South Africa at the South Bank

Duncan Heining By

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The Dedication Orchestra and Abdullah Ibrahim
The South Bank Centre
London Jazz Festival
November 15, 2014

The London Jazz Festival is now in its twenty-second year. It's a vast, sprawling event and its venues criss-cross a city that never quite seems to end, whilst its musical styles span the globe from the USA to Australia and from South Africa to Norway. Saturday 15th November saw South Africa in two distinctly different guises at the South Bank Centre.

I've been coming here since 1969 and, for me, its position on the banks of the Thames with St. Pauls in one direction and Westminster Cathedral in the other is one of London's most beautiful cityscapes. London is an international city and always has been and the South Bank has been the home of music and the arts from all over the world for over sixty years. Welcome, therefore, once more to Louis Moholo-Moholo and The Dedication Orchestra and Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.

Formed in the early nineties to celebrate the music of the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath, the orchestra is a testament to the impact of South African jazz on the British, European and world scenes. And it is to due to Louis, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor and, Blue Note by adoption, bassist Harry Miller that our music has been enriched in this way. The sadness of the passing of Chris, Dudu, Mongs, Johnny and Harry is now increased by the knowledge that of those who played on the two Dedication Orchestra albums—Spirits Rejoice and Ixesha (Ogun Records)—are also no longer here. Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Lol Coxhill, Sean Bergin, Harry Beckett and Elton Dean.

Many of those on the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage on this afternoon could trace their own connections with the South Africans through direct musical links—past and present -or friendships or influences, some of which date back nearly fifty years. With more than twenty musicians on the stand, it was an afternoon for celebration. Pity therefore that the sound in the hall was so poor. A band this size needs a balance between its awesome ensemble power and sonic separation so that the horns, in particular, can be heard with clarity. Dudu Pukwana's "Hug Pine," for example, disappeared in a mud-slide. Things improved from the fourth number on but some people still complained they couldn't hear some of the solos.

All credit to the Dedication Orchestra for rising above these circumstances to deliver a set that transcended these problems—in large part, if not completely. Chris McGregor's "Andromeda" was the first number to really hit home with the duo between Evan Parker on tenor and pianist Keith Tippett a wonderful reprise of their performance on the original Spirits Rejoice album (Ogun). Louis Moholo-Moholo was as ever incandescent and his partnership with bassist John Edwards the force majeure drove the band on. "Andromeda" led into McGregor's "Manje" and the vocalists—Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nichols in particular -seemed to be having a ball. From that point, we were home dry. Dudu's "B My Dear," sumptuously arranged by the late Kenny Wheeler, was as lovely as ever but "The Serpent's Kindly Eye" with some great, growling trombone from Annie Whitehead and lyrical alto from Ray Warleigh was perhaps the show-stopper. This is a band that gets together far too infrequently. They and this astonishing book of tunes deserved better than this from the South Bank.

Again, the sound was not good in the Festival Hall later that evening for Abdullah Ibrahim—far too quiet. Nor did the set of fiery 'township jazz' promised by the announcer for the second half ever really materialise. In fact, there seemed to be more 'New York' in the performance than 'South Africa.' You know those nights when there's a gap between what you hear and what the rest of the audience seems to experience. This was one for me. The first half was better by far. Ibrahim opened with a solo piano medley, poised and elegant. For a musician whose influences span jazz (in particular, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk), township and kwela but also the Protestant hymn tradition, it is in his solo performances that these appear writ most large. It was perhaps a moment more for an intimate venue—that sound thing again—but it was one that told so much of Ibrahim's life and career. Joined then by his bassist Noah Jackson on cello and Cleave Guyton on flute and clarinet, the new trio gave us a different slant on Ibrahim's music, one that perhaps connected hymnally with the Baroque of Bach and Mozart. It was quiet and delicate and we prepared for the storm of 'township jazz' to come. Sadly, it never did.

Don't get me wrong, it was a long way from being a 'bad' gig. One friend said it was like "watching the dying embers when what you needed was the fire." Maybe that's a little harsh—Ibrahim's art has been informed by struggle, exile, love of homeland but by an overwhelming tenderness, as well. But I know what he meant. It was polite where punch was needed. It was well-rehearsed where something more inchoate was required. Not that the rest of the audience seemed to notice. For me, it was an '8 out of 10,' with one or two points gifted out of nostalgia but not 'standing ovation' great! As for the Southbank, they get a '3 out of 10' and a 'must try harder' on the report card.

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