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Sisonke Xonti: A Leap of Faith

Sisonke Xonti: A Leap of Faith
Seton Hawkins By

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I write what comes to me in the moment. I write on emotion, and I try to reflect that emotion in the music and bring out what I’m thinking about. —Sisonke Xonti
Known for years as an outstanding saxophonist and first-call collaborator in a variety of top South African Jazz ensembles, in recent years Sisonke Xonti has rightly earned acclaimed for his own talents as a bandleader and a composer. Notably, Xonti's 2017 debut release Iyonde not only provided a stellar showcase for his superlative horn work, it also showed his thoroughly compelling voice as a composer and his creativity as an arranger.

Recently announced as the Standard Bank Young Artist Award recipient for 2020, Xonti appears positioned for a banner year, as his critical accolades begin to reflect his prodigious talents.

All About Jazz: Elsewhere, you've mentioned that as a child you wanted to be a trombonist, but picked up clarinet instead. How did that come about?

Sisonke Xonti: When I was in primary school, I first went to a school that had no music program. Then my parents moved me to one of the top primary schools in the Western Cape. When I got there, at the first assembly I saw a band play, and I saw this guy playing trombone. I fell in love with it and went home telling my parents 'I want to play that thing that you slide up and down!' They went to the music teachers, who got back to my parents and said they didn't have any more trombones, but I could play clarinet. That's how I got introduced to the clarinet; I didn't want to play it, but there were no more trombones left at the school.

AAJ: When did you transition to the saxophone?

SX: Most of my friends who played clarinet moved on to saxophone. It was just kind of the natural progression: clarinet to saxophone. I think the school was also short on sax players in the school band. I don't remember clearly how it happened, but the music teacher must have asked me to move to saxophone. I was about 13 then.

When I started playing saxophone, I fell in love with it immediately.

AAJ: There must have been a very fast progression and development for you then, as only a few years later, you make your recording debut with the Little Giants band on Umgalibali. How did you join that ensemble?

SX: When I was about 13, there was an event at our school, and there was a band playing. My parents happened to be there, and my dad said, "I know that guy in the band, I grew up with him. His name is Ezra Ngcukana."

They were playing Township Jazz, and that's something I grew up listening to because my dad loved it. But this was the first time I had heard a live band play that music. After my Dad said he knew Ezra, I was on his case saying "You need to introduce me to that guy." It took about two years, but when I was about fifteen, my dad bumped into Ezra Ngcukana somewhere and told him that I played saxophone and wanted to meet him.

Ezra invited me to a band rehearsal—which turned out to be the Little Giants—and that's how I joined the band. We used to go every Saturday, and he used to teach us some Township Jazz, as well as a little theory here and there. He had a very big role in my upbringing.

AAJ: At that point, the Little Giants had some artists who would go on to become very heavy hitters in South African Jazz. Artists like Darren English, Lwanda Gogwana, and Keenan Ahrends are performing in it, in addition to yourself.

SX: Some of them were older and already at UCT [University of Cape Town], guys like Lwanda. They introduced us to other figures in the Cape Town Jazz scene like Bokani Dyer and Shane Cooper. It was a very nice time to be in the Little Giants.

AAJ: Your playing on the album Umgalibali prominently shows the influence of Ezra Ngcukana's style. Can you talk about his impact on your playing?

SX: At that time, I hadn't yet been exposed to a lot of music. The only people I was really listening to at that time were Bra Ezra and Bra Winston Mankunku Ngozi. I think having the band rehearsals on Saturdays with Ezra Ngcukana influenced me a lot in terms of trying to imitate him. He used to sit next to me and I used to watch the way he sat, how he blew, and I wanted to imitate his sound. For me, that was the reference. I didn't know about John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, or Wayne Shorter. I didn't even know about Zakes Nkosi or McCoy Mrubata! The two people I knew were Ezra and Mankunku, and so I wanted to imitate them and get that sound. I wanted to be like them.

AAJ: At that point, you're 17 and getting ready for university. You studied law though?

SX: I actually started with music but dropped out to do law. In high school, music was a hobby; I didn't see it as a career at the time. It was something I'd do on the side, but at school people wanted to be doctors, accountants, lawyers.

For my first year, I was to go and study law at Rhodes University. My parents only met my high school friends when I was in Matric [final year]. They were quite naughty guys, and we all had this plan that we'd go and study at Rhodes together. Once my parents found out that we were all going to Rhodes together, they were like "Hell no. You're not going there!"

