Cape Town Jazz Festival 2013

Cape Town Jazz Festival 2013
Dan Bilawsky By

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Cape Town Jazz Festival 2013
Cape Town, South Africa
April 5-6, 2013
Music has the power to transport those on the receiving end to another place, but the terms of travel are usually figurative in nature. For four North American journalists, however, the figurative took fantastic form with an offer to visit Cape Town, soak in the culture of South Africa, and review the Cape Town Jazz Festival. When oh-so-rare opportunities like this come knocking at your door, you don't simply answer; you pinch yourself, clear your calendar and pack your bags.

The festival itself is a musical extravaganza spread across two evenings, with ancillary events like press conferences and workshops adding bulk to the day count, but the good people at South African Tourism turned the trip into a week-long adventure to remember. History, culture, nature, food, wine and, of course, music were all part of a jam-packed itinerary that left a strong and positive impression. By the time all was said and done, it was easy to see why Cape Town has become such a tourist hot spot, and one to which it's hard to say goodbye.

Chapter Index

The Sky Voyage

The Setting

The Sights

The Scrumptious And Succulent

The Sounds

The Sky Voyage

A trip such as this begins with the not-so-simple act of getting to South Africa. The idea of a fifteen-hour plane ride from New York to Johannesburg, a short layover, and a two-hour follow-up flight to Cape Town is a less-than-attractive prospect, but reality proved to be far more pleasant than expected. South African Airways graciously provided air travel for our junket, getting us to our final destination—and back home—on time, and in comfort; while nothing can stay the effects of jetlag, worry-free flights, which make their mark on arrival and departure times, certainly help. Once the full day of traveling had past, we were able to move on and explore all that Cape Town has to offer.

The Setting

Cape Town is South Africa's southern jewel, known for its natural wonders and melting pot makeup. Like most port cities, it has entertained—or been controlled by—a variety of ethnic and religious groups over the course of many centuries, all of which have helped to color the culture of the region and genetic makeup of its inhabitants. It has a well-deserved reputation as the tourist capital of South Africa, making it onto the must-visit list of travelers from all over the world, but it isn't a place of perfection, and the people are honest about their homeland's shortcomings. Poverty, housing shortages, unemployment, and economic disparity, drawn largely along racial lines, are a few of the problems that continue to cast a cloud over Cape Town—and South Africa on the whole—but the cloud is slowly lifting; more government-built housing, for example, has popped up in various places in recent years, and those in power continue to look at these issues with an eyes-wide-open gaze.

South Africa may still have a long way to go in some respects, but it's also a nation that has come so far in such a short time; one need only take a trip to Robben Island to realize this. The Dutch used this patch of land as a place to house political prisoners during the seventeenth century, and the British followed suit in the nineteenth century. The island even housed the mentally insane and a colony of lepers at one point, but its notoriety has nothing to do with those circumstances and everything to do with the politics of apartheid. Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, along with numerous other unjustly imprisoned individuals, and it only ceased to exist as a prison in the 1990s, after Apartheid fell; now it's a World Heritage site and must-see museum.

When touring the island, the injustices of the not-too-distant past came swiftly into focus. The bus tour stopped by the small house where Robert Sobukwe—founder of the Pan Africanist Congress—was held in solitary confinement, and visited the limestone quarry where prisoners were forced to toil. Eventually, the buses arrived at the prison itself, where former prisoners now serve as tour guides. The horrors of prison life and secret means of communication were spelled out clearly by each one of these human dispensaries of firsthand knowledge. These guides have a million reasons to want to forget, yet they need to share these memories so all will remember. Keeping Apartheid fresh in the minds of tourists and the people of South Africa remains important, and all who visit the museum leave with an understanding that South Africa is a nation that has gone through its darkest hour and righted its most significant wrong, a nation now looking toward a better future for its entire people.

The Sights

If pictures, on the average, are worth a thousand words, then pictures of sites in-and-around Cape Town are probably worth ten times that amount. It's hard to think of any other place in the world that houses as much earthly eye candy, and no tour through this region is truly complete without a southbound sojourn to the Cape of Good Hope and a trip up Table Mountain.

Trying to write about the ocular odyssey that began in Cape Town and continued all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope is somewhat useless; words are a cheap substitute for images in an instance like this, but they are, nonetheless, necessary.

