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Vuma Levin: Musical Painting


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There’s no simple answer I can give. I just believe that I’m a musician who uses a variety of colors in order to musically abstract upon what I am and what I aspire to be.
—Vuma Levin
South African guitarist and composer Vuma Levin has been receiving significant accolades in local and international circles, and it's easy to see why. A thoughtful, intelligent improviser and bandleader, Levin is also a highly thought-provoking composer, one intent on exploring the music's role in commenting on and shaping societal discourse.

Indeed, with last year's release of his second album, Life and Death on the Other Side of the Dream, Levin offered a breathtaking musical exploration: mixing strong compositional work with superb improvisation, Levin also incorporated audio samples to frame and comment on the music, most notably by using former South African President Thabo Mbeki's "I Am an African" speech. The results are provocative, at times challenging, and exceedingly memorable, highlighting an artist with profound insights into music's ongoing evolution, and its role in contemporary South African society.

All About Jazz: You have mentioned previously that you had a late arrival to music, picking up a guitar at 14, but studying in earnest at 20. Can you talk about the later arrival to music, your time studying at Tshwane University of Technology [TUT], and your studies with [famed South African guitarist] Johnny Fourie?

Vuma Levin: The stuff with Johnny Fourie happened the year after I left high school. Johnny was actually very sick at that time, and he had stopped teaching at TUT. I got his number from a classical guitarist by the name of Jimmy Gillmer. I started taking lessons with Johnny after that, when I was 19. It was a very inspiring time: at the time I didn't understand how music worked or how the guitar worked, so I feel like I didn't get everything out of it that I could have. But what I did get out of the experience was, principally, the motivation to work in a far more intense and focused manner than I had done. Johnny had such an inspiring story: a random Afrikaans boy from a farm who ended up travelling the world and taking part in some of the most prestigious performances globally. That is an inspiring narrative for a 19-year-old to hear.

I also loved his playing, and I listened to his CD with bassist Carlo Mombelli. I was obsessed with that CD, and when Johnny released his solo guitar album, I listened avidly to that. However, when I started taking lessons with Johnny I didn't really know enough about music to make the most of it.

During my time at TUT I studied with a guitarist named Hugo de Waal.

AAJ: It's interesting that you studied with Johnny—who played in many genres—and with Hugo, who plays both Jazz and Heavy Metal! Your own albums seem to reflect a broad palette of genres. You also incorporate sounds—found sounds—into your own recordings, which recalls Carlo Mombelli's works. How are you approaching all of that?

VL: First, the crossing of genres for me comes from studying at the conservatory in Amsterdam. When I was studying at TUT I was trying to play bebop. It's what I wanted to do: the sound of bebop and the forward motion of bebop lines was mysterious and captivating to me.

When I got to Amsterdam, I got an in-depth focus on learning bebop Jazz guitar. In my third year, we had what we called the Etude Exam, in which you play one swing tune, one up-tempo bop tune, one Coltrane-style tune...essentially an exam to test your ability to play convincingly in the various subcategories of Jazz so that you are able to move onto fourth year.

I did very well in my exam, I got the highest mark in my year, and at the end the teacher said, "You know what you're doing with this, but you need to bring music from where you're from into your process. That's what we want to hear." He told me there were thousands of Jazz guitarists around the world, and that I needed to bring the sound of where I come from into my playing! He was of course referring to the use of traditional South African music in my playing. But, what it sparked me was a rigorous introspection that led me to a cross-genre sound, indicative of my varied musical past.

In terms of Carlo Mombelli's influence, he was a massive inspiration to me before I moved to the Netherlands. The first time I saw Carlo, I was 20, and it was everything I wanted to hear in music. It had a dark melancholic feel, rock influences, sophisticated harmonic sensibilities, great use of dynamic range and of sound as a musical variable unto itself. It had all these things. As I went on my musical journey I left those early experiences behind and it was only later apparent to me how much Carlo influenced me, albeit indirectly, through osmosis rather than disciplined study.

For me, the sound design came from Radiohead. While composing Life And Death on the Other Side of the Dream, I listened extensively to their album King of Limbs. Thom Yorke indicates that part of the process for the making of that album was extending earlier experiments, foregrounding the studio as an instrument. They would take a digital sample, a sound, an effect and use the full range of equipment at their disposal in the studio to manipulate it in multiple ways, composing around the results of that process. In this way, the studio became another instrument.

Western Music notation privileges rhythm, pitch, and harmony, but it is wholly inadequate at quantifying "sound" and "texture." Sure, you can say things like "play it sweetly," or "play softly," but beyond that this type of notation is not very conducive to exploring sound and texture in a meaningful way. Then learning about and studying Edgard Varese, was fascinating to me. And then I went back to Carlo, interviewed him, and realized that his musical conceptions are in line with what I was trying to look at, in trying to foreground sound and texture as musical parameters unto themselves.

AAJ: I was struck as I listened to Life and Death by the couching of Thabo Mbeki's "I Am an African" speech in the work. Its use so long after the date of the speech provokes many thoughts on the text of the speech, and the context in which we receive it now. The music supports that too.

