Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity

AAJ Staff By

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That's why you have to see the whole thing in context: you have to see the drummers, the dancers, and the song. Then you understand that we're dealing with totality.
(Ed. note: we're celebrating the life and music of Zim Ngqawana by reprinting this 2002 interview. Ngqawana passed away in Johannesburg, after suffering a stroke on May 10th. He was 52.)

For Zim Ngqawana, citizenship is a relative concept. He may be a South African, but he insists that he is first and foremost a citizen of humanity. The 42 year old saxophonist and composer makes a distinctive kind of music which draws heavily from the jazz tradition—yet it's unmistakably tinged with the sounds of his country, his continent, and the world. That's Ngqawana's way of aiming for the same kind of enlightenment sought by John Coltrane. In fact, there are many parallels between the two musicians. Coltrane's "Africanization" of jazz during his later years brought him especially close to Ngqawana's heart—and it's that same idea of bringing people together that drives Ngqawana to make music.

In Zim Ngqawana's mind, music is a language of sound. And as a globalist, that means he pays close attention to other languages and sounds. He is quite direct on the subject of language: "We need to be very careful how we use it." His birth name, Zimasile, means "honorable." His birth city, New Brighton, represents the English colonization of eBhayi. (And that's a name he would rather see returned to its original form.) He refers to the end of apartheid in 1994 as "independence."

Growing up in South Africa, Ngqawana found himself swallowed up in the American jazz tradition. His early listening and jam sessions in shebeens (illegal South African bars) exposed him to sailors who brought new sounds from America and Europe. He listened, transcribed, and practiced jazz as fast as he could absorb the music. After graduating with a degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Natal, he won a scholarship to study in the United States with Max Roach, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Ngqawana brought this formal education in the jazz tradition (and plenty of the informal kind as well) back with him to Africa.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa—and Zim Ngqawana was asked to lead a musical group at his inauguration. Ngqawana conceived a performance of 100 drummers, dancers, and singers. He chose the members of this group so that they represented the twelve major ethnic groups from South Africa, as well as their individual traditions. This event opened his eyes to the cultural diversity of his own country—and it spurred him to learn about the sounds of Africa, India, and Asia.

While he has always borne an orchestral concept in mind, Ngqawana has done most of his work in small group settings. After recording with a collective known as San in 1996, he made three records as a leader. Each disc documents an evolving sense of global identity. (Interestingly, three of the four records feature a Norwegian rhythm section.) A strong strain of Coltrane runs through his music, as do traditional African sounds of several varieties.

It's clear from talking with him that Zim Ngqawana is most definitely not finished with his work. He wants to travel more in order to play with American and European musicians, and he wants to incorporate the musical traditions of the Middle East and Asia.

Most of all, he wants people who hear his music to realize that we share more in common than we might think.

1. Ubuntu, culture, and yearning

AAJ: Can you explain to me about Ubuntu?

Zim Ngqawana: There is no direct translation into English. Ubuntu is a very broad concept, a broad understanding of life. The closest I can get to is "humanity," but it goes deeper than that. It deals with other aspects, that is compassion, wisdom, that allows humankind to live in harmony with nature. An understanding of creation and the creator. Yearning for peace, for love. Ubuntu encompasses all of these aspects. It's something that you understand better when you've lived it, when you've experienced it from family, friends, and people in general. That's how we were raised by our families, parents, our communities... understanding that philosophy of Ubuntu.

I know now with a lot of political jargon that is going around in political circles, and that has affected all walks of life you know, that things have been redirected. People are talking about African Renaissance, all of these new concepts. And for me that tends to confine people to a certain place, a certain country, a certain continent. A certain nationality. You know, Ubuntu deals with something way, way beyond that.

When you talk about "African Renaissance" you expect to deal with the African continent and the African people. But Ubuntu goes way beyond that. So we as artists are busy trying to understand that concept and go back to it. And live it. And we believe that the rest will just fall into place. All of this African Renaissance and all these other things that are being praised by the politicians today will automatically fall into place. That is my meaning of it, my understanding of it.

AAJ: So it's the beginning and the end for you in your music (and your life).

ZN: Yep.

AAJ: I'm trying to understand then... when you have a certain degree of respect for one's elders and one's ancestors, that changes the music because you have to incorporate the music of the past into what you do, and at the same time you have to make it progressive so it looks toward the future. So how do you achieve that balance?