A trip along the Atlantic coastline allowed for a scenic stop at Camps Bay and some shopping at a crafts market, but the visual stimulation really started to pick up as the tour moved east. After a stop on Boye's Drive, it was on to Boulders Beach, to see the penguins that reside on its sandy shores, and then straight down to the cape. A walk up to the lighthouse perched atop Cape Point and a trip to the Cape Of Good Hope—"The South-Western Most Point of The African Continent"—proved to be one of the high points of the tour, but the very end of Africa wasn't the end of the sightseeing for the day. The Chapman's Peak Drive, which provides some of the most breathtaking views imaginable, made the Northbound return trip even more memorable.

That particular excursion is lengthy no matter how you slice it, but the trip up Table Mountain doesn't have to be. Hiking is a reach-the-top option for those with time and energy to burn, but time-strapped travelers and those wishing to remain sweat-free, which accounts for the majority of Table Mountain's visitors, take the cable car. At the top, the history and land evolution of Table Mountain is explained via placards, and spectacular views are available in every direction. The world has come to view Table Mountain as one of the "New 7 Wonders Of Nature," but the people of Cape Town simply view it as the spectacular center of their world.

The Scrumptious And Succulent

While jazz was central to this story, and sightseeing was an important subplot, wining and dining also figured prominently into the picture. You can't truly develop a taste for South Africa without tasting what South Africa has to offer, so all parties involved went headfirst into the local cuisine; one journalist, doubling as a food critic and music writer, had every reason to want to experience endemic eats, and all the rest simply adopted a "When in Rome" attitude when it came to meal time.

Springbok, kingklip, crocodile, ostrich, kudu, and warthog all made it onto plates and into mouths at various moments. Dinners on Long Street (Mama Africa), at the V&A Waterfront (Sevruga), and at hip nightspots (Shimmy Beach Club) titillated the taste buds and got the conversation going, but some of the most memorable culinary experiences came earlier in the day(s). The food/music critic's mandate to try Cape Malay cuisine, for example, was adopted as a group mission that proved successful in all respects.

This style of cuisine is, in and of itself, a reflection of the diversity that exists within Cape Town. Indian, Indonesian and Malaysian ideals merge with African and European sensibilities, creating the ultimate fusion of foods and spices. Miriam's Kitchen, a deli counter-style set-up that caters to on-the-go diners but has plenty of seating, served up salomies—meat and vegetarian curry items served on pita bread—that hit the spot, and Biesmiellah proved to be a revelation. This unassuming corner restaurant, housed in the Bo-Kaap area known for its brightly colored houses, cooked a memorable meal that included never-before-encountered dishes like Bobotie—a light-textured curried coarse steak mince, covered with an egg and served with yellow rice and vegetables.

Dining was the dominant theme at all of the aforementioned venues, but wining won out on a single day. A trip to the Cape Winelands featured stops at two vineyards that earned high marks in different areas. Fairview Vineyard's red wines wowed the senses, and an assortment of cheeses—made in their own cheesery—was unique and flavorful. Tokara, on the other hand, won out in the white wine category and gastronomy department; each dish served at their restaurant wasn't merely a meal, but a work of visual and culinary art.

The Sounds

While constant touring and tasting kept all parties happy and busy for days, nobody lost sight of the fact that the music mattered most; in fact, music figured into the equation before the festival even began. Our arrival in South Africa coincided with the end of a music industry gathering—Breathe Sunshine African Music Conference—and those fortunate enough to be in the area were able to catch an artist showcase at Assembly. Ben Sharpa's sharp-witted rap caught many an ear there, and Tombstone Pete's guitar-as-strings-and-percussion bit was unique if somewhat repetitious, but the real standout was a virtual unknown: Kanimumbo, a South African band fronted by a Congolese singer and driven by strong drumming, stole the show. This group has no recordings to speak of, and only made it onto the bill as a last minute addition, but a bright future awaits this band.

Several days separated that event and the festival, but music always worked its way into the daily goings-on. A marimba band, covering everything from "Take Five" to pop hits of yesteryear, served as background music at Mama Africa; Zulu children were dancing and singing on the sidewalks on the return trip from the Winelands; and our trusted guide-cum-friend kept smooth music flowing through the van. Conversation constantly revolved around music and the impending festival, but nothing could really prepare anyone for the festival itself.

