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African Jazz

2005 Cape Town International Jazz Festival: Africa's Grandest Gathering

By Published: March 30, 2005

340ml

Sticking around at Bass line, I noticed that the average age dropped precipitously when 340ml took the stage. The quartet has a strong following with the young ladies, several of whom clustered around me in the front row giggling in anticipation. I couldn't help but admire the way they had each sculpted their hair into impossible three-dimensional formations. South African women do some truly amazing things with their hair, creating styles straight out of fantasy.

Ahem. Anyway, back to the band. 340ml crosses musical borders in a really fresh way, combining reggae, funk, hip-hop, ska, and improvisation. The group's debut album, Moving, got a lot of airplay and attracted a substantial local following, though it's pretty much unknown internationally. The basic instrumentation is the standard rock quartet of vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, but not without some mischievous energy and various other odd instruments along the way. Intermittent trombone riffing by a female guest introduced some color and spontaneity (and sparked a young man behind me to shout "Gimme the trombonist!!" when the band prompted some audience participation toward the end of the show).

While its material is relatively simple, this band had a nice vibe and balanced energy with mobility. Other than an early outburst from drummer Paulo Jorge Chibanga about the "fucking terrible" sound— cleared up after some consultation a few minutes after the show started—they were friendly, outgoing, and cool. Those audience members who didn't already know the words well enough to sing along didn't have too much trouble learning them along the way.

It's no surprise that this band sold out its rack in the CD Wherehouse booth at the convention center, with its combination of infectious grooves, dynamic on-stage presence, and involving interaction with the audience. Look for 340ml to break out internationally if it keeps up this kind of momentum.

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Trans-Global Underground

A lot of time has passed since the UK house/hip-hop/global collective Trans-Global Underground made in big the early '90s, and the group has gone through some major changes in personnel through the ensuing years. But it's retained a pretty strong core audience because it offers a refreshing alternative to the usual club formula. I took International Times (Epic, 1994) with me on the flight, and it brought back memories.

On stage the group included a minimum of two drummers, and while the rhythms were focused around a very sturdy backbeat, they did a good job of interlocking beats in evolving, unpredictable ways. But you were never very far from the four-to-the-floor pounding bass hits that kept bodies moving all around. A young man next to me took the opportunity to spend almost the whole show doing a bump and grind with his lady friend from behind, which seemed to make both of them happy.

The drumming is probably the most obviously African aspect of TGU; other threads lead off into Indian music and hip-hop, manifested in Sheema Mukherjee's sitar playing and a regular emphasis on vocal gymnastics. I've never heard Sheema (as she's known) before, and I'm not sure sitar purists would approve of her decidedly reductionist approach to the instrument. She plays the sitar like an electric guitar, adapting minor-key riffs and repeating them in a rhythmic fashion. We were warned in advance by the MC that we were "about to astro-plane to a new level" right before she took her one extended solo, but the astro-planing didn't transport me very far. The riffing works much better.

Doreen Thobekile, a South African native who grew up in Durban, joined TGU for the latter part of the set. It was hard to get over her big hair and retro leather outfit, but I guess that was sort of the point. Her act was more about striking a pose and working the stage than delivering any particularly virtuosic vocal performance. That said, she raised the energy level a couple of notches by strutting around and engaging the audience. The gratuitous titty shakes didn't do much for me, and neither did repeated vocals like "yeah baby" and "ooh ooh ooh," but I guess to each her own.

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Dave Holland Quintet

The most comfortable venue I encountered at the Cape Town jazz fest is Rosie's Stage, a relatively intimate auditorium where you can sit down in soft seats and get involved with the performers. You need a special ticket (a few more rand) to get in, which helps keep the audience under control since there's no standing room available.

I got to Rosie's half an hour early, which yielded the unexpected pleasure of being able to listen to a sound check jam between Dave Holland, Steve Nelson, and Nate Smith almost on my own. These guys cooked up the most intricate, mindblowing improvisation seemingly without effort. It didn't hurt that the crew was fully organized and the sound quality fine-tuned to crisp perfection. But the guys on the stage offered on-the-spot proof that jazz lives in the moment, whether the cameras are on or not.

This was the last show of the night and the room was a quarter full when the full quintet assembled on stage, which surprised me, but more people came in later. I was in the front row, like I was at every event I attended, so I sat tight. Holland introduced the show with a dedication to the many South African expatriates he met in London, including Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and others, after they left SA and fired up a whole wave of European free jazz.

One of the things Dave Holland has perfected with his quintet is a natural, free-flowing groove where each member contributes some aspect to a vibrantly polyrhythmic whole. You don't need to intellectualize these rhythms to appreciate them, because they have an intuitive resonance. But if you pay attention to who's playing what, you can get caught up in all sorts of interesting nuances. To me, it's an illustrative example of the best kind of jazz, which shouldn't require rocket science to understand but ought to reward close listening.

Nate Smith is a very groove-oriented drummer, to the extent he knows how to work the backbeat in a flowing way, but his ears are wide open to what's going on around him. And watching Smith go at it, you can't help but get caught up in the action. His face contorts wildly, almost out of control as he bobs and weaves in his seat. He kept solid control over his instruments, exhibiting restraint and respect for dynamics.

Dave Holland's latest act on record is his big band, which has received lots of favorable press for its brand new record, Overtime (Dare2, 2005). The big band really does not excite me at all, because all those instruments seem to close out the spaces and subtract the spontaneity that his quintet (and many other smaller configurations through the years) have cultivated. But the quintet continues to inspire.

Robin Eubanks opened "Global Citizen" (a tune written by him, from Not for Nothin') offering pulsing counterpoint on the cowbell. Later on he picked up his main instrument, the trombone, which he plays with a deep tone that has a lot of voice-like features, especially when he colors it with overtones. Much of his playing consisted of harmony and counterpoint in combination with Chris Potter, mostly featured in this performance on soprano saxophone. Echoes of New Orleans came through in some of the bluesy harmonies, but equally often you'd hear them come together at odd, unexpected intervals.

By the end of the show the audience was just getting warmed up. Despite a standing ovation and plenty of enthusiastic applause, the quintet left the stage and did not return. Holland and his quintet come back the second day of the festival for a repeat performance, which ought to be encore enough for the enthusiastic. Me, I'm going to listen to Cesaria Evora instead. Stay tuned...

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Day Two Coverage


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