festival is overflowing with global talent, but the biggest rewards will come to those who pay attention to the local rising stars. In the 21 years since apartheid ended in South Africa, a new generation of musicians has grown up in a culture of open exchange.

A jazz scene's developments can often be tracked through its young pianists. The piano might be jazz's least pliable instrument — it won't let you bend notes, or easily rough them up with textures — but it's the best at synthesizing: Ten fingers and 88 keys can combine entire families of rhythm, harmony and movement.

The three pianists below are seasoned accompanists and natural bandleaders, and all have won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (South Africa's closest equivalent to first place at the Monk competition). They've apprenticed with esteemed older musicians and are seen as pioneers by their own generation.

Nduduzo Makhathini, Johannesburg

Nduduzo Makhathini grew up in Sweet Waters, a rural community in the green hills of Eastern South Africa. He remembers skipping out of church on Sunday mornings as soon as the music stopped and the sermon began. He'd bounce down the road to the next church so he could hear the next band. He wasn't resisting spirituality — music was just more meaningful to him than words.

"Every time my grandmother started singing a song," he says, "I knew that was her trying to connect to something higher than ourselves. My mom tells me that it took a long time for me to start speaking words as a baby, but I could sing lots of songs. So if she wanted to teach me a word she'd just sing a word. She could teach me through music."

Makhathini feels he was given the gift of ubungoma, or the ability to bring about healing through music. As a teenager, it led him to look beyond the strict Christianity of his upbringing and explore Zulu belief systems. He sang in church and in a cappella isicathamiya groups, but didn't take up the jazz piano until after he'd enrolled as a music student at the Durban University of Technology. Inspiration came via a campus copy of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and a meeting with the late jazz legend Bheki Mseleku.

"Bheki told me about how it was important to use music to speak to our souls and change the environment, change the people we are and heal others," Makhathini, 32, says. "That became my connection to jazz." Over the last decade he's gotten calls to work with most of the major jazz elders in South Africa: the late Zim Ngqawana, Herbie Tsoaeli, Feya Faku, Carlo Mombelli. Lessons have come from all angles. Saxophonist Ngqawana taught him to play music that was "focused on now, that lived for the moment." Trumpeter Faku's elegant music helped the young pianist become more attuned to structure. "Feya's music says to me that you can organize your life, and you can prepare for the future," Makhathini says.

Last year, Makhathini released his first two albums as a leader, Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow. They're very different records, and taken together they indicate the breadth of what he means when he talks about healing through music. Mother Tongue investigates inheritance and tradition, and music's role in immortalizing them. In the inflections of Eastern Cape rhythm on "Let Everything Sing," you notice the influence of Ngqawana and Tsoaeli. On "Our Father," a low-slung, midtempo groove seems to draw equally from gospel and hip-hop. Recorded mostly with a three-horn sextet, the music offers a feeling of inevitable resolution, stoking conflicts only so they can be dissolved.

The other album, Sketches of Tomorrow, is more an entreaty to action. It features a handful of singers and poets carrying clear messages of determination and struggle, and a looser band approach. It is an album with surprises. The sextet here features slicing guitar and free interplay that doesn't lose its pulse — it owes equally to Ngqawana's free-form playing and the legendary 1970s folk/funk/jazz outfit Batsumi.

Makhathini's playing is built of thick chords, earthbound but hopeful. He likes to conjure a low rumble, packing notes into the bottom end of the keyboard. By repeating certain tones across multiple octaves, he gives his chords a wide, chiming effect. These are ways of bringing the music low to the ground, connecting it to the terrain. Makhathini knows that to speak through the ancestors, you have to connect with the earth.

Kyle Shepherd, Cape Town

Kyle Shepherd makes music of the water and the air. As with most South African jazz, his tunes often loop from the root I chord to the suspense-building IV and V. With Makhathini, the big moment comes when he lands back at I. You're waiting for the impact each time. But with Shepherd, the rising is the thing. When he hits the I, he's at his greatest potential, just starting his ascent.

In that regard, Shepherd, 27, is clearly a scion of Cape Town. The subgenre known as "Cape jazz" grew up there in the 1970s, blending South African vocal traditions with American jazz, African folk music, Jim Crow-era jubilee singing, and the ghoema sound developed over centuries by laborers from South Asia and the Pacific islands. Shepherd was born and raised in the Cape Flats, Cape Town's sprawling, mixed-race community. The largely impoverished area's music is unmistakably linked to the Atlantic Ocean: sunny but hinting at heartache, uptempo and flowing.

When he was young, Shepherd's mother played the organ and piano in church and the violin alongside leading Cape jazz musicians. "I heard all that music from a young age: Abdullah [Ibrahim], Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee," Shepherd says. "I was really close to it — going to rehearsals, watching them workshop all their music." He was mentored by Ibrahim, one of Cape jazz's principal inventors, while also becoming enamored of contemporary American jazz pianists like Jason Moran and Craig Taborn.