The Cape Town Jazz Festival isn't merely a series of concerts; it's a major cultural event and source of pride for the South African people. Beyond that, it also serves as a boon to the economy of Cape Town. The 2012 edition contributed R498 million to the economy of the Western Cape and helped the people in a big way, creating 2,700 jobs. These numbers are hard to believe, but a look at the attendance figures of this event helps to put those figures in perspective: Attendance has more than doubled—from 14,000 to 34,000 attendees—over the course of the festival's lifespan, and several staffers indicated that the 2013 edition would have close to 38,000 in attendance. Jazz may be marginalized in other areas of the world, but South Africa steadfastly supports this music and its offshoots.

Over forty acts from all over the world converged in Cape Town, ready to do their respective thing(s), and most had no problem talking the talk before they walked the walk. Press conferences, held at the Table Bay Hotel, gave writers, photographers and radio personalities a chance to interact with the artists and tap into their thoughts. Zonke Dikana, a South African contemporary soul artist, brought an affable-yet-confident balance to her comments, while jazz violin hero Jean-Luc Ponty used a to-the-point delivery to get his points across. Drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo—a South African musical icon who powered the rhythmic engine for the Blue Notes and Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath—didn't seem interested in sharing a great deal with the press, but he held nothing back when he took the stage at the festival.

Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch discussed the ideas of language and dialect with humor and intelligence, as the rest of Ronin flanked its leader. Bärtsch tags his own work as "Ritual Groove Music," and he was more than happy to explain his thoughts on this idea. This proved to be a most enlightening session, as was pianist Robert Glasper's well-attended Q&A. Glasper, with his band mates in tow, spoke about everything from the Grammy win—and what it does and doesn't mean—to the idea of creating music that can feel good and remain current while also stimulating the mind. Glasper correctly posits that all three ideals need not be mutually exclusive in music. He engaged everyone in the room, bringing laughter, wit and deep insights into play.

These conferences set the stage for what promised to be two nights of incredible music, and that promise was kept. As Friday night's start time neared, The Cape Town International Convention Centre was flooded with music fans that were eager and ready to hear their favorites and explore the unknown.

Friday evening began in grand fashion, as Mafikizolo took control of Kippies—the largest of the five venues within or around the convention centre. This Afro-pop outfit got the crowd going with its own Kwaito-influenced, dance-friendly music that was well-received from the get-go. Dancers, background singers, horns and the core instrumentalists shared the stage with the group's lead vocalists—Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza—and contributed to the easy-to-love stage show quality of the performance.

As Mafikizolo's set was nearing its end, South Africa's own Errol Dyers was just starting to cook on the Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee outdoor stage. Dyers' set, while not tremendously dynamic, rode the waves of rhythm and captured the crowd's attention with the magnetic pull of positive energy. Next up, for many, was Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club, but others couldn't resist the call of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, which delivered a mesmerizing set of hypnotic, riff-based music.

After a momentary stop at Rosies, where pianist Chano Dominguez was holding court, the siren song of Zonke called from Kippies. She proved to be every bit as graceful a singer as she was a speaker, keeping the crowd in the palm of her hand. With only a few hours left in the night, it was time to check out Louis Moholo's 4 Blokes & 1 Doll. Nobody in the audience seemed to know what to expect going in, but what they got was a transcendent set of music that fanned out from a core of South African folk ideals.

Spirituality, fire music, and roiling hymns of freedom leaped forth from the stage, as Moholo's centered, yet tumultuous tom work created a ground swell of emotion. The church was present in all of this music, but the devil also had his say. Vocalist Fany Galada delivered the wordless gospel according to Moholo, while pianist Kyle Shepherd, a star-in-the-making on the South African scene, delivered lines that shifted from liquid to solid states. Moholo, whether swinging, delivering martial snare drum grounding, or egging on those in his liege, was nothing short of amazing; he clearly lets his music do the talking for him.

A brief stop at the Moses Molelekwa stage provided a glimpse of pianist Afrika Mkhize, who had chops and ideas to spare, but a return trip to Rosies to see trombonist Steve Turre was in order. Turre's eighty-minute set proved to be the most straight-ahead performance of the evening—at least by American standards. Hard bop, a contrafact of a Duke Ellington classic ("Duke Rays"), a "Sidewinder" style boogaloo ("Delicious And Delightful") and an unspeakably fast number capable of frying a metronome ("Blackfoot") all made it into the performance.

