Zim Ngqawana: A child of the rain
Zimology Quartet live at Birds Eye Switzerland (2007)
Anthology of Zimology Volume One (2008)
50th Birthday Celebration Linder Auditorium – 12 December 2009
“Everything flows…it is not possible to step into the same river twice” (attributed to Heraclitus, c. 500 bce.)
More people today know the legends of Zimasile “Zim” Ngqawana than know his music. Let’s not kid ourselves: jazz is currently a niche music in South Africa. It’s sidelined by media outside a few specialist slots, and often staged in venues where entry fees and transport costs to a metropolitan centre exclude many who would love it. The official rush to embrace a market-oriented ‘cultural industries’ discourse and now the hegemony of global digital capitalism as the curator of music consumption intensify this sidelining.
Ngqawana’s memory and narratives live on because of his fierce fans and his profoundly influential relationships as mentor and creative partner with others: film-maker Aryan Kaganof, bassists Shane Cooper and Herbie Tsoaeli, pianists Nduduzo Makathini and Kyle Shepherd, vocalist Omagugu Makathini, trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, reedman Mthunzi Mvubu and more. Those artists carry forward not only their recollections, but the spirit of that shared work, in scholarship that opens it to their own students, and in their own innovative practice.
That’s how we know about the work of the Zimology Institute and its struggles to inhabit a small decolonial moment and liberated space for making and learning music. It’s also how we know the way thieves wrecked the Institute for its scrap value and about Ngqawana’s subversive, defiant, creative response, archived on film in The Exhibition of Vandalizim.
But beyond jazz musicians, students and fans, Ngqawana remains best known for one tune that made it onto radio beyond the specialist shows and stayed in playlists for a very long time: his re-visioning of an isiXhosa rite of passage song, Qula Kwedini, from the 1998 album Zimology.
Versions of Qula almost always cropped up in the reedman’s live sets and their recordings (though not on his subsequent studio albums for the Sheer label, Ingoma, Zimphonic Suites and Vadzimu). Audiences from every cultural background cherished and called out for it; those who shared his, often sang along too.
Ngqawana’s life story has been well documented: childhood in Gqeberha and his self-made reed flute; early gigs with the Afro-Teens, the Black Slaves and Pacific Express; gaining acceptance to university programmes at Rhodes and UKZN on talent alone; Amherst and other US studies and residencies that sat him beside Archie Shepp and Yusuf Lateef; his drum ensemble at Mandela’s inauguration; his role in the SA jazz renaissance of the 1990s; his struggles to get jazz into South African concert halls and foster concert-hall respect in clubs – nominations, awards and the countless gigs and tours that followed, before his untimely death from a stroke in 2011.
The five years preceding that tragedy saw him at the peak of his musical powers. Three live recordings from that period on his own Ingoma imprint – the 2007 Ingoma Quartet live at Birds Eye Switzerland; the 2008 Heidelberg-recorded Anthology of Zimology Volume One and the 2009 50th Birthday Celebration, recorded at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, give us access to how his technical command was constantly expanding, and his vision of the possibilities of a theme changing – sometimes “stretched,” he noted, “beyond recognition.”
There’s much more to hear on these six-odd hours of music than three versions of Qula, of course. The Birds Eye set features Ngqawana’s early, classic quartet: Nduduzo Makathini on piano, Ayanda Sikade on drums and Herbie Tsoaeli on bass. It opens with Ngqawana (in poet Sterling D. Plumpp’s words) travelling “from here to Harlem and back/on a Trane” in the pianist’s arrangement of Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Blue. But it also reveals the reedman’s playfulness and how he enjoyed fucking with an audience’s expectations. “This is not a sound for entertainment,” his liner notes solemnly admonish. And he’s right.
Musician-scholar George Lewis has pointed out that free improvisation represents the recovery of a silenced voice; it’s a challenge, in McCoy Tyner’s words, “as serious as your life”.
That’s true of the whole lineage of Black music, challenging oppression by its very existence.
The set is centred on a 20-minute-plus DJ Zim Suite: 20 minutes of pure groove, above which the improv continues with precisely the same edgy spirit and intensity as if it was riding something far more self-consciously “serious”. The concept is Ngqawana’s, but only those rhythm players could carry it off with quite such a joyfully iconoclastic vibe, joined by the reedman’s bird-whistle in place of deejay scratches.
“European music”, he once observed, “is sometimes obsessed by melodic lines. But you can live without melody. Rhythm can be enough”.
And, yes, you can dance to it – except the intelligence of the playing compels you to stop and listen.
The Qula in this set is short and solemn. The bird-whistle here is an evocation of the natural world, a prelude to call-and-response song, extended vocalese and the horn exhalations of human breathing. Ngqawana is often quoted advocating the realisation of self, but that was never an individualistic project. Here, Qula is grounded in community: the realisation of self as, in Ngqawana’s words [a] “human being on this planet.”
