Cape Town Jazz Festival 2012

Cape Town Jazz Festival 2012
John Kelman By

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Cape Town Jazz Festival
Cape Town, South Africa
March 30-31, 2012
An invite to cover the 13th annual Cape Town Jazz Festival would have been reason enough to travel over 8,000 miles to South Africa. But when the invite, from South Africa Tourism, stretched to an expansive ten-day trip—beginning in Johannesburg, continuing on to Cape Town and ending at the lovely Lukimbi Lodge in Kruger National Park for two days of safari—it became an absolutely irresistible opportunity. Add to that luxury accommodations for an intimate group of just four North American journalists, fine dining, a tour itinerary that made this feel more vacation than work and, finally, the outstanding service of a business class return trip from Johannesburg to Washington, thanks to South African Airways that, at over eighteen hours, was a welcome way to comfortably end a bursting- at-the-seams itinerary, and SA Tourism's invite seemed destined to become the trip of a lifetime.

And it was. Beyond the music, beyond the gorgeous locales and beyond the close bond that quickly developed amongst the group, the itinerary combined a chance to experience South Africa's stunning natural beauty with an opportunity to explore a country still in transition. For four North Americans whose previous knowledge of the nation's history- -and, in particular, the impact of apartheid, thankfully, eighteen years gone now—came from books, newspapers, television and film, it was a rare opportunity to actually experience and feel apartheid's lasting impact on a country whose response to its inhumane and inhuman racial division has largely been nothing short of inspirational. Yes, there's still plenty of work to do and plenty of problems to solve—AIDS, unemployment, education and, as the result of the apartheid years, a knee-jerk resistance, by some, to authority in the least expected places are but a few of the challenges a post- apartheid South Africa still faces—but seeing what has been done in just eighteen years is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

Chapter Index
A Country in Transition
The Most Beautiful Country on Earth
Kruger National Park
Cape Town Jazz Festival

A Country in Transition

Take the group's tour guide for the first two days, spent in Johannesburg, which included a visit to Lesedi (billed as "Cultural Experience South Africa," but ultimately an informative but rather touristy place to learn about the various tribes in the country's history), the Apartheid Museum (a powerful place that brought the outrage that was apartheid home to everyone in the group), Alexandra (to visit Nelson Mandela's modest first home when he moved to the city), and Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Memorial (commemorating a 13 year-old boy who, shot and killed during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, was memorialized in an iconic image that remains affecting to this day). Joe Motsogi was imprisoned for nine months during apartheid under the regime's "no charge" law that permitted the imprisonment and torture of black people, but was ultimately released because the authorities were unable to come up with any charges that fit.

Most surprising, given what he went through, were his calm, warm and positive personality, and an uncanny ability to rapid-fire cite a wealth of informative statistics, as well as his clear connection to the community, as he seemed to know someone everywhere the group went. And while he was quick to point out that Soweto's reputation for crime has significantly improved, Motsogi also summed up at least a portion of that reputation succinctly, saying "Hungry stomach knows no law." Motsogi's positive outlook and seemingly unshakable spirit—a remarkable response to spending the majority of his life under apartheid—seemed echoed by everyone met during the course of the trip.

Motsogi's remarkable spirit was also in evidence when the tour moved on to Cape Town for six days, culminating in the Cape Town Jazz Festival. A trip to Robben Island early on the stay- -home of the maximum security facility that housed Mandela for much of the 28 years he spent imprisoned—brought things home on a very personal level, as the group was taken through the prison by Vusumzi Mcongo—himself, a one-time prisoner on the island. It was almost unbelievable that there was no protein in the prisoners' diet (oatmeal, maize, cornmeal and coffee, all using the sea water around the island, with one teaspoon of sugar per day); incredulous that they spent their first days crammed into a single room with up to fifty others, and against whom the prison's attack dogs were sicced each evening, seemingly for nothing more than to engender fear and for the entertainment of the guards; and beyond outrageous to discover that these political activists were actually treated far worse than the rapists and killers housed elsewhere on the island, in a medium security jail with better facilities, better food and better overall treatment.

