Kesivan Naidoo talks Coltrane, Carnegie Hall and ‘Brotherhood’

While the highlight was playing his first Carnegie Hall performance at the Ubuntu Festival featuring other greats such as Hugh Masekela and Amanpondo, Kesivan and his Lights also played the Flushing Town Hall in Queens, New York City. 

The neighbourhood of acclaimed jazz greats includes the homes of Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane who have been central influences in Naidoo’s development as a musician since an early age.

We caught up with Naidoo to chat jazz, South Africa and the effect of New York on the artist’s future.   

You’ve travelled a quite a journey since 1993 when you made your professional stage debut with the Alan Webster band at the Hogsback Festival … 

Kesivan Naidoo (KN): Alan was playing around East London and he was teaching jazz. He was one of those guys that really observes and takes notes, especially of young people and young people’s education and obviously he recognised some sort of talent. There were a couple of drummers in town and I was the only one who was really checking out the kind of jazz that he was into. The stuff from the 1960s. 

To be honest, he gave me my first jazz record when I was about 12 years old. That was Blue Train by John Coltrane. It was his album and I had to go check it out, and that was when things started to change. I had been playing drums since I was 10 years old but three years later I saw this other approach to drumming I can’t explain. I was completely drawn to it.   

And the drummer on Blue Train was, of course, Philly Joe Jones. What was your reaction to his work and style of play and did you try to adopt some of the stylistic flourishes that Jones used? 

KN: With Alan it was an informal education process. We played at Hogsback Festival and we were the headline show and it was completely overly sold out. His wife was playing piano and on the final track he actually gave me an open solo. If I remember correctly it was a medium to fast version of Summertime. I played what I knew at the time. I’ll never forget this. Everyone in the room after the drum solo stood up and applauded. I was like “wow”. This is a really crazy overwhelming feeling. Then afterward he came to me with a cheque. I think it was something like R375, and I thought, “You make people happy by playing the drums, and you get paid, and my mom is a single parent”. That was a definitive moment when I thought this is a possibility.   

(Photo by: Jacqui Van Staden)

Growing up, how did conditions in South Africa affect your way of seeing the world through jazz? 

KN: A family member Marcus Solomon (grand-uncle) spent 10 years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and I was taught from a very young age about people like him and Biko. We had a copy of Cry Freedom in our safe. There was no money in the safe but the video was there. So we were very conscious of strategically planning my future and I remember watching that scene of Madiba being released from prison. Everybody was crying in the room, it was a heavy emotional day for a lot of us. My mother looked at me and said: “Now, you can do whatever you want.” I chose the high school that had the best music and the best drum set. I knew from the first time I saw the drums being played by Reese Timothy [his aunt’s boyfriend], I knew in that instant what I wanted to do with my life.   

Playing at Carnegie Hall …? 

KN: I think I was more nervous about that gig with Alan Webster. There is a lot of prestige with playing Carnegie Hall and the fact that I am representing 20 years of democracy, which I’m also very conscious of. I have 20 more years experience now, so musically I’m in a different space. The mysteries of music … I’ve kind of demystified a lot of it, and I’m a lot better with my music than I was then. 

However the same amount of joy that playing the music brings – that’s still what I bring to my music now. South Africa still has a lot of problems with crime, which is the result of poverty. I thought that maybe through my music I can maybe make people conscious of that. I would say that the nervousness is not there anymore. Which is a good thing because it just gets in the way of the music.   

Hudson Park High School marked your first step in your formal education as a musician. How important was music education to your development? 

KN: Hudson Park High was formerly a white school. I was one of the first black students to go there, and they were going around to township schools and handpicking students to go. It was very difficult in the beginning. There was a bit of friction. 

I was considered to come from a neighbourhood that was unsavoury, its rough but I love my neighbourhood and where I come from, so you have a different attitude. As an Indian you’re supposed to grow your moustache and here are the white people at school telling me to shave it off, so I was the only kid in the neighbourhood that had a clean moustache. But then as the years went by things changed, people recognised that I was talented and a different kind of respect developed.   

Are there enough opportunities for young musicians today looking to expand their craft and voice through their art. 

KN: The industry caters for certain types of musicians but in terms of performance artist for jazz musicians and classical artists it’s very difficult. We don’t have similar structures they have in the United States or in Europe. We don’t have the airtime for our music, we don’t have a time of day on television. Our artists are ignored. I would love to give back but there also this thing that everybody has got to get paid, and there isn’t enough budgets or structures. 

