Southern inflection

This year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival will feature two remarkable young saxophonists with Zimbabwean roots. New York-based Max Wild is the son of a major African scholar and Sam Mtukudzi is the son of iconic popular music composer Oliver Mtukudzi.

Sam still lives at his parents’ home in Norton outside Harare.

Their presence is noteworthy because both are young artists trying to make their mark in the world and both are musicians of artistic stock who are trying to establish their own identities.

Sam, Oliver’s last-born child, recently launched an album, Rume Rimwe, which roughly translates into “I am my own man”.
When he launched the album last month he said : “Hey, I am Sam — look at me as Sam, don’t see Oliver when you look or listen to me or when you judge me ... see a different man.”

He calls his music a fusion of jazz, katekwe and mbakumba, which are drum-based traditional rhythms popular in the north of Zimbabwe. While his voice and vocals are markedly different from his father’s, the arrangement bears his father’s signature slow-paced, meditative sound. In fact Oliver produced the album.

His music deals with day-to-day life. For instance, Mazuva mangani talks about the importance of unity and cooperation. The track Amai is a tribute to the musician’s mother and Chii chanetsa is a rehash of Oliver’s song Tozeza, a crowd favourite in which a child complains about an abusive father.

While his father’s association with afro jazz is at best tenuous, Sam, who is equally comfortable with the acoustic guitar and the saxophone, is consciously courting jazz influences in his music as shown by his latest collaboration with Wild, the German-born alto-saxophonist.

Sam’s jazzy sound is marginalised on his latest album, an unfortunate development, as a higher pursuit of jazz would certainly pull him out of his father’s shadow. It is a commendable debut effort, but Oliver’s music is written all over the album.

Sam says one of the tracks on the album was written when he was around 14 and doing music as a subject in high school. “I have always had a passion for music,” he says and adds that he has applied to go to music school in California. This way, he says, he can “find my own feet” and learn “how my father got to be where he is now”.

He is keenly aware of the honour of performing before a South African audience at the festival in collaboration with a musician whose roots are international. “It doesn’t get bigger than that,” he says of his scheduled performance next week with Wild.

Wild was born in Germany and grew up in Zimbabwe in the scholarly presence of his mother, Flora Veit-Wild, an academic and biographer, who was collecting odds and ends of the bohemian writer Dambudzo Marechera’s literary estate, which she published posthumously. “I knew Dambudzo and worked with him illustrating some of his children’s stories. I was five or six then,” said Wild.

When he was growing up he was exposed to the Zimbabwean arts and says he was a fan of Oliver and Thomas Mapfumo, chief exponent of chimurenga music—an mbira (thumb piano) based music genre.

The Zimbabwean influence is apparent on Wild’s debut instrumental album Zambezi Sunset. Despite its cheesy sounding title the album was received warmly by jazz critics and set it apart as jazz music with a distinctly Zimbabwean feel.

“A lot of jazz is very typical and I didn’t want my jazz to sound traditional,” says the artist who did his graduate education at the Guildhall School of Music in London and the Manhattan School of Music where did his masters. “I have been incorporating Zimbabwe influences into my music and this is what makes me unique. I want people to say this is Max Wild.” Remember me is a song on Zambezi Sunset, which is reminiscent of the Sungura beat—a guitar-based genre that has influences of rhumba. “This song was written around the year 2000 when things started to go wrong politically and economically.”

Of his collaboration on their forthcoming album, coming out next year, he says: “I really liked Sam’s sound. He is very original.”

Sam, Oliver and Max have even done a track together called Tereera (listen). Oliver’s influence is all over the track but Wild’s soaring sax gives the song a different feel, dare I call it a foreign texture. Tereera came out in April and is available digitally. The forthcoming album will feature Oliver on two tracks.

“I bring the jazz and Sam brings the Zim sound and we create a unique sound, something between jazz and Zimbabwean music.”

I have been listening to the album on and at this stage, especially Tinovatenda (Let’s thank God) sometimes feels like two continents violently colliding. A little more studio work should smooth out the rough edges.

Certainly the two artists are bringing something new, something vibrant to Zimbabwean and jazz music. In the same way that Wild charted a different path to his literary mother, Sam should follow suit. When his father offers his help with production on his next album, he should politely refuse and he should play that saxophone more often. Loudly.

Max Wild and Sam Mtukudzi perform at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz on The Lab stage at 10pm on August 29;

Percy Zvomuya