Conte finds a brand new swag

Italian guitarist, producer and DJ Nicola Conte works quite hard at pursuing his art on his own terms.

As part of the Bari-based Fez Collective in the 1990s and early 2000s, Conte and co parlayed an alternative approach to life into an independent business model that led to the creation of their own club nights, band, and musical aesthetic.

“It was very much a left-wing sort of thinking,” he says over the phone from Italy. “It was very bohemian, very Beat poets generation. So there were other things going on besides music, like poetry and literature and this sort of thing. And it was open to anyone who had interesting things to express.”

Conte, who is playing three shows in South Africa between November  24 and 26 — including one where he will be manning turntables as opposed to leading a band, still holds on to these ideals to guide the rest of his career.

Although quite easily associated with a very specific, Italian-honed approach to Brazilian styles, such as bossa nova and samba, Conte is going a different route for his South African dates — assembling a group from scratch in search of a sound that encapsulates both his past and recent directions.

“I have in mind a sound,” says Conte. “I have listened to a lot of South African jazz records over the years and so I do have, quite clearly, in my imagination, a sound that I want to achieve. They [the show’s organisers] sent me some clips of the top guys from the current scene and I chose the ones that I thought were kind of fitting to the sound I had in mind. So it was less of the qualities of one player over another but a sound.”

Among the musicians featured in the band are Tumi Mogorosi on drums, Thuto Motsemme on bass, Nduduzo Makhathini on keyboards and Tlale Makhene on percussion.

The South Africans will be joined by Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella and American alto saxophonist Logan Richardson.

Quintets led by Sydney Mavundla and Thandi Ntuli will, respectively, support the Durban and Pretoria dates. “Some of these guys [Mogorosi and Makhathini] were members of groups that I have been following, like Shabaka Hutchings and the Ancestors, which I really liked,” says Conte.

Conte says the repertoire he has selected for the show “has a strong African feel” and he is confident the band will get through the selection in the allotted one night of rehearsal.

He has selected music leaning towards the “… modal … fused with jazz and contemporary soul. What I am aiming to do is to try and achieve that kind of feeling. You don’t get that from rehearsal. You get that by bringing people together around an idea.”

“Feeling” recurs often in Conte’s speech, positing him as something of a romantic. Indeed, parts of Conte’s catalogue, particularly early releases such as Jet Sounds (2000), Other Directions (2004) and Rituals (2008) are awash with wispy, easy-listening moments in which the centre is rarely ever in danger of being unhinged.

[Conte balances serendipity and risk in his archaeological approach (supplied)]

But it is his archaeological approach to music (he is a keen digger, remixer and selector) that lends risk and serendipity to his experiments.

Among his selections for his South African tour are Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin’s Africa, Batsumi’s Lishonile and Spring — a 1969 recording of Winston Mankunku Ngozi with the Chris Schilder Quintet.

“We are going to play, with different arrangements,” he says. “There is a track by Sun-Ra that I’m looking forward to, then we will play a track we always play live by [Ethio-jazz innovator] Mulatu Astatke, along with some of my new compositions that are very much like Afro jazz, that kind of thing. My South African fans will be listening for the first time to the new directions that my music is taking.”

When one considers the umbilical links between the continent and South America perhaps Conte’s direction is a logical progression. But then again, Conte is Italian and his fascination with Brazilian rhythms is encoded in mid-20th-century European fetishism and snobbery.

“Brazil in the late Fifties, early Sixties, is a country very much connected to Europe,” he says. “Its sense of aesthetics very much resembled a European aesthetic, in particular countries like Italy or France— the Latin side of Europe. Rio de Janeiro was a very fancy place to go for European people. That kind of sound became a fixation for them, especially the middle and upper classes. You’d find the sound being turned into movie soundtracks.

“The first movie that was ever shot that incorporated authentic bossa nova music [apart from Black Orpheus, which was done by French director Marcel Camus], was made by an Italian director and was called Hotel Copa [with Victoria Kauffman as a main actor].

“When I discovered the samba and bossa nova movements, I was very attracted to the poetry of the lyrics — to the crafty and very sophisticated arrangements that referred to different composers like Irving Berlin — but at the same time, bebop movements and the West Coast school of jazz. For me, it was just a natural expansion of my passion for jazz.”

In his approach to DJing, Conte may come across as hankering, nostalgically, after some halcyon age, but he also often draws interesting, unexpected connections that reshape that pastiche of a sound labelled acid jazz in his own image.

“Acid jazz … was more of a marketing idea,” he says. “You could find all the stuff together, from Afro-Cuban jazz to jazz samba, to jazz funk, to Seventies soul to whatever was dealing in one way or another with jazz but spreading as much as possible … ”

Fuelled by the club culture of the Eighties, one drawing from every direction in search of an identity — “acid jazz” swung widely and wildly, with cohesion a kind of an afterthought. Conte values the sound because it was centred in curiosity, in a sense, digging. “That was a very important cultural movement in that it allowed people to discover a huge body of music that was, at that time, forgotten,” he says.

Conte and gang play two shows, with the first at The Chairman in Durban on November 24 and the last at the Menlyn Central Park on November 26. In between, on November 25, Conte will play a DJ set at Mushroom Farm Park in Sandown, Johannesburg.

“The way I play a DJ set is not for entertainment,” he says, in response to a question about whether he has ever hopped off the stage to man the decks. It’s more like searching and improvising, which is just like the way I’d play in a concert. It’s about having something to say and exchange with the people. It’s about musical aesthetic and conception, yes. It’s about rules, yes. But most of all, it’s about energy and feelings. It takes a lot out of me every time.”

Tickets for the Nicola Conte tour are available at Ticketpro

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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