A tree-o worth more than the sum of its parts
The trio in the name of Malcolm Jiyane’s band is actually spelt Tree-o or, as he explains it: “Tree with an ‘o’, symbolising the circle of life.”
The words of Jiyane (34) should not be taken lightly because he and his fellow band members (Senzo Nxumalo on bass and Kgorogile Makgatle on drums) hold on to them with cultish fervour.
They play with an instructive, forceful egalitarianism that is moving and intelligent. Their sets can sometimes feel like eavesdropping on an intuitive conversation between three compassionate friends.
When they invite collaborators, which is often, that same ethos expands, creating moments of incredulity and reflection through the music and the sheer joy they exude in playing together.
Their Freedom Day show at the Afrikan Freedom Station reduced my eyes to wells, and their largely improvised second set last week (featuring Mandla Mlangeni on trumpet) turned me and Amandla Freedom Ensemble member Oscar Rachabane into laughing madmen.
Buoyed by the trio’s tender but propulsive footing and guest Gontse Makhene’s fluid and powerful percussion, Mlangeni played pointed and sometimes brawny lines with humorous bravado and charisma.
The poetry coursed through the Station, warming everyone seated in the venue’s bleachers and its cold “middle passage”.
“Malcolm has the type of intelligence that, when he plays with the likes of Nono Nkoane, Nduduzo Makhathini or Mandla Mlangeni, he actually changes their music,” says Steve Mokwena, the Station’s “master”. “But the other thing about the Malcolm Jiyane Tree-o is that those guys have been playing together for over a decade so they are actually one of the more experienced bands working in Jo’burg.”
Mokwena has a knack for putting things in perspective with a lyrical flourish. He calls Jiyane, the Tree-o’s founder, “a genius of the kind we last saw with someone like Moses Molelekwa but I think that will be fully figured out after this phase of music because there is so much stuff coming out right now”.
Jiyane was mostly raised by his grandmother in Daveyton before spending the latter part of his childhood in a children’s home called Kid’s Haven in Benoni.
In the home, Jiyane says the youngsters were given two choices: either to further their academic education or choose to focus on something creative. He chose the latter.
Jiyane met his band mates while studying at the Gauteng Music Academy in Daveyton. As the band members later graduated from the school and became part of its teaching staff, Jiyane recalls that they developed a manic work ethic. “I spent a lot of time practising with these guys,” says Jiyane. “I used to wake them up even during the night and we’d just work, work, work.”
Jiyane says the band’s philosophy is “improvisation within the structure of its songs”. A point Makgatle expands on: “The compositions are influenced by the environment we are in. When we perform we try to paint the image of the song, the title and how we individually feel about what the song is talking about. You must interpret what the song is saying because the sound itself comes with information and lyrics, so that you check yourself and where you are.”
Jiyane says the songwriting can flow in any direction but is largely anchored by his compositions. “I’ve been a composer since [I started learning music], and I was directing the school’s big band in terms of arrangement, so I had that experience in terms of composing,” he says. “Whether we are playing compositions or not, they [the songs] still need to be improvised, depending on the mood of the room.” For Jiyane, it is life itself that instructs us to improvise. “It’s like talking. You think about what you are going to say and you make it into a sentence. If you translate it into music, you have poetry.”
If one checks Jiyane’s backstory, one learns that music, and his other gift, painting, literally saved his life. Perhaps when he plays, he is seeking to channel music’s redemptive powers to all and sundry. Sometimes it could be piano or trombone, but often both. Whatever the instrument, and whatever the formation, he brings an unmatched and savvy sensitivity to proceedings.
How a band so talented can ply their trade in relative obscurity, in the middle of a jazz renaissance in their own country, speaks to something of Jiyane’s introverted personality. Mokwena, who describes his role in Jiyane’s life as one of an “enabler”, says more than leaning towards anonymity, Jiyane’s burden is one of being a marginalised iconoclast. To Jiyane’s credit, though, Mokwena says, the musician does have the ability to attract jazz’s greats — young and old — towards his light.
A live video recording done in 2013 is in the works as well as a live sound recording of the band playing at the Station. For now, the best place to witness the Tree-o’s wizardry is from the bleachers of the hole-in-the-wall club in Westdene.