Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Local jazz’s unlikely saviours

Forget everything you know about the jazz scene – the pot bellied and mid-life crisis negotiating patronage and the equally graying, supposedly virtuoso, muso. Jazz is just child’s play. When seasoned jazz musos gawked, mouths wide open from their bar stools like small children being fixed ice cream, at the fresh faced duo of Sakkie Nonong and Gomotsegang Rapoo (nineteen and eighteen year old respectively) burning on stage at the Millennium Jazz Restaurant over Easter, change in the scene was confirmed.

And their arrival in the small live jazz circuit in Gaborone has become some urban legend.

With Nonong on bass and Rapoo on guitar, the struggling local jazz scene may have found its saviors, albeit in the most unlikely of age bracket teens. Opening up for tenor, leading bassist Citie Seetso of Intiation fame, the duo arguably became the jazz faithful’s only worthy Easter revelation. Their band, Brand New Vibes, led by Gavin Bantom on keyboards, prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist whose production credits include Puna Gabasiane’s hit record Iyoo Nna, presented one of the tightest, freshest and dazzling sets in a long long time.

“This small boy is great. Check out his pentatonic runs. He has the chops,” backstage Seetso warned, in between mouthfuls of pap and roasted beef, as Rapoo brought the house down with convincingly clinical renditions of South Africa’s leading jazz guitarist Jimmy Dludlu’s arrangements.
“I have recruited him into my band. He just needs to improve on his chord work and take on the world,” Seetso excitedly added.

And when he took to the stage with the boy behind him for a fret blazing conversation through the critically celebrated Initiation, history was made. Scores of jazz lovers, who all along had stuck to their seats in awe, got into screaming mode, Rapoo’s solo after solo. The youngsters’ ambitious pilgrimage to the heart and soul of jazz performance has left a trail of converts, musicians and lovers of improvisational music alike.

“We recently performed at Buyani Bar (another well known Gaborone jazz joint) and impressed older musicians and the crowd. They never expected people as young as us to be so good. We have since become busy as they asked for our contacts and engaged us in various gigs and functions.”

But then who are these youngsters who have come to upset the regular cart show when least expected in many a graying jazz lover’s lifetime? At a time when a teenager’s interest in music doesn’t go beyond knotting a few phrases together to a kwaito or a hip hop beat, how did the duo go against the tide?

Originally from Mafikeng, South Africa, Nonong grew up in Mogoditshane whereas Palapye-born Rapoo grew up in Mochudi. They just completed secondary school last year, Nonong at Gaborone Senior Secondary School and Rapoo at Molefi Senior Secondary School in Mochudi. The two play together in the church band at the International Pentecostal Church. They have already played alongside veteran musician, Kenny Ndaba. Unlike many a parent who would not hear of a maskanta in the house, Rapoo’s were more than receptive to the idea of making music.

“I started on the guitar at the age of thirteen when doing standard seven,” Rapoo relates, “My father had bought a guitar. It just lay around the house with no one playing it as he did not know how to play it. Inspired by my uncle Jeff Matheatau (popular kwasa kwasa/rhumba star) I used to fiddle with it for hours on end.

Realising my love for the instrument, my father took me to World of Music Academy. I left after seven months. I can now read music.”

Also inspired by his musician uncle, Nonong started on keyboards in church when he was just about fourteen years old. Although he takes care of the bottom end in the band, he can also as well handle the groove on keyboards, his primary instrument.
“I only picked up the bass because I realized that the combination makes for great musicianship,” the young man explains.

But getting into an obsessive habit like music has its own price- an especially heavy one for a sentimental youngster whose sights are solely on greatness.

“I tried to properly manage music with school work but I have to admit my school work really suffered. My mother loved music and told me to balance the art with academics. I didn’t pass as well as I would have wanted, and music had a lot to do with it. I, however, intend to study music in Natal, South Africa,” confesses Nonong.

“I couldn’t concentrate in class,” Rapoo chips in, “I often found myself thinking of melodies to play when I get home. I often looked forward to tea and lunch breaks as that would be the time my friends sneaked the guitar into the classroom. I would play and they would sing and dance. When I got home I would put on my favourite records and practice to them. I would never think of reading a book. My parents didn’t know that the guitar was a distraction.”

A case of the environment shaping the people we become. Nonong explains his baptism into jazz as inevitable, despite the fact that it wasn’t love at first hearing (of the genre).

“My uncle used to play jazz around the house all the time. At first, I didn’t like the music. However, with time I started hearing interesting things in some songs. Eventually, I would listen to whole songs. Louis Armstrong and Joe Sample were some of the artists who were influential in siring a love for the music in me. They really swept me off my feet,” he remembers.

For Rapoo, it was George Benson, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Dludlu who ensured that he stuck to the jazz box, sealed for delivery to the masses.
With kwaito and related youth music genres the official soundtrack of their childhoods, how didn’t they come out unstuck?

“Jazz is special. I am going to go on 75 and still play jazz. It doesn’t date,” Rapoo rushes in to jazz’s defence, a one liner he has probably proffered one time too many.

“Jazz is about being flexible. It opens up your mind. No music would prove difficult if you are well versed in jazz because you get to learn the theory behind the music. These kwaito cats don’t even know the key they are playing in. Jazz is a good basis for one to be a good music teacher. We surely do dance to kwaito at parties but when we get home its all jazz. Anyway, jazz has even made inroads into pop culture as its influences can be heard on many house music records for example. We want to show our peers that jazz is not for adults but everyone who loves music. This kwaito music ke one o ba tronkang to fight and booze. Jazz is about decency and responsibility. You would never hear of stabbings at jazz joints,” adds Nonong.

Beautiful as their story sounds today, the music industry is full of wreckages of whiz kids who once bristled with promise only to lose it to the bottle, drugs and the rock and roll, and many cannot help wondering if the duo has a working support system to ensure that they stay the course.

“We don’t drink. The church keeps us away from all the vices. Our parents knew that we would end up on the road and advised us accordingly. We have promises to keep that we have made to our parents and ourselves. Our guardian in the band, Gavin, is of sober habits as well. He is our parent in the band. Other musicians have also advised us against the industry’s vices. We take this seriously. It is our job. We don’t drink on the job,” says Nonong.
The duo thinks the music industry needs more live shows as well as zero tolerance for piracy. Come July, their band, Brand New Vibes, would drop its debut, a largely instrumental set.

“That was initially going to be my solo project but then I met these brilliant boys and thought why not release the work as a group,” explains the duo’s mentor and bandleader, Bantom.

And his guidance goes beyond the mechanics of music production to the real world.

“I have told them from the very beginning that they can’t have both drink and music. I told them that drugs can destroy them. I don’t want them to lose focus. The plan is to have them succeed not only in Botswana but the international stage as well. I teach them that they cannot spend all day sleeping as that is not the way to succeed in life,” he says.

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