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Lwanda Gogwana: Tradition and Innovation

Seton Hawkins By

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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.

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