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Interviews

Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity

By Published: May 12, 2011

That's why you have to see the whole thing in context: you have to see the drummers, the dancers, and the song. Then you understand that we're dealing with totality.

(Ed. note: we're celebrating the life and music of Zim Ngqawana by reprinting this 2002 interview. Ngqawana passed away in Johannesburg, after suffering a stroke on May 10th. He was 52.)

For Zim Ngqawana, citizenship is a relative concept. He may be a South African, but he insists that he is first and foremost a citizen of humanity. The 42 year old saxophonist and composer makes a distinctive kind of music which draws heavily from the jazz tradition—yet it's unmistakably tinged with the sounds of his country, his continent, and the world. That's Ngqawana's way of aiming for the same kind of enlightenment sought by John Coltrane. In fact, there are many parallels between the two musicians. Coltrane's "Africanization" of jazz during his later years brought him especially close to Ngqawana's heart—and it's that same idea of bringing people together that drives Ngqawana to make music.

In Zim Ngqawana's mind, music is a language of sound. And as a globalist, that means he pays close attention to other languages and sounds. He is quite direct on the subject of language: "We need to be very careful how we use it." His birth name, Zimasile, means "honorable." His birth city, New Brighton, represents the English colonization of eBhayi. (And that's a name he would rather see returned to its original form.) He refers to the end of apartheid in 1994 as "independence."

Growing up in South Africa, Ngqawana found himself swallowed up in the American jazz tradition. His early listening and jam sessions in shebeens (illegal South African bars) exposed him to sailors who brought new sounds from America and Europe. He listened, transcribed, and practiced jazz as fast as he could absorb the music. After graduating with a degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Natal, he won a scholarship to study in the United States with Max Roach, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Ngqawana brought this formal education in the jazz tradition (and plenty of the informal kind as well) back with him to Africa.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa—and Zim Ngqawana was asked to lead a musical group at his inauguration. Ngqawana conceived a performance of 100 drummers, dancers, and singers. He chose the members of this group so that they represented the twelve major ethnic groups from South Africa, as well as their individual traditions. This event opened his eyes to the cultural diversity of his own country—and it spurred him to learn about the sounds of Africa, India, and Asia.

While he has always borne an orchestral concept in mind, Ngqawana has done most of his work in small group settings. After recording with a collective known as San in 1996, he made three records as a leader. Each disc documents an evolving sense of global identity. (Interestingly, three of the four records feature a Norwegian rhythm section.) A strong strain of Coltrane runs through his music, as do traditional African sounds of several varieties.

It's clear from talking with him that Zim Ngqawana is most definitely not finished with his work. He wants to travel more in order to play with American and European musicians, and he wants to incorporate the musical traditions of the Middle East and Asia.

Most of all, he wants people who hear his music to realize that we share more in common than we might think.

1. Ubuntu, culture, and yearning

AAJ: Can you explain to me about Ubuntu?

Zim Ngqawana: There is no direct translation into English. Ubuntu is a very broad concept, a broad understanding of life. The closest I can get to is "humanity," but it goes deeper than that. It deals with other aspects, that is compassion, wisdom, that allows humankind to live in harmony with nature. An understanding of creation and the creator. Yearning for peace, for love. Ubuntu encompasses all of these aspects. It's something that you understand better when you've lived it, when you've experienced it from family, friends, and people in general. That's how we were raised by our families, parents, our communities... understanding that philosophy of Ubuntu.

I know now with a lot of political jargon that is going around in political circles, and that has affected all walks of life you know, that things have been redirected. People are talking about African Renaissance, all of these new concepts. And for me that tends to confine people to a certain place, a certain country, a certain continent. A certain nationality. You know, Ubuntu deals with something way, way beyond that.

When you talk about "African Renaissance" you expect to deal with the African continent and the African people. But Ubuntu goes way beyond that. So we as artists are busy trying to understand that concept and go back to it. And live it. And we believe that the rest will just fall into place. All of this African Renaissance and all these other things that are being praised by the politicians today will automatically fall into place. That is my meaning of it, my understanding of it.

AAJ: So it's the beginning and the end for you in your music (and your life).

ZN: Yep.

