/ 28 October 2023

Makaya home for the first time

Photo By Sulyiman Color5 2 2 New (1) (1)
‘Cultural synthesiser’: Makaya McCraven’s music crosses borders and bends genres. Photo: Sulyiman

It is Saturday 8.30pm SA time and American jazz drummer, composer, beat-maker and band leader Makaya McCraven and I are both sweating. 

We’re on a Zoom call. He is in Los Angeles on a seven-hour layover from Sao Paulo to Australia. The sky there is a Capri kind of blue (jazzy pun intended) and McCraven is wiping the sweat from his brow as he is walking next to the beach.

Me? I’m still sweating because my team, Arsenal, just did a smash and grab for a draw against Chelsea. I’m also perspiring in anticipation of the Boks’ upcoming game against Ingerland. (As we now know, there was good reason for that sweating!)

“We decided to come to the beach for a couple hours,” a smiling McCraven tells me. “We got to get back to the airport in a couple hours. But it’s kind of a wild day of travel.  

“We’ve already taken three flights. And I was either like, hang out in the lounge for seven hours or … The decision was simple.”

He had turned 40 a few days earlier. “I’m an adult now,” he chuckles. 

“I was in Sao Paulo. When it turned midnight, we went out to see some Brazilian music and have some caipirinha. And then the next day we played a concert and it was a really special birthday for me. 

“I have had birthdays in different places but that was unique.”

McCraven and his band are on a five-week-long world tour, including the global south. 

Unexpectedly, Johannesburg is now also on the itinerary. We have his wife, African-American and Asian-American studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma to thank. There was a gap between the Australian dates and going to Europe. She looked at the map and asked him: “Why don’t you go somewhere else on the way and see if you can put something together?”

McCraven’s label boss at International Anthem Scott McNiece connected him with Joburg record label Mushroom Hour Half Hour and promoters The Dig. 

Now there is not only a gig on Friday, 3 November at Untitled Basement in Braamfontein but also recording sessions with some of South Africa’s most adventurous jazz musicians such as Thandi Ntuli, Gontse Makhene, Dalisu Ndlazi, Siya Makuzeni and Linda Sikhakhane.

It could result in a new record. 

“But I try to keep pressure low so that we can have an experience … it’s more a meeting for the musicians and I,” McCraven says, “and we’ll see what comes of it.”

And, of course, with a first name like his, McCraven was destined to visit our fine shores at some stage in his life. 

“I’ve always wanted to come to South Africa. I mean, my name comes from there …”

He was born in Paris to Hungarian singer Ágnes Zsigmondi (of the band Kolinda) and jazz drummer Stephen McCraven. When Makaya was three, the family moved back to the US, where he was always surrounded by musicians.

He was named after a friend of his dad’s, the respected drummer Makaya Ntshoko, who was famous for playing in the Jazz Epistles and Jazz Giants. 

After going into exile in 1962, Ntshoko was leader of Makaya & the Tsotsis and appeared alongside greats such as Hugh Masekela, Johnny Dyani, Dexter Gordon and Joe McPhee.

McCraven junior is part of a progressive movement of bold musicians who believe that borders are there to be crossed and genres to be bent. The New York Times has called him “one of the best arguments for jazz’s vitality”.

On his website, the music critic and Chicago radio host Ayana Contreras writes: “McCraven believes that the word ‘jazz’ is ‘insufficient, at best, to describe the phenomenon we’re dealing with’. 

“The artist, who has been aptly called a ‘cultural synthesizer’, has a unique gift for collapsing space, destroying borders and blending past, present and future into poly-textural arrangements of post-genre, jazz-rooted 21st-century folk music.”

McCraven has followed in the footsteps of musicians such as Art Blakey, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Chico Hamilton and several other drummers, who lead their bands. It’s not rare but it is unusual. 

“I think drummers make really good band leaders,” he says. “There are certain challenges to lead a band from the drum chair but there’s certain advantages as well.”

He draws an unusual analogy. 

“With my band, in some ways, that has made me want to not feel like I’m taking centre stage so much but rather that I am like a captain of a team. I have all these musicians that I can rely on and bring together … and for it not to be like the ‘me’ show but it’d be about my music and let the music speak.”

There are a number of current drummer band leaders: Moses Boyd, Nate Smith and Kassa Overall. 

“We all feel quite supportive of each other,” he says. “We will show up for each other.”

I ask him if people respond differently to his music in different parts of the world. 

“Definitely the culture of a place will come through, in the way that they receive music, in the way that they participate,” McCraven explains. 

“That being said, I do also think there’s something that connects us because we’re all playing a certain kind of music or within certain types of music. 

“So, even when travelling around the globe, you find like-minded folks and I really am inspired by that.”

His most recent album In These Times was released in late September last year (his 10th studio album, if I counted currently). It’s described on his website as “a collection of poly-temporal compositions inspired as much by broader cultural struggles as McCraven’s personal experience as a product of a multinational, working-class musician community”.

It’s been seven years in incubation, while he has had a prolific run of other releases including In the Moment (2015), Highly Rare (2017), Where We Come From (2018), Universal Beings (2018), We’re New Again (2020), Universal Beings E&F Sides (2020) and Deciphering the Message (2021). 

The collaborators on the new album include fellow frontier-crossing players such as Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, Brandee Younger, Joel Ross and Marquis Hill.

With a title like In These Times it is clearly a political album. I ask McCraven if an artist can be anything but political in these unsettling times.

“I think all art is political in some ways — even just the act of being a musician or an artist, I think, is political.

“Because, even where we fit and sit in society, and how we’re involved, is very much outside of the normal populace — we stratify class in certain ways that I think a lot of people don’t …”

Other than a brief sample of revered left-wing broadcaster Studs Terkel, it is an instrumental album. I want to know if instrumental jazz can be political.

McCraven nods: “Well, one of the things that I really like about instrumental jazz is that we’re not speaking in literal terms. And, to me, that’s special and we can almost put it in its own category of language and communication between people. 

“That’s where I feel like we can break down certain barriers that language even has in front of us. 

“With instrumental music, we’re dealing in complex emotions and complex ideas that language can’t necessarily do.”

I have been listening almost non-stop to In These Times in between consuming the horrifying news out of the Middle East. The album has been a kind of balm for me, I tell McCraven.

“Thank you. I mean, with this record I wanted to make something…” He trails off. “It has a lot of strings and flowing sounds but there’s a lot of darkness. We did want to make something beautiful in a time that felt so difficult.

“People come to me sometimes and they’ll say, ‘You know, your music got me through this really difficult time in my personal life,’ or through the pandemic, or through this or that or through the conflicts that we’re facing right now. 

“That is ultimately the most encouraging kind of thing I can receive from people and it really keeps me going because it’s hard. And we’re out here and we’re pouring our souls out, so it means a lot and I appreciate that.”

McCraven gets a gentle smile on his face when talks about his two daughters, Jaya, 9, and Maya, 13.

“I miss them when I’m on tour. I was just was on the phone, before our chat. We have a good thing going on and I try to have them travel to meet me when I can. And we make the most of it.”

McCraven plays to sold-out shows and receives rave reviews across the world. But his girls keep him humble.

“That’s one of the great things to come home from a tour and I’m just Dad. 

“And that’s a beautiful thing.”