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Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity

By Published: May 12, 2011
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.

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