Did any of the Cape artists like Robbie Jansen or Basil Coetzee get into your earlier studies? Or were they later? LS:
To some extent they did, with the help of Dr. Brian Thusi who knew them personally, he would share stories of his time playing with them back in the day. Cape jazz was also covered in our history class, mostly associated with the exiles. AAJ:
You moved from Durban to Johannesburgcan you talk about the differences of scenes of the two cities? LS:
The move to Johannesburg was an unplanned move. I was supposed to spend another year at university in 2013. But having visited Johannesburg, I fell in love with the scene. At that time, cats like Tumi Mogorosi
and Nhlanhla Mahlangu were coming up, and the scene was really amazing. I wanted to be a part of that. I moved to Johannesburg with my closest friend and trombonist Senzo Ngcobo, who is a member of a group called H3 that we co-founded together with another friend and trumpeter Sthembiso Bhengu.
My move to Johannesburg was the best move I could have made in life, because of the scene. Johannesburg has a much bigger scene than Durban, and it has a certain drive and energy. I believe that contributed to my growth in music. AAJ:
It does seem that the past five or six years in South Africa has seen the emergence of many wonderful Jazz artists. Was that your experience? LS:
Yes, that was my experience. I must say that it's an exciting and important time for South African jazz. AAJ:
Let's talk about that group H3. In that group, you worked with Luyanda Madope to produce the album Connecting Generations
. Can you talk about that project? LS:
Connecting Generations is a collaborative project between Luyanda Madope & H3. It was introduced to us by Madope after we had been longing to do something with him. With his guidance into the project, the basic idea was to connect different generations in music, also paying homage to South African composers. AAJ:
You ultimately get a scholarship to come to New York and continue your studies. How did that come about? LS:
I was so honored to receive the SAMRO scholarship in 2016, and there was no doubt that I'd find myself in the streets of New York. I've always wished to be in America, and when I heard about the New School facultyMr. Billy Harper
and Mr. Reggie Workman
I decided to myself that I want to study with these masters. I knew I would learn and absorb so much in terms of the jazz culture in the U.S. Being in the same room with the great Reggie Workman is so special. He has so many stories and wisdom to share. AAJ:
It definitely makes sense. Given how prominently Coltrane has inspired your work, to then study with one of his bass players, and with a saxophonist like Billy who has really carried on that spirit! Can you talk about your studies with Billy? LS:
One special thing about Billy Harper is that he allows you to be yourself. I had the pleasure of studying with him for a semester, playing in an ensemble that he instructed. His music gave us room to really express ourselves, and he helped us achieve a group sound sort of emphasized communal approach to music. Playing what we heard and felt, but in the same spirit.
The fact that Billy has been around for such a long time means he has so many inspiring stories to share. AAJ:
In interviews, Billy has also placed the traditions from Africa at a very high level, and spoken of it at length as it relates to his music. Have you and he discussed South African music? LS:
We haven't really talked about it much, but we have had some conversations about South Africa after he was invited to play with a South African big band at the Tshwane International Big Band Festival.He was really happy and moved by the riding of Nduduzo Makhathini ,Ayanda Sikade and the entire big band.He was shocked by the fact that people knew his music in South Africa. AAJ:
As all of this is developing, you record your debut. Can you talk about the decision to make your record? LS:
This was inspired by a gig opportunity I got to present my original music at [Johannesburg-based jazz club] The Orbit, honoring an invite by producer Aymeric Peguillan. I formed a quintet that I had always wished to hear play my music. From playing that gig, I decided to document this experience before leaving for the United States. I knew that the move would compose new material so I had to first document this important experience in my life. AAJ:
You brought on Nduduzo Makhathini
to act not as a pianist on the album, but as the producer. What was that experience like? LS:
Nduduzo is like my closest big brother. He introduced me to the Johannesburg music scene when I moved there, and I even had a chance to play on his second album, Mother Tongue
. That was the first Jazz record I was a part of in Johannesburg.
His experience helped guide the whole project. I believe in his creativity and musicality. Judging from his albums and other works that he produced, he has done really amazing work as a producer. To have him produce the album was also a good opportunity for Sanele Phakathi to learn closely from a person who inspires him. AAJ:
You titled the album Two Sides, One Mirror
, and in the liner notes there is a reference to the music coming from two separate periods of your life. Can you expand on that? LS:
The title was inspired by a mirror in my parent's bedroom at home. I would meditate on it when they were away at work, reflect on things that had happened in my upbringing and things that I aspire to do in the future.
Later, I came to realize that the title is even deeper than I thought. The whole album is actually a reflection of my life, the richness of culture in KwaZulu-Natal where I was born and raised. AAJ:
Let's walk through some of these tracks. Can you talk about "Hidden Love" and the addition of a vocalist and lyrics? LS:
Hidden Love is a song I composed in 2012, while I was at university. It came through an experience of loving someone but not being able to express the feeling.
The lyrics were written by Omagugu Makhathini, these lyrics are so in sync with the narrative of the song as if I had explained to Mrs. Makhathini the story behind the song, I had not told her the story but spiritual communication gave birth to these amazing lyrics. Having Sis Omagugu on vocals was intentional. I new that she would execute it in a satisfactory way singing the melody with so much dignity, drawing a lot of inspiration from the great Mam Abbey Lincoln. AAJ:
You also add a vocal element right at the end with "Closer to the Heart." Can you talk about that? LS:
"Closer to the Heart" was composed in the same period as "Hidden Love." This was a song I received when I was inspired by the music and people I had been exposed to in that period.
The vocal chant at the end of the song captures a unison idea of a rejoicing collectively after an accomplishment. Such sounds are borrowed from our African ceremonies.