Jazz Lakesby Carlos Amato / 12.09.2011
Last Sunday at Zoo Lake. One of those windless, birdy spring days when Joburg makes like paradise, and a happy siege of wors-wielding refugees is damming up against the perimeter fence of Jazz on the Lake.
Security have been mandated to search all picnic baskets for dop, metal cutlery, and other implements of urban terror. We take a chance, get busted and adjourn to the braai zone. Time enough to ingest wine and ham, then stash our knives and forks cunningly in the lee of a tree.
By the time we get in, 340ml are starting their set. They seem a bit off-colour, a bit reluctant, and the sound check must have been cursory – frontman Pedro Da Silva Pinto’s usually bulls-eye pitch is millimetres off. But the Jozambicans’ belly-warming songcraft does its old business nonetheless: Hang On To Yourself (Rachel), Midnight, The Untitled Song, Fairy Tales.
After nearly a decade in operation, 340ml still carry the flame for defiantly subtle Joburg pop music. A fresh generation of black hipster followers are gathered in a loyal cohort upfront, crooning each line with Pedro.
Victor Ntoni and his band are next. Their smooth-jazz audience is stationed deep in the crowd, reclining on camping chairs: pleasant uncles and aunties from Soweto and the West Rand. They don’t get much of a fix: the mix is kak, and Ntoni can’t hear himself sing. We can, unfortunately.
While killing time before the headline act, the MC announces cheerfully: “Dora Shabangu, please go to lost and found! Your children are there.” Cue much hilarity among the childless. “These are not jerseys, these are children!” squawks a teenage girl.
Following a finely judged 20-minute delay, Asa skips onstage to an adoring welcome, sporting a natty polka-dot frock, golden upswept dreads and oversized, thick-rimmed spectacles.
Asa cooks at a low heat. She occupies her offbeat hotness lightly, often wandering back to lope among her bandmates, quietly savouring their silky technical brilliance. Her presence, like her voice, is pure sprezzatura; all the discipline concealed in a sheen of economical ease. There’s little raunch or ostentatious flourish in her delivery – she’s one of those rich-voiced soul queens who sing serenely within themselves, like Feist, Jill Scott and Asa’s compatriot Sade.
Born Bukola Elomide in Paris to an ex-pat Nigerian family, Asa went back home when she was three and grew up in Lagos. As an awkward, tomboyish teenager, cooped up and lonesome at a smart boarding school, she mined seams of black aural gold: Erykah Badu, Fela, Angelique Kidjo, Lauryn Hill, Zap Mama and King Sunny Ade.
When she returned to Paris at age 20, Asa packed her Yoruba stage name – which means “Hawk” – and the raw materials of her casually eclectic sound, which interweaves soul, folk, jazz and reggae. Acclaimed Nigerian keyboardist and songwriter Cobhams Asuquo produced her debut album, Aṣha, and encouraged her to sing in Yoruba. Aṣha charted in both France and Nigeria, and the compelling singles “Fire on the Mountain” and “Jailer” quickly infiltrated South African airwaves.
At Zoo Lake, she begins her set with a Yoruba track off her new album, Beautiful Imperfections. “Bimpé” is a frisky, loose-limbed tune about scorning a dodgy suitor, which surges three times into a bridge riff that’s biggier and filthier than the Niger Delta.
Some of Asa’s English lyrics are klunky, not least when they venture into earnestly political territory, where her pose of naïvete doesn’t work. She’s best on good, warm love, and the finest tune on the new album is “Be My Man”, a stomping slab of sugary Motown nostalgia.
But the sweetest moment is Simphiwe Dana’s surprise guest appearance on the ballad, “Eye Adaba”. What a pleasure to hear SA’s greatest jazz voice honouring such a beautiful guest.
*All images © Carlos Amato.