Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Cape Town's jazz festival, as is the trend these days, extends to many genres outside what is usually appreciated as jazz. Relatively mainstream instrumentalists like Yellowjackets and Dave Holland are matched by Afro-pop divas Suthukazi Arosi and Cesaria Evora, local heroes Johnny Clegg and Mahotella Queens, and youthful pop stars 340ml and Pitch Black Afro. Whatever your take on the global music scene, warm voices and propulsive rhythms are the heart of the action here.
A bit of history: the CTIJF, now in its sixth year, used to be called the North Sea Jazz Festival due to its affiliation with the one in the Netherlands. But, as we have been reminded time and time again, the event is now "proudly South African," under new management, and stronger than ever. Click on the image above to see the full- size program.
Sponsors include the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC, whose sports programs have faithfully put me to bed and woken me up); South African Airways (whose jets take me everywhere); Standard Bank; and mobile telecommunications company MTN. All sorts of other local organizations play a part in making this event independent and secure. ESP Afrika (headed by the un-CEO-like Rashid Lombard) takes care of everything behind the scenes, and except for a few video cameramen who have a bad habit of standing in front of performers, they've done their job here spectacularly.
It's sort of strange to experience a jazz festival in a convention center. (This particular one is enormous, and I'm told it's booked through 2007. Cape Town has apparently proven itself an attractive destination for the world at large.) Many thousands of people home in on the same building, music pouring out of each door along the way. Enormous cavernous spaces like Kippie's place a huge distance between listeners who want to sit down and performers on stage. (You can stand up front if you want, which is what I did.) Go to Rosie's or Moses Molelekwa Stages instead if you want to have a more intimate experience.
The planners had these things in mind when they decided who would perform where: when the music is made to move feet, space up front is available. When it's more for the head, you can usually sit and get comfortable. The sound varies from location to location, too, with volume and balance adjusted as appropriate for the musical setting. Certain performers, like Dave Holland, came through with crystalline clarity; only one, Suthukazi Arosi, really screwed things up, blasting nasty treble into my eardrums until I hastily ripped up a 10 rand note to crumple it into temporary ear plugs. But more on that later...
Audience members seem to appreciate the attention to detail, which includes live big-screen video closeups at Kippie's, for example. I've never seen such a pleasant bunch of people gather to enjoy musicwhatever the style.
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Since half the artists at the CTIJF are African, it seemed appropriate that Tsepo "The Village Pope" Tshola, born in Lesotho, would get the action going on Kippie's Stage by greeting the audience in eight or ten different local languages. People shouted back (many of these salutations have a specific response in kind) and it became very clear that many colors of the Rainbow Nation were on hand. The moment provided a tangible reminder that people of vastly different cultures and backgrounds had come together for this musicand that's as good an excuse as any, as far as I'm concerned.
A veteran of the '80s Afrobeat group Sankomata, Tsepo Tshola has been around the block. Recently coming clean after years of addiction, he released A New Dawn with a message of recovery, renaissance, and celebration. Like much popular music in South Africa today, his current group bases its sound in the deep roots of gospel, with rich, resonant vocal harmonies as a launching pad for messages rich in emotion. His show started with a churchy keyboard solo, and only after everyone else had assembled on stage did Tshola personally step forward in song.
The Pope's definitely into sharing space, allowing his much younger mates plenty of opportunity to solo. Trumpeter Philpot Nqikela took some sweet ones, hovering in middle and lower registers and preferring a quiet, softspoken approach to complement the soulful vibe. Unfortunately the mix was pretty poor (horns down, keys up, vocals buried) and as a consequence the material lost some shine and clarity. But that didn't interfere one bit with the audience singing along, clearly well aware of the lyrics and enthusiastic to join their man on stage. You have to remember that while this event attracts a lot of international visitors, the locals make up most of those present, and this guy is pretty well known here.
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Having heard Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef's mesmerizing Digital Prophesy (Enja, 2004), I was curious to see how he would put together his electronic compositions in live performance. So I cut out of Tsepo Tshola's show and headed over to the Bass line Stage, an aptly named place where lower frequencies are boosted to levels where they make your chest vibrate and hum with every note. (That's good.) Bass line hosted high-powered, electric, youth-oriented acts, as opposed to the more traditional acoustic material predominant elsewhere.
Youssef started his show with a prolonged melismatic vocal solo, then brought in guitarist Eivind Aarset, who sat in front of a massive collection of electronics connected by a spaghetti of wires, periodically leaning over to twist or tweak something. Eventually drummer Rune Arnesen and bassist Audun Arlien joined in. These three Norwegians are all very capable musicians, attuned to the altered realities of electronic music and aware of the need to balance the expansive potential of electronic composition with in-the- moment spontaneity only available through live interaction. Their countryman Bugge Wesseltoft, who appeared on Digital Prophecy, was not present.
Most of the people who came to see Dhafer Youssef weren't expecting to see him backed by a bunch of Norwegians, and when he introduced his mates and stated their origins, heads rose to inspect them more carefully. Then, when prompted by an audience member, he said his own name. Prompted again, simply "Africa." Massive cheers all around. Then right back into Youssef's personal brand of spiritually aware improvised electronica.
Arnesen used brushes to complement the subtle textures of the music, coaxing a range of colors from his cymbals and finding unexpected subtlety in his snare. It wasn't clear what exactly he was doing with the Powerbook tucked away below his drum set, but the analog motion of hands and feet brought the rhythms, often of the square, shifty North African type, to vibrant life.
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