In the midst of the first Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa, jazz musician and visual artist Malcolm Jiyane found himself in a tight bind.
Prior to lockdown, he had been supporting his young family on income from teaching and performing music, both of which had been brought to a grinding halt.
The trauma of this moment and the repercussions for his family still seem etched on his face, months later, as he talks about it. “When you can’t work and you can’t put food on the table, it shocks the body, it’s a shock to the mind,” he tells the Mail & Guardian. “I really had to look to something to keep me sane.”
As Jiyane explains, the pandemic didn’t just complicate musicians’ ability to earn a living, it created a very fraught environment within which to work.
“This isolation and this sickness, what we went through, it really challenged us,” he says. “I am an artist, I practise art, I believe in it. To find yourself not being able to do what you love, was like hell.”
Jiyane says music is all about the conversation with other musicians, something that was limited by the pandemic lockdown.
“An artist must be like an athlete, you need to stretch,” he says. “Whether there is a gig or no gig, you need to stay in shape. But it’s hard to stay in shape while you are hungry,” says Jiyane.
In the midst of this darkness, an opportunity to record a debut album as a band leader presented itself and Jiyane grabbed it with both hands. “It was a way through,” he says.
“I needed a way through.”
The second album
The “way through” to Jiyane’s future turned out to be a journey to his past.
In essence the story of his debut album Umdali is a tale of two albums, recorded more than three years apart in the same studio.
In October 2020, as the first Covid-19 wave was subsiding, independent South African record label Mushroom Hour released the soundtrack to Sifiso Khanyile’s documentary Uprise!, in which Jiyane played a starring role as a member of the label’s ever-evolving band, Spaza.
Jiyane has been an ever-present force in the Johannesburg jazz scene over the past decade; both as a performer with the bands Future History, GSand and his own Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O, and on record too, most notably on Herbie Tsoaeli’s African Time and Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo.
After the recording of the Uprise! soundtrack, Mushroom Hour decided that the time had come for Jiyane to step into the spotlight and they approached him about doing his own record.
So in December 2020, ten months into the pandemic, Jiyane hit Downtown Studios with his band, laying down a number of compositions before racing home before the lockdown curfew.
Nkosinathi Mathunjwa was on keys, Ayanda Zalekile was on bass, Lungile Kunene was on drums and Gontse Makhene was the percussionist.
Jiyane describes the music that was recorded as “experimental” and says the trauma of the pandemic and the lockdown definitely fed into what the band recorded.
“When you play music you are a human being, you bring what you go through to the music,” he says, describing the recording session as a “release” from the troubles plaguing the world.
The first album
In March 2021 Mushroom Hour booked a second session for Jiyane’s album at Sumo Sound recording studio run by Peter Auret, and there was a piece of Jiyane’s past waiting for him there.
As the five musicians finished the second recording session, Auret turned to Jiyane and mentioned that he still had the recordings for an album that Jiyane and his band had recorded at Sumo Sound three years earlier.
Muhroom Hour’s Andrew Curnow recalls the moment: “We were like, ‘What album? Play it for us.’”
The album was Umdali, recorded by Jiyane and a bigger version of his band, which included vocalist Tubatsi Mpho Moloi and a horn section of Nhlanhla Mahlangu (alto sax), Tebogo Seitei (trumpet) and Brandon Ruiters (trumpet).
“When we listened to the recording, the music commanded me to park what we were working on now and release that record,” says Jiyane. “It felt right, I didn’t plan it, the record was just sitting there.”
Listening to Umdali, it’s hard to imagine someone leaving a record this good sitting on the shelf.
It is a stunning meditation on life and death, creation and inspiration and capitalism’s inherent conflict with humanity.
Ntate Gwangwa’s Stroll, a tribute to the late South African trombonist Jonas Gwanga, feels like an amble down the street, dripping in golden light of sunset, with great interplay between the Rhodes piano and the horn section, while on Umkhumbi kaMa the rhythm and horn section engage in a conversation about the wonders of childbirth that will leave the listener spellbound.
Senzo seNkosi is an achingly beautiful tribute to departed bassist and friend Senzo Nxumalo, so full of mourning the listener can’t help but be affected and Life Esidimeni, the album’s longest composition, navigates the trauma of the tragic health scandal in South Africa that cost 143 people their lives by slipping between mournful passages and musical expressions of solidarity, before riding home on a mbaqanga bassline.
