Estelle Kokot (collaboration with Eugene Skeef / performance workshop at GSMD on 17 Nov. + new solo album)

South African-raised pianist-singer Estelle Kokot put the period of lockdown to good use and started an online collaboration with percussionist, composer, poet, educationalist and animator Eugene Skeef. Their work together, using his poems as the starting point, started in August 2020, and continues.

So far, over 25 poems have been composed, narrated and improvised and a series of performance workshops are in the pipeline. The first of these is on Wednesday 17 November at Guildhall School, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Email interview by Sebastian Scotney. 

Estelle Kokot and Eugene Skeef. Superimposed images from a Skype conversation courtesy of Estelle Kokot

LondonJazz News: Why is Eugene Skeef such a significant figure?

Estelle Kokot: Eugene grew up in a family that was distinguished by a strong sense of justice; so it made sense for him to embark on a path that used his creative skills as a means of raising the awareness of people, first from his local township and eventually throughout the whole country. 

Eugene was about finding solutions to combating the racist policies and the brutality of the apartheid state. It was this activism that led him to Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement, where he contributed as his driver, as well as being a poet and artist in their community programmes. Eugene is the artist who drew the original Black Power clenched fist symbol. He also worked closely with Biko and others in the movement, travelling around South Africa, co-leading literacy programmes and creative writing workshops in the community and at Black universities. Eugene was then forced into exile in 1980 and settled in London. An emissary for peace he focuses on what keeps us truly human through the all-embracing messages in his poetry. Eugene’s ethos, at the core of his workshops and masterclasses, is love. 

LJN: Your SA background and his are very different….

EK: Very! I come from an Afrikaans background with strong and deep roots in the apartheid regime, which makes the way we both grew up diametrically opposed. This cold hard fact has not, and will not, prevent us from doing our creative work together. Eugene speaks of our collaboration as being ‘a rigid line that becomes a flexible skipping rope’ and how through those highs and lows we are almost like children at play in ‘our shared loop’. Eugene feels like a long-lost friend to me or someone I have known for lives and lives, should reincarnation prove to be a point. In real time, none of us can get away from our bloodlines and our DNA and neither should we try to. The environment we are born into moulds and shapes our core. It’s what we choose to keep and discard or whom or what we learn from that gives our path a purpose.

LJN: And you have a real sense of ideals.

EK: Yes! I think all creative people have this. Why else do we do what we do? Eugene’s poems ignite something in me that I didn’t know was there. It might be partly because of our shared backgrounds; Eugene speaks Afrikaans fluently but my Zulu is a bit thin on the ground – and yet I know if there was a mud pool in the vicinity we’d be in there, boots and all! The way we collaborate freely in the moment is the nucleus but it goes beyond that too. Regarding ‘sense of ideals’ to the work I am doing with Eugene, I am instinctively motivated as to where I want the melody and the music, or the narration to go. I try not to think too much about the meaning of the poem. I allow it to be revealed through my interpretation. Our work together and what’s to come is slowly unfolding, unfettered by the academics of the norm. For me it’s more about what might not be expected from us, as opposed to what might predictably be expected of us, if you base your expectations on our combined histories! This work is about bridging those gaps. 

Eugene believes that every human being is endowed with innate creative abilities but that these are often buried deep within. He also believes that we can cultivate an environment within and without, that is conducive to the fruition of these abilities. All his enabling work is based on the inculcation of self-confidence and a sense of worth and belonging in individuals and communities, irrespective of background. There is a line in Eugene’s ‘colours of sound’ poem that encapsulates this for me…’the abiding peace was because these dialogues were informed by an unavoidable timelessness‘.

LJN: What themes do Eugene’s poems deal with?

EK: I’ve handed this question over to the man himself: ‘The poems explore a whole range of themes associated with how events in our lives as individuals, relationships, families or communities affect us either locally or globally. These events could be current or steeped in memory; they could be personal or political, but the poems are primarily daily meditations on exploring ideas that might inspire the reader, while providing hope to find the means of coping with the distressing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, to also look within to gain greater knowledge of self.’