There were few dry eyes left by the end of a tour where small cells, inhumane conditions and the regime's relentless attempts to squash the spirit of these men seemed to hover in the air nearly two decades later—men imprisoned only because they were fighting for basic human rights in a country that, long considered the "Cradle of Humankind World," was theirs long before the Dutch, the English and others came to exploit its natural resources of gold and diamonds. But meeting a man like Mcongo—who, despite it all, has emerged from the experience strong, proud and independent—and to hear of prisoners who, while working in a limestone quarry where the bright sun actually damaged their eyes (Mandela had eye surgery not long after his release), supported each other in times of despair and, rather than plotting escape (actively discouraged by their leaders), spent their time strategizing the overthrow of apartheid, was a life-changing experience. That these prisoners could actually see Cape Town and the stunning Table Mountain in the near distance was almost torture in itself: freedom so near, yet so very far away.

The inhumanities levied upon native South Africans during apartheid were countless—and, in some cases, evilly insidious. Blacks were sometimes paid half their wages in cash, half in a cheap alcohol, the intent being to diminish protest and dissent by keeping them in drink. And dissention was rewarded with punishment most severe. When Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, led an intended peaceful protest against Apartheid's Pass Law—requiring blacks to carry a pass that, if found without it, would result in either a fine beyond the reach of most or six months in prison—the response was a police action where 180 black South Africans were wounded and 69 killed, ultimately known as the Sharpeville Massacre. He was sent to Robben Island, where he was kept in solitary confinement in a private hut on the grounds of the prison's dogs, later released to house arrest in Kimberley after he became ill and the authorities did not want him to die a martyr on the island. Finally passing in 1978, appeals to allow him freedom of movement on humanitarian grounds towards the end of his illness and his life were refused indefinitely.

The Most Beautiful Country on Earth

But eighteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is a changed country, with growth visible on all fronts. With tourism a natural way to bring money into the economy, SA Tourism's trip was certainly a chance to experience the country and appreciate, in just a few short days, why they say that those who visit South Africa invariably return, many looking for real estate in order to either relocate or have a vacation home. Stays in the Da Vinci Hotel in Johannesburg and the Table Bay and Westin Hotels in Cape Town were all lovely, with a full range of services, easy access to shopping and restaurants that capitalized on the fine local food sources: plentiful fish, shellfish and squid, and game animals like kudu, springbok and warthog. Creative fusion restaurants like Moyo in Johannesburg, the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, just outside of Cape Town, and the Delaire Graff Estate—also a working vineyard near Stellenbosch, one of the world's leading wine destinations—gave the group a chance to experience some of the country's finer dining, while a night off in Cape Town gave most an opportunity to eat more economically (but just as well), in a large indoor shopping mall along the waterfront.

And if that weren't enough, a trip up Table Mountain—one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and rightfully so, for its stunning views and the remarkable "Table Cloth" that, when the temperatures are right, finds air rushing up one side, cooling into white cloud at the top and then breaking up as it flows down the other side—led to a driving trip along the Cape Peninsula to Cape of Good Hope (where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet), but only after a lunchtime stop at Boulders Beach, home of South Africa's "paradoxical penguins," the only species of bird living in a warm climate. A surprised helicopter ride also provided tremendous aerial views of Cape Town and the Peninsula, all supporting SA Tourism's assertion that South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth.