That was the only university I had applied to, and this was now December 2006, just after Matric. I didn't know what I was going to do come 2007 [South Africa's schoolyear begins in January], but I was speaking with George Werner and explaining my predicament. He said, "Why don't you just study music?" I said I hadn't applied, that it was too late, but he said he'd see what he could do.

George organized for me to audition at Stellenbosch University, and they said I could come to study. In January, I went with my dad to check out the campus, and I was like "Hell no, I don't want to be here." I spoke to George again, and he said "Let me try UCT." I think he spoke to Darryl Andrews and Andrew Lilley. This was mid-January, and university was about to start, but they organized an audition for me with Andrew Lilley. That's how I studied music.

I think at that time I wasn't mentally ready for it, because my mind was stuck on studying law. I coasted through the year, not doing much, and the following year I went and studied law. The thing is, during that first year I met a lot of other musicians and started playing in their bands. I was always gigging, and so music was there even when I was studying law.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier that your musical references in high school were Mankunku and Ezra Ngcukana. Was it at UCT that the references began to expand?

SX: In my first year, I started hanging out with Lwanda Gogwana a lot, and he introduced me to John Coltrane. For that one year, I really listening to him. Once I left UCT, I started to check out players like Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker, getting in depth with their playing.

AAJ: During this period at UCT, you met guitarist Jimmy Dludlu and joined his band. How did that happen?

SX: Yes, it was at Bra Winston Mankunku's memorial service jam. I was playing, and Jimmy was there as well. I guess he saw me playing, and I was star struck. He's one of my idols. About three months later, I got a call from him, asking if I could join his band. That's how I started playing with him.

AAJ: What was the experience of working with him and learning from him like?

SX: That guy is a genius. I had played in a lot of bands by then, but I had never been in a band that was as tight as Jimmy's was. The band was so well rehearsed, so professional, and it was amazing. His genius in writing and arranging, creating a vibe, I learned a lot from him.

AAJ: You mentioned being focused on studying law. At what point did you fully commit to music as a profession?

SX: My final year studying law, we had to go to court to watch over cases. Watching the lawyers, I noticed they all looked very sad. I remember sitting there thinking, "Man, this guy looks sad. And that guy looks very sad." I had this epiphany that forty years down the line, that would be me. I didn't want to be that person, and I realized that music was what made me happy.

I moved to Joburg in 2013 and took a leap of faith.

AAJ: You arrived in Joburg at a very busy time. The Orbit opened in 2014, and during the same period a huge range of projects by young Jazz artists develop.

SX: Yes, but in the first six months I got there, I only had one gig! I knew Thandi Ntuli, and I knew Lwanda Gogwana, but that was about it. I messaged Nduduzo Makhathini to tell him I was in Joburg. That was probably four or five months in, and he said "You should have said! Let's hang."

He invited me to record with Sisa Sopazi on Images and Figures. That album was my introduction to the Joburg scene. I met a lot of musicians. I got introduced to Bra Herbie Tsoaeli and joined his band with Nduduzo and Ayanda Sikade, and we did that live recording of his quartet.

But Sisa Sopazi was the springboard for my career in Johannesburg. People started to hear about me then. I was lucky enough to be invited by people to record with them.

AAJ: You've certainly appeared on many albums in the past five years. What was going on in the scene in Johannesburg that drove so much creative work during that time?

SX: We had no choice. You can't sit at home and expect your phone to ring, so I think there was this energy of people hustling to get gigs and build their brands. It rubbed off on everyone, and people were inspiring one another to record and do gigs.

A lot of us—Lwanda, Benjamin, Thandi, and me—had moved from Cape Town, so we got to Joburg and we had to make things work.

AAJ: Two projects that you've worked on jump out as particularly unique: Mabuta with Shane Cooper and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra with Marcus Wyatt. Can you talk about your involvement in them?

SX: Mabuta was a gathering of friends, and a comfortable space. Shane called a few of his mates to play this music. It works out because we all love the electronic sound. Most of us don't get the opportunity to work in that electronic side of things, and so when he got us together it gelled. He's a beautiful writer, and everyone gave their all to the music. I'm glad to have been a part of that project.

The ZAR Orchestra was the first big band recording I'd ever done! In South Africa, we don't get the opportunity to play in large ensembles because of the financial side of things, so when we do get that opportunity, it's a great time for everyone. You want to give your best to that music.

AAJ: While you moved to Joburg in 2013, you held off on recording your own debut album Iyonde until late in 2016. What ultimately prompted the debut?