AAJ: I'm trying to understand then... when you have a certain degree of respect for one's elders and one's ancestors, that changes the music because you have to incorporate the music of the past into what you do, and at the same time you have to make it progressive so it looks toward the future. So how do you achieve that balance?

ZN: I deal with my reality. I live in Johannesburg. I have been exposed to modern education. I have been exposed to contemporary music, contemporary culture in general.

AAJ: For example, contemporary music and culture. What sort of things are you talking about?

ZN: When you talk about culture—living in an urban center—one realizes that you cannot continue practicing your tradition the way it used to be practiced in the days of old. So you need to refine and update and adopt the techniques that are used to create that music, within the right context. And often times now within the urban setup you find yourself operating outside that context. We try to contextualize what we do within the urban center, and it's quite difficult. However, with the music, which is based on sound, you can achieve all of that.

Music is merely sound. All of the other aspects will come into it, such as melody, rhythm, instrumentation. And they are in possession of people in sound, you see. So I think one or two artists can get beyond that. They are necessary, however, to draw a listener to his or her reality. For instance, we have to adopt and deal with everything that modern society offers: civilization. The instruments: you have to deal with them. So if you listen to music the right way, you're dealing with pure sounds and all of this. And we utilize them to get to the source of sound. And of course if we cannot express ourselves fully on this instrument, we try and colonize that, so as to tell our own story.

AAJ: Nice analogy.

ZN: So that is why our instrument sounds different when it's handled by one person, and different when it's handled by another. It can be the expression of that individual. But music again transcends all of it because it's not supposed to be a start—it's supposed to be an expression.

AAJ: But you can never have one without the other. You may try, but it's impossible to be pure in that sense, right?

ZN: Yeah. You're not striving for purity in this madness. You're starting with the reality—to understand, to operate within it. It may not be your desire, to like, but we have to deal with it.

AAJ: But at the same time it sounds like your goal is to achieve this transcendent quality in music, something that goes beyond style and sound into a more spiritual aspect.

ZN: That's the yearning. It takes a long way to go to that place where we can be free of all of these inhibitions. It's alright. It's enjoyable while we're doing it. We cannot complain and address these issues... when we get to talk, like we're talking now in an interview, it's interesting.

But one hopes that eventually one will be able to outgrow all of these things and really tap into the real music, the music of the universe. You know, the abstract sound? Yeah. But it's a long way to go.

2. How Coltrane Africanized Jazz

AAJ: What music from the past do you incorporate into you're playing? What musicians and what traditions?

ZN: Whatever I do I try to approach it with a jazz sensibility.

AAJ: From the jazz point of view, I hear Coltrane in there.

ZN: Trane succeeded in bringing to the music back to earth. Trane Africanized, if you wish, the music—and made it much more accessible to an African, as a listener and as a practitioner. This is highly demonstrated in his period after A Love Supreme. Not to neglect other periods before that—powerful things, all great. But he was dealing within the confines of modern jazz style, bebop, standards. When he went into that post-bop thing, for me that's the period that moves me. From A Love Supreme, that's what did it for me.

AAJ: When did you hear that record first?

ZN: I was a teenager when I heard that music, and I was involved in other genres. When I heard that, it turned me around. But the most serious period that really guided me to start looking inward was toward the end of his life: Expressions, Infinity, and all of those records. But we never transcribed... because, again, that is way outside the confines of traditional jazz, modern jazz. So you don't find transcriptions of those records... it's impossible to transcribe Infinity or Interstellar Space, you know what I mean? So for me, already, he was out there, when you talk about the real sound now. Also, he suffered from that—having to account for what he was doing. But he just understood it as his spiritual journey.

He was out of control, and that's the point that we all should reach when we play the music: to get to the point where you are played by the music, not you banging on the music. Trane raised that point. So I work from that premise. And again, I respect the advantage that we have on the continent here... that all of that was Trane's doing. What we have here... it's just a question of transposing it, you know. It's merely chance that it's that easy. Based on standard pentatonic scales, if you listen, is the basis of African music, Asian music, a large part of Indian music, Japanese, Chinese... you hear pentatonic all over. Trane was about that, and the continent is about that. And also, the universe is about that, if you look at the philosophy of the elements. So I work from that premise.

