Healing with music

He drinks herbal tea, but it is Zim Ngqawana’s music that is the most healing, writes Phillip Kakaza

Some call him the most important young composer in South Africa today. He’s credited with bringing together the oldest South African musical traditions and the international avant garde to create a sound that is both local and cosmopolitan. His name is Zim Ngqawana and his first solo album, Zimology (Sheer Sound), is currently one of the hottest things filed under local jazz.

Inspired by a deeply original, spiritual and kicking gig at the Bassline, I find myself headed for Beelaerts Street in Troyeville to talk to the man on his home turf. Leading the freshest cream on the jazz scene (Andile Yenana on piano, Herbie Tsoaeli on double bass and Morabo Morajele on drums), Ngqawana had taken the audience of jazz enthusiasts by storm with his unforgettable sax and flute.

Unafraid to open up and stretch out on a tune, the group was propelled by Ngqawana’s exciting extended solos (on alto, flute and soprano), which grew in intensity as the night progressed. It was unusually gratifying to see him and his quartet playing jazz without imitating Americans. Brilliant exponents of the township traditions of marabi, mbaqanga and kwela, they reasserted the power of spontenaity in jazz.

Every track shone with Ngqawana’s signature, the only familiar jazz standard being the late Mongezi Feza’s You Think You Know Me, played as a tribute to Feza of the legendary Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath. “Apartheid prevented them from playing together as a racially mixed group [in South Africa] but it never broke their spirit,” announced the saxman to thunderous applause. “The Blue Notes exported and made South African jazz big in Europe.”

Like his music, Ngqawana’s house is no ordinary little box on a hillside. Pitched on the Troyeville koppies like a dove’s nest, it’s a “modern farm house in an urban area”, as he puts it. His garden contains an abundance of colourful flowers and trees.

Ushering me into the kitchen, Ngqawana asks: “What kind of tea?” I mumble something, not expecting to find a fennel plant in my cup. “It protects you from stomach-related diseases,” he says, pointing out the herbs he discovered in the back yard of the house when he bought it. “I’m planning to get Credo Mutwa to come and give African names to these herbs. And we can help people by maintaining them.”

When I ask him if he plans to become a herbalist, his answer is: “Why not – if I can help my people? … I’ve always been one. Music heals.” True – at Ngqawana’s gig I heard people saying: “Le ngoma ingishaya ngaphakathi. [This song is pounding right in my heart.]”

Over a succession of cups of fennel tea, I discover that Ngqawana was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, where he grew up in his grandparents’ home. As a young boy, he used to sing with his friends at traditional gatherings and weddings. His interest in music started to develop when he made his first flute from a reed.

After matric, he went to study music at the University of Natal, but refused to attend his graduation ceremony. “I had long graduated. When I came back from circumcision, my father anointed me with oil and that was my graduation.”

Ngqawana has a deep belief in African traditions and customs. “These are the things that make us to be a dignified nation,” he says. “Institutionalised education is about money. True education is about love and it is free. That’s what I got from my parents, the village life and Max Roach Institute of Jazz in Massachusetts.”

Zimology is dedicated to Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, with whom he studied while on a Wynton Marsalis scholarship at the institute.

He describes the album as a “study of the self. It’s about who I am, what I’ve done, what I’m doing and where I’m heading with my music.” Recorded in Norway along with Yenana (an original member of Ngqawana’s band) and Norwegians Bjorn Ole Solberg and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, this adventurous album establishes him as the undoubted king of new South African jazz.

Ngqawana’s ancestral heritage is registered in both his music and lifestyle. One of the more sentimental tracks from the album, Qula Kwedini, is a traditional knobkerrie fighting song, sung when boys go into the bush for circumcision. “When I arranged the song, I thought of my son Sivuyile, who will be going to the bush soon, and it’s from this song that he will learn the importance of manhood.”

Ngqawana has worked with many famous musicians, including Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonathan Butler and Darius Brubeck. Last year he and Yenana were featured on San Song, which was also recorded in Norway. Deeply rooted in the folk-based jazz traditions of Norway and South Africa, the album comprised original compositions by Ngqawana and Ole Solberg.

Disappointed by poor turn-outs at jazz gigs and by poor recording standards at home, Ngqawana decided to record his solo album in Norway, where facilities are up to scratch.

He is, however, one musician who is unlikely to be let down by the number of fans at his gigs. Still, he says: “I’m a bastard who will play this music even if there are two people in the audience. I play for myself before playing for anyone else.”

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