Review: International Jazz for the Soul

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Traffic was reminiscent of the World Cup.  I turned off the radio, wound down my window and smiled as the nonchalant strains of Ivan Mazuze’s saxophone drifted from the stage below up to where I sat, nose to tail, on the N1 flyover into town.

The sky was starry, the air was as smooth as the music and everyone was congregating in the one place to be… the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

I warmed up slowly with a little Chad Saaiman, who opened on the Bassline stage (see ‘Guidelines to the CTIJF’).  I’d always rather written off Saaiman as a local boy bander, but this boy can do more than hit a note. With his long dreads he looked like a sweetened version of an early Lenny Kravitz, and his energy and enthusiasm were contagious as he leapt around the stage to guitar-led rock such as Moving On, given jazz overtones from sax and trumpet.

Then I was ready for the main stage – Kippies. Saxophonist extraordinaire Dave Koz (USA) was playing and as I edged my way in he launched into the South African national anthem.  Given the reaction I think he will now be known here as Dave Nkosi Sikelele. The crowd went wild, and the atmosphere was goosebump-electric. World class lighting effects and the massive camera arm swinging fast and low above the audience added to the mood.  But best of all was Randy Jacobs on the guitar who ran backwards and forwards across the stage and spun around and around and did commando rolls while Koz skipped around like a happy saxophone-playing leprechaun.

In contrast, upstairs on the Moses Molelekwa stage, guitarist Eric Triton from Mauritius was playing a soulful, haunting, mournful French song accompanied by a guy in full N African robes playing a pumpkin. Or at least a drum that looked like a pumpkin. Triton and Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla (Niger) were accompanied by SA favourite Steve Newman, and together the trio morphed Arabic guitar music into blues, passing melodies back and forth in a scholarly celebration of the history of guitars in African music.

Meanwhile…on the Manenberg stage Hanjin Tan, a small bespectacled Chinese guy, was doing some old school scatting.  “Ever been to a jazz bar where the singer says ‘I’m going to sing Fly Me to the Moon’ and you leave a tip and walk out?’ he asked the crowd.  ‘Well that’s exactly what’s going to happen now.’  And then, to everyone’s surprise, he launched into the song in a classical opera voice.  He delivered some great jazz standards accompanied by Jason Cheng – the first time I’ve seen someone with a leather jacket and a Mohican play the grand piano.

But the best jazz pianist that I saw all weekend… in fact, ever… had to be Don Laka who performed to a capacity crowd in Kippies on Friday night.  Great as it is to have so many internationally renowned performers at the Jazz Festival, to see the crowd respond to one of their own can be very moving.  The one song, which he dedicated to Abdullah Ibrahim, scored a double whammy on that front.

I caught my breath for a few minutes in a relatively quiet spot between the crowds, where the night air was filled only with the noise of cicadas… and then plunged back in.

On the Manenberg stage, The Flames were having an official reunion after 40 years. The first non-white band to reach the top 20 charts on the whites-only Springbok Radio, and the first band in the world to record with the label owned by the Beach Boys, I wanted to see them for historical reasons. The crowd was populated by distinctly older folk singing along like football fans.  Up on stage were the Fataar brothers and their band, all ‘youthed’ by hair gel and t-shirts and sunglasses, but with enough skin sagging from their cheekbones to hide a tambourine.

The Flames were good, but as 40th anniversaries go, they didn’t stand a chance against Earth, Wind & Fire. Cape Town was the start of EWF’s anniversary tour.  I don’t know what they were like 40 years ago but I can’t imagine they were any better than they were at the Jazz Festival on Saturday night.  They were so utterly in control, they could make even a basic step-cross-step-together look cool.  The 12 people on stage went full tilt for the whole 90 minutes, even when just shaking a maraca.  And they did this two nights in a row!  Worth the festival price alone.  A tangible wave of nostalgia swept through crowd with September, After the Love has Gone, Let’s Groove, and so many more that people like me didn’t even know they knew.  At many big concerts it’s normal to end up looking at the screens to see what’s going on.  But to do so here would have meant missing the magic created by the cohesion on stage.  Besides, the cameras could hardly keep up with Verdine White on guitar, shimmering wildly in his white flared Elvis suit.  Fantastic.

I didn’t think EWF could be topped… but then I saw Gazelle. With a style of dress best described as African despot-chic, this group is pure theatre. Xander Ferreira was in front clad in a tight shiny shwe-shwe print suit, a leopardskin pill box hat and white-framed sunglasses. Two chic backing singers in contemporary black fawned over him while two men in red army berets, aviator sunglasses and white fatigues played the marimbas with resolutely immoveable expressions.  A bass guitar and djembe drums provided a further element and in the middle Nick Matthews – topped by a conical straw Sotho hat and face shielded by a cross between a welding mask and a golf visor – flailed his arms and legs around maniacally to the beat in between intricately adjusting the decks.  And then… a pair dressed in tinsel capes and Ivorian masks leapt on to the stage and jumped around waving palm fronds.  Plastic palm fronds.  And all the while Ferreira sang “The world is what you make of it…”

Indeed it is.  And may our world always have a touch of the mad, pure and simply brilliant as was evident at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this weekend.

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