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Claude Cozens: Reimagining Rhythm

Seton Hawkins By

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4/4 is the most natural rhythm to us, but in nature, we still have 13, we still have these asymmetric patterns. So what happened to us as human beings that we cannot fathom these rhythms anymore? —Claude Cozens
The Cape Jazz sound of South Africa is known to international audiences primarily thanks to the music of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. However, the music and traditions of Cape Town and the Western Cape run much deeper, reflecting an extraordinary, sometimes contradictory, and exceedingly complex set of cultures and traditions reflected in the area. Within this environment the musician and composer Claude Cozens grew up, first gaining acclaim as a top-call drummer in Cape Town, ultimately forming his own extraordinary trio, and emerging as one of the leading lights in Cape Town's creative music scene.

Always showing a chameleonic ability to meld into multiple styles, Cozens has branched out even further, as his recent post-graduate studies in Norway offered a new vision for his musical directions with the solo works Improvisation I and Improvisation II. With the release of Yaadt Party earlier this year, Cozens pivoted yet again, exploring aspects of Cape music and Cape identity in DJ-inspired takes on a wide range of material.

All About Jazz Your latest album is entitled Yaadt Party. For those who aren't from South Africa, can you describe "yaadt"?

Claude Cozens: It's the colloquial accent for saying "yard party," a backyard party. So in Cape Town, you say "yaadt party," with the accent. So I'm trying to get to that spelling!

AAJ: Within the album you blend a number of styles and traditions with electronic sounds. In particular, you open with the classic Cape Town piece "Alibama," but in a reimagined way. Can you talk about the album's concept?

CC: It's been very interesting for me to look back at my experience growing up in such a controversial area like Cape Town. I tried to remove myself as best as possible, and I just wanted to be as honest as possible with what the reality is of that culture. For the sound you are talking about, I've been trying to grasp the sound that the DJs have created. Without realizing, they have taken the klopse—the folk music of Cape Town—and found a way to bring that out of samples and different tracks that they've picked out from pop music over the years.

For example, some pop ballads from guys like Lionel Richie or from pop groups like the Backstreet Boys, DJs will take those ballads and insert these yaadt grooves underneath. It's very interesting, because that's what the essence of [Cape style] ghoema is. So these DJs found these interesting ways to do it; some of it is very bad musically, but it still created the scene to give people a dance for their backyards. So people who are DJ-ing in little parties in driveways and backyards, they will play these songs, but remix it with this yaadt rhythm.

I tried to get this essence on the songs I did on this record. I wanted to use that concept, but also be more interesting rhythmically. For the DJs, it wasn't the greatest quality of rhythms or samples or grooves that they generated. It was whatever they could take in and put together, and there would be some kind of groove underneath.

AAJ: You're speaking of this in terms of it being a musical language that you apply to transform a song. If we look at the music you've selected for this album, it ranges from kaapse klopse music to Abdullah Ibrahim to Michael Jackson. It's a wide array of music you tackle.

CC: That's another cultural comment for me, because Cape Town is like that in many ways. We have so many different opinions, so many different diversities going back into our genetic makeup. When you look at the slave port city of Cape Town, it's over 400 years of a mix of everything, and when I look back on growing up, that's what I see: all these different influences. We're getting all these different things from local tribal music to obviously the pop music like Michael Jackson, and then we're going to church. Every suburb has its own little style of playing, every little area has its own little difference in belief. Obviously we have all the different religious cultures too; in the Bo Kaap we have the Islam element as well. That's a big contribution in growing up with families from all these different backgrounds. That's the reality.

AAJ: What you're describing with yaadt sounds a tremendous amount like the earlier langarm musical tradition of Cape Town, of bands taking popular songs and creating a unique and new flavor to them. Do you think there's a connection?

