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Skabengas

The Shape of Jazz to Come

by Andrei Van Wyk / Images by Hanro Havenga / 29.09.2011

Jazz can go either way. It can be relaxing, as soft notes run wild through your head, or it can be an exercise in musical masturbation that stains the air. Despite the appeal, the entire genre seems to have stagnated somewhat and many who define themselves as “jazz musicians” seem satisfied to end up playing jazz standards in run down bars, or providing musical wallpaper for upmarket steak restaurants in Johannesburg. But jazz is beyond reproach, like forbidden fruit for music critics. And while musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and South African virtuosos like Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt are untouchable, it’s their innovation in the genre that sets them apart from the overall state of modern jazz which has become a dumbed down, ersatz version of the genre’s older, nobler forms. Today, the jazz scene is like a museum where most revel the past glories and have little faith in the releases of today. But slowly musicians are re-discovering the old forms, abandoning Kaya FM’s brand of ‘lover’s jazz’ and taking a step back. The Skabengas are one such unit. Embracing the past and repackaging it positively, and trying to hand it out to a younger audiences.

Howl, Wolves

Cigarette smoke floats in the light breeze. Wolves is in an easy mood tonight; gentle words and subtle laughter glide between the tables. The food on other tables looks tempting and the expensive beer is, as always, intoxicating. The drunks in the corner sway to the chillwave jumping from the speakers, contrasting even against the anticipation the jazz to come. It is not as packed as the regular Howl Thursdays. Cigarette trading hipsters and high heel fashionistas abide. Owners Shane, in his Surfer Blood shirt, and Angie, with her hair tied back, run around with empty beer bottles and dirty plates.

Soon the group of small, sincere musicians come on with a shy tinge but a covert virtuosity. Skabenga, literally meaning “rascal” in isiZulu, hints at their appearance. A bare-footed trumpeter, a big lead singer in a Hawaiian shirt and an “old school” jazz bassist playing an electronic upright. I watch from the merch shelf on the side as they get ready. They burst into ears, but only about ten people are paying attention. Others sit with their red velvet cakes and Americanos talking over the music. The frenetic drumming hints at a mix of Buddy Rich and Thomas Pridgen which keeps a steady beat drowned in complex polyrhythms while the thumping hard bop influenced bass mingles with the drums creating a solid, almost perfect, rhythm section. The crowd is suddenly involved, dancing, hands waving and feet imitating a vague Charleston. This is a really fun band.

Skabengas

The Reinhardt influenced guitar delivers a Gypsy jazz twang. The instrumentation is indicative of the band’s virtuosity, but the singer’s voice remains, for a lack of a better word, ‘annoying’. He attempts a Tom Waits’ growl mixed with a Don Von Vliet energy but it fails to captivate. The accentuation of each word sounds artificial, his stage persona seems forced. The trumpet, though highly skilled, strikes as kind of premeditated and a bit repetitive. The audience doesn’t seem to mind, or understand. And maybe that’s the whole point. The Skabengas are a perfect example of a common current in the Johannesburg music scene. A group of really talented musicians who instead of forging a new direction, hold onto genres of the past and place all the emphasis on being “vintage”. The Skabengas carry the same mindset of Bitches Brew era Miles Davis. They are far from innovative. Unlike Carlo Mombelli’s textural Sound design or John Zorn’s thrash metal take on free jazz, they don’t push any boundaries or place a dilemma in anyone’s hands. Their appeal is designed for non-jazz audiences. And yet, there was an intensity in the performance which leapt out and entertained this crowd.

That intensity dies with the final trumpet note. The couple making out in the corner pack it in and go home, others drag their legs in drunken stumbles. The smell of exhaled beer fogs the windows. The cars outside disperse one by one while the waiters clean up the tables, the band packs up and the silence takes over.

Skabengas

Skabengas

How, Skabengas

Skabengas

Skabengas

*All images © Hanro Havenga.

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RESPONSES (29)
  1. Mahala Reader says:

    Very very well written!
    Nicely done!

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  2. Andy says:

    “They burst into ears” – v.nice (if I do say so myself)

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  3. Paris B says:

    Without being bias – probably your best article! Would love to read more of this on Mahala!

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  4. carl says:

    Such an amazing article. Can’t say much about the pics. Where’s your other guy?

