This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of JAZZIZ. Johannesburg’s Joy of Jazz Fest…
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of JAZZIZ.
Johannesburg’s Joy of Jazz Fest presents world-class talent in — and from — Africa’s southernmost nation.
By Bob Weinberg
Gregory Porter is huge in South Africa. An enormous crowd filled one of several cavernous performance spaces in the Sandton Convention Centre for the second of his two performances at September’s Joy of Jazz festival in Johannesburg. An exuberant ovation greeted the New York-based singer and his quintet, who were joined by the 35-piece Music Academy of Guateng — 11 strings, two flutes, 13 horns and more — for a set of songs spanning Porter’s last three albums.
Young South African fans sang along with Porter on favorites such as “Painted on Canvas” and new numbers such as “No Love Dying” and “Hey Laura” from 2013’s Liquid Spirit. Those fans stood and roared, though, when Porter launched into “1960 What?” from his 2010 release Water. After all, the American civil rights conflagrations described in the song mirror the anti-apartheid battles waged by South Africans, as the streets of Detroit and streets of Soweto blazed on their respective continents. “Ain’t no need for sunlight,” the audience sang, call-and-response style, with Porter. “Ain’t no need for moonlight/Ain’t no need for streetlight/It’s burning really bright.”
The shadow of apartheid, which came to an institutional end in 1994, is all but impossible to avoid in discussing South African culture. Much of that culture, including a rich jazz scene, is flavored by fairly recent history; bitter resentments linger still. But artistic expression, rather than being filled with recrimination and anger, seems more or less joyful and optimistic 20 years on, although melancholy sometimes seeps in. At least that seemed to be the case with the South African jazz artists who performed during the three-day Joy of Jazz Fest.
South African artists drew devoted audiences, even as they performed opposite international stars including Porter, Dianne Reeves and Roy Hargrove. Veteran trombonist Jonas Gwangwa led his four-horn ensemble through a set of bright and bluesy compositions, infusing straight-ahead jazz with buoyant South African rhythms. Fusion bassist Carlo Mombelli crafted emotionally resonant songscapes, utilizing a hushed, dreamy palette. His use of pedals to create various effects — from sitar-like overtones to bird cries — enhanced his performance, as did contributions from rising-star pianist Kyle Shepherd, standout drummer Kesivan Naidoo and Sting-like vocalist Mbuso Khosa. Bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and his excellent acoustic quartet played an impassioned set of straight-ahead jazz that sometimes evoked John Coltrane. Tsoaeli’s rich, woody tone on upright provided blues pulses and trancelike motifs on tunes from his masterful, long-awaited 2012 debut album African Time. Among the highlights was a number he sang in the Xhosa dialect, also Nelson Mandela’s native tongue.
Aforementioned pianist Shepherd, 27, proved more than equal to the accolades he’s earned. He and his trio delved into original songs that built from quiet introspection to Bad Plus-like intensity, with Shepherd’s thundering left hand upping the rhythmic ante. Having won the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award for Jazz and released a new double album (Dream State), the pianist was anticipating a performance in October at Carnegie Hall with drummer Naidoo’s band. Naidoo, his foot in a cast, was hardly hobbled. Seemingly everywhere, he also anchored a set by soaring trumpet and flugelhorn player Feya Faku’s quintet.
As this was the 16-year-old Joy of Jazz Fest’s first year in Sandton, an affluent financial hub of Joburg, growing pains may have been inevitable — some 30,000 attendees were expected. The vast convention center presented multiple stages on multiple floors, and getting from one to the next was, at times, challenging. Staircases, escalators and elevators were frequently mobbed, or the traffic moving in the opposite direction. However, it was more than worth the effort to sample as many of the acts as possible. Fortunately, room-length bars lined the back walls of each performance space, and a plentiful (and fairly inexpensive) supply of vodka and lime kept me fortified.
Besides its many fine shops, hotels and restaurants — including those that line Nelson Mandela Square with its bronze statue of the great leader — Sandton doesn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing. However, several significant destinations are easily accessible by car. A visit to the excellent Apartheid Museum is a must. The sober stone façade sets the tone for the experience. Detailed displays trace the roots of South Africa’s racial inequities, which were codified by the white “Afrikaner“ government in 1948. A series of laws determined everything from the carrying of work passes to social interactions between races to forced resettlement. Learning about the travails and triumphs of leaders such as Mandela and Steve Biko, not to mention the countless Black and “colored“ citizens of South Africa, was incredibly moving. (As was a trip to Robben Island, near Cape Town, where Mandela was imprisoned.)
The town of Soweto is also worth exploring, as is the Mandela House Museum. The modest home, where Mandela’s family lived prior to and during his decades-long incarceration, is filled with memorabilia, books, cards and letters from everyone from Muhammad Ali to Fidel Castro. One exterior wall is pocked with bullet holes, from a time when police fired into the home where Winnie Mandela and her children resided. A trip to the museum at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, where Mandela and his colleagues first planned their insurrection in the early ’60s, is also powerfully instructive.
In the shadow of colorfully painted twin energy towers, the lively Chaf Pozi serves meat and poultry in a funky, outdoor bar-restaurant setting in Soweto. Patrons can choose from a selection of sausages, chops and chicken, which is barbecued — locals call it braii — and washed down with icy bottles of beer served by the bucket. On the day I visited, a DJ spun dance music while a group of rubber-limbed dancers popped and locked. Enhancing the party atmosphere were the bungee jumpers — one of whom was dressed like Elvis and carrying a blowup doll — who leapt from the vertiginous towers.
For a deep view of South Africa’s past, Lesedi Village provides a glimpse into how indigenous tribes once lived. Tours take visitors through re-creations of tribal villages, and actors in traditional garb explain everyday activities, from offering dowries of cattle to prospective in-laws to the most-fearsome way to wield a spear. The tour culminates with a series of rambunctious dances — fans of “stepping,“ popular in many Black college fraternities in the U.S., will see its roots vividly displayed — each of which has its own significance. And finally, the day ends with a buffet meal that includes selections from lamb and beef to ostrich and crocodile, as well as side dishes such as savory butternut squash and chakalaka, a piquant tomato-and-pepper-based sauce served over rice. While one could make a meal of the sides, carnivores are richly rewarded at most South African tables.
Speaking of carnivores, Lions Park draws animal lovers in number for the chance to pet lion cubs. Only four visitors are allowed into the spacious enclosure at a time, so as not to stress the animals. One at a time, visitors gently stroke the coarse fur of the cubs, who, like their adult counterparts, sleep most of the day. Larger lions — cheetahs, too — live elsewhere on the grounds, but visitors are instructed to keep their car windows rolled up as they motor by them. Past about six months of age, lions stop being quite so cuddly and start learning why they’re the Alpha predators of the food chain.
The Joy of Jazz Fest, as well as opportunities to explore Johannesburg and learn about South Africa’s recent and distant history, are more than worth the nearly 15-hour flight from New York’s JFK to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport. All that you learn and experience will only deepen your appreciation of the music.