Kesivan Naidoo: living in rhythm

13 November 2008

Kesivan Naidoo, winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz 2009, “caught the beat” at the tender age of 11, falling in love with percussion when he heard his aunt’s boyfriend playing the drums over a song on the radio.

That was in 1990. Three years later, aged 14, Naidoo made his professional on-stage debut at the Hogsback Arts Festival, playing with the Webster Jazz Quintet. Shortly thereafter he started to play for the Hudson Park Jazz Band as well as the Hudson Concert Band.

In 1994, Naidoo’s passion for music was fuelled further at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where he got the opportunity to have lessons with internationally acclaimed drummer and jazz musician Lulu Gontsana. These sessions started a mentorship process that would continue for two years


Naidoo grew up in East London and studied music at the University of Cape Town. In 1999, he became the youngest person to win the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition, and used this opportunity to study at the prestigious Rhabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India, studying under sitar guru Sanjay Bandophadyah.

No stranger to the national jazz scene, Naidoo has played with the East Cape Big Band (of which he was a founding member), the UCT Big Band and the UCT College Jazz Ensemble.

He has shared the stage with an impressive string of leading South African musicians, including Miriam Makeba, Selaelo Selota, Feya Faku, Bheki Mseleku, Jimmi Dludlu, Marcus Wyatt, Zim Ngqawana, Judith Sephuma, Errol Dyers, Abdullah Ibhrahim, Hotep Galeta and Steve Newman.

Naidoo has also taken his music to international audiences, performing in Germany, France and England as a member of the Hudson Big Band. In 1995, 1999 and 2000 he was chosen for the South African National Youth Big Band, with which he toured to New York City.

In 1999 he became the only South African to have performed with the Kennedy Centre Jazz Ambassadors, a touring group from New York City.

Naidoo has also shown a flair for composing musical scores for television and film. He co-composed the music for a documentary on South Africa with Carlo Mombelli, and also wrote the music for The Devil Breaks My Heart, a series of documentaries celebrating South Africa’s 10 years of democracy, for the SABC.

Naidoo has a wide range of eclectic musical influences that range from Charles Lazar, Jojo Mayer and Prince to Rage against the Machine. Drummers that have inspired him include Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, and the drummers who have played for James Brown. Musicians who have influenced his compositions include Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. His favourite music styles are jazz, electronica and world music.

Naidoo has also ploughed his experience into developing the future of South Africa’s performing talent by facilitating workshops on performance at many South African universities. He was also the youngest person to be invited to lecture at the Grahamstown Youth Jazz Festival in 2003 and 2004.

“I believe that creative people with new ideas is what is going to make this country work,” says Naidoo. “Good ideas mean nothing if they don’t become part of reality, just like a musical composition means nothing unless it gets performed.

“So I am working on creating venues throughout South Africa so that creative music can live.”

Some of Naidoo’s more recent ventures include co-founding a company called Silent Revolution Productions with Lee Thomson. They own the Armchair Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town, and aim to use the venue to raise the awareness of art music in South Africa.

He currently plays with Tribe, Babu, Restless Natives and Closet Snare.

The annual Standard bank Young Artist Awards were started in 1981 by the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, with Standard Bank coming on board as a sponsor in 1984.

The awards, seen as one of the most prestigious of their kind in the country, honour young South African artists who have not yet gained widespread national exposure or acclaim, but who are making a significant mark in their field.

The awards recognize and actively promote the talent of these young artists, providing them with financial support and a platform for experimentation. Winners receive a cash prize and financial support for their participation on the main programme of the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown.

Source: National Arts Festival, Grahamstown