The buzz at Cape Town’s usually suit-and-tie International Convention Centre was electric as jazz fanatics from across the world got together for the city’s ninth annual International Jazz Festival in late March. With 41 acts performing on five stages, more than 32 000 fans and musicians from five continents, for two days South Africa’s mother city was the world centre of “the democratic music”, as legendary composer Max Roach called jazz.
And jazz democracy there was – on a global scale. Held on 28 and 29 March, the festival showcased indigenous interpretations of jazz from countries as different as Brazil, Zimbabwe, the US, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands and South Africa.
“In South Africa, jazz has captured the hearts of our people for many years,” South African President Thabo Mbeki said in his festival message. “Jazz artists have, in the past, harnessed the power of rhythm and melody to communicate to the rest of the world the extent of the injustices of our past and to give hope to our people.”
A highlight was the Latin American sound of Grammy award-winning Brazilian Sergio Mendes, possibly Latin America’s greatest jazz musician. Using regional jazz variants popular in places such as Bahia and São Paulo, he took the Cape Town audience on a musical tour of his people’s history. Mendes, who introduced Brazil’s samba and bossa nova to the world, is most famous for the song Mas que Nada, a crowd favourite at the festival.
Then there was veteran Zimbabwean guitarist and vocalist Oliver Mtukudzi, an African jazz institution. Affectionately known to his fans as “Tuku”, Mtukudzi started out in 1977 with Harare band The Wagon Wheels, going on to international stardom. To celebrate over three decades in music, Mtukudzi has revamped his band and sound, culminating in a new album, Tsimba itsoka (“no foot, no footprint”). He treated audiences to an exhilarating performance, at one point dancing up a storm on stage along with his ensemble.
From the US came Gerald Albright, famous for his saxophone duet with Bill Clinton at the former president’s 1993 inauguration, who blew the audience away with his skill with the instrument. In music circles Albright is known for his swiftness on stage and unique round sound, which is percussive yet soulful. He is always able to surprise the audience with something out of the ordinary. The Los Angeles-born musician began piano lessons at an early age, even though he had no great interest in the instrument. His love of music picked up considerably when his music teacher gave him a saxophone.
Award-winning Mozambican-born jazz guitarist Jimmy Dludlu gave a passion-filled performance, with a blend of melodic expressions and rhythmic guitar lines. This year, Dludlu led a 10-piece band made up of some of Cape Town’s most talented and energetic musicians. The guitarist has recently released his fifth album, Portrait, which the artists described as “a representational expression of my music captured in the frame of surrounding and cultural influences.”
Other international acts included Atlanta-based producer, composer and remixer Chris Brann’s Ananda Project, the energetic and intelligent percussion music of international drum quartet Beat Bag Bohemia, smooth jazz saxophonist Candy Dulfer of the Netherlands, virtuoso Japanese speed pianist Hiromi, Boston’s John Baboian and the Be-bop Guitars, the Kenny Barron Trio, headed by the retired Rutgers University professor of jazz piano, Nigeria’s Kunle Ayo, Californian Lee Ritenour, Swedish saxophonist and flautist Lennart Åberg, the Lionel Loueke Trio from Benin, UK group The Bays, and Tierney Sutton, one of the hottest jazz singers in the US today.
There was also plenty of local South African flavour, including Zola, Jimmy Dludlu, Vicky Sampson, The Manhattans, Darius Brubeck and more.
The Soul Brothers, a legendary mbaqanga or contemporary Zulu music group, thrilled the crowd with their fusion of indigenous rhythms and Afro-American styles. Formed in 1974, Brothers combine strong vocal sounds, brassy horns and a rhythmic section.
The festival has also been experimenting with fusing untraditional sounds into the jazz genre. Zola, a South African superstar, performed with a live band, giving his kwaito music genre a different dimension. Also popular with the younger crowds this year was the jazz-influenced performance of South Africa’s bestselling hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp.
The festival also staged a training and development programme, with various workshops held in the local communities of Cape Town. Guided by dedicated professionals, the various workshops provided valuable, accessible and free information directly related to the music industry.
A school music workshop was held two days before the festival. Pupils from primary and high schools in the less privileged suburbs in Cape Town were bussed in to attend workshops presented by leading musicians. Not only were the pupils introduced to the instruments, their history and the sounds they make, but workshop presenters also offered demonstrations and performed on the instruments.
The South Atlantic Jazz Music Conference is also a highlight. The conference is a platform that has become a vital meeting place for a variety of stakeholders involved in the music industry, especially those with an interest in jazz. Held on the day preceding the main festival, the event attracted delegates and speakers from around the world and created invaluable networking opportunities for those who attended.
“South African creative artists have shared space and time with outstanding international performers from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, on the cultural platform that this festival has become,” said Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan.
“Jazz is a musical genre that has demolished the man-made fences that divide humanity into different nations, races, ethnic and linguistic communities, and has brought joy to people in every part of the world.”