CC: Absolutely. I try to embrace everything that I could possibly embrace and be aware of, and try to incorporate every element I could find that would be interesting to mix. So definitely there's a langarm influence; the grooves and the basslines are very langarm, in a sense. That's how the old bass players used to play, like Gary Kriel. All of the bass players that Abdullah used to work with back in the day were involved in that type of music. I play with Hilton Schilder, and his cousin Eldred played that music too. It's very difficult to remove that style from your playing. That's just how much it is a part of our playing, I guess.

AAJ: You mention Hilton Schilder, and if we examine your career, you've done a tremendous amount of work with these exceptional Cape Jazz piano trios, like Hilton's, Kyle Shepherd's, and indeed your own. Can you talk about that style?

CC: It's really special to me, to work with these musicians. They're really carrying the tradition forward and pioneering it as well. It's special to be around them, to learn from them, to check out what they're trying to do. A common denominator with all of these guys is having this great sense of frustration that has to be dealt with all the time because of the political and social makeup of what's happening in South Africa, and of the frustrations that come with it as an artist. There is definitely a sense across the board with these guys, including myself, that it's a difficult thing to manage and it affects the music. I don't know to what extent it affects the music, but it definitely affects the way things are done.

For example, in playing with Hilton, you hear all the stories about the past, about the older musicians and the struggle, it's just unbelievable. To see how he's taken a journey as well, becoming a grandparent now and having to adjust his lifestyle in order to find some peace. For me, that has definitely affected the music in his piano playing and his compositions now, it's unbelievable. I played with Hilton and Eldred in March, and we played some of his old music and some of his new compositions. It's like classical music, these new compositions of his, there are movements and parts. It's not just a 16-bar melody that repeats. It's not like typical modern Jazz either. So it was very special to me to see the progress, and see how he's still changing. I was totally inspired by that.

Kyle Shepherd, he's obviously younger, but he's also definitely trying to embrace that tradition of Abdullah Ibrahim, even Bheki Mseleku, Hotep Idris Galeta, Mark Fransman, Hilton. It's just beautiful to be a part of it, and to see the differences in each artist.

AAJ: If we think about many Cape Town artists like Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman, and yourself, many of you play multiple instruments and create music that cuts across multiple genres. Can you talk a bit about that?

CC: Mark Fransman is the greatest example of this, because that guy is a genius. Mark can do anything at the greatest level. If he's going to play in a Blues band tonight, he's going to kill it and it'll sound like he does it every day. If you hear him play in a Jazz trio playing piano, it sounds like the guy does that 24/7. So yes, there's a tangible ability to just be music, and in different settings, different styles. I think it comes back to this upbringing thing I'm talking about.

There's so many influences and so much different variety that you can go through in one day of life. When I was a kid, I had a stint of schooling when I went to a beautiful top-class private school, and I was able to make friends with a rich guy. He was my best buddy. On a Tuesday, I would go to his place with his family, and I would be completely overwhelmed with the beautiful home, the grounds, all the resources this kid had. As a young child, it was hard then to go back home to nothing, to try to understand how come that kid's life was like that, but mine was like this. I knew for sure that there were kids who had it worse than me, no water, no food. Growing up like that, all these different things happening all the time, I think it's definitely part of it, and all the different musical influences that come along with it. All the different traditions that you kind of see throughout your life, pieces here, pieces there.

For myself, I can speak on my childhood playing in churches. Every church has its own tradition, influences, and style. In church, you play an instrument, you pick up an instrument, maybe change and check out a new one. I was always in love with the different instruments, and I was very curious to know how they'd work. So I would just try and play them and figure them out. That's how it was for me.

AAJ: Thinking on the church, if we think of some of your pieces—"Fynbos Spirit," for example—we hear that incredible influence of the church in your writing. At the same time, we also hear things very specific to the Cape. We hear the ghoema beat in a lot of your music. So much of your music highlights musical and cultural aspects that are unique to the Western Cape. But what is it that makes the region unique?

