GWEN ANSELL speaks to Zim Ngqawana about his moves and shakes
‘You can’t,” says Zim Ngqawana, “photograph me like this.” The saxophonist has turned up for his interview in sweatshirt and baseball cap. “I’m a businessman now.” Then he gives a characteristic smile — part mystic, part imp — so you aren’t quite sure whether to take him seriously.
But he’s serious enough. Ngqawana is launching the first of a national series of jazz recitals this Sunday at the State Theatre, Pretoria. He also hopes to launch a whole new stage of his career.
Ngqawana has sold his long-time music publishing company, Ingoma, to go into partnership with film-maker Eddie Mbalo and theatre figures Pamela Nomvete and Themba Ndaba in Troyeville premises. “Ingoma helped to create a direction and build contacts for my music,” he says. “But now I need to go beyond a fax and a phone to a more developed infrastructure. This partnership is going to move us out of a hand-to-mouth culture and provide a base for broad, integrated artistic development.”
The new plans involve multimedia projects, music publishing, education and possibly even a jazz club. “And it would be a real jazz club, properly designed for listening.” Then he jokes again: “We’ll have bouncers trained only to let the real jazz fans in. You won’t be able to buy a ticket unless you can name 10 jazz composers and identify a photograph of a bass clarinet.”
The recitals stem from Ngqawana’s long-time belief that serious jazz needs contexts other than nightclubs in which to develop. He’ll be working with his established quartet, pianist Andile Yenana, bass player Herbie Tsaoeli and drummer Lulu Gontsana. The performance will feature Ngqawana standards, like the Migrant Workers’ Suite, but also promises new compositions, including a Hymn for the War Orphans.
And the reedman is developing a new compositional approach: “I’m trying to move away from just writing for my instrument. I’m focusing now on the standpoint of overall sound — for example, how a theme might sound if it was vocalised. We’ll be using some voice on Sunday, and that’s a direction I’d like to explore more.”
Ngqawana now has one CD out — San — recorded with his Norwegian playing partners of last summer. He is still seeking a South African distribution deal for that, as well as continuing work on another recording project for United Kingdom label B&W. He hopes to launch the San album in September with a national tour, and is currently talking to Arts Alive about bringing the band to the festival. “We’d be providing airfares and accommodation — and bringing the link with Scandinavia, which is not one Arts Alive has featured before. But somehow, they still seem to need convincing. It’s almost embarrassing when I compare what other governments, like Norway, are prepared to do for their performers.”
Touring in Norway, Ngqawana linked up with ex-Blue Notes drummer Louis Maholo, and talked through what he describes as the “first-hand history” of South Africa’s exiled avant garde and their era. He sees his own music as very much in the same tradition, and is fond of the term “second generation” for his style of jazz.
There are other elements, though, in his approach. A committed Muslim, he sees a strongly religious purpose to his playing: “Music is still there when the sun goes down. It provides energy for a spiritually depleted universe.”
Such mysticism, from a businessman? That smile again, and the paradox is resolved. “Ah, but music is my business.”
Zim Ngqawana will give a recital at the State Theatre, Pretoria, on Sunday March 2.