Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Ancestors Danced

Rock ‘n’ Roll came into existence and people danced to it; so, they did and still do to house, rave, soul, R&B, hip-hop and all other types of music you can think of. Jazz music at its peak became unique in many ways and maybe even dare to say revolutionised the way jazz appreciators danced to it. What I have in mind is tap dancing and I can never forget the ever amazing performances by Sammy Davis Jr. But then other variations were added to the already existing jazz dance styles, the twist for example.

A few jazz groups have kept the dance alive with some friendly competitions here and there. The truth of the matter is that, listening sessions have taken over the jazz scene and one rarely ever finds a gig with dancers. The focus seems to have been turned more on the music itself. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

There are still traces of pictures of people dancing to popular Marabi jazz during the Sophiatown era and long before the forced removals. It may not be clear at what point the jazz dance culture was abandoned but this much we know, people danced to jazz.

It is sad that the new generation hardly ever associate jazz with fun and dance. Well, most of them. But the truth of the matter is that Africans by their very nature have always been a song and dance people and it is something we cannot divorce from us. As a matter of fact, I believe we should continue to celebrate it.

2020 is a year for jazz celebrations and indeed there is a lot to celebrate. It Has To Be Jazz® has chosen to celebrate through the recording of amazing spontaneous improvisation by individuals who have never played together before. In particular, it became necessary to remind jazz music lovers that we used to dance to jazz and we still need to.

We headed to the studio to put together music that will remind us of that happy place and may even restore jazz to the highs of its time. I must admit, the team underestimated the magnitude of the concept and we thought it was something that will take a couple of days to think through; setup and execute. But no! There were more questions than answers and at the top of the list was, ‘How do we bring back an era when jazz had progressed so much?’ Better yet, ‘How does one successfully bring together the past and present because at the core of the concept the new is influenced by the old?’

The final decision was to find a legend from the past with a new generation of accomplished young musicians. It must have taken me over 2 weeks to plug up the courage to pitch the concept to one of my favourite trumpet legends, Prince Lengoasa. His response was simple and to the point, ‘What a brilliant idea! Let us go to the studio.’ You should have seen my face when I breathed that sigh of relief. Prince is an accomplished veteran musician who has played with almost every jazz legend you can think of. He appears in the majority of the recordings currently classified as ‘recordings of the century.’ Getting Prince to agree was only the beginning of a hard journey because we had to find the best 4 young musicians who were capable of delivering at Prince’s level.

Once again, we were confronted and challenged by a new experience and for the very first time we truly appreciated the value of keeping a comprehensive database of musicians. Thebe Mmushi plays a double bass and his sound signature borrows from different eras of jazz and traditional African music. These are the elements we wanted to include in the recording. Ofentse Sebula is such a creative saxophone player and guaranteed he will always find a way to fill empty pockets of opportunities in a jazz piece.

Obakeng Matsepe, a meticulous drummer, came highly recommended by Sibusiso Nyirongo who has done a number of events with It Has To Be Jazz®. Mojalefa Mafuya is a unique musician in that not only does he play a guitar but sings in most African vernacular as well. Do not make a mistake of thinking of his voice in the western context, rather imagine the late Dr. Philip Tabane singing; then you will fully appreciate Mojalefa. 

I sat in the sound engineer’s booth watching him as he was weaving his cables. He patiently and meticulously patched each instrument and voice. He took his time fine tuning each channel and by the time he got to the last instrument my anxiety had gotten the best of me. But you see! You don’t rush quality. I tried my best to hide my emotions. Finally, he turned around and looked me in the eye and with the sweetest voice he said, ‘We are good to go.’ He cranked up the volume in the engineer’s booth and with the oneness of spirit the ensemble breathed life into Ancestors Danced. There is something magical about their communication which is hard to believe or even explain. The bottom line is that, it does not matter which musical age group you explore. They all have so much to offer.

So, why did this article make the It Has To Be Jazz® project review? It is a celebration of a very beautiful part of the jazz era and mapping a way forward while exploiting the rich jazz heritage.

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