/ 6 July 2007

Let the music speak

It doesn’t take long to learn that Makhaya Ntshoko, the veteran South African jazz drummer now based in Switzerland, is not a talker. He is a musician, and music is his way of communicating.

At trumpeter and flugelhorn player Feya Faku’s home in Roodepoort — which was immortalised when Ntshoko wrote the song Lulu on Adderley Street about friend and fellow drummer Lulu Gontsana — Ntshoko speaks the language he knows best. He is here from Basel on his first national tour since 1962, when he performed locally with his band, the Jazz Giants.

Today he is part of the Swiss-South African Jazz Quintet. Although he leads the outfit, it is a communal endeavour that belongs as much to him as it does to Faku, Stephan Kurmann (bass), Colin Vallon (piano) and Domenic Landolf (saxophone).

The band played this week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and in Johannesburg, and will hold gigs in Cape Town.

Ntshoko might be a small man, but his stature in South African jazz is that of a giant — and not only among the music fraternity. Jazz fundi Dinga Sikwebu wrote in ClassicFeel magazine: “As a member of the first troupe of South African musicians to skip the country, Ntshoko was one of the musicians that assisted the next wave of exiled artists to settle in foreign lands.”

In terms of his primary vocation, Ntshoko has played with the legendary Jazz Epistles — the first black group to record a long-playing jazz album in South Africa. Yet, as Sikwebu pointed out, Ntshoko was not known in Europe, and today it will come as a surprise to many to discover that in 1963 he formed part of the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio and played with Duke Ellington.

The Jazz Epistles included Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi. Together with the Blue Notes, led by the inimitable Charles McGregor, they set the jazz standard at home and were respected abroad.

But the contemporary drama is playing itself out on Adderley Street. The table is stacked with goodies: strawberries, custard and drinks. The band play, then Faku’s trumpet falls. The mouthpiece is “injured”. For the first time since my arrival there is complete silence.

Faku breaks the ice. “These things are so expensive. But it is fine,” he says in his customary mild manner. At length the band play on. “Much better,” Ntshoko says and adds that he would like the piece to end more raucously than it does. But they are not going to try it again. They don’t want to upset the neighbours in this quiet heart of Jo’burg suburbia.

The next tune is not at all free flowing. “It’s confusing,” says the Swiss saxophonist Landolf. “It’s not easy,” he complains.

“It feels like I am wearing someone else’s boots,” replies Faku, who is actually wearing Converse All Stars. Pianist Vallon confers with Faku and Landolf in in an effort to smooth things over. To an untrained ear it sounds good. But they seem dissatisfied.

Finally Faku reveals to the band that he wrote a song the previous night. “We don’t have to play it [at the performances]; I just wanted to hear how it sounds.” The musicians take the scores and for a moment they read. Faku sits at the piano and begins to play. It has a Latin flavour. “Stephan knows about these things, maybe he can help us,” he says, referring to Kurmann’s love for spending time in Brazil.

The band members agree; it is a beautiful song. Suddenly it becomes possible that cold little Grahamstown — and the rest of the country — might just be warmed with a little help from the Swiss.

The Swiss-South Africa Jazz Quintet plays this weekend at Nassau Theatre in Cape Town on July 6 and 7 at 8pm and at the District Six Museum on July 8 at 5pm. There is a residency at the museum from July 9 to 14. Tel: 021 425 4701