/ 25 November 2023

Wake up and hear the music

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Take note: Kujenga is set to see their second album In The Wake come out in the next few months. Photo: Takatso Mahlangu

Doomscrolling one afternoon earlier this month on the app formerly known as Twitter, I accidentally clicked on some joy. In the middle of a pro-peace march in Cape Town was a loose-limbed brass band, blowing my blues away.

They were easy to find on social media: “Kujenga is a seven-piece black improvised music outfit based in Cape Town. The band’s name comes from the Swahili language, with the word meaning ‘to build’. 

“This title symbolises what the group believes to be their calling as creators: to build meaningful works, experiences and connections with each and every listener.”

Shortly after my email to their address I get a friendly reply from Zwide Ndwandwe, who is the band’s bassist, main songwriter, PR man, gig organiser and leader, saying I’m welcome to call him.

Niceties out of the way, I ask: “So, who are your main influences?”

“The Brother Moves On — they’re our grootmanne.”

I chuckled. If the fine young — to me — musos from the superb TBMO, which was formed in 2009, are the late 20-somethings in Kujenga’s elders, I must be their grandpa.

Ndwandwe, 27, laughed in return. 

“We’re in shows where the other bands are 18 to 19 years old!”

Kujenga are preparing for their first tour to Johannesburg — “the first time we don’t sleep in our own beds after concerts” — where they will be playing four shows at the end of this month and early next, and then off to Durban for one gig on 3 December at The Chairman.

A week later, we are connecting for a proper sit-down chat on Zoom. 

“Friends or colleagues?” Ndwandwe ponders my question about the multi-cultural band that was formed about a decade ago, but is taking off big time now. 

“You know, every day I try to figure out what the dynamic is. Sometimes I think it oscillates between the two. 

“I think it started off as friends. And I think friendship has been grounded because music is such a communal experience. 

“We’re like, I can use the language of the church ’cause I come from there, but we’re ‘fellowshipping’ when we do this thing; when we get on stage and we’re playing music with one another. It’s a deep relationship.”

The other members in this Afrojazz band are Zwide’s twin brother Owethu on piano, Thane Smith on electric guitar, Skhumbuzo Qamata on drums, Bonga Mosola on trumpet, Matthew Rightford on the tenor sax and Tamzyn Freeks on trombone. 

“You know, we have individual lives. We have our own friends outside of the friendship that we have with each other. 

“We definitely don’t spend every day together, even though it may look like that these guys are just the best of chommies.”

I tell how Radiohead’s bassist Colin Greenwood once told me in an interview that their band is like the UN, with Thom Yorke undoubtedly the US, and him “maybe France, there but not as powerful”.

Zwide gives a knowing chuckle and jokes: 

“I try to be a benevolent dictator.” 

But, seriously, though “I like to think of myself as the facilitator more than as a band leader”.

The Ndwandwes grew up in a musical home where the sounds of Moses Molelekwa, Zim Ngqawana, Busi Mhlongo, Sibongile Khumalo and Sipho Gumede were the soundtrack. 

“At that point, we’re not really taking it in as something that we should be interested in because it’s old-people music in our heads.”

Now he is glad, because “I believe that black music is a lineage and we’re just taking on from the predecessors, what they also took on from their predecessors and just continuing it, preserving a culture and indigenous knowledge system through this art form.”

It was in that clip of  the pro-Palestine march that I first encountered the band. Also, the centrepiece of their shows is the elegiac Hymn for Hani. So, it is no secret that Kujenga are an overtly and fearlessly political band. 

“We’re not scared of anything because I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be political, especially within the context of post-Covid and how we started to really see that … this thing is beyond just a health crisis.

“It’s a crisis of global capitalism. It’s a crisis of a crumbling economy. It’s a crisis of nation states and how much power that they have over individuals. You know, it’s a crisis of policing. It’s a crisis of so many things.”

Written during the pandemic, the busy Kujenga’s second album In The Wake is scheduled to come out early next year.

“It’s called In The Wake because it was written in the wake of the toughest period of our lives, particularly as this generation was coming of age now.

“We’re inheriting a burning earth and we don’t even know if the ones after us will have anything to inherit.

“So, we’re writing this in the wake of colonial plunder, in the wake of a destabilised national liberation project, in the wake of Covid, in the wake of the crisis of capital and trying to articulate these things sonically. 

“So, yeah, it’s a very ambitious project, you know, for an album without lyrics.”

It’s almost time for Kujenga’s final rehearsal before they come up to Johannesburg. Their tour came about thanks to TBMO’s main grootman, Siya Mthembu. 

“We’ll do a show together” is the music world’s version of “let’s do coffee”, except when it comes to Mthembu, it actually happens, Ndwandwe says. He has invited the band to perform as guests for the 10th anniversary for TBMO’s debut album A New Myth — Kujenga will do the music along with Yonela Mnana’s Vivacious Voices choir.

As we say goodbye, Ndwandwe has the smile of a person who still cannot believe his band’s luck. “Hope to see you in Joburg,” he says.

And there are most certainly options for us. In addition to the TBMO show at the Market Photo Workshop on 1 December, there are also three others: one at Vernacular Lounge in Illovo (25 November), a set at The Plug in Melville (28 November) and then at Native Rebels in Soweto on Friday, 1 December.