And of course I respect the cultural context of it, in terms of the rituals that I grew up with, the ceremonies... be it death, life, weddings, child, earth, or other ceremonies. So I bring that into context and try to deal with it as a totality. And of course respect the theories that have been established, you know. There are certain forms I dealt with, that I find useful in order to express myself, and also to communicate with people... other musicians, so I'm not isolated in this world. So we don't really ignore these things—we deal with them. Because the main desire is to communicate. That's where I come from.

AAJ: So how does that work when you're playing for an audience? How do you connect with the people you're with?

ZN: I am surprised. In South Africa at the moment we are experiencing a wonderful revival of this art form. It's well received. People have been reminded about the art form. They are taking to it easily—they have no problems, if it's presented to them correctly. It is not something foreign to them. That's why, as an artist, I've managed to earn a living in South Africa by playing this music. You know, it's interesting. So that is not a problem. We are communicating with the people at the heart level.

AAJ: Is there some sort of isolation or stratification there, from township jazz, and the culture that grew up around that? Perhaps that's not something you can apply to the community as a whole.

ZN: Jazz in South Africa has never been viewed as a foreign art form. We have always had access to it. I think South Africa is the only place outside the US that has managed to produce this caliber of jazz. I've seen the power of it when I visited the States, you know. The power in the culture. How people live, how people speak the language. Everything: the food, the whole thinking. The power! I'm amazed. The thinking.

Also, we had access to these records from the visitors—sailors—because we have lots of ports here, harbors. There was a serious interaction between the sailors and the prostitutes... actually, that's where I learned the music.

The best jam sessions I went to was the... we didn't know because we were young then... we were caught up in the music... we didn't know those were whorehouses. You'd go out to—it's called in South Africa a "shebeen," where they sell alcohol illegally. And the people who patronized these places were the kids who were listening to the music, as well as the prostitutes who were there to hook up with the sailors, and the sailors would be hooked up with the prostitutes... and in the interim we'd get to hear the music. The sailors would bring the music, you know. The kids were looking for the music. And what's happening is that the guy who holds the whole thing is selling the booze... so we were caught up in that thing without knowing—thank God! We didn't realize that. It's the same thing that happened to the kids like... the music they would play in these whorehouses. The hits of American jazz—the things that we had here!

So that sensibility has always been there, you know. It's interesting observing these parallels. I also think the American visitors feel comfortable when they come here. Just recently we had a gig somewhere in Johannesburg and Donald Harrison came around, and said he'd like to play a few tunes, and he played the whole gig! Yeah, a lot of cats have come through and had the same experience. It's enjoyable. We love it that way.

3. Bringing Jazz Back Into Context: Folk Music

AAJ: It's hard for people in this country to support themselves from jazz. Only about 3% of record sales are jazz, and most of that is made up by a small number of records. So there's not much left for the rest...

ZN: It's amazing that it's that way, because jazz for me is the most contemporary music that addresses the issues of the present day. The present day issues with the music that is always around and moved and accepted and dealt with... but again, we leave that up to the record companies and the marketers. It's their decision. But I believe jazz is the same as other forms, such as Western classical forms are received. It will occupy the position that it ought to occupy.

AAJ: It sounds like South Africa has adopted jazz in various hybrid forms that are popular, whereas in this country it tends to stay separate. It's something special, it's something different.

ZN: Something will happen in the near future. I think this progress between South Africa and the US will bear some results in the near future. And that will come out of collaborations with the musicians over there and here. I feel that coming. We have successfully collaborated in Europe, but I think it's changing now, it's going to the US. I work on this movement. I also believe that we can add value to jazz. The level of technique and other assets within jazz that have been established in the US are going to have to move our music forward.

This interaction is necessary in the 21st century now—to redefine the art form and bring it back to its context. It becomes the music of the people again! At some point it has really gone out to another domain, where it addresses an intellectual aspect. So it needs to be brought back now into the domain where the folks can enjoy it. This music is supposed to be that. All music is folk music! [laughs] We have to become folk music once again, in order to move forward. Yeah.