CC: We have to really look back. But we don't have many records, we just have imagination to kind of grasp what it would be like to hear music in the Western Cape 200 years ago. What music did they play? There definitely was music. How did that sound specifically? There's no records, there are just little hints here and there from different tribes that we have. But we have to look at the traditions that are there. Those are big contributing factors, the Xhosa specifically.

There are the Western influences, with missionaries who came from Wales, Ireland. They were big in the Western Cape. They came and built churches that my parents grew up in. My parents can even remember these people as well, because these missionaries would send groups and groups over generations to come and do the work. My parents would tell me that they were Irish and Welsh.

I know obviously the Dutch churches also came. They brought their choral music with them, and that chordal harmony became a big part of the Western Cape's sound. You hear that in Abdullah's music big time, Hilton as well. When it's played on the piano, it just comes out in a beautiful way with the African ornamentations in the fingers, the different accents, the different little characteristics that are played with the fingers. That's what brings out the sound, that Western Cape sound, if you want to call it that, or that African piano thing, playing Marabi and the I-IV-V. That combination is what it is for me, the Western harmony that came with the church and the African rhythms, different variations, different sounds. The combination of those things makes the Cape Town sound a thing.

AAJ: You've described a lot of musical outcomes here. Thinking on your involvement in the Afrikaaps project, that seems to focus on ideas of identity that emerge, particularly as it relates to Afrikaans. Can you talk about that?

CC: The effects of Afrikaaps, the production, have been very much underrated. People aren't giving it the credit that it deserves. If you look now at what's happening in society with our generation and the younger ones, they are truly finding this new sense of pride and embracing it. You must understand it, if you're going to Cape Town and you meet the mixed-race people called the Coloured people—that's what they called us during apartheid. This group of people that will go into situations, workplaces, social circles, and wherever they go, they will adapt to try and fit in with the group. If we go to Joburg, we'll try to mix with Zulus, or if we are going to Durbanville in Cape Town, we'll try to mix in with the Afrikaners. Our people will change their accents to fit in. We have a massive identity crisis and a massive overcompensation situation going on.

Afrikaaps was trying to tackle this issue and it did, big time. And we are starting to see it happen. Like, commercial rappers are popping up now that are promoting this culture and embracing the accent now. Before, that would never be a thing. The production has really impacted the society, in my opinion. And it impacted society on an underground level, if you could say it like that. The commercial entities have taken this thing now and sought to use it; I'm not complaining, because it's a good thing for the kids to grow up and feel like they're not invalid.

A lot of my parents' generation rejected Afrikaans completely, or they wanted us to have almost nothing to do with the Afrikaans tradition. They wanted us to be this international English-speaking generation, so they can kind of be proud of us and we can go out and be "international" and things. It's very interesting psychologically, because there's a certain thing that happened in that culture for them as Coloured people that they wanted to disassociate from. I'm not sure if it was political or pride, but the oppression was real.

It's very interesting to chat to my family and older family friends; they have this Catch 22 where they are battling within themselves whether to embrace the negative history or to totally denounce it. They struggle with it. Sometimes they even say to me that it was better under apartheid, you know? But then they find themselves saying again no, it was worse. I always get shocked when they say these things, because I have to remind them that when they were growing up they couldn't be doctors, they couldn't do anything they wanted to do. There were a couple of jobs assigned to Coloured people and that's all they could do, you know, being the janitor. My father worked in factories his whole life. I remind them and I say "You're talking about this now, and how better it used to be, but you had no opportunity then. You were completely oppressed. How can you say these things?" So we're having interesting conversations now with older generations about these things.

AAJ: Let's take a look at how your music developed within these conversations. We talked about Yaadt Party, but let's go back further to your trio with Kyle Shepherd and Benjamin Jephta, and the trio's Jubilee Jam and Live at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival albums. The evolution from your trio albums to your Improvisation I and Improvisation II solo albums tell a remarkable story. But can we start with how the trio formed?