SX: I probably should have done it in 2014 when all those albums were coming out in Johannesburg. But at that point, I was too comfortable. I was working and busy with other people's projects. That's not a bad thing, though I do think it's important for an artist to take time out and do their own thing.

But around June 2016, I was going through a difficult time. I had broken up with my girlfriend of seven or eight years, and I was down and writing music. I realized I had all this new music, as well as music from a while back, so why not record? That period helped me heal and helped me shift my focus away from the heartache.

Shane and Bokani were still in Cape Town at the time, so I called them up and said, "Guys, are you free to record in a few months' time? I don't have any money, but I'll raise the funds. Let me know how we can do it." The guys were willing to help me out, and we recorded in October 2016. It was a beautiful moment.

AAJ: A number of the pieces have an intensely personal quality to them. Tracks like "Is This Goodbye?" and "Introspection" are very personal and intimate.

SX: Those songs are written in that exact period! I also had older songs I had written and could have included, but I felt that I needed to focus on what I was going through at that period and play music that reflected the time.

AAJ: You've mentioned calling Bokani and Shane to record, and the rest of the band is similarly impressive. How did you decide upon it?

SX: When I was in Cape Town around 2012, I really got to know Shane Cooper because we were both playing in Kesivan and the Lights, Kesivan Naidoo's band. I fell in love with Shane's playing. I was actually supposed to record with him on his album Oscillations, but I had just moved to Joburg.

So when I thought of the idea of recording the album, I had to make sure Shane was there. I've loved Bokani's playing for the longest time. I remember when I first arrived at UCT, the first lunch hour concert I watched was with his band playing. Subsequently, he and I were in Jimmy Dludlu's band together, and we were touring and traveling together. Bokani also produced Iyonde. For me, he's a musical visionary. I felt he was the right guy to help with the direction of the music.

I met Spha Mdlalose in my first year at UCT, and we became friends. We had a band with Thandi and Lwanda that played every Friday at Tagore's Observatory for about six months. That's where we grew this musical relationship, and I loved how we would blend. Spha would be the third horn with Lwanda and me. In that band, she didn't do much of the typical vocalist work of singing with lyrics. She was singing harmonic parts. So when I thought of her, I didn't want to record with another horn, but I did want another instrument with me. She was who I thought about.

AAJ: The wordless vocal lines are a fascinating hallmark of Iyonde.

SX: Yeah, that's how I write. I wish I could sing it myself, but I don't have a voice. I wouldn't say it's my style, but I really like that kind of writing.

AAJ: How might you describe your style, then?

SX: For me, I'm not a technical guy when it comes to music. I write what comes to me in the moment. I write on emotion, and I try to reflect that emotion in the music and bring out what I'm thinking about. But I don't think I have a particular sound. For me, Iyonde doesn't have a singular sound.

AAJ: Fast forwarding to 2019, we open the year with the terrible setback of The Orbit closing. Indeed, nearly all the venues we've talked about here have by now closed. Despite so much creativity in the scene today, there seems to be a lack of venues. How do you handle that type of uncertainty?

SX: Things really began closing down in 2018. A lot of us musicians were seeing a lot of each other before then, two or three times a week people were gigging. In Johannesburg, The Orbit was that space, and people were creating music and seeing each other. People were pushing each other to do new things. Now, we don't get to see each other as much, and people have gone into their pockets hustling pop-up gigs, pop-up Jazz events at restaurants. There isn't a particular club in Joburg that focuses on Jazz. I can't speak about Cape Town because I don't live there anymore.

But people are still working. We're putting up our own events.

AAJ: While the year began on the down note, we conclude the year with the announcement that you received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award.

SX: I really did not expect it! Musicians talk amongst each other: "Did you get it?" "No, I didn't get it." "Did you?" It's always that kind of talk among Jazz musicians.

So when I got a call from Nobesuthu Rayi from the National Arts Festival in late August, it was eight o-clock in the morning. When she told me I got the award, I thought "Ok, no really, who is this?" I thought it was a prank on me! I didn't believe it until she sent me a letter about a week later.

It means a lot. Looking back at the people I've worked with and looked up to who have gotten that award, and seeing what they've gone on to achieve, I get goosebumps thinking about what's possible.

AAJ: With that in mind, what do you hope to do in the coming year?

SX: I need to record another album. I learned so much from Iyonde, on how to approach releasing an album. It's not just about putting the album out there; it's a business. I'm looking forward to releasing a new album, and with Standard Bank backing me, I'll have the opportunity to travel more.

Photo Credit: Lindo Mbhele

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