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Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity

By Published: May 12, 2011
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.

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