Jazz artists follow in Tshabangu’s Footprints

Sound and light: Andrew Tshabangu’s Ngome Midnight Mass. Images from his exhibition Footprints were the inspiration for an improvised performance by jazz musicians

Sound and light: Andrew Tshabangu’s Ngome Midnight Mass. Images from his exhibition Footprints were the inspiration for an improvised performance by jazz musicians

Andrew Tshabangu moved his solo exhibition, Footprints, from a gallery space and employed the intuition of jazz to expand its meaning and life.

After three months of exhibiting at the Standard Bank Art Gallery Footprints came down on April 29. Tshabangu and Thembinkosi Goniwe, curator of the exhibition, entrusted the interpretation of Footprints into the capable hands of jazz musicians Thandi Ntuli, Thembinkosi Mavimbela, Siyavuya Makuzeni, Sisonke Xonti, Tumi Mogorosi and Sakhile Simani.

A collection of various works from his 20-year career as a photographer and observer of “the bearable lightness of being black in the world”, as Goniwe puts it, Tshabangu’s work is a hypnotising contrariety — a clear and real reflection of South African life smoked with mysticism and surrealism.

Conceptualised by Goniwe as Hearing Footprints, the six piece ensemble of rhythm, horns, voice and piano was tasked with reinterpreting the historical and evocative work of Tshabangu. But there was a catch: the performance had to be improvised.

Although the musicians were given time to meditate on the work, they had not rehearsed or come together to play the music until they hit the stage of The Orbit, Johannesburg, on June  4.

After a short welcome from Goniwe, the audience was taken to the performance area where the anticipation of the night’s music was palpable. As the musicians took their respective places on the bandstand, the applause, clink of glasses and chatter settled. The room’s energy was concentrated on and directed towards the stage.

Starting with a hymn-like rendition reminiscent of Bra Herbie Tsoaeli’s Kerekeng, the agony of Makuzeni’s trombone, supported by Simani’s spirited trumpet and Xonti’s haunting and bellowing saxophone clammed us all up with intensity, only to wash over us like a temperate wave.

The evening unfolded into a repertoire of mostly hymns and soft ballad-like compositions, where the music swung between the delicacy and control of Ntuli’s keys and Mogorosi’s thunderous drums.

Anchored by Mavimbela’s double bass, it was just as well the day was Sunday because a church of some sort, in celebration of Tshabangu and the subjects of his work, had emerged. The music invited us to consider the delicacy of a life otherwise troubled.

As Makuzeni’s guttural vocals echoed the historical and spiritual significance of Footprints, the musicians personified and embodied the theme of water in Tshabangu’s work. The performance started off as a gentle and subtle trickle then gradually overflowed, only to crash and cleanse in the end. Having played consistently without a break, the journey ended. The music stopped and we sat drenched in music, still yearning for more.

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