Monday 1 October 2012

UKZN Jazz Legacy Ensemble live @ VCU (2012)

Today we depart from our usual historical review and feature some recent South African music that was performed five days ago here in Richmond, Virgina, USA. The occasion marked the visit by the UKZN Jazz Legacy Ensemble, a group of six students with their director and professor, Neil Gonsalves, from the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa who are participating in an ongoing exchange with students in Jazz Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Department of Music.

Performing a repertoire of mostly South African jazz the event took place at The Camel club in Richmond on Monday, September 24th, 2012, and included a final jam with students and alumni from the VCU Jazz Studies program. I happened to be at the concert and captured some of the perfomance on my iPhone.

UKZN is a partner school with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond and the exchange was organized through a grant written by Professor Tony Garcia, director of Jazz Studies at VCU. Earlier this year six students from the VCU program went to South Africa and were hosted by UKZN — performing in Durban and traveling around KwaZulu Natal. View more about this trip here. The exchange will include a number of future trips and was funded by a generous grant from the International Partnerships Major Initiatives Award (IPMI) with matching grants from VCU School of the Arts. 

Richmond, Virginia is a place with a history that gives an exchange with South Africa a special significance. One of the centers of the global tobacco industry, Richmond was also the capital of the Confederate States during the American Civil War, a past memorialized in the famous avenue featuring monuments to Confederate military leaders. But the city is also home to artists such as Plunky Nkabinde aka James Branch of Oneness of Juju funk/jazz fame. Of course readers of Electric Jive will be familiar with one of his early spiritual jazz LPs, the very rare and much sought after Ndikho and the Natives, recorded with South African Ndikho Douglas Xaba in Oakland, CA in 1969. 

from L to R: Prof. Neil Gonsalves, Ildo Nandja, Linda Sikhakhane, Sakhile Simani,
Sebastian Golswain, Sphelelo Mazibuko and Lungelo Ngcobo

The UKZN Jazz Legacy Ensemble was formed specifically for this Richmond tour and rehearsed for two months prior to the visit. Performing two sets of largely South African jazz material, two tracks in particular stood out for me: Ezra Ngcukana’s Sobukwe and Abdullah Ibrahim’s classic Manenberg. The line-up on Sobukwe included Sakhile Simani on trumpet, Linda Sikhakhane on tenor sax, Sebastian Goldswain on guitar, Lungelo Ngcobo on piano, Ildo Nandja on bass, and Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums.

Back in South Africa, director Neil Gonsalves had given the ensemble the score to rehearse Ngcukana’s Sobukwe and they responded to it immediately. Gonsalves mentioned that he also wanted the group to hear the original LP recording before coming to the US, but that unfortunately the copy in the UKZN music library, the very one where he had heard the music, was there no more. The use of a score to access the music rather than a recording seemed to a have a particular poetic irony in light of the fact that Ngcukana himself could not read music.

Ngcukana speaks about this notion of ‘read’ music and ‘heard’ music in the collection of interviews Jazz People of Cape Town when he explains to Lars Rasmussen how “back in the day” he was invited to teach saxophone at the parent institution of UKZN, when it was then known as the University of Natal (UND):

Ezra Ngcukana by Lars Rasmussen
“Now, people ask me, Could you come and play this cocktail gig, I got to learn again something that I’ve never played before, so I have to put a score in front... I can't even read [music], for that matter, so I only insist people give me a programme, because of my limitations. And the joke, I can't read, eh? But Natal University, they needed a saxophone teacher and, because of the exchange rate with the Rand, they can't get overseas people. So they approached me to go and teach there, because I have two degrees, B.Sc. and B.Com., and I've worked for fifteen years at one company, so it qualifies me to teach at the university. To have the programme running, I was the only candidate available. I didn't apply for the job, they approached me. So I would teach students there, but I couldn't even read, so when they made mistakes, I told them, No, man, just repeat that bar [laughs]. Music is all about the ear anyway. That's what one of the first educationists in America would say, he said, 20 % of music is visual, 80 % is audial.”

In 1973, at eighteen, a very young Ngcukana, joined and toured with the Dashiki Poets raising funds for Steve Biko’s South African Student’s Organization (SASO) and of course he also recorded with Dick Khoza on his classic 1976 album Chapita (The Sun, GL 1873, reissued by Matsuli in 2010).

The son of jazz legend, Christopher Columbus Ngcukana (aka Mra), Ezra made very few recordings and according to the Rasmussen interview his first solo project was You Think You Know Me, (Jive, JAJ 003, 1989) which included the track Sobukwe. Of course the title track is a variation on Mongezi Feza’s beautiful tune You Ain’t Gonna Know Me Cause You Think You Know Me featured here at Electric Jive on our compilation of South African jazz In Exile. That version was from Louis Moholo’s 1978 album Spirits Rejoice and interestingly Ngcukana toured with Moholo’s group, Spirits Rejoice, when they came to South Africa (not to be confused with the other local South African group of the same name). Sadly Ngcukana died in 2010 at the age of 55.

