Muhammad Dawjee ‘Otherness Feat. Siphephelo Ndlovu EP’ (Self Released) 4/5

Jazz was once the music of the youth in South Africa. During the apartheid era, it was both the sound of struggle, against social, economic and political control, and of freedom, the freedom to dance and the freedom to think independently of the regime.

Post-apartheid, Jazz has ebbed from the public consciousness. That’s not to say that this has been a terminal decline. Jazz has become niche, a trend that’s not unique to South Africa, but music that in recent years has shown signs of reinvigoration as a younger generation engages with it on their terms. In an article for JazzTimes in 2015 heralding the “Renaissance” of South African Jazz, Mandla Mlangeni observed that “the audience here is young, upwardly mobile, and many of them didn’t grow up listening to jazz…It’s also about being attracted to the idea of jazz. It serves many different functions, on different levels.” Mlangeni knows a thing or two about this, he went on to become The Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz in 2019. He’s not alone, recent winners Siya Makuzeni, Thandi Ntuli and the current holder, Sisonke Xonti represent not only their own music but support others as well. Sounds as diverse, but distinctively South African, as those created by Gabi Motuba, Sibusile Xaba and Mabuta attest to the depth as well as the breadth of emerging talent.

In 2017 Muhammad Dawjee, who alongside Dhruv Sodha and Shailesh Pillay perform collectively as Kinsmen released their debut long-player “Window to the Ashram”. The group draw their influences from traditional and modern sources, classical Indian, to Jazz and the Avant-Garde. Alongside Kinsmen, Dawjee is also a member of The Brother Moves On and iPhupho L’ka Biko.

The theme of Identity is a common and reoccurring one in Dawjee’s music, as it is for this generation of South African artists generally. It’s not surprising, sociological factors are deep-rooted, emanating from the country’s colonial and segregationist past. High levels of unemployment and violent crime are symptomatic of continuing economic inequality and a democracy that has yet to deliver for many of the population.

For Dawjee, a fourth-generation South African of Indian descent, identity is also about the relationship of the diaspora to the ‘mother’ country.

“Otherness”, Dawjee’s first, eponymous release describes the project as “a cross-section through culture and history to dwell on questions of identity and transcendence”. Catalysed by the levels of violence in South Africa, Dawjee sees the need for cultural work to play an active role in shaping and informing resistance and self-realisation. He sees a world spiralling towards hegemony and homogeneity. Otherness exists in a mutable space outside these dominant ideologies where he urges us to create freely, not bound by preconceptions. These ideas remind me of the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall particularly in his influential essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”.

The EP has a focussed intent but delivers its musical ideas without po-faced seriousness. The whole set has an upbeat vibe, sparking with the edgy liveliness of a jam session. This vigorous energy is honed with rich, detailed soloing. On trumpet, Lwanda Gogwana fills the air with sweet, rounded, soulful sounds. Keenan Ahrends is a bundle of fertile energy on the electric guitar, injecting the compositions with elaborate detail, without grandstanding. Dawjee’s intelligent, expressive, tenor sax is a great foil for both.

The musical language of “Dialect” is instantly recognisable as South African, the engagement of all three melody instruments spirited and conversational in their back and forths.

“Otherness” eases in with harmony and a short, sharp rhythm before opening out into the solos. Siphephelo Ndlovu features on Fender Rhodes, giving way to the funky reverb of Gogwana’s trumpet. “Double Speak” with its Orwellian connotations catches Dawjee at his most impassioned alongside Ahrends.

The single, “Otherness”, was released digitally in December 2019 and whilst we don’t have a release date for the EP keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground.

Andy Hazell