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Sweet fruits of a Swiss-SA jazz romance

When South African jazz needed a strong arm of support and acceptance, the Swiss jazz fraternity was there. This was the early 1960s and the beginning of the exile years.

The foundation for the Swiss-SA jazz collaboration was laid by Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, bass player Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko.

They played regularly in Zurich and their collaborative performances were charged with frequent visits from the London exiles, the Blue Notes, and were well supported by the Willisau jazz festival near Lucerne.

Ntshoko subsequently made Basel his hometown and formed a band, with Swiss musicians, called The New Tsotsis. Co-founder of the band and bass player Stephan Kurmann, later founded the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel which, in 2004, began a programme that made a profound impact on South African jazz.

Powered by the contribution of an anonymous funder with a huge love for South African jazz, the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club gave – and continues to give – South African musicians a world-class platform. The club would regularly invite South African jazz musicians to stay in Basel for one or two months at a time, to collaborate with both young and established musicians, develop new ideas, workshop, record live, engage in adult education and teach at the Basel Jazz School.

Jazz as a universal language
For Bheki Mseleku, Lulu Gontsana, Alex van Heerden and Zim Ngqawana, the visit to Switzerland was the swan song to their remarkable careers, as they all died shortly after their respective trips. For Ngqawana, his dream came true with a performance at the Willisau jazz festival in 2009.

Cape Town goema composer and guitar player Mac McKenzie also received support from the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club. This enabled him to finance his dream, the Cape Town Composers’ Workshop and its two feeder orchestras, the Cape Town Goema Orchestra and the Basel Friendship Orchestra.

Veit Arlt of the Centre for African Studies, which initiated the South African live music series at the Bird’s Eye, said in a Skype interview: “This club has this kind of family groove, so musicians feel so much at home. Audiences concentrate 100% on the music. It is really respectful, very focused and that is the one thing musicians are very fond of.”

Musical residents at the club have also included Feya Faku, Siya Makuzeni, Hilton Schilder, Carlo Mombelli, Marcus Wyatt, Bokani Dyer and Herbie Tsoaeli. The Bird’s Eye has created a musical archive of live recorded gems and the musicians are given exceptionally favourable conditions to publish their works.

When the Braamfontein revival needed a world-class jazz club, Aymeric Péguillan, at the time a mission manager for Médecins sans Frontières, travelled to Basel, consulted with Bird’s Eye and received the necessary advice, inspiration and in kind support. He founded the Orbit Jazz Bar and Bistro and it, too, is bringing positive change through providing a platform for the appreciation of South African jazz musicians.

The Rainmakers quartet

The rain is coming
Péguillan says: “I went to Basel and I went to meet Veit Arlt. He is very connected with a music foundation in Basel. In that set-up there is a massive lover of South African jazz, who is loaded like you have no idea and is willing to help South African artists. She owns a club in Basel called the Bird’s Eye which is a very nice club. I put my proposal to them and a few months later we agreed that they would support us.”

The stream of music that has gently flowed between the two countries is suddenly becoming a gushing river of opportunity for jazz musicians in both countries. The national tour by the Rainmakers quartet, in March and April, is this healthy exchange realised.

The Rainmakers is a musical meeting that started when Eastern Cape drummer Ayanda Sikade won a scholarship from the South African Music Rights organisation in 2009 and took masterclasses with Ntshoko in Basel.

There he met Swiss bass player and music educator Baenz Oester. When they met again on a Pro Helvetia-funded tour to the Grahamstown Jazz Festival in 2011, late-night jam sessions with pianist Afrika Mkhize ensued. A saxophone prodigy from Switzerland, Ganesh Geymeier, joined the band, and Afrika gave them the blessed title of his royal Mkhize lineage (bringers of the rain), “the Rainmakers”.

What bonds these musicians more than the lovely fluid, loose and evocative style of jazz is their like-mindedness. Mkhize with his deep African ancestry, Sikade with his marvellous Buddha-like wisdom, Oester with his light-hearted love and Geymeier with his earnest soul searching, adds a sense of super consciousness to the music.

“The Rainmakers is one of the greatest events in my life. The way the music is moving, the direction is so clear,” said Sikade.

“We figure out who we are. We are all looking for the same things, trying to find ourselves,” said Mkhize.

“The music is really open and equal. As soon as we are on stage, everybody is creating. There is a very strong echo from the audience,” Oester said.

Cross-border melody
Musically, a meeting point for the band is provided by folk compositions from Eastern Europe, which has a close link to African music – technically because of the unusual time signatures and emotionally because of the shared experience of lived atrocities.

The sincerity and love of the real-life emotions portrayed in these compositions is translated seamlessly into jazz music. One hears the passionate exchange between purposeful playing and soft and sultry tones on the rendition of the Swiss folk song Wie di graue naebel schlyche (How the grey mist creeps). Mkhize’s stirring composition Be Still is a very sad song dedicated to the people of Syria. And the gypsy-style Balkan folk song Lela Devla is a lovely compositional ground for improvisation.

The Rainmakers are a great brotherhood of musicians making rain in the true sense of the word because when it rains, cultivated soils blossom.

The Rainmakers’ second album Live at Willisau is due to be released shortly and the group will be touring Switzerland and South Africa this year. They recently performed at the Cape Town International Jazz festival, Durban Jazzy Rainbow and at the Orbit.

Events at the Bird’s Eye include Feya Faku with Dominic Egli’s Plurism, Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper, Kesivan Naidoo in a Black Box project, Carlo Mombelli, Bokani Dyer, Marcus Wyatt and a McCoy Mrubata residency. The Bird’s Eye has a very efficient website with live streaming of shows.

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