LJN: How did the idea of setting the poems start?

EK: It all started during late August 2020. I was deep in the process of making a lockdown video for the South African Jazz Stories series (South African Association for Jazz Education), when I encountered a poem written by Eugene. It’s called ‘towards a timeline of reclamation’. The poem was written on the same day that The Guardian published an article about the BBC considering dropping Rule Britannia from Last Night of the Proms. I don’t know if Eugene’s poem was directly or indirectly inspired by the whole ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ thing, but I channelled that as a connection with my first composing improv of the poem. The last verse in particular struck the proverbial chord that got the ball rolling:

‘we must smelt them

in the furnace of our rediscovery

and forge bells

to sound a timeline

for the new rhythm

of our reclaimed souls’

I messaged Eugene as soon as I’d done the initial composing improv. I wasn’t sure if I was the right one to interpret this poem, considering it speaks of ‘African ironsmiths in shackles’. Who am I, a white Afrikaans woman, to be the composer of these words? What gives me the right? Nothing does. It isn’t about having a right, it’s about conveying what lies behind the poem. It isn’t about me, it’s about the poem. The words are my king and queen in this respect. I take my lead from them and Eugene never places any restrictions on me as to which poem I should and shouldn’t compose for.

LJN: How has the project developed?

EK: While on a walk with a close friend in October last year, I fell and broke my left middle finger. I found it extremely frustrating not being able to play piano with both hands, so I started sitting in my kitchen and recording myself reciting or singing Eugene’s poems. I had recorded an improvised solo piano track on my phone at home prior to the break and when I started reading Eugene’s poem ‘rendezvous with the son of man – man of the people’ I knew that this track would be the backing for my narration. It was interpreted by Rare Studio Liverpool dancers and choreographed by Jacqueline Shi in a film for his book launch ‘in search of my river’ on the 26th of July. The Zoom launch was hosted by Brenda Sisane, broadcaster and CEO of SPIN Productions.

I also started experimenting with whatever I could find to create sound tools. I taught myself how to use the basics of the Reaper programme and used it to edit everything into one whole. There are several poems that have been given the soundtooling treatment, from the flushing of my toilet through to the dropping of pennies in a steel bowl of water to emulate the release that comes from eventually being able to pass the faeces that have been blocking the passages. Eugene’s ‘digest this’ features the bowl and some precariously balanced plates in what was becoming an increasingly hazardous zone with all the piled up unwashed dishes in my kitchen. The microbes in my filthy grill pan were another source of inspiration for his poem ‘the disappearing tattoo (a south african saga), which features the verse:

everyone is coloured

if they exist

within the spectrum

whose microtonal specs

belie inspection’

LJN: What’s next for this project?

EK: Thokoza is the project we are working on and it includes South African independent filmmaker, novelist, poet and fine artist Aryan Kaganof; filmmaker and photographer Hugh Mdlalose; and Jonathan Eato, sound recordist, mix engineer, and producer. While Thokoza is in the planning stages setting up partnerships with South Africa and the UK, Eugene and I will be leading a workshop/performance for the EFG London Jazz Festival on Wednesday 17 November at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This first event will be a good indicator of how our creative collaboration unfolded and how it can be shared with the community. We are also working on getting some of the poems recorded and released.

I’m also releasing a solo recording of my own work, called MOFO, on 5 November via Bandcamp as a digital download. The album was recorded by Jonathan Eato at York University in November 2018. I am doing a Facebook livestream featuring tracks from MOFO and some of my work with Eugene Skeef on 4 November. It will be streamed from a friend’s home on her good piano!

LINKS: Eugene’s poem ‘rendezvous with the son of man – man of the people’ with Estelle’s narration and Rare Studio Liverpool dancers interpretation

Eugene Skeef tells his story

Audiovisual previews of Estelle Kokot’s solo album release MOFO 5 November 2021

Livestream Event Facebook 4 November 2021

The Thokoza Workshop on the GSMD site...(1.30pm on 17 November)

...and on the LJF website (ADMISSION FREE)

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