|The “formidable and charismatic” Buhlebendalo Mda of The Soil
19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival, 23-24 March, 2018 – Day Two
(Cape Town International Convention Centre. Report by Peter Jones)
Africa’s Grandest Gathering – that’s the moniker bestowed on the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and rightly so. No other musical event on the continent matches it for sheer scale.
There had been steady business on Friday evening, but Saturday brought out vast hordes – not just of the paying public, but myriads of T-shirted helpers, young and old. As we reported in our preview, the wider purpose of the festival is to develop South Africa’s entertainment industry. The weekend (and indeed the previous month) included numerous workshops for young people, taking place not only at Cape Town’s monumental Conference Centre but across the Western Cape. Approaches to performance, rehearsal, music business, stage production, entrepreneurship and showbiz marketing were all on the agenda.
Every jazz festival these days includes its fair share of music that can be described as jazz-influenced, at the most. One of these was a young Soweto a capella trio known as The Soil. They operate in a genre known in these parts as Kasi Soul – a mixture of township harmony, hip-hop and a distinctively African take on pop and soul. Led by the formidable and charismatic Buhlebendalo Mda, The Soil are driven by the beatboxing and bass singing of Luphindo Ngxanga. The third member of the group, Luphindo’s brother Ntsika Ngxanga, is also an entrepreneur who runs a record label called Nomadic Tribe, and was dubbed by Mda – with no obvious irony – as a future President of South Africa. Their punchy set included a tune by the late Hugh Masekela – as did most of the performances over the weekend.
In keeping with 2018’s global theme of empowerment, the much-hyped vocalist Simphiwe Dana appeared with an all-female band including three backing singers. This was big, slow-paced, emotional music. Dana, resplendent in feathered headdress and tribal outfit, delivers her vocals in a passionate, declamatory style, but the gig was somewhat derailed by a mushy sound mix, in which the voices completely overwhelmed the rhythm section.
Singing, particularly harmony singing, is a far more important element to jazz in this part of the world than it is in Europe or America, and it often involves spontaneous audience participation: there’s no need for the musicians to urge them on. Leeds’s very own Corinne Bailey Rae proved the point with a warm, polished and well-judged set that had the enormous crowd joining in almost from the start. In fact there were long periods during which neither she nor her excellent male backing vocalists had to sing at all, so strong was the audience contribution. All the hits were there, including Breathless, Trouble Sleeping, and Bob Marley’s Is This Love done as a slow waltz.
Billy Monama’s Graz Roots is a project whose aim is to revive and maintain the sound of “traditional” South African jazz. It was sweet, gentle, good-time guitar-based music, with some outstanding players, notably guitarist Monama himself, alongside Lwanda Gogwana on flugelhorn and Mduduzi Mtshali on piano. The final numbers were enhanced by the gorgeous voice of guest singer Siphokazi Maraqana. The Graz Roots set was a particular treat amongst some much louder and less subtle music elsewhere.
The high point of the Festival came towards the end of Saturday. The Boys Doin’ It was the name given to this celebration of the late Hugh Masekela’s music, an acknowledgement of the trumpeter/composer/activist’s extraordinary contribution to South Africa’s cultural and political life. With both President Cyril Ramaphosa and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa among the packed, tumultuously excited audience, the band for this gig consisted largely of Bra Hugh’s touring ensemble. They featured all the hits: Grazing in the Grass, Bring Him back Home and Puffin’ on Down the Track, the great man’s nephew Selema Masekela delivering a powerful spoken word piece about the plight of exploited migrant workers. This climactic gig had the desired effect on Cape Town’s long drought: as your correspondent left the building, the rain had started to fall.