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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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