Here in New York, the jazz musicians are at the top of the game, they teach when they are not on the road or they have structures. We are currently at a plateau because of economics. The department of arts and culture is one of the departments that almost got ignored post apartheid. It was the most vital. How do you form identities, how do you get people to relate to each other culturally, is important to the progress of society. 

Your encounter and working relationship with the late South African master Hotep Galeta is interesting as he spent a lot of time in New York. 

KN: I played with Hotep when I was in matric. I remember my first rehearsal with Hotep. I finished writing my English final paper in matric, and I had no time to change my clothes and I went straight with my uniform to the rehearsal. He had that whole New York thing and all of sudden there were different colours I would hear in the chords, a different approach, even the aggressiveness, which was kind of different. One thing he gave me from that early experience, was belief. 

Hotep was the guy that said, “listen you’ve got just as much talent as any of the drummers, in the United States, you have the ability to be a world-class drummer, it’s up to you, go to Cape Town and check out Rene Mclean”. So by the time I got to Cape Town people knew I was coming because of Hotep. He helped me skip a number of steps on my way to becoming a professional. I was already gigging in my first week at college because of Hotep.   

Around 2000 you studied Indian classical music systems with Guru Sanjay Bandophadyah in India after receiving a SAMRO scholarship. How did you come to merge very strong African, western and then Indian musical influences? 

KN: Because of John Coltrane. I have a certain feeling for John Coltrane. His music hits me somewhere spiritual. I always listen to his music and I listened to Blue Train first, and then later stuff that he did with the Classic Quintet with Elvin Jones (drums) McCoy Tyner (brass/sax) and Jimmy Garrison (bass). That was actually given to me in a deep way by Bheki Mseleku. Bheki called me when I was 19, and that was when my in-depth study of Coltrane started.   

How did Bheki Mseleku help you merge these influences? 

KN: Bheki was a big turning point for me. I’ve loved his music since I was 15 years old. There used to be a show in the 1980s called JPS Jazz on a Sunday, and I used to watch him. Don Albert used to present it, and then Bheki came on one day, and I was watching this drummer Marvin Smith. I thought he was South African. Oh my God, I’ve got to get lessons from this guy. 

There wasn’t even internet so I was trying to find out who this guy is, if he lived in Jo’burg. I was going to travel to Jo’burg to get lessons and then realised, actually he happens to be one of the best drummers in the world. The thing is, the piano player was from South Africa, so I kept working out his music, and I thought maybe I will play with him when I was 25 and maybe I’ll be able to play a jam session or something with him. But when I was 19 he called me. We developed a really close relationship. We would practice all night from 10pm until 8am in the morning. Most of the band would pass out, and the two of us would be on piano and drums.   

If you look at contemporaries like Kyle Shepard, Mark Fransman and Bokani Dyer you sense an evolution of this Coltrane theme. Is this a new South African eastern influenced nu-be bop vernacular that you guys are developing? 

KN: Coltrane found a way to fuse African groove. The way Alvin Jones plays the drums is the way we feel the groove in South Africa. How we dance, and the way the New Orleans people feel the groove, is what they call back pocket. It’s not in front of the beat nor is it on the beat – it’s really back pocket. 

Bheki [Mseleku] fused all these things and the groove. He said Coltrane started this thing but how do you make it your own. Bheki was able to get this South African groove into the Coltrane thing and that’s why all of us identify with it. Coltrane is one of the few musicians from America that was very conscious about his African roots.   

What is Kesivan and the Lights and the new album Brotherhood, saying about your development as a musician? 

KN: Where am I going as an artist? Am I bringing this music into the world and making it a theoretical thing? Or am I going to make it personal? For me it’s got to be personal. You have to know where you come from in order to say the things you want to say, so this band is very special because I’m saying what I’m feeling right now. With this band we’ve got an international jazz language, but in that we weave our South African language. 

The South African groove, the way we feel it. So in this record [Brotherhood] I’ve taken from all the bands I’ve been involved in from Tribe with Mark Fransman and Buddy Wells; Babu; and the electronic dance sensibility from Closet Snare and as a sideman, and it’s in there somewhere. It’s not only in the compositions themselves, but it’s also within the approach of the music. 

I love the musicians who I play with to play themselves. There is something about the way this combination grooves together. It’s one of the few bands where I have to stop myself from smiling. If we hear the music in the same way we can probably come with the same ideas about social upliftment. Music can break down all these crazy barriers.   

Kesivan and the Lights are: Kesivan Naidoo, drums and percussion, Justin Bellairs, soprano and alto saxophones, Kyle Shepherd, piano, Reza Khota, guitar, Shane Cooper, bass with Feya Faku, trumpet and flugelhorn.

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