We’ve been writing about contemporary Jazz from South Africa for a little while now, having previously highlighted the work of Nduduzo Makhathini, Afrika Mkhize and Darren English. In truth we are just skimming the surface of what is a vibrant domestic scene. If domestic in this context sounds parochial then it is not meant to, but broader recognition is slow in coming. There are signs that this is changing, albeit primarily through collaborative work – take for example albums from Shabaka Hutchings and the Ancestors, Bänz Oester & The Rainmakers or Morten Halle’s group, Halle’s Comet.
Exposure is an issue. The fact is that Makhathini and Mkhize, like many South African Jazz artists, release albums independently and therefore do not have the resources of a corporate machine behind them to penetrate lucrative markets like the US and Europe. Whilst in theory digital platforms and social media give unprecedented opportunities on the biggest stage the marketplace is crowded and without avenues into more traditional media (print and radio), the impetus of a major label or touring internationally it is difficult to make an impact.
Arts funding is one way that South African musicians can receive support. Examples include international initiatives like Pro Helvetia which provides residencies and recording opportunities in Switzerland or the joint South African/Norwegian Concerts SA designed to support the live music scene in South Africa. In addition, there are a number of domestic award programmes which give artists promotion and vital financial support – the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Program, the ImpACT Awards and probably the most prestigious, The Standard Bank Young Artist awards.
Siya Makuzeni was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz in 2016. The list of past winners reads like a who’s who of South African Jazz in recent years – Gloria Bosman, Tutu Puoane, Andile Yenana, Kesivan Naidoo, Bokani Dyer, Kyle Shepherd and Nduduzo Makhathini to name but a few. Makuzeni is in good company.
The term Young Artist might imply that Makuzeni is new to the scene, when in fact she has been playing Jazz for 15 years. This is her first album as leader however. She learnt her trade as a trombone player and singer in groups led by progressive Jazz musicians like bassist Carlo Mombelli (The Prisoners of Strange) and trumpeter Marcus Wyatt (Language 12), but her musical footprint extends beyond jazz into rock, hip hop, reggae and electronica. Makuzeni does not want to be defined by one genre and her debut reflects this approach. She refers to her style as crossover – an organic concoction of traditional and modern Jazz, Xhosa music, soul, electronic and experimental sounds.
From the opening bars of “Moya Oyingcwele” (Holy Spirit in Xhosa) it’s apparent that Makunzeni’s is a voice to be reckoned with. Her vocals exude strength, confidence and an attitude that at times borders on the feisty. There’s a tangible sense of exploration as she slips seamlessly from words into vocalese, using her voice as an instrument to extend possibilities. It was Carlo Mombelli who introduced her to the vocal dexterity of Urszula Dudziak and it’s easy to hear how a musician might be at home experimenting through sounds as well as words. Makuzeni also makes good use of a vocal effects box, modulating her voice or looping her vocals to provide backing support.
Supporting Makuzeni are some of best from the current crop of South African Jazz musicians – Thandi Ntuli on piano/keyboard, the excellent Ayanda Sikade on drums, Benjamin Jephta on bass (himself recently announced as 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz winner), Sakhile Simani on trumpet/flugelhorn and Sisonke Xonti on Tenor sax. The American drummer Justin Faulkner (part of Branford Marsalis’ band), who replaces Sikade on “Through the Thunder”.
Even with the use of vocal effects there is a raw, live quality to the album. Most of the tracks are fairly funky with central themes expanded through soloing. The lead single and title track is a perfect case in point. Building around looped, echoing chants and a prominent bassline it opens out into solos from Xonti and Ntuli.
There are two instrumental tracks,”Brazen Dream” and “Through the Thunder”, which feature Makuzeni on trombone. I’ve said it before, but I’m a sucker for a good trombone solo and it’s good to hear it on these tunes. The harmonies with the other brass instruments remind me of the jazz funk of Black Banda Rio.
The exception to the overall funkiness is the album’s only cover, of Bheki Mseleku’s “Through The Years”. Tackling a song originally sung by Abbey Lincoln further demonstrates that confidence I mentioned and showcases Makuzeni’s comfort in a traditional Jazz setting. I find it interesting rather than exciting; it’s as old fashioned as the rest of the album seems progressive.
Last and definitely not least, “Hold On”, is one of my favourite tracks in 2016. It grows around an insistent, funky bassline, trumpet and sax wheeling and circling around each other as if in flight. And then there’s Makuzeni’s scat…phew!! Great tune.
Music from such a creative and talented spirit really deserves wider recognition. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for album number two.