Shepherd enrolled in the University of Cape Town's jazz program, but after a year and a half he left, frustrated that the curriculum overemphasized American jazz without regard for South African tradition. "They take you through the whole thing, from Jelly Roll Morton on up," Shepherd says. "I don't feel completely comfortable in the bebop thing. I don't feel like I can really express myself in that mode. When I go around the world and I'm playing on the same stages as some of the best names in music, I have to think, 'What's in my sound that's different from their sound?'"

"My favorite pianists are Jason [Moran] and Craig Taborn and Vijay [Iyer] and these guys: I'm trying to fuse this all together with my sound from home, somehow," Shepherd continues. "I was listening to [Jason Moran and the] Bandwagon's [live album from the Village] Vanguard, and I wanted to discuss it with my piano teacher. He was just completely not interested. That's when I knew, OK, this school is not for me."

Shepherd came under the encouragement of Ngqawana, the country's major jazz hero in the years just after apartheid. The saxophonist's brooding, tenacious music was a melting pot unto itself, and he pushed Shepherd to embrace his own enthusiasms. Since then Shepherd has released five albums. On some he also plays saxophone, and on 2012's South African History !X he picks up the xaru, a South African mouth bow often played in conjunction with traditional overtone singing.

Performing recently with his trio at the Orbit, Johannesburg's main jazz club, Shepherd called "Re-Invention / Johannesburg," a highlight from his 2014 double-disc Dream State. The tune builds to an exultant finale; Shepherd amended it slightly here, turning its chord progression into a climb up the major scale step by step. It's graceful and soothing, but as drummer Kesivan Naidoo established a comfortable groove, Shepherd flooded the keys with dissonance — spraying toxins, complicating the flow.

This weekend in Cape Town, Shepherd will play with Carlo Mombell & the Stories Ensemble and with drummer Claude Cozens' trio, which also features Benjamin Jephta on bass. In the latter group, all three musicians are in their 20s, and all come from the Cape Flats. Their electrified music is equal parts gospel, funk and Cape jazz.

"We all grew up in the same socioeconomic situation, same type of air, and we all went to church," Shepherd says. "To me, that trio just feels like three brothers from Cape Town playing."

Bokani Dyer, Cape Town

Bokani Dyer sat in his living room on a rainy day last September, sipping rooibos tea and preparing for a busy afternoon. The 28-year-old pianist had just said goodbye to Lana Crowster, a local R&B singer who had come over to record vocals for a track Dyer was producing. He was waiting for percussionist John Hassan to arrive so they could try out ideas for a TV commercial Dyer had been asked to score. Then Dyer was hoping to get a little time in on his own so that he could prepare for that evening's gig at the Straight No Chaser Club downtown. Singer Sakhile Moleshe sat in the living room watching YouTube videos of Cuban rumba and trying to catch Dyer's attention.

Moleshe and Dyer co-lead the fusion band Soul Housing Project. In that group's music, and on Dyer's powerful 2011 album, Emancipate the Story, you can tell he's painting from a broad palette.

"We're such a globalized society that our musical makeup nowadays is very diverse," he says. "I like to listen to as much different music as possible. That includes non-jazz as well. If you listen to the modern classical composers, there are amazing ways that they use the piano — actually making the piano sound much bigger."

Certainly Emancipate the Story, Dyer's second album, is about condensed power. With drums, percussion, guitar and two horns, it balances buoyancy and weight. On opener "Fanfare," Marcus Wyatt's trumpet and Buddy Wells' saxophone shoot a proud declaration across the bow, while Dyer pounds his accompaniment — equal parts McCoy Tyner and Andile Yenana.

Sunlight arrives through rain clouds in his music. The rhythms are damp and weighty, the harmonies oxygen-rich but full of concerted effort. On "Skit," Dyer toys with a slightly bent hip-hop beat washed in harmony. It's as if the late South African pianist Moses Molelekwa were jamming with pioneering hip-hop producer J Dilla.

Dyer was born in Botswana. His father, the famed saxophonist and anti-apartheid activist Steve Dyer, was living in exile there with his wife. The younger Dyer remembers being a fly on the wall at jam sessions featuring some of the most notable expatriate musicians.

Add to all this the perspective he's gained as a producer. "It's quite an amazing thing to start with nothing and bring all the elements together," Dyer says. His growth in the producer's role "has been research-driven. It's about really asking the question, 'Why does this sound have this effect?'"

He does the occasional commercial, and the occasional R&B track, but he also produces fellow jazz musicians. Singer Melanie Scholtz brought him on to helm her 2013 jazz-pop record, Our Time, which features an all-star cast of South Africa's rising stars. Scholtz will perform music from that album at the festival, with Dyer at the keyboard. (He'll also accompany singer Zoë Modiga on her set.)

"There's a strong, almost older sense of confidence about him," Scholtz says. "Even though he is a very young musician, you don't feel that with him. Music for him is natural, it's about bringing joy, it's about, 'Let's raise the frequency, raise the vibration, work together to change the sound of the room.'"

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