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Zim Ngqawana

I Sing with a Sword in my Hand

by Aryan Kaganof / 11.05.2011

Ndicula ndiphethe ikrele esandleni.

An obituary sums up a person’s life in a few hundred words, states their achievements, contextualizes their work in terms of broader currents and, at best, attempts to convey how much they will be missed and how things will never be the same again. But from the moment I heard the voice of Zim Ngqawana’s lifelong companion and sometimes manager Zaide Harneker sobbing on the phone, “My friend has gone, my friend has gone…” I could not help feeling that here was one individual whose life was not going to fit into an obituary.

It’s true that Bra’ Zim recorded ten albums (of which at least 5 are masterpieces), and it’s true that he was mentored by the “greats” of Afro-American improvised music (Archie Shepp and Yusuf Lateef) and it’s also true that he went on to mentor an entire generation of extraordinary young South African talents (most notably piano virtuosos Kyle Shepherd and the bass phenomenon Shane Cooper), but actually his greatest achievements were on the level of the everyday. Zim was a man whose immense quality of spiritual Being simply altered the lives of all those who came into contact with him. He was an alchemist, a transformer of energies, and, most importantly and in the deepest sense of the word, a Spiritual Healer. Music was not an end result for Bra’ Zim, it was the means to provide healing.

Zim Ngqawana

Healing was paramount to Zim, a man acutely aware of the wounded condition of his people, of his country, of his times. On a trip to meet the legendary novelist and academic Eskia Mphahlele Bra’ Zim questioned the sage about the naming of not only this country as “South Africa” but indeed the name of the continent itself “Africa”.
“Where does this word Africa come from?” Zim asked the venerable old sage who was forced to admit that it was given to the continent by Roman colonizers. Zim recounted his memory of his grandfather telling him that the continent was called Quntu.
“I reject this thing called African if Africa is a name given by the white man. How is it useful to be African?” Zim retorted. Eskia went silent. There was nothing to say.

Zim’s political acumen was unparalleled, certainly more rigorous and critical than any of the so-called “politicans” that strut the stage in this country. Paradoxically he entirely rejected politics and had no interest in the machinations of the power cliques that run the world, and the world of culture. There will be hypocritical paeans to his genius from all the government departments and from all the jazz promoters but the truth is that Zim could hardly get a gig in this country, his huge reputation notwithstanding. The Department of Arts and Culture did nothing to help restore his Zimology Institute when it was vandalized in 2009 and he was forced to sell the farm that the Institute was built on. Promoters and audiences were shy of the increasingly experimental tendency in Zim’s music and he spent the last few years of his life peering into the abyss of financial ruin. Those same jazz promoters that avoided him will now rush to organize sanitized Zim Memorial Concerts that will capitalize on his death and soothe their venal consciences.

Zim Ngqawana

Zim Ngqawana was on a spiritual journey. He had given up his attachment to his physical body many years ago and was living life with only one goal – to experience total freedom. He explained it like this “When you improvise, especially within the avant garde genre, that is when you experience total freedom. Because that is bordering on the unknown, which is based through inspiration and spontaneity. No fear. It comes from that centre of humility, and a willingness to go beyond yourself and to selflessness.”

Bra’ Zim performed on flute, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax and piano with complete abandonment. He played with the understanding of a man who was already dead. When his life’s work, the Zimology Institute was vandalized he told me “I have learned from this that nothing is permanent in this world.” Then he broke out into song, “Ndicula ndiphethe ikrele esandleni.”

“I sing with a sword in my hand.”

Hamba kahle Bra’ Zim.

Zim Ngqawana
*Illustration by Jimmy Wordsworth Rage

Zim Ngqawana

*All images © Aryan Kaganof.

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  1. Phumlani says:

    Nuff said.

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  2. Ubuntu Bob says:

    Have to admit I didn’t like the guy fuck all. I was forced to take one of his classes at UKZN and it was a complete joke. Always came across a bit arrogant and full of shit. I’ve always said this but now he’s dead so I guess I’m not allowed to say it anymore because it’s mean.

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  3. rare says:

    How did he die?

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  4. Phumlani says:

    He suffered a stroke Monday afternoon.

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  5. der moderator says:

    @ubuntu bob. here’s the thing about artists – you need to see their contribution to humanity apart from their personalities and how they may have conducted themselves in certain situations. their gift to us is in the form of their creations – things which speak to us on a different level and quite separately from their circumstances. i met zim once briefly and found him to be a very amenable and enthusiastic guy, but that paled into insignificance when i heard him play. in my opinion he has done more for the progression of sounth african jazz and music in general over the last 20 years than any other musician in this country. that alone speaks more to the gravity of his passing than any personal anecdote.