VL: That speech is a landmark speech in South African history. It is a seminal moment in the definition of the post-colonial South African self. Despite this, Mbeki's legacy and the speech occupy an increasingly ambivalent position in South Africa. So for me, that entire suite is a reflection on the post-apartheid South African dream. As a point of entry into that dream and the collective hope that that dream promised, it seemed to me a logical point of departure in the music to have Thabo Mbeki's speech. It so clearly lays down the terms and conditions for the post-apartheid South African self, as an historically constituted entity. It emphasizes mutually antagonistic histories as the glue that binds us, rather than saying "we are all born of this land for multiple generations." In other words, rather than saying our nationality is primordially determined, it foregrounds South African national identity as a historical fixture, and a rather violent one. Through this narrative, it also lays down the hope for some sort of cohesive, post-apartheid South African self.

In the song, the sound that's going on underneath the speech, to me, casts doubt on the viability of the post-apartheid South African project. So in some ways, it celebrates what Mbeki is saying, and how we can be thinking about post-apartheid South African identity. But on the other hand, it's saying that narrative, as nuanced as it is, has exhausted itself.

AAJ: When Americans look at Jazz in South Africa, much of the text focuses exclusively on the music in an anti-apartheid narrative. But we now see so many artists who grew up and came of age post-apartheid, and so the writing in America must decouple Jazz exclusively from the anti-apartheid struggle.

AAJ: Absolutely. And rightfully so. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, it was an act of protest to play Jazz in the apartheid era. Of course, many of the musicians were also anti-apartheid activists, but some weren't, they were just trying to make a living and to express some potential future self. But just the act of being a black Jazz musician in South Africa at that time meant that to some degree you were subverting the aims of the apartheid state. In the post-apartheid age, there are now different things we're trying to grapple with as black individuals in South Africa, and as a society as a whole. Obviously, much of this is tethered to our apartheid past, because its legacy lives on with us. We're trying to understand who we are as a country. We're trying to understand how to create some kind of coherent nation-state with psychologically healthy individuals within it, in the face of a country founded on division and violence with so many racial, gendered, sexual asymmetrical power relations still in operation. To me, that is the biggest struggle of post-apartheid South Africa. So many of our issues today stem from the psychological damage wrought by apartheid.

A lot of what we're doing today is disentangling the post-colonial, post-apartheid self. That sounds fancy, but it's really not. If a chunk of people have been abused for the past 400 years, you would expect that 20 years after the end of apartheid they'd still be busy trying to make sense of it all.

I think it would be a mistake to say that any of our music today is divorced from apartheid. On the other hand, we are moving more towards asking existential questions. How do we make meaning for ourselves in this new age, in the absence of a common oppressor?

AAJ:Looking at how you grapple this in your music, one thing that strikes me as we look at your albums is that you organize the pieces into thematic suites. There are these through-lines between your ZAR History Volume 1 and ZAR History Volume 2 suites on the two albums. To your point, there is a revisiting that you engage in, and a reevaluating.

VL: Yes, ZAR History Volume 1 was on the first album, and Volume 2 on the second. Basically, that music came out of my transcription and analysis of Nguni-Sotho gourd bow, choral, and historically significant urban syncretic musics. It was an attempt to perform a mini-archaeology of South African music, and then to rearticulate those findings in the musical language of the here and now.

The first suite was the first attempt at that, to create a musical representation of moments from the past, then one of moments from the present, and then a vision of moments to come. The second suite is a continuation of that. So, ZAR History Volume Two, Part One is a representation of an imagined, pre-colonial and early colonial South Africa. Part Two originally went under the name Marabi Jive, and was an arrangement of a song called Marabi Jive. That song was meant to be a representation of the black struggle under apartheid, and how Marabi came to be this music by which black South Africans could mediate and negotiate their identity with some sense of pride, in spite of the suffering they were experiencing. Part Three was a representation of the post-apartheid self. It draws on music I heard when I'd go to clubs as a teenager, like Radiohead or Portishead. It's music we don't think of as quintessentially South African. However, it transforms into something South African: as we listen to this music it becomes imbued with the emotions and experiences of that particular moment and in doing it comes to constitute one of the things that signify who we are (as South Africans) and who we imagine ourselves to be.

So that was the idea behind both suites, just that with the second one I wanted to do a better job. I felt that I needed to write something more thought out and original. It was a revisiting from a technical, rather than conceptual point.

AAJ: Delving through musical traditions and pulling them into a larger conceptual suite calls to mind someone like the late Zim Ngqawana, who pulled the traditional song Qula Kwedini into his Elegies in C Minor Suite. Was Zim an influence on your work?

VL: The suite format came from my study of A Love Supreme and Transition. The idea of using the traditions in the suite, for me, I wouldn't say that came from Zim, though the stuff of his I have listened to I think is really great. Involving the tradition in my work, I'd say that came from artists like Afrika Mkhize, Marcus Wyatt, and Kyle Shepherd. So maybe an influence from Zim came indirectly via Kyle, who did the South African History !X album following a mentorship period with Zim.

AAJ: You bring up styles not initially associated with South Africa becoming South African styles through listening and absorption. On Mimicry and Hybridity and maybe even with People We Pretend to Be, it seems that you are exploring issues of identity and appropriation in those works.

