He has many awards behind him, but for Andre Petersen his career purpose lies in faith, love and learning.
‘The point,” says Cape Town pianist Andre Petersen, “is not just to play the piano, but to tell a story.” Petersen is everywhere, as leader and accompanist and collaborator of choice for many visiting artists. Yet little is known about the man: he does not court fans and disappears home after gigs.
This self-effacement reflects both his quiet personality and his strong Christian faith. It, Petersen says, gives him a sense of mission in music and conduct. “I try to follow my direction with integrity. The message has to be about love and hope. But
a more blues-inflected hope — and I’m not talking about a musical style!”
Faith comes from his family: both Petersen’s parents were teachers and also church musicians. His earliest musical memory is of “sitting next to my late father when he played the organ”. Jazz exposure came later through older brother Denzil’s record collection (“Joe Sample’s great recording with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. He insisted I listen to that!”) and at the University of Cape Town College of Music when he arrived to study classical piano.
Cape Town, Petersen believes, was and remains a great place to grow as a musician.
“There’s a long tradition and presence of music in the city. No question, the presence of the College of Music has played an important part in jazz education. There are [the venues], the iconic families such as the Schilders, the Ngcukanas, but also more credit has to be given to the older musicians who are not so well known: Tete Mbambisa, the late Henry February, Merton Barrow … Long before we had international jazz festivals and music schools those people were the schools!”
Cape Town also gave Petersen the opportunity to explore Xhosa music, something now seen when he plays mouth bow on stage. For him, it is about faith, heritage, the intellectual influence of Ghanaian musicologist Kofi Agawu and another teacher, Amampondo’s Dizu Plaatjies: “I used to go to his house and he would teach me how to play traditional instruments and also explain their history.”
Since graduating, Petersen’s career has been a litany of awards and honours: the South African Music Rights Organisation Overseas Scholarship Award, the Oppenheimer scholarship, the Music Development Trust Award, a Martial Solal International Jazz Piano Competition prize and the Vuya Foundation Award. He also holds a master’s in music from Belgium’s Lemmens Institute.
But for him these have not been the only turning points. Petersen says he has learned vastly from colleagues such as the late Robbie Jansen and Winston Mankunku: “touring … and hearing him play note-for-note Wayne Shorter solos just for sound check.” He is still learning and pays particular tribute to “my big brother (trumpeter) Feya Faku for always supporting and encouraging me … Every time I stepped on stage with these people it always felt like a turning point.”
And then there is his personal support system: family, faith and his wife and musical colleague, the bassist Chantel Willie: “She’s my best friend and I also bounce all my ideas off her, because I trust her ears.”
Petersen’s quartet set at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March won acclaim from international as well as local critics. Jazz Times commented on “the leader’s brooding piano … and great dynamic range”. His set included taped commentary from Cornell West on the world’s growing climate of fear.
“An artist cannot be removed from the suffering of the society he or she finds themselves in — although you also can’t be enslaved by it,” says Petersen. “West’s comments are spot-on in terms of where South Africa finds itself at the moment: pervasive distrust and paranoia and poverty on the increase. It touched me very much.”
A similar acute social awareness also characterises the band Petersen will work with in Grahamstown: drummer Kesivan Naidoo’s Kesivan and the Lights. “My relationship with Kesivan goes all the way back to 1989 when I played in my first band and he was the drummer. He’s one of the country’s most important drummers. We have a natural chemistry and I love working with him, particularly in this formation. The music is very open and sometimes challenging and Grahamstown is in for a treat.”
These days, Petersen teaches as much as he plays and composes. “I come from a family of teachers …Each student has a seed and I only have to water it. But I avoid telling them what to like — and I certainly don’t encourage them to sound like me!”
Andre Petersen appears at the National Arts Festival with Kesivan and the Lights on June 30 and as part of the All-Star National Youth Festival Closer on July 2