/ 17 May 2016

Sello Galane and Nono Nkoane talk afrophonics and all that jazz

Nono Nkoane represents a new voice in South African music
Nono Nkoane represents a new voice in South African music

Kiba music proponent and one-time Malombo member Sello Galane still has it in for jazz. At a recent International Jazz Day event at Freedom Park in Pretoria, Galane delivered a lecture that argued for further effort in canonising indigenous music idioms for educational purposes rather than accepting the allure that the idea of jazz, for instance, holds in the South African imagination.

“My understanding of jazz in South Africa, why this brand, I found that it makes people look cool,” he says from his office at the State Theatre in Pretoria. “It is seen to be progressive and moving with the times. Even people who know they are not playing jazz, when they are given the term jazz, they keep quiet. That’s because it works well for them, their profile, they will be reported on.”

Galane was an African studies, languages and musicology student at the University of Cape Town when he became a devotee, in earnest, of kiba music. He was living part-time in Polokwane when he came across a group of women “playing powerful polyrhythms’ using wash basins. Up to that point he had been attempting to learn the rhythms through an indigenous music programme on television. “I was looking for the real deal when I saw them,” he says. “I immediately went to my place and I got the drums.”

Befriending the women, Galane says he soon became part of what was essentially “a communal ensemble that would be invited to real events,” alluding to the functional nature of the music.

This would lead to the creation of a theoretical framework for understanding kiba music, not as a “tribal” art form — as apartheid had seen it — but as an indigenous knowledge repository worthy of academic study. “We can call it apartheid anthropology, but what have we done to deal with substantive issues that white people, even the most gifted among them, would not be able to define?” he says.

While Galane’s father’s royal ensemble would probably have played an assortment of drums, wind instruments and shakers, Galane’s translation of kiba into a modern music form has seen him incorporate instruments such as saxophones, guitars and drum kits to create a “free” kiba.

“When you detribalise, you don’t stick to the confines or enclaves. You raise the risk levels and venture out into the world,” he says. “But if you don’t understand who you are, you can create a crossover version and be swallowed. It is a tacit balance, but as you build a national identity, you need to understand the nuances of what you are doing.”

Similar to the way in which Thomas Mapfumo drew from mbira music to create chimurenga music, in free kiba the rhythm, whether played through the bass or the drum kit, always precedes the other elements that make up the song.  

Galane’s inward search has continued to find resonance even among a crop of musicians about which Galane has been dismissive.

At the Amandla Freedom Ensemble performance that succeeded his lecture, Galane studied the bandstand and surmised that the line-up of that included members of Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo were “not doing anything new”.

To his credit, Galane has listened to some of the individual members’ projects and about singer and composer Nono Nkoane specifically, reached the conclusion that she represents a new voice in South African music.

Having listened to Galane pontificate about the dangers of “emulating the music conventions of other people”, Nkoane says Galane helped her redefine the position of her music in relation to jazz. 

But by being unafraid of bringing who she is to the table, Nkoane complicates the notion of jazz, the long history of continental African people’s involvement in it and glib categorisation. 

“I had been struggling with where to place my music and what to call it,” she says. “[At Freedom Park] Dr Sello Galane coined the term afrophonics, which means sounds from the continent, with all of the influences and everything.” 

Whether expressed in English or isiXhosa, Nkoane’s search for the self and broader existential questions are an infectious preoccupation both in their simplicity and complexity. In her album True Call, the singer conveys a sense that something is amiss with 21st century black existence. She paints a picture of a populace cut off from its source of prosperity.

“I’ve never been intentional in carrying stuff across in the music,” she says of the episode from the Tshwane Arts, Craft and Design Hub, where she recently hosted a 30th birthday bash. “At home, we’re chilled about this stuff. We’re not that heavily spiritual.”

With its core personnel of Ariel Zamonsky on bass, her husband Bonolo Nkoane on drums, Ntando Ncapu on guitar, Sibusile Xaba on guitar and Azah Mphago on percussion, True Call is grounded in jazz. 

While Nkoane seems to be exploring sounds from various parts of the continent with her vocal techniques, she is distinctly a product of her geographical history.

“I’d listen to Xhosa women doing throat singing and they would produce an overtone,” she says. “I was always fascinated by that. There was a long time when a belty, thick, raspy voice was considered the voice to have and I didn’t have that voice. I found that it was easier to mimic the horns than to sing like that.”

At other times, Nkoane explores the musicality of isiXhosa clicks, such as on the song Baleka. But the groove, the vocal layering and her exploration of range recall the musically sparse and vocally rich work of early Zap Mama. 

“For the melody, I was watching a YouTube video of Lionel Loueke, a jazz guitarist from Benin,” she says. “He was talking about how his music, a lot of it is centred around the pentatonic scale, which is the most predominant scale in African music. When he played that scale, I caught elements of it then I formed a melody out of that. 

“I recorded the melody from my phone. It was quite long … On a different day I came up with the baseline, which was very consistent, just to ground it a bit.”

Nkoane feels quite strongly that if we are to experiment with the idea of jazz, that experimentation has to be done from an African perspective. 

Growing up in Langa, Nkoane’s first playmates were the children of Amampondo bass marimba player Blackie Mbizela. “There’s a certain groove they got from their dad,” she says mimicking it on her lap. “That’s the first groove I learnt on this danger box. It took me about two days to get that. Once I did, it was easy to listen to other things. 

“We’d play rhythms on the box and there are different tones on each side of the box, so we’d play these interlocking rhythms.”

One of her early teachers, Dizu Plaatjies, who led Amampondo, says: “Nono comes from that background of indigenous instruments and so on. She is not only a singer. She is a heavy percussionist, heavy dancer and she plays many different instruments.”

Before continuing her studies in Pretoria — first at a programme at the State Theatre, then at Ochrim and at Tshwane University of Technology — Nkoane was already versed in instruments such as uhadi, umrhube, and percussion.

Since releasing the 15-track True Call in October 2015, Nkoane has embarked on further exploratory endeavours, linking up with Gally Ngoveni, a bass guitarist from Giyani. “For this project I am doing things I’ve never done before, like experimenting with electronics and sampling, but still with the live bass and live vocals. I am not going to be afraid of going deeper into the indigenous Xhosa sound. There are a couple of projects that are swirling in my head right now. I’m really keen on releasing works that might not necessarily be the same thing. But it will be the same thing because it’s me.”

Follow Nkoane’s Facebook page here.

An earlier version of this story stated that Galane studied music at the University of Cape Town. This has been corrected to reflect that he was an African studies, languages and musicology student.