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Soweto Kinch

Jazz is Gangster

by Andy Davis / 08.07.2011

Soweto Kinch is best known for cross pollinating conscious hip hop with free form jazz. His debut album Conversations With The Unseen won two BBC Radio Jazz Awards along with the Peter Whittingham Award for Jazz Innovation. In 2006 he released A Life In The Day Of B19 – Tales Of The Tower Block, the first instalment of a two-part concept album documenting the lives of three inner-city Birmingham men. In 2009 he reacted more politically with the War in a Rack EP and in 2010 dropped The New Emancipation to wide critical acclaim. Each year, he runs a free outdoor music and culture festival under a derelict motorway flyover in Birmingham. And because revolutionary hip hop jazz avant-gardism doesn’t pay the bills, Kinch moonlights as a member of the Pop Idol backing band The Big Blue. He’s currently in South Africa for a series of shows in conjunction with the British Council.

Mahala: What’s in a name?

Soweto Kinch: I was born two years after the 1976 riots. My parents were both influenced by Pan-Africanism, so my name had a political and spiritual significance to them.

This is not your first time in South Africa?

Soweto Kinch: No, it’s not.

You’re a repeat offender.

Quite a familiar suspect.

How many times have you been now?

Seven times I think. But this is my first experience of a South African winter.

And how’s that going? It’s not that bad, the South African winter.

It’s nothing like as intense as a snow, sub-zero affair. But still it was a lot colder and wetter than I expected. Some hail storms yesterday in Grahamstown.

What’s up with the South African love affair?

One year I was part of the Cape Town North Sea Festival. I came with Jazz Jamaica the second time on sort of a mini-tour with the British Council. But even before that I was at the State Theatre in Pretoria working with an incredible director, Aubrey Sekhabi and musicians and artists from the UK in South Africa on a work-in-progress piece called Mother Of Rain which was really good fun.

You come a lot with the British Council.

This is my third time. And elsewhere around the world as well. We were just in Lebanon. I’ve been to places as far flung as Zimbabwe, Armenia, Tanzania, Morocco.

Soweto Kinch

Let’s talk a little bit about jazz as a genre, because, in a way, you represent a new generation of jazz musicians. You bring this hip hop element to the whole thing. And pop music is becoming shallower and shallower, recycling old ideas and there’s very little originality left in the music…

You’re preaching to the choir here.

But in terms of jazz, do you find that there’s a growing audience? Or are you practicing some diminishing and obscure art form?

To be honest, it’s really interesting. I never feel, with the shows that we play, that I’m having to prise open a door and proselytise people who really would be ignorant of either hip hop or Jazz. The thing with my audience, which is quite gratifying to me, is it’s always very diverse. I’ll have a 50 year old guy come through or a 70 year old woman with grandkids come through. There’ll be students, the bohemian arty dreadlocked guy, the city kids. People that just identify with the music and not so much with the branding and the marketing.

In terms of jazz, we’ve got a really, I shudder to call it rich, because we have a lot of starving jazz artists in South Africa, but we’ve got an original jazz history and we’ve been picking up attention from back in the 50’s and the 40’s from really big players who have propelled the careers of Hugh Masekela and Abdul Ibrahim and we’ve got that kind of lineage.

Interestly, I think if you’re a jazz musician it’s impossible to be disconnected from that tree and inheritance. One of the things that kickstarted me being interested in playing the saxophone was seeing a Bheki Mseleku poster when I was eleven years old. It was well advertised, which is also unheard of nowadays. A huge billboard with Bheki Mseleku’s name. My mission statement is really just to create art that changes people’s consciousness and gets people thinking and gets them talking, it’s as broad as that. If people feel something and think something after the music has been played and the lyrics have been spoken then it’s a mission accomplished for me.

You do a lot of collaborations. You did collaboration with Tumi from the Volume at one stage and he’s a good friend of mine and has always spoken kind of glowingly about you.

He’s an incredible cat. We brought him out to Birmingham to perform at the Flyover Show about two years ago which was really good fun. It gave me a chance because I’d always wanted to curate and organize a street festival that takes place underneath a motorway flyover. Tumi came through the year after that and tore it up and obviously our first encounter was at the Cape Town Jazz Festival six years ago, and I had to get him on my EP at the time as well.