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  5. Adrian says:

    KAK photos. really well written, “They are far from innovative” – awesome. @Andy this reviewer is so hard to impress.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Great article about a great band! They’re only a few months old, perhaps the world changing musical inovation is still to come???

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  7. Anonymous says:

    I have seen this band. Awesome, good to see young folk avoiding the main stream making new music.

    The article istelf is ok if not decisive in its opinion.

    Criticism on the lead singer is a bit harsh, to me he seemed completely absorbed in the music and natural.

    Something is stirring…

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  8. shepard00294 says:

    @anonymous

    I think this review was spot on but my personal opinion, this band isn’t amazing. Their typical jazz. Great article! Shit photos. @andy keep up the awesome writing

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  9. Skabengas says:

    http://www.facebook.com/skabengas

    Conventional jazz, or something fresh. Decide for yourselves!

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  10. Anonymous says:

    “This is a really fun band’

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  11. Anonymous says:

    It is a bit sad that there was no mention of Ska, as this band is not a jazz band in my opinion.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    I was there!!!! They were absolutely AMAZING! Thanks for sharing:)

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  13. Adrian says:

    @Skabenga, you’re not conventional jazz, but you’re definitely not something fresh.

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  14. jarryd142 says:

    @Anonymous, Just because there was a trumpet doesn’t mean that it was ska. They weren’t amazing. like the writer said, they were good musicians but nothing special. P.S I was also there and they didn’t blow my socks off.

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  15. JanetH43 says:

    Their singer could have been more powerful!! They were really good in my opinion, really picked up the vibes and had tremendous energy.
    Gotta hand it to them for being pretty damn original for an SA band, rather than your conventional run-of-the-mill bands that plague the scenes. I like their approach toward making ‘Jazz’ easy to listen to. All in all, hats off to them!!

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  16. Yola says:

    I was at Wolves that night. I love Jazz and The Skabengas SUCKED so much

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  17. daniel bruce says:

    yo andrei nice one dude. love the coleman ref in the title, missing the mombelli soundscapes here in ct. i feel you , but i guess the more free stuff gets the less accesible it gets to average joe, you know, sometimes it takes a while to understand what the musicians are trying to say. yet to see the skabengas, but i could relate to the piece. its probably the hardest thing for bands – striking the balance between challenging the giant that jazz has become and getting the gigs. its fucking daunting man, there is a lot of history to pay homage to. BUT! yoh im tired of cats just blasting out the standards, craving something fresh…

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  18. Joenie says:

    That show was far from standard!!!

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  19. sam says:

    nice pics. that’s about all. writing seems too contrived, every word agonised over. pseudo-romantic bs.

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  20. Anonymous says:

    Love da skabengas…awesome band and they rocked it that nyt!!!!

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  21. mr crabzz says:

    Big ups to da band wudnt mind seeing dem again.

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  22. Anonymous says:

    This writer seems to have somewhat missed the whole point of the band. They are not specifically jazz, and in fact their name incorporates two other genres – ska and benga. They are a fusion of all music and their own experiences with it. Harsh on the singer – he is a naturally over-the-top guy, and a great frontman.
    I love this band and I think they have something special to give to South African music!

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  23. greg says:

    Awesome article, pity about the kak photos.

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  24. greg says:

    It looks like they were edited by a robot… Thermal everywhere! Bleh.

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  25. Andy says:

    the photo hate on this piece is ridiculous… can someone please explain substantively what is wrong with them… for someone without a DTP qualification

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  26. Hanro says:

    It’s actually very High-res photo’s.
    The small thumbnails are a tad lacking.

    Watever,

    Haters gonna hate.

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  27. Planet Lindela BB says:

    The guys are dope cut them some slack, they fresh for mature, the idea could be over crowded but makes a lot of sense if you give it the good ear

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  28. Evan Milton says:

    Andrei, thank you for an interesting read and, of course, the basic facts on a band that hasn’t yet played my neck of the woods. Reminded me of when Tribe brought jazz to the (largely student, largely “non jazz”) Observatory audiences in Cape Town some years back.

    Disclosure: Also, I’m shamelessly nicking the “vintage contemporary” tag as a two-word description of the band for a listing. Hope they like it too.

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  29. Music fundi says:

    This band has released their first studio EP. Its free to download check it out! http://skabengas.bandcamp.com/

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