CC: I really miss the trio. It was a great platform for me to work on ideas and see what can work and what doesn't work. We had some awesome times playing together in Cape Town. I was learning lots and we were experimenting a lot with different approaches. Some of it worked and some of it didn't work. I look back on the playing and I listen to some unreleased recordings of live gigs, and I can hear how I needed a lot of technical practice back then. So I take notes and I work on things now that that obviously weren't working so well for me then.

But there's a nice camaraderie playing together. I'm busy with a lot of solo stuff now, production stuff. I'm very much inside myself now, which is obviously a lonely experience. You miss that kind of release of playing with guys like that who are so brilliant in what they do. That was a time when I was trying to find a sound, a style. I was trying to really bring together all these different elements about growing up in such a complex world and make them all work in a nice way, a nice pot of food! It was a selfish thing, but it was so that I could sculpt a piece of art that's really reflective of my kind of experience that many other people have as well. I think back to that time, and I always get new ideas and try to re-think things.

AAJ: From there, what inspired you to move to Norway and continue your post-graduate studies?

CC: When I was in Cape Town, life was busy. I was teaching a lot in different schools, and I was playing a lot with different groups. It was fantastic, but I got to a point where I was just going in circles. I felt like I needed time to dig deeper, to try to check out some more stuff, and try and recap on all these different ideas I had, just to bring them together and see what I could do.

I gave myself the two years to try and get to work on my ideas. This place has been perfect for that, because there's so much freedom for crazy ideas. My ideas that I've been working on are so mild compared to some of the other guys here that are really doing extreme stuff. That's been fantastic for me to work on my stuff, to re-work things, deconstruct stuff, and really be crazy with it. To be as experimental as I can to try and find something. Therefore, something like Yaadt Party could come about, something crazy like that, because I had the time to sit and search for something. There's been a lot of improvements still to be made, but it was fantastic.

AAJ: Let's talk about the albums Improvisation I and Improvisation II, as those come out of your time in Norway. To your point of being able to sit and really explore ideas, on those albums we see you getting into very complex meters in your work. Can you talk about those albums?

CC: Those are really frustrating to do, because I set some goals that were quite ambitious. But I'm glad I did it, because I learned a lot doing that. The meters are really the essence of what I've been searching for and trying to work on. I've been really trying to stretch my ability to play this music in odd meters and see what potential is there, to take these rhythms that are conventionally in 4/4 or 3/4 and see what new patterns I can generate from these odd meters. That was a core focus of my study here in Norway, these meters, and applying that to South African music.

The idea is to take this platform and then use it for massive composition later on, when I'm more comfortable with it. I'm already busy with Improvisation III, and trying to really take it to the next level with structures, different sections, different dynamic ranges. And the idea behind this whole thing is to move towards a compositional style. Maybe I can work on compositions with a big ensemble with dancers, with theater maybe, or just a massive orchestra, and try to play this crazy music that will be different and new. Or even just a new perspective on things. So for example, trying to choreograph a dance company to dance to 19/8, then it goes to 23/8, then to 13/8. Improvisation I and Improvisation II are the beginning of that process.

AAJ: It's interesting you bring that up. Both Improvisation I and Improvisation II certainly feature complex time signatures; however, they do not immediately feel complex. The groove feels natural.

CC: That's what I've been sweating and busting my balls over! In one of my classes, I was explaining what I'm trying. When anybody plays a new groove for the first time, it's so rigid because you're just trying to get through the meter. So you play the same bar and just repeat it over and over. My thought when thinking about these rhythms was "What can I do to make this music feel natural?" 4/4 is the most natural rhythm to us, but in nature, we still have 13, we still have these asymmetric patterns. So what happened to us as human beings that we cannot fathom these rhythms anymore? We cannot play it anymore. It's not part of our tradition anymore. What's going on? So this is part of my investigation. The reality is that only computers can really teach us these meters now, because we don't know how to do it. So I work with a computer to teach me how to play these rhythms, so what can I do to make it feel natural again? That is what I've been trying to do.

