Lwanda Gogwana: Tradition and Innovation

Seton Hawkins BY

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As I grow up and mature, I realize the space I'm in as a musician—which is Cape Town, which is Johannesburg, which is South Africa—is absorbed in who I am. Everything I do now is a reflection of that.
—Lwanda Gogwana
When South African trumpet virtuoso Lwanda Gogwana released his second album Uhadi Synth (Lwanda Gogwana Music Group, 2016) last year, he reinforced his position not only as one of South Africa's truly exceptional horn talents, but also as one of its most probing and insightful artists and composers.

The title of the album itself—the modern synthesizer juxtaposed with an uhadi, a traditional bowed instrument of South Africa's Xhosa people—reflects an interest in exploring, studying, and even uniting the traditional and the modern. As one listens through the tracks, featuring a mixture of new arrangements of traditional works and a re-working of a South African Jazz standard paired with original pieces by Gogwana, one truly gets the sense of a continuum of Xhosa music that spans centuries and informs a continued cultural dialogue on tradition and innovation.

All About Jazz: Let's look at the title: Uhadi Synth. We're talking about the combination of the traditional and the modern in that title. How did that inform the album?

Lwanda Gogwana: I did studies on Xhosa music, and what I tried to do was bring it to a field that was more familiar to me, which was obviously Jazz. What I'm also exploring a lot nowadays is the electronic, basically anything modern, in music. In the title, "Uhadi" refers to the instrument I did study, which was played by a woman named Nofinishi Dywili. I did my musicology studies on her; in fact, several of the songs on the album are traditional Xhosa songs that she recorded. I transcribed main melodies and riffs from her recordings and then used them as the skeleton for the arrangements I based on the album on. The "Synth" part refers to synthesizers and effects that I employed. I used the effects lightly because I wanted the outcome to be a really "Jazz" album. I wanted to draw on the sound of the 1950s and the Cool Jazz approach.

AAJ: When you speak of Nofinishi Dywili, another name that comes up is musicologist David Dargie, who made some of the initial recordings that featured her playing. He cited a conversation he had during which an artist asserted that Xhosa musicians "like to put salt in their songs." What did he mean by that?

LG: What I found out about Xhosa music is that, just like Jazz, the "salt" part is improvisation. It's filling in the blanks and improvising on a basic skeleton that is repeated throughout the music. What I also learned from Dave Dargie is that he analyzed the music theoretically in a manner that I could really understand. I tried to elaborate on the scales he had used in his analysis, and I would then interpret it in more of a Jazz context. But I used his analysis in where I took the music, and I tried to elaborate more on that.

AAJ: Let's look at two of the traditional pieces on the album. On Ingxembula, the piano line seems to mirror the original uhadi playing. On Maqundeni, the uhadi line is heard in the bass, which in turn gives way to almost a Blues shuffle. That suggests interesting connections between Xhosa music and America's Blues and Jazz traditions. Did any others emerge as you prepared this?

LG: I think that's what I learned in analyzing the music; the Swing feel is there in Xhosa music, especially on Maqundeni. So what I did then is base the bass part on the fundamental tone of the uhadi playing, and I then extended the harmony based on the notes that come out of the calabash [an uhadi has a struck note on a string, and an overtone series that forms in an attached calabash], and drew the melodies from Nofinishi's singing. So I used all of those tools in each of the songs on the album.

On another song, Qula Kwedini, that's another traditional song, but I made reference to the late great Jazz master Zim Ngqawana's version of the song, and added a swing feel. But still, even there we stayed true to the bass line of the original, that harmonic shift of a tone that is constantly repeated. On top of that, we add the harmony and the "salt" part, the improvisation. I was also inspired by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album, so for that I sketched a melody and let everybody improvise based on the ostinato.

AAJ: In addition to Zim, the late Mongezi Feza is another great Xhosa Jazz musician whose music makes an appearance on this album with Ucing Uyandazi (You Think You Know Me). In both cases, those were elder artists who explored similar territory to what you are doing now. How did you incorporate what the earlier generations had done in relation to your own works?

LG: As I grow up and mature, I realize the space I'm in as a musician—which is Cape Town, which is Johannesburg, which is South Africa—is absorbed in who I am. Everything I do now is a reflection of that. On my first album, Chapter 1 (Lwanda Gogwana Music Group, 2012), everything was composed and arranged by me; on Uhadi Synth I tried to learn from the traditions and pay homage to those who came before me. With the traditional works I've played on this album, I've tried to go back as far as possible in understanding music from South Africa and my being. My compositions are then based off the traditional Xhosa compositions, so I tried to, within that context, combine myself as a composer with traditional music and previous composers to come up with something unified.

AAJ: Let's talk about your original compositions. You open the album with Nkosazana and Umculo, both originals of yours. And you can hear these different styles and influences coming together in both works. On Umculo, there also sounds like a strong gospel feel in the piano and in the accordion at the end.

LG: Yes, and actually that accordion at the end is really Bra Zim's influence. He really loved that sound, and that sound is from the Xhosa churches in the Eastern Cape. So I wanted to reference what Bra Zim would have done.

When the missionaries came to Southern Africa, they came with their classical chord progressions—the typical one is I-IV-V. Even though I start on the diminished third in that composition, I'm ultimately making reference to that I-IV-V harmonic structure. It is a sound that is distinct to South African Jazz, which is a topic I'm exploring more in a new project I'm doing. So Umculo references that sound and harmonic feel, and pianist Kyle Shepherd was really the best person to book for that. He really knows how to stylistically give something is the flavor the music needs.

