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Kalahari Jazz

by Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Warren Talmarkes / 12.04.2012

I was adamant to experience it, that feeling when the free spirit in Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia” had tea with Yusef Lateef’s “Prayer to the East”, picking Pharoahe Sanders up along the way and pondering casual relations with Sun Ra’s polyglot Arkestra somewhere in its wake. But for all its past influences, the glaringly obvious and the sublime, this night reeked of the familiar smell that spelt ‘home’. MC Nigel Vermaas did warn that there would be curveballs, but his exact phrasing (“expect the unexpected”) left one wishing that a different set of words were chosen.

In all its two-and-a-half-hour-long glory, nothing about Kyle Shepherd’s launch, for his third album, South African History !X, felt contrived. Incendiary audio splashes from his sextet sent involuntary rattles through the Baxter Theatre Concert Hall, while the ease with which the band approaches every piece leaves one feeling nervous that at any moment, anything might go horribly wrong. But nothing does, and those slight ‘faux pas’ moments are assimilated into the whole to create an ever-morphing wall of sound where infinite combinations of moods and modes are tested and delivered almost instantaneously.

The gentlemen on stage play from feeling as much as they do from the musical score; they test the ground on which they stand, challenge the shaky spots beneath their feet, and proceed to attack any weaknesses with their respective instruments. The result is ‘movement music’, a train of both thought and spirit that ferries passengers to and from their darkest pits, and yonder into unexplored alleys and undignified, dingy territory.

For the first movement, Xaru in hand and eyes stretched across to the Kalahari where the First People of the land now exist in small pockets, Kyle Shepherd acts as a channel for his ancestors to communicate messages of hope and healing to anyone willing to listen. Ethan Smith joins him on flute; the contemplative interplay between the two instruments continues until it reaches seismic proportions, collapsing only partially when the Xaru leaves the flute dangling solo on the dancefloor. Ferocious blows ensue with decreasing impact while Kyle takes his place at the piano. The rest of the band walks onto the stage: Shane Cooper on double bass, Darren English on trumpet and flugelhorn, Buddy Wells on tenor sax, and Jono Sweetman on drums. Ethan Smith ditches his flute for the alto sax.

They dedicate one for bra Zim; for the past; for posterity. Most poignantly, it is for now, for our collective spirit, for a pluralistic ‘us’. Buddy Wells’ saxophone interrupts the setting and takes centre stage amidst the bombardment of sound and motion. This is Kyle’s rite of passage, his becoming. Flanked by Shane’s thundering, rumbling bassline, transmuted through Jono’s rhythm on the drums, and given wings by the horn section, the prodigious talents of South Africa’s ‘next-in-line’ are laid bare. This is the realisation of a new reality, the acknowledgement of a non-us-and-them philosophy. It is the erasure of past sins; a march forward.

Glorious moments are located within steps of each other. The atmosphere becomes ethereal and sinister with inflections of ancestral wails as Wells’ solo, coupled with the mood set by the lighting, induces thoughts and feelings of spirits awaiting to be re-awakened. Jono’s demeanour is that of a blind sticksman, holding his head up, contorting his face, and adjusting his vision such that only the white parts of his eyes are visible as he decisively hits anything in sight. He does not keep time per se; he moderates and navigates empty spaces in the music, then applies his own fills in-between the gaps.

English, another prodigy, attacks his instrument with the tenacity of an old-school action game character. His Mortal Kombat-esque demeanourinduces chills way before any sound ensues from his horn, or maybe there is a time-lapse between him blowing and the audience hearing due to the swiftness with which he approaches his weapon of choice. His solos, quick and dizzying, induce paranoia-strained moments of insecurity onto anyone within his reach.

And Kyle, oh Kyle. He constantly strives to exist in the moment, to explore any and all possibilities presented to him by the piano. At one point, he holds down chords that only need a beat in 4/4-time to transform them into hip hop. Almost instantaneously, he rips that segment apart by a swift hand motion that circumvents the obvious by seguing into the previously un-thought-of. He utilises samples of the San chorals to form the core of one piece, then proceeds to curate a delicately placed grand piano symphony to accompany their chants.

What the audience gets to witness is medicinal music, an altruistic discourse vital to the survival of jazz, to the continuation of art. The Goema, which Kyle has declared to be “the most universal rhythm”, goes head-to-head with other forms of drumming. The only time he speaks to the crowd is to apologise for not saying much because, according to him, “there is too much music to play”. And play they do, presenting a comprehensive body of work through movements such as “Xam Premonitions”, “Slave labour”, and “Cape Genesis”. A night well spent, and a musical sermon well delivered.

*All images © Warren Talmarkes.

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