Isak Roux's musical homecoming

Just as the wayward prodigal son returned home to his loving and understanding father, maybe it is time for the distinctly American music genres of jazz and gospel to be invigorated by their African roots. That is certainly the opinion of composer Isak Roux, who is in town for the premiere performance of his Coming Home cantata at the Johannesburg City Hall, as part of this year’s Miagi festival.

Roux has used the Biblical parable of the prodigal son as an underlying narrative and spun out a ‘jazz-gospel” cantata based on a series of traditional African-American spirituals, sung and narrated in Zulu, English, Afrikaans and Sotho.
Interviewed at a guesthouse in Melville, Roux said that his idea is to re-Africanise these spirituals, in a kind of ‘musical homecoming”.

The spirituals that Roux draws on, songs like Motherless Child and Go Tell it on the Mountain, are the earnest and plaintive outpourings of slaves and a cornerstone of American music. They typically tell biblical stories or simply plead for sanctuary and deliverance from oppression and strife. By bringing these spirituals into the more Baroque setting of a cantata, Roux creates a post-modernist­ stew of gospel, jazz and classical styles.

Roux also plays piano in Coming Home and teams up with locally based conductor Kultwano Masote, a pairing Roux says is born out of ‘mutual respect”. Roux chose specific voices as soloists for Coming Home, with varying backgrounds and vocal delivery that can reflect the inherent mix of genres in the work. Classically trained tenor Robert Brooks contrasts with baritone Thinus Maree, who has a more jazz and pop background. They are joined by mezzo-soprano Sibongile Khumalo, who has moved comfortably between jazz and classical styles and Roux has also recruited Sibongile Mngoma as narrator.

Backing these soloists are the Johannesburg Chamber Orchestra, newly formed by Masote for this project, and the Gauteng Choristers, who shone most recently in Philip Miller’s Rewind cantata at the Market Theatre.

Roux was born and grew up in Durban, earning his BMus at the University of Natal in 1982. He spent the mid-1980s teaching and defying petty apartheid regulations by travelling­ into rural ‘homeland” areas, where he began recording and transcribing traditional Zulu folk songs. Inspired by this gradually vanishing indigenous music, he set about incorporating influences of these folk songs into piano music he was writing, following the lead of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who last century breathed new life into classical composition by bringing in the sounds of folk music of his native country.

However, Roux predictably found considerable resistance to this cross-cultural approach to music in the middle of the turbulent 1980s. Finding himself caught in a ‘conservative Afrikaans rut”, Roux packed up and left for Stuttgart, Germany in 1988. He studied there at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik and still lives there, imbibing the tolerance of modern German culture and creating original music, which still draws on the traditional songs he discovered back home in KwaZulu-Natal.

Coming Home has more than subtle autobiographical overtones. This is the first large-scale work of Roux’s premiered here since he left 20 years ago.

Isak Roux’s Coming Home takes place at the Johannesburg City Hall on May 17 at 8pm

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