AAJ: You mentioned the idea that the process of creating these albums was a lonely one. Thinking to the next year, the next two years, and having now built up a way to work with this tremendously complex material in a way that doesn't make it seem complex, how do you translate that to a live ensemble?

CC: This is what I'm working on right now. I've started this process of taking some of the music from Improvisation I and Improvisation II and playing it with a Norwegian group here. It was very daunting in the beginning, but when you get through some rehearsals and you spend some time with the musicians just feeling the rhythms and getting used to it, they start to feel comfortable and then are released to play as they would normally on a common time piece. Obviously a challenge of being in Europe is that culturally it's very difficult to get the point across in terms of the stylistic approach to the music. They haven't played South African music before, and they don't know South Africa in that sense. So that was a challenge. But you know what, when you have musicians that are really into the music and are into being a part of your project, it is really amazing to see how they're able to just bring their own feeling and color to the music without taking away from the sound of the South African style. It's really fascinating.

The key with this thing for me is really to use it as a platform to work towards full compositional works. I'm really trying to get to that point where I can write something really amazing and crazy, that's built up of these different pieces. That's where I'm headed what I'm thinking. Moving towards playing this music live, you need to have time to rehearse, and you have to give the musicians time to get used to the rhythmic structures. Once they get used to it and they can dance to it, we're okay and we can play the music as normal.

AAJ: It's interesting you mention working with Norwegian musicians, as there seems to have been a fairly long exchange between Norway and South Africa. Kesivan Naidoo's original incarnation of Kesivan and the Lights included Norwegian musicians, and early incarnations of Zim Ngqawana's band included Norwegian artists too.

CC: For me, it's the artistic approach that is embedded in the culture. The first time I came to Norway I just fell in love with that thing they have when it comes to artistic development. It's so deep and so valued here that I knew it was a place where I could thrive and do what I wanted to achieve. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to do this back home, for me at least. I struggled to manage it, find the time, and find the space to do it. It's not just political stuff, I'm talking about things like family time, lifestyle. But being alone in Norway, having these resources available to me, having support, I have a lot more freedom to speak, to think, to try stuff out with the full support by the staff that encourages you and makes sure you don't go completely off the rails. You are allowed and encouraged to work on your ideas. Obviously you can go with the traditional academic route too, that's also fine and that's encouraged too. But if you want to go a different route and explore something, they love that and they want to be a part of that.

When I came to Oslo in 2008 with Darren English, I just knew I needed to end up back here sometime. It took me 10 years to come back, but I ended up having the opportunity to come back. I'm glad I did because I'm able to just dig into this stuff a bit deeper.

AAJ: As an undergraduate, you studied at the University of Cape Town. Can you talk a bit more about the differing educational approaches?

CC: The South African program has come a long way since it started, but it still needs development and work. I don't want to speak bad about it, and I'm grateful to have been a part of institutions, but the reality is that the system can improve to help musicians in a more holistic way. The system is constructed for people who want to learn about musicians. But if you want to play music or be creative in music, it's not the best place to be, unfortunately. It's a challenge for you to succeed, which is ironic because it's a place of music.

That's the experience I had as a creative musician. I just feel like there needs to be a more open approach with a focus on processes, because it's subjective and there's lots of opportunity for innovation. The universities need to be a part of that instead of rejecting it. When I was in university in Cape Town, we sat in classes where all the great pioneers of South Africa were mocked, you know, in class, in front of baby-eared young musicians coming in! I struggled through that. There is hope and I'm confident that things will get better and better.

AAJ: With your concluding postgrad studies, where do you want to base your work?

CC: I don't know what's going to happen next. We'll have to see what comes next. I was back home in March and April, and it was so great to be back home and play with some of the guys again. I really loved that, and I needed that. Soon all will be revealed and you never know. I mean, I'm up for a different experience altogether. Different country, different continent, you name it, so we'll see!

Photo credit: Gregory Franz

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