It can as well become a serious business now, with the recording industry booming. That has always been there from the very beginning of it. And now with the academic institutions and all the other support systems in place, it should really move. We shouldn't be complaining. Especially now within the context of globalization. I read a certain article... why is it that European musicians are not looking to American jazz for inspiration, and the whole attention there has been paid to so-called "world music"? You know, what music is "world music"? We're all operating within this world! So I think the answer for that is to stay close to the practitioners in the US and work on the music. So that again the music can have all of those elements that moved the people in the beginning. Yeah. And the closer it stays to the folk, the more expressive it remains.

AAJ: How has the music changed since 1994 and the decolonization of South Africa (to use your phrase)? Did it change freedom to make music or listen to music?

ZN: Generally, yes. What is happening now is people are exposed to a lot of resources. Let's take for instance a new genre of music which is an equivalent of hip-hop in the States—it's called kwaito here. Younger musicians are able to be signed by record companies in no time and make success out of it. They have their own labels and get rich. I applaud that, you know, it's empowerment. People are getting empowered.

On the other hand, creative music is suffering, because of this new dispensation that people are "free." I think people have to look for real freedom—the one that is not going to be given to them. And that's where the challenge comes. Because again... acquisition of things, amassing wealth, information can also cause stagnation based on complacency. So that hand up for people to discover themselves as a people is now being overwhelmed by what people can get—which is available already.

And I think the same thing in the States, too, you know. People before used to really play in such a deep way that you could feel that they wanted to realize themselves as people. But also now that most of the music is coming out of music schools, there isn't that edge to it. I think we're going to see that in South Africa. Already we are seeing it. There's not many of us who are practicing in this genre. What you tend to see at the so-called jazz festivals is a mixture of everything. So there isn't a specific jazz movement, and I think that can come about again by this interaction with the musicians there [in the States]. There are still great figures there. By just coming out here and do things, we'll restore that. That's necessary.

AAJ: So the changes are not necessarily positive for the music that you love and support.

ZN: Spiritually speaking, not just about the music, as I said... that goes across as effects on language. As well as now people are trading. People are busy. You know, translations are made. And English is the dominant language. Even at schools, people don't think there is a great need to keep up indigenous languages. The radio stations, also, if you listen to the DJs, how they speak... people are losing a lot of things because of this.

4. Ingoma: Music, Dance, and Healing

AAJ: I'm curious to hear how you felt playing at Mandela's inauguration, leading the drummers. What did that mean for you?

ZN: What I saw there was the possibility of creating a new orchestra. And we know where to go to create that more. Recently I visited East Africa. I came across orchestras—large orchestras—using all these old instruments in Zanzibar. They come out of a very interesting tradition. The confrontation between Egyptians, Persia, India. And what came out of that is amazing, with the African sensibility that has been retained. It's very unique. So that inauguration thing we did with Mandela has allowed me to see things in a much broader perspective. I was not only seeing a new South Africa, I'm seeing an orchestra of the continent.

If you look at the title on the Zimphonic Suites called "Ingoma Ya Kwantu," that's what it means: the music of the continent. But again that goes beyond the issue of the language. We emphasize the language. Kwantu comes from Ubuntu ("humanity"), you know. Umtu means "creation." We are trying to bring back that concept.

The challenges that are facing the country as well as the continent... renaming this country and this entire continent so it can really revelate in a positive way within its inhabitants. Because, again, language is like music. If you use certain sounds, certain pitches and nuances to evoke certain things, you may get a negative or positive result, depending on the intention behind the one who invokes all of these things. So again, careful usage of language carried by sound is necessary. We have a long way to go.

I think the issues that artists should address are how can we contribute to the political. I know they are stuck, they are struggling, trying to find ways to bring about a certain identity. But we also do know that the tendency of the political end is not to consult the artists. I say again on the album that artists are never really entertainers—they are creative thinkers! You see? And I said in terms of old and new, but they always had musicians there to inspire them, to guide the activities. But modern society does not respect that any more. I think we have ways through sound to understand just this continent, what it means.

You should backtrack and go to the album called Ingoma. You know that the whole continent understands music as Ingoma? And even understands certain instruments, and certain dances, as Ingoma? The whole concept of Ingoma means healing. And that is the true purpose of music. So we are looking forward to this celebration, so that we can quickly bring these concepts into place so that they can be implemented, and they can all become relevant within this change... where we are together with politicians, and everybody is interested in working with people who are creative. In the sense of understanding who they are, and wish to share with others. And that is the role of the true artist.

