Reflecting on the past

Yenana was born at a time when most South African jazz luminaries were either leaving for exile or awaiting an eclipse at home. It was in the late 1960s when groups such as pianist Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes — including such legendary figures as saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and drummer Louis Moholo — were no longer comfortable playing in an increasingly politically repressive and artistically restrictive environment.

It was 30 years ago yet, the thirtysomething pianist Yenana recalls that period with an amazing resonance in his words and notes. Harking back to it is a part of his hankering for the real jazz sound. “We own this music,” he says to underscore the fact that it comprises the core of a musical tradition that has defined an identity he is committed to.

He is amazed at how the jazz musicians of the 1960s in this country were able to capture and convey the spirit of jazz in the United States by just listening to records. From this, Yenana says, they reached very musical levels and developed a specifically South African jazz that expressed both its sources of inspiration and our own musical heritage. The works of the Jazz Epistles led by Abdullah Ibrahim, aka Dollar Brand, the Blue Notes, Eric Nomvete, Victor Ndlazilwane and others are a testimony to this cultural pollination and creative evolution.

“These musicians left a very rich legacy of compositions that should comprise our repertoire,” he says. “This will make us be rooted and grow. US jazz musicians are steeped in tradition and know their heroes.”

Yenana admires South African jazz pianists such as Shakes Mgudlwa, Tete Mbambisa and Ibrahim. He cautions, however, that “musicians should continue to explore and be creative” and cites the many phases jazz has gone through as an expression of its continual development.

Yenana’s first CD — to be launched this Saturday — draws on the works of the bassist Johnny Dyani, a South African exile who enriched the European jazz scene with his avant garde works, Dudu Pukwana, as well as his own.

In this work Yenana has made a fine choice of collaborators. On trumpet is the superb Feya Faku, whose high technical mastery is matched by his wonderful command of the jazz idiom. It is a refreshing, stimulating production of high quality.

It is to his credit that Yenana has connected with a great legacy. It has lent substance and quality that is lacking in most of the recent productions by so-called jazz musicians who apparently rely entirely on their compositions to remain simple and avoid challenges.

“We can not forge ahead without the past as a springboard and a source to carve our personal and national identities.” Yenana has tried hard to uphold this dictum.

He went through the famed University of Natal jazz studies programme where he met saxophonist and dynamo Zim Ngqawana to form an association that has fructified in many ways.

It was through this collaboration that both musicians worked with a group of Norwegian jazz musicians in the South African Norwegian Ensemble (Sane) to produce the ground breaking and superb recording. All these musicians pursued their quest within the broader scope of the works bequeathed by John Coltrane and other US and European avant garde jazz musicians. Sane has done justice to this legacy while projecting its own vision.

Yenana was also a member of Mahube, a project that brought together some of the finest musicians in Southern Africa to explore various musical traditions. Ngqawana and Yenana went on tour to the US and played with a host of US jazz musicians.

For Yenana music is a journey that has a track record and entails looking backwards on what has been covered and forwards on what may be added. His own additions may yet prove to be the bridge needed to take South African jazz forwards.

Yenana launches his new album at the Civic Theatre’s Nelson Mandela Theatre on February 23. For information call (011) 444 1818.

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