It’s interesting because Jazz has been this anarchistic influence in music, and obviously when jazz enjoyed its first boom, it really blew minds and shook everyone up and influenced everything. But as music has developed, it’s kind had a diminished role to play commercially. But jazz is increasingly relevant as a form of protest music because of that power.

The unpredictable. A surprise within the music. But with stuff becoming so plastered and mass-produced, we want something that’s more bespoke now and more human, organic. So I think certainly the jazz tradition will always be relevant in that regard. If people want to create something that’s personal signature is improvised they’ll have to reference jazz in a way that you wouldn’t reference mainstream pop.

These days when someone is political in their lyricism, it’s almost like everyone kind of sits back and goes wow, remember when we had political music, that’s such a blast from the past.

Well I don’t know, protest music can be mainstream. It’s not that long ago that Public Enemy was the biggest global phenomenon. You had middle-class white guys in the burbs in England singing “Fight The Power”. You had people really questioning political authority around the world and appreciating what the spoken word of hip hop could do. In a way now that seems a million miles away, because what’s being promoted is about lifestyle, about the shades, the diamonds, the ice, you know, the girls, the cars, everything that’s the by-product of capitalism.

Soweto Kinch

In a way, lyricism is blunt, you think about it and you talk about it but words mean less and less. Whereas jazz is. Especially improvised jazz, it’s the whole form that’s revolutionary. I did an interview with Zim Ngqawana before he passed and he blew my mind because of the way that he would always pursue that uncomfortable space. Let’s be in the moment now and see what’s here. Let’s dig in the corner of the room for that inspiration, that spark. So few musicians are really brave enough to sit there and go let’s be quiet until we find something, instead of just rolling out the entertainment.

Faster, louder, higher, brighter. Just arrest people’s attention and force them to like you is kind of the mantra of the day. As opposed to reflection and those things that bring about the genuine sense of change in the listener.

But it’s hard for the listener.

Absolutely, because it’s risky and can cause you to question some of the assumptions that you make if you were going to see a concert where you already knew all the words or you knew exactly what the band’s going to do on stage. The unknown is an uncomfortable space for listeners. The other pivotal thing about jazz, that sets it apart from other art forms, is the collective improvisation of it. Not just that everyone’s doing their own thing but everyone’s doing their own thing together at the same time. You’ve got to synergize, listen, become this organic homogenous beast but everyone still having their own individual identities. If you get that right, it takes quite a lot of time and practice to find an ensemble that really get that level or seal of sensitivity, but if you get that right… And if an audience is hip to that, that again is something that could put you on the edge of your seat in a way that a predictable classic concert won’t.

So how do you go from this space, “these stale plastic decades” to quote Natty; this pop-shmaltz and hyper-consumerism where the culture is not really interrogating or even mirroring society. How do we get people to dig what we’re on about?

I think there is still so much music being produced that strikes the root of the problem and satisfies a natural desire we have for something original as opposed to something mass-produced. But the marketing, the powers of advertising have such a tight grip. I remember when you could switch on MTV and look forward to hearing MTV Raps on a Saturday and Fab 5 Freddy and underground hip hop. You’d actually go to MTV to find out what was hot, whereas now mainstream media seems to be taking three or four months to catch up to a phenomenon in the underground.

The problem with a lot of contemporary music in South Africa is that in order to succeed people think that they have to sound like what’s on MTV. We often refer to it as an original coverband because they’re covering a sound but they’re making original music in that window. I wonder if it happens as much in the U.K?

Absolutely. Unfortunately. Artists are being told: “this is what sells, give the people what they want. Your responsibility is just to keep on knocking out what sells and we’ll tell you what’s successful. Our focus groups will tell you what kind of music to make”. Artists have never been about that before. I love a Joni Mitchel or Jimi Hendrix song because that’s them expressing their pain, that’s really them as opposed to something cynically or crudely calculated to achieve that result.

In terms of your music, you deal with a lot of political and social issues. And in South Africa we have our fair share of those. Do you have some kind of message? Is there something you want our audiences to get from this performance?

It comes from what offends me in the world. This is the injustice that I’ve been awakened to and I have to write a song about it. Either humorously like in the case of Paris Heights Collection Agency and mocking really the whole process of debt collection, comparing them to blood-sucking mosquitoes in lyrical terms, or something that’s more direct, pointing at the military industrial complex and the axis of evil. There’s something very affirming about knowing that other people around the world are incensed by the same things.

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