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Vuma Levin: Musical Painting

Seton Hawkins By

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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.

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