AAJ: That's a level of purity. Some artists believe that they are entertainers. And that is part of it.

ZN: [laughs] Business, you know.

AAJ: But I think there's an African concept of music that relates to the drum, and dance, and community, and ritual.

ZN: Yes, all of that is highly integrated.

AAJ: Americans don't always appreciate that. The idea of dance, for example, is not the same. The other thing is that Americans view Africa as one continent, and one people. I know that was the idea you were trying to bring out with Ingoma... but at the same time, there's a lot of differences between places in Africa, with culture and music and people.

ZN: Actually I have seen more similarities than differences, in many ways. And as I say this can be achieved in no time, if it is supported. But that's why we should create that kind of space for these things to be discussed and be demonstrated. Coltrane did it. Coltrane did it for us. I'm so honored... I'm going to Vienna in April to share a bill with Pharoah Sanders. You see, again, if our people were so hip to these things, they would invite people like Pharoah—who was a disciple of Coltrane—to carry on that tradition. I want to go there and benefit for myself, but I have no forum to share that with people. Can you see?

I can tell you, a lot of people don't even know who Pharoah is! An opportunity for me to be on the same bill with Pharoah should inspire everybody around us to come and see what mileage can we get out of that. In terms of what Pharoah stands for, as a Coltrane disciple. Pharoah has that ability to complete what Trane started, because he has shared that with him. But we need creative people to see that, and to think about how can we bring the music home? And again: how can we sustain that which has been started in the US?

5. Oneness Through Sound and Breath

AAJ: How many foreign musicians come to South Africa?

ZN: Well, quite a few. The North Sea Festival is happening here now. There's the Netherlands one, but this is in Cape Town and it's still called the North Sea Jazz Festival. It's basically the same thing, just transposed here. There are a lot of musicians who are associated with certain record companies. It's a serious network... it's not easy to infiltrate, you know. Hence, you cannot get all of these people I'm talking about.

Dewey Redman was here. He came to perform at the festival. But again, it will take visionaries to see that. Dewey Redman represents a very serious school: Ornette Coleman, the so-called "free" music based on the harmolodic theory of Ornette Coleman. And he has the ability to share and demonstrate that. So Dewey Redman's stay here could have been extended. He could have been taken around to the academic institutions, to the Departments of Arts and Sciences, you know. And he should be honored as an innovator of that particular school. You see?

But normally promoters are not visionaries. [laughs] There's a certain thing that they do. We respect that. They should do that. But again, it's for the people within the government to see and understand this is how you prepare. We have our people there who are ready. They are ready to come. They are dying to come and share what they have achieved with us. But also we have the context for it. We should have got the new techniques to develop that, but we had a much stronger context here—the whole thing. So we need each other badly. And soon. And I think when festivals and magazines are dealing with the music, it's the best way for this music to be communicated and transported... across the Atlantic.

AAJ: It's surprising how much the jazz in South Africa has in common with the music in this country and in Europe. I'm not sure if it's access—people have heard of Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, but that's kind of the end. I hope we can open some new doors.

ZN: In the end we're all striving for oneness. We have been taught to understand the differences and parallels, but I am really gravitating towards that oneness. And it can be achieved. And then we can bring about some kind of harmony or unison in this world.

AAJ: You've gone on the record about returning the names of places to their native forms. What does that mean?

ZN: See, I told you in the beginning that music with us was never out of context. There's a music for childbirth, and there's a ceremony that goes with it when you name that child after certain things. It's very important. The person who names the child has to be very inspired. There's an old African proverb. It says that when your wife is pregnant for nine months, the man has to discipline himself and spend the most time in solitude. While the wife is going through pregnancy for nine months, also for nine months he has to go through that process of looking for the right name. You see? He has to see inside for what inspires him. It's a very serious thing. Because with a name you can corrupt your own child, or you can affect him or her to become a person of character. So it's a very serious thing. It doesn't just come out of nowhere. It has to come from inspiration. That kind of inspiration is another thing that people have forgotten in modern society.