ZN: I deal with my reality. I live in Johannesburg. I have been exposed to modern education. I have been exposed to contemporary music, contemporary culture in general.

AAJ: For example, contemporary music and culture. What sort of things are you talking about?

ZN: When you talk about culture—living in an urban center—one realizes that you cannot continue practicing your tradition the way it used to be practiced in the days of old. So you need to refine and update and adopt the techniques that are used to create that music, within the right context. And often times now within the urban setup you find yourself operating outside that context. We try to contextualize what we do within the urban center, and it's quite difficult. However, with the music, which is based on sound, you can achieve all of that.

Music is merely sound. All of the other aspects will come into it, such as melody, rhythm, instrumentation. And they are in possession of people in sound, you see. So I think one or two artists can get beyond that. They are necessary, however, to draw a listener to his or her reality. For instance, we have to adopt and deal with everything that modern society offers: civilization. The instruments: you have to deal with them. So if you listen to music the right way, you're dealing with pure sounds and all of this. And we utilize them to get to the source of sound. And of course if we cannot express ourselves fully on this instrument, we try and colonize that, so as to tell our own story.

AAJ: Nice analogy.

ZN: So that is why our instrument sounds different when it's handled by one person, and different when it's handled by another. It can be the expression of that individual. But music again transcends all of it because it's not supposed to be a start—it's supposed to be an expression.

AAJ: But you can never have one without the other. You may try, but it's impossible to be pure in that sense, right?

ZN: Yeah. You're not striving for purity in this madness. You're starting with the reality—to understand, to operate within it. It may not be your desire, to like, but we have to deal with it.

AAJ: But at the same time it sounds like your goal is to achieve this transcendent quality in music, something that goes beyond style and sound into a more spiritual aspect.

ZN: That's the yearning. It takes a long way to go to that place where we can be free of all of these inhibitions. It's alright. It's enjoyable while we're doing it. We cannot complain and address these issues... when we get to talk, like we're talking now in an interview, it's interesting.

But one hopes that eventually one will be able to outgrow all of these things and really tap into the real music, the music of the universe. You know, the abstract sound? Yeah. But it's a long way to go.

2. How Coltrane Africanized Jazz

AAJ: What music from the past do you incorporate into you're playing? What musicians and what traditions?

ZN: Whatever I do I try to approach it with a jazz sensibility.

AAJ: From the jazz point of view, I hear Coltrane in there.

ZN: Trane succeeded in bringing to the music back to earth. Trane Africanized, if you wish, the music—and made it much more accessible to an African, as a listener and as a practitioner. This is highly demonstrated in his period after A Love Supreme. Not to neglect other periods before that—powerful things, all great. But he was dealing within the confines of modern jazz style, bebop, standards. When he went into that post-bop thing, for me that's the period that moves me. From A Love Supreme, that's what did it for me.

AAJ: When did you hear that record first?

ZN: I was a teenager when I heard that music, and I was involved in other genres. When I heard that, it turned me around. But the most serious period that really guided me to start looking inward was toward the end of his life: Expressions, Infinity, and all of those records. But we never transcribed... because, again, that is way outside the confines of traditional jazz, modern jazz. So you don't find transcriptions of those records... it's impossible to transcribe Infinity or Interstellar Space, you know what I mean? So for me, already, he was out there, when you talk about the real sound now. Also, he suffered from that—having to account for what he was doing. But he just understood it as his spiritual journey.

He was out of control, and that's the point that we all should reach when we play the music: to get to the point where you are played by the music, not you banging on the music. Trane raised that point. So I work from that premise. And again, I respect the advantage that we have on the continent here... that all of that was Trane's doing. What we have here... it's just a question of transposing it, you know. It's merely chance that it's that easy. Based on standard pentatonic scales, if you listen, is the basis of African music, Asian music, a large part of Indian music, Japanese, Chinese... you hear pentatonic all over. Trane was about that, and the continent is about that. And also, the universe is about that, if you look at the philosophy of the elements. So I work from that premise.

And of course I respect the cultural context of it, in terms of the rituals that I grew up with, the ceremonies... be it death, life, weddings, child, earth, or other ceremonies. So I bring that into context and try to deal with it as a totality. And of course respect the theories that have been established, you know. There are certain forms I dealt with, that I find useful in order to express myself, and also to communicate with people... other musicians, so I'm not isolated in this world. So we don't really ignore these things—we deal with them. Because the main desire is to communicate. That's where I come from.
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