Kruger National Park

And when the Jazz Festival was over, after two days of intense activity with daytime press conferences and night-time performances, the trip wound down with a trip north-east to Kruger National Park, where a stay at the Lukimbi Lodge, one walking safari and four game drives led to some very close encounters with everything from lions, leopards, elephants and hippopotamuses to rhinoceroses, zebras, impalas and, on the way to the lodge, a rare view of two male kudu duking it out in the middle of the road. But it wasn't all big game: along the way, there were crocodiles, dung beetles, golden orb spiders, coqui francolin birds, vultures, hawks, giant snails and tortoises. Leaving the lodge to fly home on April 2, the van encountered giraffes and, later, elephants in the middle of the road. When there's an elephant in the middle of the road, the only thing to do is: wait.

If cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg leave the impression that man has conquered South Africa, one need only look at the surrounding landscape—some of it, like Table Mountain and Cape of Good Hope, easily accessible via cable cars and funiculars, but elsewhere mountains that have no easy ingress. Spending just two days in the wild—not unlike a 2011 trip to Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle—it becomes quickly clear that nobody owns this land, and that we're all guests there. And that's exactly as it should be.

Cape Town Jazz Festival

In a country in transition, how does a festival that began as an offshoot of Rotterdam's North Sea Jazz Festival, but was rebranded Cape Town Jazz Festival a few years ago, fare?

Overall, very well. Two days of press conferences from mid-morning to early afternoon gave a surprisingly large and knowledgeable contingent of media representatives a chance to ask questions of some of the festival's bigger stars. Bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Donald Harrison and drummer Lenny White (appearing as The Trio) bantered the question of how jazz can move forward in a time when the industry has changed significantly and the internet has altered the way people connect to music, with a combination of elucidation and even mild annoyance; while bassist Marcus Miller suggested, 25 years after the release of trumpeter Miles Davis' Tutu (Warner Bros, 1985) that were it recorded today, with technology no longer cutting edge and available everywhere, it would most likely be an acoustic album, more about the playing than the underlying technology that drove the original, saying "The thing now, for real musicians, is to show what real musicians are all about."

New South African star Zahara—a young woman who has been compared to people like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, who is loosely described as "Afrosoul," and whose debut, Loliwe (CCP/EMI, 2011), sold over 100,000 copies in South Africa in its first 17 days of release, and has since sold over 350,000 in the last half year—spoke of growing up in the impoverished Eastern Cape, where she wrote and played her music , two years before recording it, "for my church and for my community." Articulate and surprisingly grounded, considering her virtually overnight success, she's been nominated for ten SAMAs (South African Music Awards), and when asked how her success has affected her, she said, simply, that "if a performance goes wrong, it goes wrong," while extrapolating on a question about her single status, "If love comes, it comes."

Lindiwe Suttle—once (and obviously) a fashion model who became makeup artist on a series of Hollywood movies—came from a mixed background, with a South African mother (a mix of Swahili and colored) and American father, but was raised as South African, and spoke of her background with the kind of matter-of-fact acceptance that is another sign of the new South Africa; where an assimilation that still allows for retention of cultural definers should be a model for multiculturalism everywhere.

But the person everyone was waiting for—and not just the journalists, based on the jam-packed attendance of his "Tribute to Mama Afrika" performance later on the second night of the festival—was trumpeter/singer/South African icon Hugh Masekela. Turning 72 just a few days after his March 31 performance, in close quarters Masekela was a commanding presence, and while his appearance at the press conference was delayed, delayed and then delayed some more, when he finally arrived he more than made up for it with a personable presence, taking the time after his timeslot to pose for photos with fans— and with Zahara, bringing together two stars, two generations apart. Whether Zahara will ultimately enjoy the longevity and influence of Masekela is still a long way from being determined, but based on Loliwe, her Cape Town performance and her mature, thoughtful outlook, she certainly has a chance.

Like North Sea Jazz, Cape Town Jazz Festival has a number of shows staggered in five venues situated in the Cape Town International Conference Centre—forty shows in two evenings and thirteen hours—and if the roster was impressive, the one complaint was that, organizationally, the festival has some work to do. Getting around between the venues was difficult despite their close proximity—a combination of security that, at times, appeared excessive (having to clear through not one, not two, but three layers of security to get into the press room, for example) and the sheer number of people in the venues and the spaces in between. The Westin hotel, where the SA Tourism group was staying, was literally across the street, but with security cordons creating a maze for ingress and egress to the festival grounds, it was harder than it might have seemed necessary to get from one to the other.

