Zimply the best

In his new CD, Zim Ngqawana, perhaps our leading new jazz composer, continues to meld tradition and innovation to create a specifically South African sound. As he notes in the booklet, among other “aphorizims”, Zimphonic Suites (Sheer Sound) is about “harmony between antiquity and modernity”.

Ngqawana draws on both traditional Xhosa songs and the work of jazz composer Adullah Ibrahim, organising the whole into a series of suites—or maybe it should all be one suite, with separate sections. Whatever the case, Ngqawana has a keen sense of form, with pieces usually arranged in three movements—though the form within them is not always conventional.
The opening suite, for instance, Ingoma ya Kwantu, starts with a breathily fluted introduction over piano frills, moves through a brief segment of Royal Drumming, before flowing into Resolution, which is the major part of the piece. It builds slowly to a climax with a delicate interplay of flute, piano and drum, then relaxing into the diminuendo.

Intombe Variations (another triadic group) starts with a sampled Diviner’s Ceremony before Andile Yenana’s rolling piano ostinato begins. This is a traditional tune arranged by Ngqawana, but the echo of Ibrahim is strong, reminding one especially of the maestro’s collaborations with Johnny Dyani. It has a hypnotic, incantatory swing, interrupted by whistles and saxophonic squawks and building in vocal chants toward the end. The variations end with Bantu (Rainbow Nation), featuring some of Ngqawana’s most lyrical sax work and a sprightly rhythm from the ensemble.

Ngqawana pays tribute to his antecedents explicitly on Abaphantsi (Ancestry Suite), with an ode to African composer Princess Magogo. Then, bringing Yenana’s piano well to the fore, he plays with “early harmonic devices” on Old Blues—and makes the link between the traditional rural musics of Africa and the blues of the Mississippi Delta. At the suite’s end, he looks forward to a technologically sophisticated Africa with www.kwantunet.com (aka African Continent). Surprisingly, however, it remains resolutely acoustic—no drum’n'bass dabblings à la Moses Molelekwa—and the mood is rather melancholy.

The meditative tone continues on Man and Woman (Duality of Life), using some lovely harmonica, and deepens in the minimal bass number Man (A Dying Father Figure), before lifting into the bouncy Two to Tangle (Challenges of Life), making sense of the title Ballroom Dance Suite, of which these are parts.

The upbeat tone burgeons in Ngqawana’s version of Ibrahim’s Chisa (Wedding Festivities), again with some tasty sax. The whole is named Celebrations, and the “wedding” is followed by a sparky take on what Ngqawana calls Gobbliesation (it is subtitled In a Global Village). The angular drumming and edgy dissonances are apt, and the echoes of the East that they inevitably add an extra dimension to the global feel. Ibrahim’s Beautiful (It’s All About Love) closes the CD with a quiet radiance.

In the notes on Ballroom Dance Suite, Ngqawana pays tribute to another influence. He recalls going to the “nearest community hall for lessons”, lessons which would, it was said, help turn him into a “gentleman”. He wandered into a back room and saw a contrabass—“first time I saw such a musical instrument. Big, brown, beautiful and upright. My first tango with ‘jazz’.” Long may he tango.


Ngqawana’s CD is being launched at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg on August 4, along with new albums by Louis Mhlanga and Wessel van Rensburg. Book at Ticketweb. More info: Tel: (011) 444 1818.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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