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Radiant child: Jiyane captured in the dead of night

When I checked this image of you, dear Malcolm, a week or so ago, I was shaken out of my sleep. In my estimation, it is a soul-capturing act. But it is also a love letter.

It made me think of all the times that I have seen you, as if permanently double exposed. Part here and part in the spirit realm. Channelling. Speaking. Contemplating.

It made me miss you, that mischievous smile when you have just said something and are waiting a few beats to let it sink in, satisfied with yourself. How you suspend notes on the piano with the gentlest of persuasions. How you galvanise, connect and then disappear to let us figure this shit out when we get home.

Water. Spirit. Man. Apparition. Where could you be? I’m sorry, Malcolm, that I never picked up the phone to check on you when you were grieving the loss of a close brother, Senzo Nxumalo, and a mentor, Johnny Mekoa. I’m sorry that I never helped to make a plan about those photos you asked about, which had clearly warmed your spirit. I’m sorry that I took from you and never said thank you.

When I wrote about you, two years ago, it was brief but I gave it my all because even then I wanted to thank you for giving me the freedom to look inside. The lessons of that night (Freedom Day, 2016) I will never forget. You, Senzo (RIP) and Kgorogile played with divine purpose. Allow us, please, a moment of vanity to venerate you.

After thinking about this image day and night, I decided to call its maker, Tseliso Monaheng, to ask him how you both conspired to bring it to life. I’m sure you’ve seen it, Malcolm. If you haven’t, may it remind you of what you mean to us. Soon, my brother. — Kwanele

So, how far back do you go with the sire, Malcolm Jiyane? Do you remember your first impression?

I think Sis’ Gwen (Ansell) wrote about a show his trio was having. This was around 2011, 2012. I encountered his playing in 2013. Melville. It was a show featuring members of The Brother Moves On and Zuko Collective. Tumi Mogorosi was on drums, and they called themselves Brown Babies.

Have you vibed with him, where it was more than just music?

He’s always around, this cat. The one time I remember exchanging an extended conversation was while Percy Mabandu was working on his exhibition (Yakhal’inkomo) at the Afrikan Freedom Station (in Westdene). Jiyane was upstairs working on his own art. This was around the period he held a residency at the Station. Selected recordings from those shows were supposed to end up on an album. Would be dope to know how that ended up.

Do you have countless images of him?

Not quite … some stuff here, some stuff there. He’s one of the rare ones, man. The last I saw him was at a Herbie Tsoaeli date at The Orbit (in Braamfontein). He was on the trombone, another instrument he masters. Nduduzo [Makhathini] was on keys. Actually, Nduduzo said once that he’d produced a project by Jiyane, piano only, and that it lies in the vaults somewhere. We need to hear that!

To you, what makes him stand out?

This doesn’t apply to him only: it’s that mystique supremely gifted people possess. Also, his playing … Jiyane accesses things we’ve yet to speak of, and these things extend to his artworks, too. He’s cracked the code and speaks a language we’re yet to fully grasp.

Where did you shoot the image? What do you remember about that day?

Yeah, it was the second Brown Babies gig, at The Orbit this time. 2014. I remember this one moment when Kwela (formerly of Kwani Experience) joined them on stage, and he, Nozuko from Zuko Collective and Siya from The Brother were chanting “re Ba-Sootho” — essentially a corruption of Basotho, a word that I’ve recently come to learn means “the brown ones”, which of course translates to umunt’ontsundu in isiZulu.

Has he ever seen the photo?

Nah. And this is the thing: I’ve all these images that cats never really get to see, that I think are incredible and would like to share with them, specifically. Guess it’s that thing of him being rare, and me not running into him a lot as a result. It shall happen in good time, I suppose …

What does it evoke for you, that particular image?

It inevitably conjures thoughts of Sun Ra and futurism, and also my discomfort with Afro-futurism as a term people on the African continent are expected to embrace without questioning its intentions. It also speaks to being here and there, down and up. I think it works, also, as a metaphor to signal how we interface with the world — one might be on a table enjoying their meal with others, yet also teleport to distant dimensions via their mobile phone.

When I saw it, I was like: “That’s Malcolm, the enigma. Part here, part nowhere to be found. An apparition.” To me, if feels like a yearning to leave this Earth.

Yeah, that particular moment actually happened when the rest of the band had gone off stage and he was left alone playing a piano solo. The notes he was hitting, man! And the intense focus. And that getting-up, sitting-down, Monkish thing he does … and just how fly he manages to look while decimating people’s innards. Wild cat. Special in many ways.

Technically, what does it take to produce an image like that?

I’m of the opinion that good light is the master of all. That, along with a firm grip of in-camera techniques — really a product of my attempts to understand photography as a medium. I’m also a fan of possessing a good set of prime (not zoom) lenses, since they allow the flexibility of achieving a level of quality while working in badly lit conditions.

What gear did you use for that? What settings?

The aperture was set at 2.8, and this gave me the freedom to maneuvre without having to worry about the image being out-of-focus. Since he wasn’t in extremely rapid motion, I set the shutter speed to 1/60s. The two factors combined, plus the 50mm prime I was using, coalesced to produced a fairly sharp, well-lit image.

What were the challenges of making that image? How did you decide on the shutter speed; were you trying to accentuate a specific quality?

I don’t really focus on these things, shutter speed and whatnot. I mean, I do, but it’s in service of the moment. So, a lot of the time I’m adjusting and responding to the music. That’s what I dig about live music or documentary photography, that it allows one to respond to the moment — to not direct but rather observe. What we’ve come to know as jazz is, in many ways, that: an attempt to navigate the present in order to move forward. It was an experiment. And now that I think about it, the image is probably one of the first double-exposure joints I produced. I’ve since built an entire series of performers captured in double and triple exposure. I’m just happy-go-luckily clicking away, hoping that my ancestors intercede with their magic. And they always do. 

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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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