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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.
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