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San featuring Zim Ngqawana: San Song

Eyal Hareuveni By

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San Song represents the first appearance on record by one of South Africa's greatest musical treasures, saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. The disc, which presented Ngqawana's soulful vision to the jazz world, was recorded in Oslo in May of 1996 with Norwegian saxophonist Bjørn Ole Solberg and a young and rising Norwegian rhythm section. Ngqawana was 37 years old at the time of the recording; two years had passed after he led a 100-musician troupe at the inauguration of South African president Nelson Mandela, and 15 years since he began to play the flute. The disc demonstrates how culturally diversified and open jazz is, as it always has been.

The international San collective is comprised of Ngqawana and his longtime pianist Andile Yenana, along with Trondheim-based saxophonist Solberg and his rhythm section of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebright Håker Flaten, who went on to accompany Ngqawana on two of his later releases as a leader, Zimology (Sheer Sound, 1998) and Ingoma (Sheer Sound, 1999), as well as other musicians including Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. This recording took place after a short tour in South Africa.

San Song features two compositions by Ngqawana and four by Solberg. Ngqawana's compositions, the opening "San Song" and the following impressive suite "Amagoduka (Migrant Workers)," demonstrate his explicit debt to the revolutionary and spiritual jazz of the '60s, mainly late-era Coltrane, but also Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, and Yussef Lateef, with whom he studied. Ngqawana's music is deeply rooted in the folk-based traditions of South Africa, very warm, powerful, and passionate, leaving a lot of room for improvisation. His compositions are build on melodic motifs, and like Coltrane, his improvisations, inside and out, add layer upon layer on these motifs. The affinity to Coltrane sound and spirit is also emphasized by Yenana, who clearly emerges from the McCoy Tyner piano school.

Solberg's compositions are much more orchestrated, built around head-solo-head patterns, with a clear line of solos, but they show how tight this collective can be, and how every player has already gained a distinct voice by this early stage in their musical career. The closing piece, "Øde," is Solberg's most appealing composition. The serene suite is built around a repeated piano pattern, leaving a lot of space to the two saxophonists to improvise throughout its almost sixteen minutes, bringing the album full circle to the intensity of its opening.

San Song is a second-generation collaboration between South African and European musicians, almost thirty years after South African jazz musicians like Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, and Mongezi Feza departed into exile from the apartheid regime of South Africa. It's a very convincing statement of how music can build bridges between traditions, nations, and—obviously—human beings.

Visit Zim Ngqawana and AAJ: South Africa on the web.


Track Listing: San Song (Ngqawana); Migrant Workers (Ngqawana); Elgester (Solberg); 43. Casablanca (Solberg); Cape Point (Solberg);

Personnel: Zim Ngqawana: soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, flute; Bj

Title: San Song | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Sheer Sound


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