Much of the material came from Delicious And Delightful (HighNote, 2010), but Turre referenced Woody's Delight (HighNote, 2012) with "Brother Bob," which ran on a bit but benefited from some mid-solo push-against-the-pulse jabs from pianist Larry Willis. One of the most underrated saxophone veterans on the scene, Billy Harper was in predictably fine form throughout the set, and drummer Dion Parson was the rock that bassist Buster Williams leaned on when the push-and-pull of the music threatened to create minute tears in the fabric of the rhythm. Turre wrapped things up around two in the morning, capping seven hours of music that spoke to the varied tastes of the festival programmers and the people who paid to hear it.

The second night of the festival offered up an attractive lineup that rivaled the opening night in variety and quality, and large crowds came out to hear the music. The festival was supposedly sold out on both nights, but Saturday appeared to have the larger turnout, and getting around between venues was a slow-going process that became more difficult as the night wore on. Hallway traffic jams proved to be a minor nuisance, seen by many as a growing pains issue that the festival producers will likely have to contend with in the coming years, but few other problems were noticeable. According to those in-the-know, many of the organizational kinks from prior years were smoothed out, and virtually every show started on time or within fifteen minutes of the projected start time.

Saturday night set sail with the student-stocked Arts & Culture Focus Super Band, but the first large-drawing act was singer Thandiswa Mazwai, who offered an edgier soul alternative to the smoother Zonke. Mazwai's strength-in-sound was apparent from the start of her set and her focus never wavered. As she was making her way off stage, guitarist Reza Khota was mid-set at the Moses Molelekwa stage, delivering his own take on the edgy Ben Monder-meets-Kurt Rosenwinkel esthetic. Songs like "Occupy Movement," the moody "Night Portrait," and the mysterious "Menace" received positive responses from the audience.

Next up was the festival headliner—Grammy-winning R&B superstar Jill Scott. Her mere presence set the crowd in a frenzy, as thousands chanted her name in anticipation of her arrival on stage; everybody simply wanted to bask in the glow of her radiant voice and the people got their fill of Jill. Scott performed to a packed house at Kippies and her popularity with the crowd was all-too-apparent, as they sang several lines of "The Way" for her. The other star of the night was guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, whose popularity nearly rivaled that of Scott. Dludlu brought his own groove-based contemporary jazz to the stage, thrilling the throngs, but audiences looking for a hard hitting neo-soul alternative turned to the Robert Glasper Experiment.

Glasper's music was slick and jagged all at once, as kaleidoscopic drum beats and glazed keyboard lines collided and colluded. Things didn't flow very well from song to song, as communication breakdowns and mixed signals slowed the transitions and created longer-than-necessary pauses between pieces, but these issues did nothing to diminish the power of the music. Glasper's is one of the most cutting edge outfits out there today, and proved it time and again during its set, which cast an extremely favorable light on saxophonist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin. Glasper's Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012) boasts a long list of quality singers and rappers, but in live settings Benjamin is left to front the band and he rose to the challenge, delivering spine-tingling vocoder vocals and complementary keytar and saxophone lines. He would have completely stolen the show if not for the presence of MF Doom; this masked marauder of hip hop had his way with the audience upon his mid-set arrival, and his fan base seemed to be in seventh heaven as they chanted in support of his work.

The final sets of the night were the hardest to choose between, as Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club's second stand ran against Senegalese singer Cheikh Lo's set, vocalist Gregory Porter's performance, and that of the highly anticipated Jack DeJohnette, featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John LaPorta; regret was a guarantee as decisions had to be made, but the pull of Porter and DeJohnette won out. The first half of Porter's set focused heavily on his soulfully strong sophomore release, Be Good (Motéma, 2012). He delivered stirring renditions of "Painted On Canvas," "On My Way To Harlem," and the record's title track. His vocal magnetism made it hard to leave mid-set, but DeJohnette's delights awaited. Cagey games of cat and mouse, broad-minded blowing, and a keen sense of balance drove DeJohnette's thrilling performance. "Tin Can Alley" was an absolute gas and Lovano's "Folk Art" was another winner, but they saved the best for last; Ornette Coleman's "When Will The Blues Leave" was a beautifully brash way to call it a day.

As the Cape Town Jazz Festival came to a close, and the attendees drained out of the convention center, a sense of music-born elation was replaced by the realization that this South African experience was coming to an end. In the span of a week, new friends were made, ceaseless wonders were explored, musical riches were unearthed and the bountiful gifts of Cape Town were carted out for all to see. This wasn't simply a jazz-driven journey; it was a life-changing experience.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Dan Bilawsky

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