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Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: While you were at UCT, you were among a number of really remarkable Jazz students who were studying there at that time. Can you talk about that community, and about the Cape Town scene at that point?

NS: The Jazz students at the College of Music vary in strength from year to year and that often shapes the Jazz scene itself. Cape Town is so small and the school system feeds the professional scene.

I was very lucky to be part of a strong wave at UCT that turned out particularly prolific jazz musicians. Some of those people are doing brilliant work now and are not just the future of South African jazz, but are the present: if you want to hear what South African Jazz sounds like and what its influences are today, listen to them. Bokani Dyer, the pianist, was a year ahead of me when I was at UCT. Bassist Shane Cooper was in my year, and so was the trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, who now lives in Johannesburg. Chris Engel, who lives in Dublin and plays with a great Irish band called Umbra, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. The vocalist Nomfundo Xaluva and trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis were a couple years ahead of me but were very much part of that wave too.

It was a rich, varied, and versatile group of people. And of course our lecturers, like Mike Campbell and Darryl Andrews were there and were great forces in the Cape Town Jazz scene. There were many more Jazz venues like the Green Dolphin and Manenberg's, as well as corporate work, and UCT Jazz musicians fed into the local Jazz industry. It was a very vibrant time.

AAJ: You spoke about coming to folk music, rock bands, Classical music, as well as the Jazz out of America's tradition. When did you start to encounter some of the original music, particularly Jazz, going on in South Africa?

NS: There wasn't really any South African Jazz in my musical upbringing. Compared to peers like Bokani or Chris, I was very uneducated about SA Jazz. Chris grew up listening to South African Jazz, specifically a lot of the Cape Jazz players like the Dyers brothers [Errol and Alvin], Kippie Moeketsi, Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Bokani's father Steve Dyer is a South African Jazz musician, so Bokani also grew up listening to local players and was ingrained in SA Jazz. It was actually through Bokani and Chris that I was introduced to Bheki Mseleku's music. Bokani organized a Bheki tribute concert at the College. I remember Chris playing "Angola" for me in the car and saying, "Listen, I've spoken to the guys [Bokani and Shane], and we think that maybe you can come and sing with us on this song. But listen, if it's not good, if it's not up to par, we won't use you." And I remember sitting there and nodding solemnly, determined to do a good job so I could play with them and be "one of the boys."

People ask me, "Who's your favorite South African Jazz musician?" Even with my limited knowledge—although it's better now than it was when I was at university—Bheki for me is in a league of his own and so underrated. I also feel like he gets overshadowed by Abdullah Ibrahim, which is a pity.

AAJ: It's interesting you bring up Bheki, as one of your notable projects found you setting Bheki's instrumental music to lyrics. When you played at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola as part of the Carnegie Hall Ubuntu festival in 2014, I know you performed your lyrical setting of "Closer to the Source." It seems you've since added lyrics to a number of his pieces now.

NS: For the Dizzy's performance, I needed more South African repertoire, and because my mother tongue is not isiXhosa or isiZulu, the SA Jazz Vocal repertoire options are somewhat limited. So I decided to write my own English lyrics to one of my favorite Bheki tunes, "Closer To The Source." Subsequent to that 2014 performance, Nomfi Xaluva [Nomfundo Xaluva] has sung those lyrics to that song, as have several students at UCT. There was clearly a need for more SA Jazz rep with English lyrics.

When I started teaching at UCT, decolonizing the university's syllabi was very topical, and the arts is one of the places where you really can incorporate more South African artists and writers. The singers need songs to sing beyond "Yakhal' Inkomo" or "Seliyana" or "Ntyilo Ntyilo," and the minority of our current Jazz vocalists are first-language isiXhosa or isiZulu speakers. Yes, they must learn to sing in those languages the same way singers should learn how to sing in passable Portuguese. But I also wanted to give them the opportunity to engage with the material and lyrical content, so I took a bunch of Bheki's tunes and wrote lyrics to them. Then I organized an internal concert at UCT where Nomfi, trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis, pianist Andrew Lilley, and I performed the songs for the students. It's great because now the songs are on rotation and I'll get emails from people all over the country saying, "Do you have a chart for 'Adored Value'?" It's given a lot of vocalists an easy way to expand their SA jazz rep, and Bheki's music is now being explored by a new generation and shared with people who may not be so familiar with his work.

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