That said, while the security may have seemed excessive to journalists used to festivals in North America and Europe, discussions with South African photographer Niklas Zimmer, while waiting to get into the scrum pit to shoot Masekela, provided some clarity. The festival sold out months in advance, and while ticket prices might seem cheap—30 Rand ($3.75) for a single show; 400 Rand ($50) for a day pass and 550 Rand ($69) for a weekend pass—the salary of the average South African renders these prices beyond their reach. While the vibe inside the festival is one of excitement, Zimmer indicated that there is some anger at the festival being beyond the reach of the average South African, making the security cordons absolutely necessary. How the festival can manage this and ultimately change it is a challenge that's inextricably linked to South Africa still being a work in progress.

Organizational issues aside, however, the festival had a hard-working (sometimes overworked) staff that did its best to manage what, at times, felt very much like barely controlled chaos. And if some of the rules for media seemed excessive— photographers were not allowed into scrum pits until the 15 minute shooting period began, unlike most festivals that allow them to enter in advance—it became clear why when, at the end of the shooting period for Masekela, far too many photographers ignored the festival crew and continued to shoot, even as a dozen or more festival crew had to literally push the gaggle of photographers out of the scrum pit. For a festival to run smoothly, everyone has to follow the rules, and if that isn't happening, then it's no surprise that those rules are considerably tighter than at most festivals. And given that media is treated very well—the press room, a large place ideal for hanging and meeting others, provided food and drink, free of charge, throughout the festival—it would seem incumbent upon media to respect the rules that have been made to ensure everyone gets what they want without getting in the way of why everyone was there: the music.

And the music was, for the most part, tremendous. A quick look at Zamajobe, another rising star on the Afro Pop scene, but with a stronger jazz leaning on her recent recording, Ndoni Yamanzi (Giant Steps/Sony BMG, 2008), revealed a singer with Sade-like tendencies, but who also gave her group—a combo of guitar, bass, drums, keys, percussion and horns—some latitude to, at times, lean towards Zawinul Syndicate territory.

From there it was on to see Allen Stone, a young American singer from small town Chewelah, Washington who may look like a grunge artist but who is, instead, a powerhouse soul singer positioned for greater things. With his sophomore album, Allen Stone (StickyStones, 2011), charting well and getting attention from USA Today and Conan O'Brien, amongst others, the blond-haired singer brought an equally kickass group to Cape Town, featuring guitarist Trevor Larkin, bassist Brent Rusinow, organist Greg Ehrlich, keyboardist Mark Sampson and drummer Jason Holt. Working his way through the album, Stone demonstrated remarkable restraint and maturity for a singer just 24 years old, in a time of American Idol-inspired melisma.

Stone's background in the church led to discovery of 1960s/70s soul singers like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Al Green, and his original material touches on many styles, but is largely a modern look at a retro style, with subject matter ranging from deeply personal to more generalist, but always with a levity and fun that's far from the self-indulgent angst of so many of his contemporaries. Live, he was a charismatic performer who owned the large outdoor stage of Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee, hitting the stage with an energy that never lagged. Larkin's tasty tone and bluesy delivery was a highlight, as was Stone's unshakable rhythm section; the shirtless Holt may have been at the rear of the stage, but was a commanding presence throughout—rock solid, but with just the right amount of flair to drive the energy up a notch when required.

But, for the most part, it was all eyes on Stone and his incendiary delivery, whether driving the up-tempo confessional "Sleep," a version of "Celebrate Tonight" delivered at a brighter pace and with greater energy than the laidback groove of the original, or the dance-ready "Say So." Back in North America and hitting the road, with 25 tour dates between now and the end of May, Stone's star is clearly on the ascendancy as the next great white soul singer.

