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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.

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