Celebrating the rich musical culture of modern South Africa
2014 was an important year for South Africans, though the occasion was little remarked upon by media outside that nation. That year, the first general election occurred in which citizens born after the end of Apartheid in 1994 were old enough to vote. Although South Africa today is a democracy with nominal legal equality for citizens of all races, this example illustrates how recently the concept of South Africa NOW!, a showcase of five distinguished South African artists at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival in partnership with the High Commission of South Africa, would've been impossible. (Here's another: in 1994 the Festival was already in its 14th season.)
The South African jazz scene has deep roots, going back well over 60 years. In its early days, jazz musicians honed their craft in nightclubs, dancehalls and other venues, taking full advantage of any and every opportunity to play live. These artists were deeply influenced by American jazz, but as is often the case with countries geographically and politically isolated from western cultural centres, the difficulty of obtaining new releases actually served to foster the development of unique new sounds. Take the iconic pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (June 30, National Arts Centre Studio), considered by many to be the “King of South African Jazz.” As the leading figure in the Cape Jazz subgenre, Ibrahim was a member of Sophiatown-based group the Jazz Epistles, who recorded South Africa’s first jazz album by black artists. Influenced by his contemporary Duke Ellington – for whom Ibrahim substituted on five dates in 1966, leading the Duke Ellington Orchestra – Ibrahim's unmistakable sound incorporates strains of local marabi music, itself a byproduct of New Orleans jazz and ragtime records imported to Cape Town in the 1920s. When the regime cracked down on jazz performances, Ibrahim became a traveler, spreading his sound to the UK and US as an exile before political changes allowed him to return to his home in Cape Town.
Drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo 's (June 27, National Arts Centre Studio) story parallels Ibrahim's. He too was a founding member of a significant early South African jazz group, The Blue Notes, and was also exiled to the UK during apartheid. Moholo-Moholo was part of an ex-pat community that made significant contributions to the British jazz scene, forming the nucleus of several projects uniting the foremost free jazz musicians from both nations. Though a septuagenarian, the great South African percussionist’s fire still burns brightly. Dalton Sound said Moholo-Moholo "carries a rhythm like a burning coal and keeps it smoldering,” and his recent gigs remain consistently enthralling.
If Abdullah Ibrahim and Louis Moholo-Moholo represent the still-vibrant sound of South Africa's living cultural history, the remaining three artists in the South Africa NOW! series represent its future. These are musicians who've come of age in the wake of the rapid change that has swept the country since 1994. Each possesses a polyglot sound indicative of a multicultural society spiced by import and exile.
Highly infectious and undeniably groovy, Freshlyground (June 24, OLG After Dark) is made up of seven talented and diverse musicians from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. A multi-platinum success in their own country, their style-hopping Afropop blends elements of traditional South African music, blues, jazz and indie rock. Their collaboration with Shakira on "Waka Waka" - the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup - exposed them to audiences worldwide.
Pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd (June 26, National Arts Centre Fourth Stage) is a virtuoso talent, noted for his conceptual interest in the melodies, images and voices of the land from which he comes. 2014 saw the 27-year old take home a number of honours, including a nomination on the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Shepherd navigates "an impressionistic collage of South African jazz sounds, from slam poetic minimalist re-imaginings of Afrikaans volksliedjies and Muslim calls to prayer, to goema groove deconstructions, tributes to Abdullah Ibrahim, Ngqawana’s philosophy of 'Zimology' and more" (Mail & Guardian).
Finally, Canadian-born South African singer-songwriter Zaki Ibrahim (July 1, Laurier Avenue Music Stage) has experienced acclaim in both countries, and has recently been honoured as a JUNO nominee and Polaris Prize shortlister. Ibrahim (no relation to Abdullah) spent her childhood as what she describes as a “citizen of the world,” a reflection of which can certainly be found in her creative blending of elements of R&B, soul and jazz. Her theatrical, multi-disciplinary interests are grounded by a flexible band of accomplished players. The result is a thoroughly modern brand of neo-soul that whatever its nation of origin, is truly world-class.