Places now are named after heroes, you know, after men... which is right, that has a place. [laughs] But when you really delve deep into the mysticism of sound, then you take care how you utilize sound. Sound is very important in order for them to really come up with a name that will liberate the people from all of these insults that were hurled at them and that they have internalized. They have to utilize sound. They have to tune the people to another pitch now where they can transcend all of these things that they have hated and been told, you know.

Mad people can achieve that when a guy goes crazy. That's what happens. He goes through that process. It gets tuned to another pitch. That's where he loses himself. He can go naked [laughs] because he's completely not aware of that. He speaks different. So we are such a traumatized people... people in the world. All of us! You see, I am not talking about Africa only. I'm talking about the world. The so-called "developed" countries... same thing. Through the process of education and religion, people have been highly traumatized. So we need to use the same process. Sound, sound, sound. Unfortunately in the modern day it is looked at as music and styles. It has been lowered to that level.

It will need serious, serious mystics—serious practitioners of music—to retune the people to their original pitches. That's how naming a country, a continent, this world... Automatically, once they go back to their original tune, they will be able to affect their surroundings and their environment. And that's how the real vibration will come back. On its own. Indians have been doing it as Om in the beginning. I made a code of it in that Ingoma thing. Ingoma, the very same thing, the very same word, is about that tradition about the creation. The Indians call it Om—we call it Ingoma. You see?

So I don't think it will come from the politicians. It will come from the inspired people. People who are prepared to sacrifice, people who are prepared to go into solitude. People who are prepared to fast and deny themselves in order to be elevated in order to really receive that. And can you believe that there are people who are like that in this country? There are! And I sat at their seat, and I asked them about the science of sound and of music. They explained to me that it is not what we hear, what we see at the moment—it's beyond that. And they get frustrated that less and less attention is paid to the arts. That's one thing I admire about the States—whatever happens there—and Europe, of course, even greater. The understanding of the arts. We lack that.

AAJ: Is that high culture?

ZN: It's not about high culture. All of creation is about sound. You operate by the law of sound, of music. Your heart beat—your pulse—that's what we are. It's our nature. But yet we are so far removed from it. You can be choked for two minutes, and you will die if you are denied oxygen. We look at that as sound: breath. Because when you breathe you are breathing in a second pitch. There is a tune to it. But we are too busy with our activities of the world and we don't hear it. We need to be reminded about meditation, and all these things have been turned into esoteric stuff. All of these things. To find silence, people have to pay money to go learn to meditate and do yoga and all of these things that we had naturally. Yeah. So all of it is based on that.

Sufism truly is all about breath, it's not about music. And all of it will come from that: rhythm, pitch. But again we've been educated away from this. And that's why some times I refuse to talk about music, whether the music is man's imposition on sound... he came up with all of these things: the chords and the scales and everything. And now we're confused. So we need to go back to Ingoma. That's what it's all about.

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6. The New Sound Order

AAJ: I'm curious how you decided to make these records with the Norwegian musicians (San, Ingoma, and Zimology). Was it through a cultural exchange program, or how did that get started?

ZN: Good question. The Europeans took the initiative. Their Prime Minister was coming out here on a state visit. These people still keep their old traditions, where a king will travel in an entourage. And in that entourage are musicians. They haven't forsaken that. So when we were told of this, they sent out a young man who was doing his thesis on South African music to see if he could find musicians they could comfortably work with. He came up with Norwegian musicians. So this guy came around and interviewed a lot of people and he chose me. With him he brought a bassist and a drummer. And I brought a pianist.

So we met for the first time at Cape Town, at the airport. And from that, where we first met, we were gigging that evening! It was a success. The chemistry was so high that we decided to keep it. When we requested that the Norwegian government support that, and they brought us over to Norway. And we continued that relationship. Now we have been going on for years. They have assisted me in doing my own things, as you can see on the personnel.

But now I would like for them to become part of this Ingoma. That will become not an orchestra of the continent, but an orchestra of humanity. Those who are like-hearted and like-minded, those who desire peace and freedom, are welcome. They can find a place anywhere in the world.

