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Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere’s ‘Sapphire’ refracts emotions

In the blue-tinted stage lights of The Orbit, a gastro-jazz venue in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere leans over the neck of his upright instrument. A frown settles over his forehead, veins protrude from under his skin.

At key moments, the frown furrows itself deeper into his forehead. It stays there until he has finished playing the emotional intro to Anna, a composition dedicated to a friend who phoned Bell le Pere late one night, frustrated by her human rights not being respected in her own country.

With a hyphenated name composed from the first names of two of South Africa’s struggle heroes, Zwelakhe Sisulu and Duma Nokwe, it comes as no surprise that Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere was moved to compose by an unjust political situation. He comes from liberation stock, with a father who was involved in the fight against apartheid and a grandfather who has served as secretary for the ANC.

At 17, Garth le Pere, Bell le Pere’s father, won one of five scholarships to study in the Netherlands for a year. He went on to do his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, in the United States, followed by an MA, an MPhil and a PhD at Yale.

“He ended up back in Europe with a friend,” says Bell le Pere, “and his friend is an uncle to me now because his friend’s mother, who is a grandmother to me, literally adopted my dad to come to the US.”

The musical journey 
Yet even with this deeply political background, and other seeming clichés of second-generation exile South Africans, Bell le Pere is still difficult to pin down. For example, he has only recently developed an interest in, and a clearer perception of, politics. 

“I’m definitely appreciating it more and more as I get older,” Bell le Pere says, “but my dad really carries and embodies that torch of living in that strive for those rights that all those guys gave their lives for.”

The New York-based bassist, who is in his mid-20s, received endorsements for skateboarding and had the South African equivalent of provincial colours in football when he was younger. Today he demonstrates an almost servile dedication to music, extolling the genius of drummer Tony Williams yet swatting away compliments in the same breath.

Bell le Pere attended New Haven’s Educational Center for the Arts (ECA). He acknowledges that being prepared by jazz bassist and composer Jeff Fuller and the Litchfield Jazz Camp earned him a place at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Massachusetts. There he gained a master of music in jazz studies.

While at the NEC, he accepted bassist Dave Holland’s offer to play a few tunes with him during a concert titled The Music of Dave Holland. For his last year of undergrad and throughout his master’s studies, he shared digs with Charles Burchelle, a drummer from New Orleans who has a long-standing friendship with renowned trumpeter Christian Scott. When Scott’s band was in Boston for a gig they rehearsed at the NEC, where Bell le Pere was also rehearsing with his band. After hearing him, Scott booked Bell le Pere for several local shows and then for a West Coast tour.

A rare hearing of his debut album 
Alongside big-ticket US collaborations, Bell le Pere has amassed an impressive list of collaborators locally as well. One of the most important of these is Nduduzo Makhathini, 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Jazz. Leading his quintet, Bell le Pere plays with his neck, giving each member of the band queues for solos, changes in music or friendly jibes. 

However tight the band is as a unit, Bell le Pere and Makhathini demonstrate an obviously time-honoured musical fraternity. Ayanda Sikade does well to keep abreast with the pair’s flights of fancy and subtly introducing new ideas.

The Orbit’s part-owner, Aymeric Péguillan, says: “We were introduced to Zwelakhe-Duma and his music by Nduduzo Makhathini, who had performed with him a few times. Last year he played one night only and it was really a fantastic experience on many levels.”

A jazz club-cum-restaurant with a lavish menu, The Orbit has a downstairs seating area lit in the day from the panel windows that make up its shop front on De Korte Street. The upstairs dining area, where performances take place, is artificially lit save for two windows at the extreme right of the venue. Tables are arranged so as to avoid patrons having to sit on each other’s laps.

Bell le Pere’s recent two-day stint at The Orbit was not devoid of the hubbub and chatter typical of a gastro-jazz venue. But it did afford audiences a rare hearing of his debut album Sapphire, to be released on June 16 if all goes well.

Behind Sapphire is an urge to make a statement about perception. Depending on its degree of visibility, the way that it is cut and the type of light passing through it, a sapphire gemstone can refract and colour light that passes through it in a myriad different ways

Creating a genuine moment
What is remarkable about Bell le Pere’s composition is his ability to create a genuine moment, to summon emotions, moods or atmospheres and then just as easily withhold them from his audience – only to replace them with others at the flick of the wrist. 

Bell le Pere admits that he prefers to make the music crystal-clear on paper to provide something of a road-map to the person playing it. In parts his sound comes across as too heavily scripted for the audience to really get a sense of each individual band member’s take on it. But this might be a gainful exercise for repeatedly striking the correct emotional chords.

He says that “the lay person, in a sense, maybe can get the gist of a song and what it’s about; maybe it’s hurt, pain, despair, happiness, joy and some. But they’re not going to know that this chord represents this emotion.”

Owing to his “truly African-American” heritage and upbringing, Sapphire introduces an exploration of nuance in his music; an explorative journey that promises to be interesting for the attentive ear. It promises to deliver the dazzling and the familiar at once, depending on how it is held to the light. But first and foremost, though, if Sapphire is to become a valuable gem, Bell le Pere needs to exercise lapidary skills as masterfully in the studio as on stage.

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