The majority of the festival's venues at the conference center—indoor and out- -were huge, with Manenberg stating a capacity of 8,000, and Kippies, where Zamajobe and Masakela performed, holding 5,000 people—though it felt like a lot more were shoehorned into the massive room. The only venue where everyone could sit was Rosies, a 500-seat auditorium-style venue across the way in the Westin Hotel, and it was an appropriate venue for harmonicist/pianist Adam Glasser to bring his latest project, Mzansi (Sheer Sound, 2011). Glasser left South Africa during Apartheid, and has lived in London, England, ever since, performing with everyone from keyboardist Joe Zawinul and Sting to guitarist Dominic Miller and soul/R&B legend Stevie Wonder. A solid keyboardist, it's his skill as a chromatic harmonicist that distinguishes him—every bit as accomplished as Gregoire Maret and in line to share the torch that will be passed by Belgian legend Toots Thielemans.

While earlier albums like Free at First (Sunnyside, 2009) found Glasser exercising his jazz chops in a more mainstream fashion on a mix of originals, Great American staples like "How Deep is the Ocean?" and "On Green Dolphin Street," and jazz standards like Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" and Jackie McLean's "Little Melonae," Mzansi's repertoire is largely culled from South African traditional music and contemporary writers, and his top-notch quintet—also including guitarist Bheki Khoza, saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu, bassist Lucas Senyatso and drummer Bernice Boikanyo—proved a perfect combination of South African groove and American jazz tradition. Khoza, in particular, was impressive; a left-handed guitarist resembling often- overlooked Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich and who, more than once during solo sections by his band mates, pushed things into modal territory. As a soloist, the warm-toned, hollow-body guitarist was a combination of harmonic sophistication and understatement, rarely pushing the virtuosic edge but always demonstrating that his more economical approach was a choice rather than an imposition. Throughout, Khoza and the entire group proved as comfortable with mainstream swing as it was the more complex polyrhythms that often defined Glasser's South African source material.

Glasser also invited two guests to join the group. Vocalist Pinise Saul, has been a long-time collaborator since also relocating to England—a Xhosa and English language singer whose easygoing presence nevertheless commanded attention. The other, guitarist/vocalist Mfiliseni Magubane, is an award-winning guitarist/vocalist with over 15 albums to his credit. Dressed in traditional Zulu garb, the Maskandi legend brought levity to a set that was already buoyant and upbeat; it may not have been possible to understand what he was singing about, but from the response of the audience and the timing of his delivery, his sense of humor was clear—irresistible, even.

Glasser's stage presence leapt up a notch when he came out from behind his grand piano and synthesizer to join the rest of his group, on harmonica, center-stage. Delivering long, reedy lines that cleverly managed to navigate the changes with ease, while synching unfailingly with the pulsing rhythms laid down by Senyatso and Boikanyo. Glasser's dream of recording an album with local South African musicians was realized with Mzansi but raised to another level with his Cape Town Jazz Festival performance, where the material was given more space, and featuring fine solos from Glasser, Boikanyo and Mahlangu. Currently only available in South Africa, Mzansi will see North American release later this year and, cross-over album that it is, it will hopefully raise his profile on the western side of the Atlantic.

South African pianist Andre Petersen kicked off the festival's second evening in Rosies with a multi-national group that included Americans Reggie Washington (a bassist now living in Belgium) and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, along with Belgian-born drummer Dre Palemaerts. While Washington played electric bass, he focused more on acoustic, in a set emphasizing Petersen's often meditative, occasionally impressionistic and always open-ended writing. It was Petersen's first gig as a leader at Cape Town Jazz Festival, though as an in-demand pianist locally, it's far from the first time he's graced the stage.