We need to create a new orchestra of clear thinkers—people who are going to put out good energy there. Not based on the tradition and all that, but based on the sound of the music. That is the ultimate connection with the Norwegians. And also we are doing things with Swedish musicians, with a drummer from Iraq and a drummer from India. I think that is going to be a good relationship. They are inviting some avant-garde players... You know the trombone player Albert Mangelsdorff? And Eberhard Weber? I'm looking forward to that... something I'm doing in October. So I can see where this whole thing is getting to.

Already I have identified from an orchestra in Zanzibar that world music is based on different theories. Because they're close to Egypt, and we've always been interested in Egypt. All of us in this continent have to understand Egypt and all of these civilizations. So I think we're on to something here. The nucleus of it is already on the continent. And it will introduce a new sound when it comes to orchestral writing, or orchestration. I think it will inject some kind of new energy. Not to take away from the tradition of Mozart, Handel, and those people, but it will enhance that. Once all of these people are combined we are looking at something very dynamic.

So we need the new and old. We need the contemporary orchestra and we need the very very old. All of these traditions will be combined to achieve what we are looking at: the New Sound Order. [laughs]

AAJ: It's interesting that you talk about orchestration and European musicians. Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood of Breath had something really unique and new to say within that context. He brought together some sort of formal structure with total freedom, in a way. His big band was allowed to go where it needed to go.

ZN: A lot of things, like the Brotherhood of Breath... I am told... they used to tell me that when those cats landed in Europe—the sextet became a quintet when the tenor player died—they changed the scene in the UK. It was catching on, playing that way. People were playing straight, but these guys were playing inside/outside. And the people who understood that...

Well, again, Ornette [Coleman] and Don Cherry were going through London. They had Mongezi Feza on cornet and Dudu [Pukwana] on alto. And Don Cherry sounded like Mongezi—the same thing with Dudu and Ornette. They went mad! They said, "where are you from?" They didn't delay—they went into the studio the next day...these guys, they were never playing anywhere. So, it's the same thing I was talking about... what we need to rediscover.

AAJ: I hope it works. I hope you make those connections.

ZN: Again, this should be initiated by the government. It has to understand these things. Already we had our own orchestra here. That is not functional—they have stopped funding it. And the question is: what is it that they are going to fund now? Because they said that this orchestra is not reflecting the changes in the country. Why fund it? Because they are not creative people, they don't know how to fund.

We are here. We can be commissioned. Instead, we have to go and start material with our own funds so we can do this, so we can make a contribution to a growing country. To a dying continent. To a dying world. See, the world has used all of the status quo to mess up people—that's the problem. We have to find ways. It's a big problem, my brother. We have been made to believe that the problem is with Africa and all of this nonsense. The problem is with humankind, forever you will find this problem. All over, and difficult.

AAJ: I think you have a particularly difficult viewpoint, from the standpoint of the history of apartheid and the colonization of South Africa. That's a very heavy weight. It will take a long, long time for South Africa to lose that weight. It takes time. It's taken us a long time here.

ZN: You see, I'm also trying to move away from this kind of issue that is taught based on our history of slavery and all of it. It has a place. I understand and I can appreciate that. But that shouldn't blind us to modern slavery that is taking place right now. We have to address that to deal with it. And as I say, we are affected in many ways—most of South Africans. We have to deal with it. Because history can continue to divide us. You say, "you have a different history with slavery and all of that." But we have slavery going on right now! Other people say that "I and ours enslaved you and yours"—not knowing that we are all being enslaved right now. It's a problem. We have to find a way to elevate the arts and go through this lifetime and honor this.

We have a very very energetic personality in New York. And he's planning to do something substantial about it. My interests are to really work a lot in the States with musicians who have the same vision. And they are capable. Great composers, great arrangers who have been trained in both traditions—Western and African. We're talking about the great Yusef Lateef—who has written for orchestra, and he studied in Ghana and West Africa for years. We're talking about Randy Weston here. A lot of people who are capable.

I'm really marveling at what Wynton [Marsalis] is doing with the Lincoln Center. I wish we had a platform like that, my goodness, to address this in our small way. Government, again, should create such things.

AAJ: Wynton is quite controversial here.