AAJ: Kyle also can play the umrhubhe [a Xhosa bow played with the artist's mouth as a resonator], too, right?

LG: Well, more specifically the umrhubhe comes from the mouthbow that the Khoisan play, which called a xaru. He plays that, which is more like the original umrhubhe—the xaru is much longer! When he plays the piano he really emulates these sounds, and he is constantly exploring new music. He really can get that African sound and texture on the piano.

AAJ: On the question of I-IV-V family of chord progressions, a lot of Marabi [a traditional South African music style] pieces follow that. In that respect it reminds one of American Blues traditions, which often employ a similar progression.

LG: That's true. When you study a lot of South African Jazz, you see parallel movement between our Jazz and Jazz in America. It's fascinating, and it's something I want to study more to find that connection. When you look at the Blues and you look at Marabi, or when you look at the Swing Era and you look at Kwela, they can be very related, and it's quite fascinating also to look at the socioeconomic factors of both countries as the music is created.

AAJ: On Chapter 1, you exclusively featured your original works. Can you talk about where that project came from?

LG: That album was an integration of everything I was working on up to that point. It was a bit messy, because it really was a combination of many things. I was young and wanted to put out anything I felt like in an album. At one point I was at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and a man came up to me and said 'your album is all over the place,' and he didn't mean it in a positive way. From that day I realized he was right, but at the same time it's ok because it reflected my head space and who I was at that time.

That album also featured a study of indigenous Xhosa music, and the first track Kwinqwelo also used the tonal movement of the uhadi. I also had umrhube players on it.

AAJ: Chapter 1 also features that wonderful composition Jam for Moses Taiwa Molelekwa in tribute to the late pianist. Can you talk about him and his influence?

LG: I was and still am a huge of Moses Molelekwa's music. And I like what he did: digging as far back as possible in indigenous music and bringing it into synthesizers and modern styles. I love his music and melodies, and his approach for advancing Jazz in South Africa. So that album reflects what I was thinking at the time. With Uhadi Synth I tried to base everything as far back as possible while being in the present moment at the same time.

AAJ: Moses Molelekwa's music is also intensely and gorgeously melodic. I hear that in your work too.

LG: South Africa is a singing nation. I wasn't really conscious of the singing part, but I guess through trying to dig deeper it came out. Umculo is the Xhosa word for music, and I composed it to sing. That's why it flows and flies on top of that progression.

AAJ: You have previously mentioned that Umculo also has lyrics. What are they?

LG: The lyrics are in Xhosa. But they translate to "When I use my head, I don't feel it. But when I use my heart, we sing together." I also speak about how it has always been there in front of me, but I haven't seen it. So by that I mean I've always been a child of Africa and this beauty has always been around me, but because I wanted to be hip all the time, I'd been looking elsewhere and dreaming elsewhere. I speak about how I'm slowly learning and growing and hope to be a true child of Africa.

AAJ: That really cuts to the heart and soul of the album!

LG: Yes, and that's why I feel bad about not including the lyrics in the album!

I was watching an interview with Terence Blanchard about how he structures an album. And he said that he writes and writes and writes, and then he looks to choose songs that speak to the same subject, and make sense as a whole. I try to have that in mind now, to have a subject I explore and not lose the listener by going elsewhere.

I also worked with Ray Phiri, who recently passed away. At one point he hired the pianist Bokani Dyer to re-arrange his music. And at the first rehearsal, we've got the new arrangements and we're discussing the repertoire for his first song. He comes and says "We can't do this song, or that song because it won't speak to the context of what we're doing. And it especially won't speak to the people of Durban." To have heard him say that, to see him carefully structure the setlist to speak to a subject, was special.

AAJ: He was an amazing artist.

LG: I want to try to be in that lineage some day. It takes time, and there is so much to learn. There are so many things in our faces that distract us. And Jazz is not a genre that pays the bills. But it is the most rewarding and fulfilling in terms of understanding life and human beings, and so it's a genre we need to play.

When I released my first album I thought 'This is it. This is amazing, and this is my best work.' Part of that was the amount of work I put in, but part of it was being young and naïve and thinking it was great and final. Now, I realize everything is a process, and we must always do more and more, and it will tell its story in the future sometime.

As I go forward, I am studying the I-IV-V sound that became the blueprint of South African sound. Songbook Chapter 2 is something I've been thinking about, and I've started drafting some compositions that I want to include.

I've been exploring the story of Nongawuse. She was a Xhosa who, back in the day, was apparently mislead by British colonizers, and she was convinced that she needed to tell the Xhosa people to get rid of their crops and livestock to defeat the British.

AAJ: In doing so, the spirits would sweep the settlers away and replenish the food, right?

LG: Yes, and now Nongqawuse is used as a term used to ridicule things. If you say something that is too good to be true or is basically false, you are speaking a Nongqawuse.

But the story is a mystery, and nobody really knows the truth. So I want to tell her story: she was a young girl at the time, and you have to think about the power to be able to convince a whole nation to get rid of all their riches. I think there's some power in her, and I want to find that power, and explore the story with symphonic instruments and Xhosa instruments. It's Nongqawuse in Wonderland, it's an amazing story.

Selected Discography

Lwanda Gogwana, Chapter 1 (Lwanda Gogwana Music, 2012)
Lwanda Gogwana, Uhadi Synth (Lwanda Gogwana Music, 2016)
McCoy Mrubata, Live at the Market Theatre (Kokoko Music, 2016)

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