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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.


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