As he perches next to me for a chat, Zim Ngqawana’s existential troubles are made apparent. Having just turned 50, the jazz man speaks like someone desperately searching for meaning in a world rapidly changing.
We meet in Rosebank, Johannesburg, while he’s taking a breather between the chores of organising his 50th birthday celebration. The organisation included a concert at the Linder Auditorium, which was recorded and will be released in CD and DVD formats officially this February.
The project will be released shortly after his new independent project, Anthology of Zimology, which was recorded during his European tour last year.
Anthology of Zimology hit the shelves at the end of last year on Nqqawana’s own Zimology label.
All this marks a new phase in his grand creative project. The unifying philosophical theme of his career has been embodied in this one word — Zimology — and Ngqawana has been at it for 29 years now. He first picked up a flute at the age of 21.
“When you’re 50, your education changes,” says the saxophonist, hunched over the table of a crowded café. Before 50, he says, “they lead you away from death. But then they leave you there to die miserably.”
Ngqawana is interested in investigating death and says he is “getting ready to drop the body”, which will soon “become a nuisance” as he grows older. This focus on his mortality goes into his creative process too. He says that death can be studied “through the silent moment after every exhalation when you breathe”. Musically, it’s the “silence between the notes that provides for a meditation”, he says, adding that “all great music is supposed to lead you to silence — towards yourself”.
This inward looking is at the heart of Zimology, his personal quest towards “knowledge of the self”.
Ngqawana’s career can perhaps be read in two parts: this new phase of transcendent self-searching and the earlier, more familiar work. The later Ngqawana has developed one of the most formidable repertoires in South African jazz, which has borrowed from and has inimitably enriched traditional folk songs.
Tracks such as Ebhofolo and Qula Kwedini come to mind on this score. By constantly reworking these and his own compositions, Ngqawana has guaranteed himself a comfortable space in the history of the genre.
Of his own compositions, perhaps the most consistently revisited is the Migrant Worker Suite. The three-movement opus first made an appearance on San Song (Sheer), the 1996 album on which he worked with the Norwegian San Ensemble and which kept on reappearing, reworked.
The Suite pursued a blues-based theme that focused on intra-Southern Africa labour-related diasporic movements. Ngqawana broke the themes into three parts: the Migrant Worker in his Homeland, the Migrant Worker on the Train and the Migrant Worker in Johannesburg. The Suite then mutated into Amagodoga on the 2004 album Vadzimu (Sheer). The Xhosa title loosely translates as The Migrants. In both versions Ngqawana manages to codify the cultural texture of an urbanising worker freshly arrived in the city from the “tribal” homelands. The history of his music is all in there, from traditional ritual sounds to the modern jazz.
The last revisitation of Ngqawana’s migration theme was perhaps the most self-aware. On the double album Zimology in Concert (Sheer) of 2008, he took a further journey in Migration to America. Here funk was factored into the theme, finding a union between the Afro-American experience and that of the South African black person.
Over the years Ngqawana has produced more than 10 albums. “That was the music of a specific culture, people and time,” he says.
“The new music tries to transcend that.” He calls the new thing “universal consciousness” and it aspires to a pureness of sound, “free from race, class and the specificity of history”. Ngqawana claims that it is exemplified by what he has been doing with his New York-based band, the Collective Quartet, which features him on sax alongside pianist Matthew Shipp, William Parker on bass and drummer Nasheet Waits. They have put out three projects, which are yet to be made available in South Africa.
To study this free sound, he has built the Zimology Institute on a farm outside Johannesburg. It is a project he has set up to nurture younger musicians or “fellow travellers”, as he calls them.
But such formations are a long-standing jazz tradition. The legendary drummer Art Blakey had his Jazz Messengers, an incubator of talent that also produced the Pulitzer-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. It’s an educative system in which Ngqawana found solace when the formal academy failed to yield inspiration. He was taken into such a space with Marsalis himself, Max Roach and Yusef Lateef, to mention a few mentors who took him in when he left the University of Natal, where he was pursuing a diploma in jazz studies.
Perhaps the most notable alumnus of the Zimology Institute is pianist Kyle Shepherd. And his sound is testimony to this.
Ngqawana has a fixation with codifying his name into all his projects, but he says he is not interested in creating a legacy: “Zimology is my personal journey; you must find what works for you.”