Robert Sobukwe, a major anti-apartheid figure in South African history, joined the ANC Youth League in 1948, the same year the white National Party came to power. He gained notoriety in 1952 when he backed the Defiance Campaign and after leaving the ANC in 1957 he formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and became its leader in 1959. In March of 1960 the PAC led the campaign against the segregationist Pass Laws and in one protest in Sharpeville, 69 PAC supporters were killed after police opened fire. Sobukwe was subsequently arrested and jailed on Robben Island until 1969.

Sitting at the bar in the jazz club last week, I thought about the complexities of circumstance. Here I was listening to a song played by young South African musicians and dedicated to Robert Sobukwe in Richmond, Virginia, a city with its own complex racial past.

In the second set the group performed Abdullah Ibrahim’s classic Manenberg, and in a wonderful extended jam rotation was joined by students and alumni from VCU’s Jazz Studies program including: Justin Esposito on bass, Trey Sorrells on alto sax, Brendan Schnabel on tenor sax, Chris Ryan on guitar, Victor Haskins on trumpet, alumnus Mary Lawrence Hicks on trumpet and C.J. Wolfe on drums.

Starting with the UKZN group each performer then gradually substituted out for a VCU colleague who then took turns to solo. All rejoined toward the end of this 24 minute jam. In many ways the act of turning Manenberg into an international ‘jampot’ or meeting of common ground, itself confirmed the song’s global significance beyond South Africa. Of course there are still those rumblings over the exact authorship of this great track. While most would agree that Ibrahim is the author, some have claimed, namely Lulu Masilela via Rob Allingham, that the root of the tune lies in Zach’s Nkosi’s Jackpot!

Personally, I find hints of Elijah Nkwanyana’s Bops Special in the iconic track, but regardless, I would say that cultures build on their roots and this “appropriation,” if you want to call it that, does transform the original into a significant new animal that rightfully pays homage to its past.

In any event, whatever the song’s lineage, perhaps it was not such a bad thing to be sitting in a bar in Richmond, Virgina in 2012, channeling Zacks Nkosi and Elijah Nkwanyana via Dollar Brand through UKZN and VCU students that are now using the tune to start a new conversation.

Manenberg is named for the township outside of Cape Town where residents who were forcibly removed from District Six and other areas were sent by the apartheid government. The original title of Abdullah Ibrahim’s classic album is actually Mannenberg - ‘Is Where it is Happening’ (The Sun, SRK 786134, 1974) spelled with two n’s (a typo, I have read somewhere). In an interview with Sue Valentine for the Sunday Times Heritage Project, Ibrahim speaks about the origins of the title: “Because Basil [Coetzee, the saxophonist] was from Manenberg and for us Manenberg was just symbolic of the removal out of District Six, which is actually the removal of everybody from everywhere in the world, and Manenberg specifically because… it signifies, it’s our music, and it’s our culture…"

The Music Department at UKZN has a rich history. Post-apartheid it was built from the merger of a number of music programs in KwaZulu Natal combining those at the University of Natal, the Natal Technikon and the University of Durban-Westville when the provincial government chose to offer a degree in music at only one institution in the province. The location, perhaps aptly, was at the former University of Natal: Durban (UND). This seems appropriate because UND was the first University in South Africa (and in Africa) to offer a degree in Jazz Studies in 1983. The course was initiated by Darius Brubeck, then the Director of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music. Certainly the UKZN Jazz Legacy Ensemble has followed the path of some very large footsteps made by their alumni at the former UND — notably the Jazzanians — the first group to come out of the new jazz program under Brubeck, and who also toured the United States, earlier in 1988.

The Jazzanians featured some future and past figures of South African jazz including the late Zim Ngqawana and Johnny Mekoa (of the Jazz Ministers). Recording a single album, We Have Waited Too Long (Umkhonto, UMKH 407, 1988), the Jazzanians, while on tour also performed at the National Association of Jazz Educators annual conference in Detroit and made television appearances on NBC and CBS.

It seems fitting to close this post with a YouTube video uploaded by gravystreet of the television footage of that 1988 Jazzanians US tour.

Many Thanks to Neil Gonsalves, Tony Garcia and of course all the UKZN and VCU students!


  1. Truly great stuff, Siemon!! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Many Thanks, Nick!
    It was great fun!

  3. I mostly appreciated this unsual blog : you're able to attend to a great exchange between USA and SA students in jazz studies, while you followed the same path in art between SA and USA, between Durban and Richmond.
    Hope you had great SA music!


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