The Heidelberg two-disk set sees a change of bassist to Shane Cooper (and gives us a chance to briefly visit Cooper’s moving tribute, Passacaglia for Johnny Dyani). Ngqawana’s liners describe these performances as “the end of the [Zimology] era”; a deliberate expansion of the improvisatory possibilities of the known material and foreshadowing where the sounds could go next. “The new music (…) will be all about consciousness.”
As befits a goodbye, gospel, spirituals and the blues infuse the musical thinking here. Ngqawana had for a long time mused about new ways of giving his music a Xhosa cadence by revisiting “the way my father would have sung a hymn” and that’s what he explores here in the Spiritual Suite. But although he was fiercely proud of the South African jazz sound, he never turned his back on other diasporic voices and the shared spirit of Black creativity; the sprightly closer, Bureaucracy, slips niftily between goema, Afro-Cuban and calypso.
Qula Kwedini has become a 17-minute suite: the song itself, a dedication to Initiates, a brief, swinging flight and a conversational Recitative. The sequence is grounded in Ngqawana’s masterly flute technique. But his singing voice here is different: it’s a greybeard’s voice (he notes in the liners that he’s now old enough to have fathered his co-players) looking backwards with regret and lamenting how “the whole humanity project has been hijacked” by a reductive fragmentation. Hoarse vocalese becomes scat improv becomes a seer’s voice speaking in tongues and, by the conclusion of the suite, a conversation of elders.
The 50th birthday double-disk set is in some ways incomplete. The concert was designed as a multimedia event with dancers; it would have been useful to see on DVD how those other elements were integrated.
Still, the music is strong enough to stand without them. Again, there’s a change of bassist: magisterial veteran Ernest Mothle brings a deep and subtle signifying to his role. There’s lots of blues, lots of Coltrane homage (particularly explorations of the South Asian modes of Trane’s later period) and preaching, spoken and played. It presents a relatively seamless collage – with many more short numbers than had been usual in a Ngqawana live performance – of all the elements that had characterised his musical life. But this retrospective lens is nothing like a conventional, straight-line look backwards. The elements are visited in the order that makes the best sonic and intellectual, not chronological, sense, and predominantly through new compositions.There is, for example, an intense, furious Blues for Afghanistan, part chant, part blowing, mostly sermon; Ngqawana’s exploration of consciousness was never only inward, and a world of war and destruction continued to engage his indignation.
As well as revisiting Qula and Ebhofolo, Ngqawana’s music history tracks back to a transformation of Mongezi Feza’s anthemic You Think You Know Me (but you’re never gonna know me): that song’s patterning dissassembled and its motifs spliced with spoken reflection and spaces of silence for remembering.
Among the new works, the four introspective Samurai numbers – Sword, Peace, Tears and Laughter – allude to the martial arts discipline of one of Ngqawana’s own past mentors, Abdullah Ibrahim, but are much more about Ngqawana’s own intense concentration as he inhabits the moment of his music, cycling through its graceful forms. Here is the sonic focus on consciousness that was promised during the Heidelberg sets.
The birthday Qula is another exercise in deconstruction. Not only are the patterns of the tune teased apart, but so are its instrumental voices. We hear it as a piano solo, then a duet, then a trio – and then we must hold our breaths for the most subtle of bass solos. The music is distilled to its essence: strings and spirit.
Some audience members at the 2009 event said afterwards they thought there had been “too much talking”. That may have been true for anybody imagining they were buying a ticket for an evening of greatest hits – although Ngqawana fans should have learned by then that he would never do something so predictable. That was not Ngqawana’s object in presenting the concert. For him, it was a precious opportunity to lay out and archive his vision for a future direction that was not limited to music – however long or short that future might be.
Because, although much of the music is joyful, death and ceremonies of mourning – hymns such as the heartbreaking weNjenje uYehova, sermons, tributes, requiems – are a recurring theme in speech and music. During You Think You Know Me, Ngqawana reflects
“When you’re improvising, you’re not dependent on the note…you’re ready for death any time”.
The liners state, “At 50 years, one realizes that the physical dimension will soon fade away…consciousness continues, for it has no beginning nor end”. Ngqawana knew he had inherited a family vulnerability to strokes, and that his rigorous practice regime, including the taxing technique of circular breathing, increased the risk. He relished life and never sought out death, but his Sufic philosophy put it in its place – his priority was strengthening his ability to speak through the music.
Perhaps what is most poignant about the birthday Qula is that while its other musical elements are radically altered, the vocal part on this version is the closest of any to Ngqawana’s 1998 original. The voice of this child of the rain (as his clan name has it) returned to the source. But his tireless work and restless, innovative spirit had been terraforming for 30 years. It was definitely no longer the same river.