Finding an audience
“If you are the sum total of all you have overcome, then Malcolm is a giant,” writes Steve Kwena Mokwena in the liner notes to Umdali.
Mokwena is responsible not just for bringing Jiyane’s music to a wider audience, but his visual art as well. In 2012, he launched the Afrikan Freedom Station, an arts incubator in Johannesburg that functioned as both a gallery and a live music venue.
A regular at the Afrikan Freedom Station in these early days was the Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O, which at that point was made up of Senzo Nxumalo on bass and Kegorogile Makgatle on drums.
The Tree-O originated from the Gauteng Music Academy, a school for poor black youths founded by South African jazz educator Johnny Mekoa, which Jiyane had joined aged seventeen, while living in a children’s home.
It was under Mekoa’s mentorship that Jiyane blossomed into the incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist that he is today.
“That boy is gifted,” Mekoa said in 2017, shortly before his death. “He is something special.”
This was a sentiment shared by Mokwena, who matter of factly told the M&G during an interview about the Afrikan Freedom Station’s fourth anniversary, that what Jiyane does with music, “is something that people will write about when we are long gone”.
As Jiyane recalls, the Afrikan Freedom Station was where he found an audience and community that believed in him, particularly Mokwena who was a real supporter of his work and would fund the recording that would become Umdali.
“He said to me, ‘Malcolm I believe in your work, here are some funds, do something with it’ and I took that opportunity,” recalls Jiyane. “He was doing this out of his own pocket and it’s a big project, a nine-piece band,” says Jiyane. “I am so grateful for that.”
A time capsule
Jiyane says Umdali was left in the can for three years because at the time he was going through a period of turbulent change.
“I wasn’t ready, spiritually,” he says. “There was a lot of things going on.”
The album, with its cover featuring Jiyane’s daughter, Sierra Leone, and opening song paying tribute to departed friend Senzo Nxumalo, feels like a time capsule from the musician’s life in 2017.
The year was a complicated one for Jiyane. It was the year he saw the birth of his daughter with partner Thandeka Dlamini and their relocation to Soweto from their Sophiatown home.
However, it was also the year that he lost his close friend Nxumalo and his mentor Mekoa, within a short space of time.
“I just had a daughter, I was a father now and I was responsible for two other people, “ he says. “It was a lot.”
He says artists can’t focus on work when there is all that “distraction”.
“This work needs you to be on it, so you can allow it to shine properly,” he says.
As Jiyane and his young family settled into Soweto he had begun jamming with a few musicians who lived in the township.
“I was hanging out with all these musicians, Lungile Kunene, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Tebogo Seitei, Nkosinathi Mathunjwa, Ayanda Zalekile and Gontse Makhene.”
A look at the recent careers of the musicians Jiyane mentions shows an interesting crossover of South African sounds, including members of The Brother Moves On, BLK JKS, Shabaka and the Ancestors, Thath’i Cover Okestra and Project Elo.
“All of them are my close friends, off-stage,” says Jiyane. “We speak the same language, I know how they play.”
As Jiyane began to jam with these musicians in various formations, he began to introduce some of his own compositions to them. In essence this was the beginning of workshopping the five compositions that make up Umdali.
By November 2018, Jiyane and his band, joined by guests, trumpeter Brandon Ruiters and vocalist Tubatsi Mpho Moloi, entered Sumo Sound recording studio and in one day they would record the album that would become his debut.
“We only had a day to rehearse the music, camped out in Soweto taking the musicians through the compositions,” recalls Jiyane. “We didn’t have much time, but I believed in the music and I believed in the musicians.”
“We recorded that music and just left it there,” he says. “I hadn’t even listened to it until we heard it in 2021. I just asked Peter to keep it safe for me.”
Jiyane calls Umdali a “beautiful coincidence”.
“It just that it happened this way,” he says.
Andrew Curnow says the album that Jiyane and his band recorded in 2020 and 2021 will more than likely see release in late 2022 or early 2023.
On 20 November, the Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O will launch Umdali at 17 Madison Street, Doornfontein North, Johannesburg, with DJs Nombuso Mathibela, DJ Bubbles and the Fly Machine Sessions. Tickets are available from Quicket and at the door from 4pm