Petersen's writing ranged from the free-bop of "Warped Perception," which included a sample from a speech by American author and civil rights activist Cornell West, while "Time Watchers" was more contemplative, revolving around Petersen's repetitive, minimalist patterns, playing both inside and outside the box, his delicate lines like gentle raindrops. Bud Powell's "Hallucinations" was given an equally liberated reading, the quartet at times sounding like pianist Keith Jarrett's renowned American Quartet of the 1970s. Alternating between potent swing and more unfettered freedom, when the power in the room blacked out during Strickland's thoughtful yet incendiary solo, Petersen and the group recovered almost seamlessly, continuing on as if nothing had happened. "Herero's Cry" was an unhurried ballad, with Strickland's solo suddenly taking a left turn into more dramatic rubato territory, the saxophonist cueing the rest of the group through the changes as his playing became increasingly aggressive.

With Washington and Pallemærts pushing the music into unexpected territory and setting shifting contexts for solos from their band mates, it became clear, as the set progressed, that despite being a compelling writer and a lateral-thinking pianist, Petersen was often overshadowed by the rest of the group. Strickland, in particular, was hard to match for his fiery, set-defining performance. It may have come down to Petersen's light touch and not being placed far enough forward in the mix; still, if he wasn't as dominant as he perhaps could have been, his open-minded approach remained definitive.

A combination of a late start, due to clear technical problems, and the mid-set power outage, meant that Petersen's set was cut short, before a segment that was to feature the fifth member of his quintet, vocalist Chantal Willie (also a fine bassist in her own right, appearing with Petersen on singer Lisa Bauer's fine debut, Finding a New Way (Self Produced, 2010)). While she added some wordless vocals to the opening tune, the loss of this segment was unfortunate, as she's got a solid reputation and deserved the exposure.

From Rosies it was off to Kippies for a brief look at Hugh Masekela's Tribute to Mama Afrika, "Mama Afrika" being the late Miriam Makeba, South African cultural icon and mentor (and later wife) to Masekela when he was a young up-and-comer, long before he joined her as a musical spokesperson for the country. Masekela left South Africa, following the Sharpeville Massacre—first for England but, ultimately, the United States where, with the help of Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and others, was able to obtain admission to the Manhattan School of Music. His own bio, Still Grazing: The Music Journey of Hugh Masekela (Crown Archetype, 2011), covers his life to date in great detail, but in a nutshell he became increasingly reconnected with the music, culture and people of his homeland after spending three decades abroad, returning home the prodigal son, not unlike the return of Makeba, a few short years earlier.

With Makeba's passing in 2008, Masekela is now truly the senior musical voice of South Africa, a spokesperson whose status as returning hero was reaffirmed by the throngs of people packed into Kippies. While crowd density made staying for the entire show impossible, what was clear from the first moments that he took to the stage was how loved he was...and, for a man of nearly 75, how healthy he is. Moving around the stage, slowly squatting down only to rise again with the ease of a man half his age, Masekela's raw voice was like a lightning rod to a crowd that clearly knew all the material, while his flugelhorn work was as warm and burnished as ever.

With three guest vocalists augmenting his tight five-piece band—Vusi Mahlasela, Thandiswa Mazwai and Zolani Mahola—Masakela reprised a show that's already played around the world in cities including Barcelona, London and Berlin, but if the show was entertainment for most abroad, here in South Africa it took on far greater significance as a celebration of a now-deceased singer whose outspoken protest against the apartheid regime is now only matched by Masekela himself, who now preaches the message of a unified South Africa and its seven Pillars of the Constitution: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom. Seven ideals that—despite the country's ongoing post- Apartheid evolution and the clear challenges it faces—were in evidence throughout this remarkable trip to South Africa. Thanks to the opportunity provided by South Africa Tourism, the warm and wonderful people involved and the incredible experiences of this two-week journey, there's no doubt that the four journalists fortunate enough to attend have returned to North America forever changed.

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman

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