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  6. Andy says:

    I did an interview with him in 2006 or so… what he said and what I saw… still blows my mind.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    nice piece Aryan – “he spent the last few years of his life peering into the abyss of financial ruin.”…..now the ANC is rushing to start scholarships in his name: http://bit.ly/zimnq

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  8. Anonymous says:

    A beautiful tribute to an amazing artist, thanks Aryan.

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  9. Piss artist. says:

    I like the photo with the pen all over it; looks like he’s a dinosaur or a balaclava clad Mohawk-sporting punk.
    zies is very cool.

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  10. D says:

    Thanks for this. There are songs on Vadzimu that ive listned to a hundred times and still get goosebumps.He came from Fort Beaufort and ended up playing all over the world-A big hug to you Ubuntu Bob it must be hard living in that skin.

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  11. JM Koet$ee says:

    Zim was a true artist. I never met him, but we’ll meet some day, in that great gig in the sky.

    Good obituary. And yes, fuck the politicians and apparatchiks and culture vultures who will now pick at his corpse. Fuck them.

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  12. the present says:

    Thank you Aryan. What in immense loss. I listen to Zim’s music almost every day. And I missed his un-advertised gig at Tagore’s in Cape Town and was so upset the day after when I heard, and now I’m even much much more upset. It sounds petty, but it signifies how deep this runs. Let’s try for as long as possible not to speak of Zim in the past tense, but in terms of what his music IS right now, new and new again.

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  13. anothergayboy says:

    great thanks…but SUCH A TACKY ILLUSTRATION…

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  14. christine says:

    thank you aryan. i recall on your film ‘vandalizim’ how forgiving zim was, how resigned, how he transformed his suffering into music; but also how he saw right through the terrible destruction wrought at the institute, to the far disturbing social order of vandalism on a large scale committed by govt, the education system, and the church.

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  15. garth erasmus says:

    notes like the lives of people. each sound contains the encapsulation of our codition: an entrance, a varying sustain, a decay. these words come to me when thinking of the passing of zim. thank you aryan for allowing me the privelege of playing with zim.

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  16. LKJ says:

    I found his music transported me to the edge of the abyss, dipped me into it, and restored something ineffable. I hope he has found the ultimate freedom he sought, and am desparately sorry for his friends, fans, family and former colleagues who knew and loved him.

    “Those same jazz promoters that avoided him will now rush to organize sanitized Zim Memorial Concerts that will capitalize on his death and soothe their venal consciences.”


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  17. Stephanie says:

    The first time I experienced Zim performing, it struck me that Zim’s improvisations were not exclusive and abstract personal journeys as avant-garde improvisations often tend to be; his playing had the ability to draw me in on its path of awareness that focussed beyond the self, it allowed me to become part of its creative energy by bearing witness thereof. The division between performer and audience, it seemed, became arbitrary. I would emerge from his performances feeling that I’ve experienced something of Zim’s spirit, and that this had somehow transposed into mine.

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  18. jean-pierre de la porte says:

    you were a true friend to zim , aryan and your words do justice to his project ( which was as complex and difficult as anything else in south africa)

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  19. Omoseye says:

    Very powerful, moving, trenchant tribute. “Music was not an end result for Bra’ Zim, it was the means to provide healing.” says it all…

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  20. Nhlanhla says:

    Yo big up YOURSELF bra ZIM!!

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  21. Tighthead says:

    Spot on Aryan. Zim was a true gem, an original in a world of arse-licking facsimiles. Sadly he now joins the long list of great SA muso’s who everyone speaks of with great respect and affection now they’re dead, but did fuckall while they were alive and struggling to get heard.

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  22. mandisa Togu says:

    Wonderful. Although I did not foLlow Zim closely, when I heard extracts of his songs, then I knew it was the guy whose music always touched me as he sang in my language.

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  23. Anonymous says:

    I worked with Zim in his final year at UND while serving as tour manager for Abdullah Ibrahim`s return tour of South Africa. He was a fantastic individual who exuded humility. He was a gifted composer and musician and will be sorely missed by all Jazz lovers worldwide. His artistry was on the level of all the Jazz greats before him.
    Spending 3 fantastic weeks with him was one of the best times I ever had as a tour manager. It is a pity that true artistry is very seldom recognised during the artists life.

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  24. Tshidi says:

    Indeed talent & brains has gone but the work done by the late Zim will never be forgotten.

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  25. Anonymous says:

    peace, bra Zim

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  26. happy brown says:

    I fell in love with the most amazing woman to beautiful love. And whenever I hear this particular track I remember. There are still gems to find out there made by Zim, he was a creator, a creator of spaces past present and future and its for this reason that the notes of his soul will resonate in the youth that follow. We cared, the youth cared about what you were doing Bra Zim. Our project is exactly that, to move from a nostalgic reality to one that is engaged with nature, our history, and our evolving culture. And well as for the culture vultures they will meet their maker too.

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