Levin returns to temper the fury of home

Making music: Bernard van Rossum (saxophone), Xavi Torres Vicente (piano), Vuma Levin, Marco Zenini (bass) and Jeroen Batterink (drums).

Making music: Bernard van Rossum (saxophone), Xavi Torres Vicente (piano), Vuma Levin, Marco Zenini (bass) and Jeroen Batterink (drums).

After the forthright introductory salvo of disquieting piano charging through an invigorating arrangement, Vuma Levin changes tack, grafting an edited version of Thabo Mbeki’s I am an African speech to a desolately ambient soundtrack.

In Mbeki’s belaboured poetic moment, Levin finds an idea to be cherished, a didactic thread on which to hang an album that is largely about the loosening of national myth.

“It was not necessarily a celebration of Thabo Mbeki the person,” says Levin of the passage entitled Gateway, a part of the album called Life and Death on the Other Side of the Dream. “I realise that he is a flawed person, but at the same time, I respect him a lot.

“The choice was to basically say: this is the dream that we had.
It is introducing this dream that we had and it is being expressed in this very nuanced way where a lot people were expressing rainbow nationalism in this crude, Kumbaya, campfire sort of way. Thabo Mbeki was one of the only people — and he got a lot of flak for it — to say that it was our shared antagonistic histories that determine who and what we are as a nation.”

For Levin, national identity is not “primordially determined and Thabo Mbeki’s speech wrestles with that idea”. Melding the theoretical with the abstract is key to Levin who looks back on his first album, The Spectacle of an Other, with a shade of embarrassment.

“The first album was a really naive, misguided thing where I put too much weight on the role of theory and discourse and its relation to activism and its ability to change the world,” he says. “So this album was actually a reflection, in part, on trying to move away from the heavy theoretical side as well, realising that, to some degree, it is important but it is not going to change the world.”

Levin says he recently read K  Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which he says normalised homosexual sex in a way that reading Judith Butler just couldn’t have.

“I was literally put into that character’s position,” he says. “I empathised with him. I felt the same sort of feelings I would from watching a Hollywood romantic comedy in the way that someone was describing homosexual love. That type of non-self-reflexive, organic art, there is a lot of power in it.”

Back home for less than three months after spending the bulk of eight years in Amsterdam, Levin is admittedly still trying to readjust to a situation where the creative outlets are a lot less varied in number and range. Asked about the effect of his European sojourn on his music, Levin says the visceral experience of xenophobia forced him to develop a keen appreciation for the musical canon of South Africa.

“Your status as a foreigner is something that you experience profoundly, first of all on a practical level and, second of all, on an existential level — and through that I was sort of forced to study historical forms of South African jazz, to study Zulu, Sotho and Nguni choral music, goema, marabi … and consolidate that into a sound.”

Although there are definite inflections of home on the record that recall the clarity and ebullience of a McCoy Mrubata and the urbane sophistry of a Bokani Dyer, Bristol (in particular Portishead) is also a touchstone in the way Levin chooses to tincture sound. Check the layering of echo and reverb on ZAR History vol 2 part 2 String Stuck.

There is a lot going on in Life and Death but none of it is allowed to bellow on for too long. The album performs the unlikely act of presenting us with our protagonist’s double consciousness, relaying the urgency and emotiveness of home
as well as the technical proficiency that is a byproduct of its recording environment.

“The levels of excellence are higher in Europe,” says Levin. There are more people doing it [playing music] there and there are more opportunities to perform. We [in South Africa]need to work with more humility and realise that we are not there yet. We like to think we are on a par with what is happening in New York and we are not. Conceptually we have unique things to say that are relevant to South Africa but technically we still have a lot of work to do.”

Levin is yet to settle on what he can regard as his South African line-up, although he has been playing regularly with bass player Benjamin Jephta, pianist Bokani Dyer, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and drummer Peter Auret.

He is about to embark on a national tour with line-ups featuring some of these musicians as well as European players.

Vuma Levin is performing at Sophiatown The Mix, 71 Toby Street, Sophiatown, Jo’burg on Friday May 5.For more info go to info@sophiatownthemix.com. For tour dates, visit pubmat.co.za/guitarist-vuma-levins-new-album-and-national-tour/

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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