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Reza Khota and Ronan Skillen

Neglected Smoky Jazz Clubs

by Phumlani Pikoli / 29.09.2010

Obs. All artistic and crime ridden, it’s the perfect hub for suburban thugs and the artistically inclined. Shitty night life truth be told. Stereotype: all artists are poor junkies. Does that explain it? It’s like a smaller, seedier version of Melville. Tagore: a bar a Stone’s throw away from Trench Town has a reputation for its jazz. A mighty impressive one at that. It’s the quintessential jazz bar, small, smoky and with loyal patriots. The owners hold a certain respect in the eyes of a lot of the artsy Cape Town legends and up and comers alike. Sadly I don’t think they even know my name.

I’d heard there was some really cool music going on every Tuesday. But what I experienced was way more than I could have predicted. When you hear that your friends’ friends are playing, I always tend to leave some room for disappointment. And stock up on a good pack of little white lies. Unless you’re Max of course. I speak to the guys afterwards and Ronan tries to place the sound for me; “An acoustic world jazz.” I smile, nod and jot it down in my note book.

Reza Khota and Ronan Skillen play every Tuesday at Tagore and are collectively known as Sangam. As I ask Reza the word’s meaning and language of origin, a man steps into the conversation to clarify Rezas’ uncertainty. “A gathering in praise to God. It’s a Sanskrit word.” He tells us, then is off with his friend. We thank him, but I don’t think he hears us.

This week Reza and Ronan were joined by the Lebron James of the Cape Town jazz scene. Kyle Shepherd is a name I encounter quite regularly around South African jazz funde’s along with words look “hey”, “aaah” and “wow”. I remember him from last year’s Jazz Festival, he was doing a cover of Zim Ngqawana’s “Qula Kwedini” in Afrikaans. Having been Bra Zim’s student his musical abilities make sense. His talents validate his great rep. I’m not abashed to admit. They work as a unit. Even if Kyle is a guest feature, the balance is level. They all have a very organic chemistry polished with hard work and the mastering of their respective instruments.

Reza strokes his electric guitar. I want to call the electric a copout, because once mastered the owner is given power to simply pull strings and effortlessly warm your ears. His fingers walk the instrument solo of the others, taking a detour but they all arrive at the destination at the same time. Impeccable timing. Kyle blows the saxophone. I think of that sound replacing the harmonious voice of a fervent African woman. I imagine Letha sitting quietly in a corner with her arms crossed glaring at the instrument that upstaged her vocal abilities. The silky sound of the horn blows me to be wrapped around the Sari that is the Oriental drone that constantly plays to accompany the musicians. Rain rain don’t go away! Play in Ronan’s drum way. Rapid pitter patter his fingers dance on the strange set of three almost djembe looking drums. They ring true to the description of drums and beatings. Only the pattern and force behind each pound vary and is calculated and controlled.

Leroy I hope that’s how it’s spelt. Don’t think he likes me much. I think he judges me for my ever changing company every time I go to the place. I always feel like a familiar stranger to the place, if not to the barmen. I seat myself by the door of the bar expecting to kick myself out at any point, for being a cliché. Just a kid writing in a note book, in a smoky jazz club. I kinda wish that I belonged there. It has a good buzz in its silent surrender to the devils music playing for us. It renders the body useless and limp to the shaping of its command. Putty is what we are for the entire set.

After the show Ronan takes some time to enlighten me on the subject of the very strange drums. “They’re called a Tabla set.” He watches every word I write and corrects my spelling mistakes. “The bass and treble of the drums come as one. The smaller ones are made of Rosewood and the Bass is nickel plated brass. It’s all done finger style.” He adds. Then he’s off with Kyle and that’s it.

Reza makes some time for me. He breaks down their chemistry. “It is a pure application of universal values to music making put into perspective by time and effort. Familiarity breeds comfortablity. Ronan and I have been playing together for three years thus building up a confidence in each other, giving each other the freedom to work our individual inner rhythm. It also allows us to push and challenge one another.” He goes on to describe their sound and musical persuasion as “tricks of the trade derived from Indian Classical and jazz style.”

You have to love the place, it crawls with pseudo intellectuals and wannabe quasi art boffs. The only problem with that kind of thinking is that I’m often schooled by the people I judge most. But this time the broken radar is right. A Xhosa jock gone mad on All Black rugby, and probably believes himself to be the All Black legend Christian Cullen, walks into the place demanding Bob Marley. His arrival should be our cue to leave. But I still have half a beer left so we stay on and live through his arrogant buzz kill. As he gets louder and more obnoxious I suddenly remember to write down something Reza said. “As jazz and improvisation students we try to remain students. Knowledge helps making the music. We therefore are always seeking it. Music is a part of humanity. More than some may know.” I wonder what Christian Cullen knows about music, maybe that explains it?

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