Vuma Levin initiates his cycle

Ninety percent of the people who come across this music,” speculates guitarist Vuma Levin, “may not listen to it beyond the first half-minute of the first track.” He’s discussing his fourth album as a leader, Antique Spoons

Two singles were released on January 20 (Palmas) and February 3 (Promenade), and the full album is due to launch at the Wits Theatre on February 29. 

The comment isn’t artfully crafted to elicit denials. Levin’s simply describing how a commercial music market that predominantly streams disaggregated single tracks is shaping our ears: “That’s how people listen these days,” he says resignedly. “Even I find I have to consciously create time to listen. 

 “But Antique Spoons was conceived to be heard in its entirety, including the three short films we’ve made to accompany it.” The films (made by Dylan Valley and Jurgen Meekle) and the nine tracks together comprise a story whose chapters deal with “love, loss and the politics of memory”. 

Related themes, centred on exploring and asserting the nuances of African identity, have been consistent in Levin’s work since his 2015 debut, The Spectacle of An-Other. Revolutionary psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth how “colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’” and that’s been a leitmotif of Levin’s becoming, as both an African nationalist and a musician.

Appropriately for a jazzman, the process of that becoming has been hot and cool. Hot, in that it’s emotional and personal. Levin is the son of a black Swati mother and a white South African father, exploring identity in the turmoil of post-apartheid South Africa, amid the surface liberalism of the Netherlands where he studied, and now back home. Cool, because his praxis is increasingly informed by rigorous postcolonial theory (Fanon is one source; Achille Mbembe another), an unsparing work ethic and a distilled approach to composing. 

“My usual composition process is to take x amount of material and deliberately render down that harvesting. [The Antique Spoons suite] is based on recycling three or four melodic, harmonic or rhythmic motifs throughout.” 

There’s more to the album than the suite. Short interludes have been created by South African composer Cara Stacey on a variety of indigenous instruments, on which the quintet (Levin, reedman Bernard van Rossum, keys player Xavi Torres Vincente, bassist Marco Zenini and drummer Jeroen van Batterink) subsequently improvise. There, the compositional process is reversed: “Cara’s sounds evoke experiences; the meaning becomes clear later,” says Levin.

“I’m very concerned with how history and memory find their way into modes of being, relating, conceptualising, and reading symbols in the present,” Levin adds. If the track titles often refer to places, objects and happenings in his own history, it’s because “events are the intersection of space and time”.

Take, for example, the title track, Antique Spoon. “Oh yes, there is a real spoon. It was a gift from someone who’d been very central in my life. But the metaphor embodies so much else too: the tension between a personally precious, domestic object and how it becomes an ‘antique’ and thus commercially valuable. Historical assignations placing that kind of weight on something are often deeply political.”

As with “antique”, so, Levin feels, with “African”. “Dominant discourses have often allowed only one way of being ‘black’ or ‘African’. Often, it’s quite a performative thing: ideas of ‘blackness’ that can be most easily commodified in the capitalist marketplace. I’ve had discussions making it very clear that signing to a major label might be very hard for my music — ‘You don’t have a South African sound’ or ‘We couldn’t market you as an African’ 

“But even if musical signifiers of ‘Africanness’ aren’t there, the questions about identity always are. This music, composed over the two years since I’ve been home, was written from the vantage points of not only Jo’burg but Basel, Amsterdam and even Spain. Black Africans in the 21st century can live in those places — but in a provisional, ephemeral way that makes establishing a life in the Global North, sustaining relationships, falling in love, very difficult. People don’t realise how moving around spreads you so thin.”

Yet through their intense, empathetic collaboration, Levin’s relationship with his Europe-based co-players has stayed strong. He’s often discussed feeling hesitant about his own musicianship, because he started a jazz career relatively late: at 20. That’s receding now. He’s more at ease in his relationship with his instrument (something evident in his body language on stage). He’s older, no longer studying — “where you worry a lot about how people hear you” — and shares stages with mentors like Feya Faku and Marcus Wyatt, whom he used to place on a distant pedestal. He’s relaxed into the supportive politics of improvisation in the group. “Our personal relationships have deepened over time. Now I realise that even if they’re ‘better’ than me, we still love one another. In terms of the dynamic of the group I’m more conscious of giving and energy, rather than the specifics of a solo. Actually, it’s always been like that — but it took me a while to grasp it.”

Perhaps partly because of that, Levin is happy with Antique Spoons. “Compositionally and guitaristically — if that’s a word — it’s probably my most successful album. My three albums as leader seem to have been moving towards some kind of accessible, clear, own voice: less literal and ..?” — I suggest, and he agrees — “more allusive”. 

To listening ears, the album offers warm, appealing textures alongside searching, technically fierce musicianship, capturing soundscapes of hope and joy as well as regret. It’s worth far more than Levin’s speculative 30 seconds of your time. 

Some things, though, can never be expressed through gentle allusion. The album’s closing interlude, A Cockroach at the Intersection, stands in sharp sonic contrast to the rest. Its textures are painfully abrasive, visceral and violent. “I was walking towards the robots at Fourth and Riviera in Killarney, when suddenly a some guys from a car emptied a can of Doom in the face of the guy who stands and begs there. It happened so fast. They’d gone again before I could stop them. Nobody else even slowed down, as if this was an everyday, normal event. It made me reflect that, on a smaller scale, it is. ” 

He’s momentarily silent, visibly shaken even by remembering. And yet that horrifying intersection remains a part of the road Levin travels. It’s Fanon, again, who gives us good words to describe the guitarist’s journey: “In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

What’s more, Levin has always hoped listeners would engage him about titles and meanings, and that’s happening now, albeit in a modest way. To listening ears, the album offers warm, appealing textures alongside searching, technically fierce musicianship, capturing soundscapes of hope and joy as well as regret. It’s worth far more than Levin’s speculative 90 seconds of your time.    

Some things, though, can never be expressed through gentle allusion. The album’s closing interlude, A Cockroach at the Intersection, stands in sharp sonic contrast to the rest. Its textures are painfully abrasive, visceral and violent. 

“I was walking towards the robots at Fourth [Avenue] and Riviera [Road] in Killarney, when suddenly some guys in a car emptied a can of Doom in the face of the guy who stands and begs there,” Levin says. “It happened so fast. They’d gone again before I could stop them. Nobody else even slowed down, as if this was an everyday, normal event. It made me reflect that, on a smaller scale, it is. ” He’s momentarily silent, visibly shaken even by remembering.

Perhaps it’s time to invoke Fanon again for a little hope, with an epigraph that sums up the road Levin is on: “In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.
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