ZN: We understand, we understand. But at least something is happening. It may be controversy, but something is happening. And it's not for wealth—it's for the betterment of everybody. He cannot hurt people that much. It may be controversial, but it's happening.

AAJ: I think that if you are a young musician in this country and you want to find opportunities, you usually go to New York.

ZN: Right. You have some good things happening in Chicago, though. Interesting music there.

AAJ: Yes. And historically, too. Chicago has been a great place for the music.

ZN: Yeah. That gave birth to the whole AACM movement. I managed to make contact with those folks there. And these are things that we need to work on, you know?

We managed to make a contact in the UK through the Brotherhood of Breath—Chris McGregor's movement. So yeah, we now have all these contacts we want to make to understand. We have to go out there to get that book, the Brotherhood of Breath book. Because that was our legacy. So I did a whole tour there with British musicians who had lived and played with those musicians, so we got a history from them. We got the book back home. And I'm told John Tchicai is now in LA, in California. We need to get in touch with him. All of this will be brought together and we can continue, now that we have the freedom to tap into this legacy.

That's what our independence means to me: that I can move freely and interact with the people I want to interact with in order to understand my legacy. I'm just taking advantage of it.

7. (Re)Inaugurating Drums, Dance, and Song

AAJ: Speaking of independence, let's go back to the inauguration. You led a group of drummers?

ZN: We had drummers and dancers. A troupe made of a hundred people: drummers, singers, and dancers. I conceptualized the whole thing. And I got the principles from every section. Drummers—I would choose in principle someone who understood the tradition very well. And they would lead that section. At that time I was also working with drummers, people who used to visit the country. The djembe, a highly refined drum sound of this continent—it has the widest range you can think of! So he'll be invited to lead that section when it comes to the instrumentation of that orchestra.

AAJ: How did you come to play this role?

ZN: At first they wanted a band. And I said to them: "What's going to happen to the traditional people? How are we going to tap into that?" There's about twelve different ethnic groups in South Africa. That became a problem. That is why we ended up with a hundred people.

I said that every ethnic group should bring their own drums, their own dancers, and their own song. And then we will combine that into a very very colorful thing. That is where we are now—trying to tap into that. I had never seen anything like that. Women playing drums... drums I'd never seen before. It's close to us! We were ignorant! We didn't know what we were dealing with. It was a serious education for us. So there is so much happening in this country that you won't believe. The kind of sounds I'd never heard before. Just imagine that now—if that gets notated properly—how it can advance so-called "jazz" theories, rhythmically and harmonically speaking.

AAJ: The drums are an obvious point for rhythm.

ZN: And dance! Dance is something! That's why you have to see dance. You see, that's why you have to see the whole thing in context: you have to see the drummers, the dancers, and the song. Then you understand that we're dealing with totality.

AAJ: It's too bad you don't have a recording of that.

ZN: That's a pity. They should have documented that. But, as I said, it can be recreated. It can be.

So we have a lot of work to do. But we're trying not to complain and do what we can do in our own small capacity. Personally, I would like to be dealing with that right now, but I don't have the right infrastructure or facility to do that. So with all of this constraint, I ended up working from the nucleus of a quartet. What can I do? I cannot do much. People are not prepared to lay down money for arrangements. More time in the studio, you know. Concerts. That is the issue with record companies that they have to start understanding: we wish to participate within the so-called "African Renaissance" context.

Zim Ngqawana Discography:

San, San Song (Sheer Sound, 1996). Zim Ngqawana (s, fl), Bjorn Ole Solberg (as,ts), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (b), Andile Yenana (p), Paal Nilssen-Love (d).

Zim Ngqawana, Zimology (Sheer Sound, 1998). With Andile Yenana (p), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (b), Paal Nilssen Love (d).

Zim Ngqawana, Ingoma (Sheer Sound, 1999). With Andile Yenana (p/v), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (b), Paal Nilssen Love (d), Lefifi Tladii (poetry/art/chorus), Dumakude Msuthwana (tpt/chorus), Zim Ngqawana Jr. (chorus).

Zim Ngqawana, Zimphonic Suites (Sheer Sound, 2001). With Andile Yenana (p/v), Herbie Tsoaeli (b/v), Kevin Gibson (d).


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