The waiting is over. During two evenings, the festival’s five stages are ready to present over forty acts to the 34 000 ticket holders. More than 2,000 people are employed. Streets are blocked off. For those of us who habitually seek nourishment for the soul by proximity to music, the presence of these huge milling crowds, the security barriers, the sheer logistics of orienting oneself round are daunting.
There’s a complication, who knew? One of the stages – the one with the best sound – is separately ticketed, apparently for fire reasons, and the press desk has run out of tickets for all events in it. A guardian angel gave me a ticket to hear the band led by bassist Herbie Tsoaeli. It was a mesmerizing gig by a master musician with an authentic and powerful presence. The hour-long set with a young band playing felt like not nearly enough. It started, poignantly from silence, with a poem in homage to the greats of South African music who have passed away. Tsoaeli was playing with a young band whose sound he had beautifully shaped.
I need, want to know more about Tsoaeli. He sings in Xhosa with power and authority and musicality and affection, and I wish I could understand the words. Tsoaeli grew up in Nyanga East Township in Cape Town, and moved to Johannesburg in 1995. He has played with the greats of South African music. I could find just one interview. There’s a first album, just out, and I’m not leaving this town without it.
I moved on to catch another South African musician, saxophonist, Steve Dyer, who was also playing with a young band. He described graphically the way he felt about being able to feed off their energy, but I couldn’t help thinking about the life experience these older South African musicians have all packed into their lives. What has it meant to be a musician during a uniquely turbulent period in this country? What does proximity with images of violence throughout your life bring to these voices? Steve Dyer doesn’t hide away that sense of having been a witness, whether he was talking to the audience, or playing. He introduced a composition dedicated to Steve Biko called “Elusive Homeland” by summoning up deep inner concentration, working himself, the band and the audience into the vibe of the piece. He has a saxophone sound of clarity and depth which is his completely his own. And Dyer’s son, the pianist Bokani Dyer was also hugely impressive.
From then on, the spirit nourished, the mind taken by two powerful musicians with their stories to tell, I skittered around, taking in a few gigs briefly, catching, tasting the vibe of each one. I heard Moreira Project in the main 8,000 seater hall, a good n’ loud full-on band in with a six-litre thumping drums-plus-percussion engine. I briefly caught Abdullah Ibrahim’s New York-based daughter Jean Grae’s juxtaposition of rap and blues. I loved Mike Stern and Dave Weckl feeding off each other masterfully. I heard VERY good reports of the Brubeck brothers gig, and of an entire crowd singing a Garth Brooks song in Dave Koz’s gig . But there are also quieter places to hung out with the other blokes. I headed down in that classic introvert jazz festival sanctuary and refuge – the record store