VL: When I was doing my masters, I did a course at the University of Amsterdam called Cultural Musicology, and in that course we read a bunch of essays by Homi Bhabha around themes of mimicry and hybridity. In these essays, he explained how acts of cultural production, more often than not, involve the consolidation of heterogeneous, multicultural signifiers in our surroundings into new hybrid entities that define our changing realities and increasingly syncretic, in-between world.

This notion of the human and its acts of cultural production as contingent and dynamic rather than fixed and essential, made a lot of sense to me. I'm half black, I'm half Jewish, and it would be difficult for me to point to some essential history that I could call my own. So the mimicry and hybridity idea was a perfect way to understand what I am, from the vantage point of things I picked up along the way, musical or otherwise. That's where it came from.

AAJ: When we look at the history of South African Jazz, it does seem that there is more of a pendulum, rather than a clear line, in which the artists alter how much they delve into mimicry of American artists versus how much they look at local traditions like Marabi or Ghoema.

VL: Absolutely. I think that tension has existed throughout the history of South Africa's Jazz. If you listen to Sisonke Xonti's new album, or Benjamin Jephta's new album, yes there are references to South African musical traditions, but it also sounds very clearly influenced by a variety of American and European sources. Similarly, if you listen to the music of people such as from Kyle Shepherd or Lwanda Gogwana, there are those influences also; however, it's clear they show a more self-conscious effort to draw, in a very studied way, from historical traditions here. If you go back in our history, you can see this. Winston Mankunku Ngozi is highly reminiscent of musicians such as Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and McCoy Tyner, while Abdullah Ibrahim's Mannenberg is a far more self-conscious attempt to construct a sound drawn from South African traditional and urban syncretic music. If you go back further, the Jazz Epistles' Verse One album sounds very much like a bebop album in the vein of early Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker records, while other people at the time were doing hybridized forms of Marabi mixed with Jazz.

When the ANC was developing this New African ideology, a lot of the African nationalists' ideology filtered into the music. You hear it particularly in choral traditions, and also in Jazz musicians' work.

Also, it's not as if these are discrete and separate. The The Jazz Epistles' album draws from Dizzy Gillespie, but there are lines Hugh Masekela plays that undoubtedly drawn from the South African improvised traditions. Likewise, on Benjamin's album Homecoming, you hear moments where he clearly references South African traditions from a harmonic, rhythmic and melodic perspective. So it's not like these are purely discrete entities. There's always some kind of hybridity happening, on both sides of the spectrum.

AAJ: Regarding this issue of tensions in musical traditions, you've previously noted that you don't view yourself as a Jazz musician. How do you conceptualize and think of your work?

VL: Titles hold a lot of power. Some people were very critical of Wynton Marsalis when he defined what Jazz is and what it isn't. On the other hand, those rigid definitions are precisely what have allowed Jazz to become widely accepted institutionally. Rigid definitions give you institutional power, because once you have a definition, it's easier to create a syllabus. It's easier to sell the idea. Rigidity in definitions is not necessarily a bad thing.

For me, when I say that I'm not a Jazz guitarist, I mean that if you define Jazz in the strictest sense—and I do, to some extent—then I'm not a Jazz guitarist, and I'm ok with that. I practice Jazz, and in some settings I play it, but as a composer, it's not what I do. I'm heavily indebted to the Jazz tradition, no doubt about that. But in terms of the music I write, it's Vuma. It's a very personal thing.

In the first album, it's clear where my influences came from. It's sort of an archetypal South African album. That's why I don't really like it, because you hear a moment where I do a Marabi thing, and then another moment where you hear a Feya Faku thing. To me, it's rather obvious how various musical traditions are placed alongside one another. There isn't really a blend or true hybridity that speaks to something new and personal.

On my second album, I think I'm more successful. You can hear suggestions of the different influences, but it would be difficult to say what, for example, Rebirth is. Is it a rock song? Kwaito? Marabi? I would define it as a song in which I take these signifiers and make them speak to who and what I am. There's no simple answer I can give. I just believe that I'm a musician who uses a variety of colors in order to musically abstract upon what I am and what I aspire to be.

AAJ: That approach speaks to some of the earlier forms of thinking on Jazz. Oral histories of Jelly Roll Morton, for example, cast Jazz as something you apply to a song. To him, you could "Jazz up" a song, but it's one of several vocabularies you could use. That's an interesting way to think on it, as styles as signifiers that could be integrated or not.

VL: They don't even have to be integrated. There are great players who simply want to play music of the 1950s, and they want to play, say Kind of Blue. They have license to do that, and if it's meaningful to them and speaks to them, then why not? For me, personally, I wouldn't be able to do that. There are too many styles of musics that are tied to my history. They are colors, and I am trying to create a balanced painting, with every suite and song. Fast, slow, energetic, somber, using these signifiers as colors.

Selected Discography:

Vuma Levin Quintet, The Spectacle of an-Other, (Self Produced, 2015)
Vuma Levin, Life and Death on the Other Side of the Dream (Self Produced, 2017)

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