Zahara – Loliwe music video (one million views and counting)
Varied Notes At Cape Town Jazz Festival
espAFRIKA’s otherwise excellent Cape Town International Jazz Festival ended on an off-note when Lauryn Hill halved a full Kippies stage within her first three songs. Poor sound, sped-up vocals and inferior re-arrangements combined to ruin my high school memories of her classic debut, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Walking off stage repeatedly and constantly asking if we could hear her didn’t help endear the ex-Fugees diva to the audience either.
Hill was a late addition to the lineup after Jill Scott pulled out, but I found myself wishing they’d scheduled Zahara as her main stage replacement instead.
Earlier on Saturday, Zahara had packed the Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee stage. Sounding like a cross between Miriam Makeba and Vusi Mahlasela, she earned one of the best audience responses of the festival.
Her magic voice and pure, village girl-next-door personality had the crowd dancing and singing along to hits like Destiny. Admittedly, she had better acoustics than L Boogie, but no audio mix would have been able to make Hill’s erratic voice sound equal to Zahara’s.
Seeing the 24-year-old for the first time, I wanted to be able to proclaim this self-described “young girl from the rural areas” the next big thing, but during her first six months in the industry she’s already broken every sales record in South African music history and is up for seven South African Music Awards (SAMAs), so I’m far too late for that.
Zahara was competing for an audience with Tribute to Mama Afrika, another festival highlight. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela led the show, with stunning guest vocals from Vusi ‘The Voice’ Mahlasela, Thandiswa Mazwai and Freshlyground’s Zolani Mahola. This was the tribute’s first appearance in Africa after a sell-out European tour, where Lira had performed in place of Mahola.
In a moving tribute to his ex-wife, Bra Hugh called Makeba “the first patron saint of this continent” who “sacrificed a lucrative career to explain Africa to the world.” He berated the government for hurrying her memorial before the rest of the world could send delegations to celebrate and pay tribute to her. “It was like Miriam’s legacy had to be erased so quickly,” he said at the media conference. “All over the world people are still crying why is there nothing for Miriam Makeba – you can’t even see a statue for her.”
My personal highlight of the festival was being in the front row of a comparatively small Bassline crowd for Nouvelle Vague, a French bossa nova band who cover new wave and punk songs by the likes of Depeche Mode and The Sex Pistols, transforming them into something naughtier, loungier and more playful.
“We prefer to be called a discover band – we’re covering very obscure tracks that no one has heard of,” they said at the press conference. “The punks weren’t the most musically educated musicians on the scene but the energy was pure and they were very honest with their feelings, so it’s beautiful to address that with a more sophisticated bossa nova approach. New wave and bossa nova share the same melancholy, which is why it works.”
Nouvelle Vague, who rotate vocalists on their albums, toured with lead singers Liset Alea and Melanie Pain. They played as a six-piece but it’s unlikely any heterosexual male in the audience took his eyes off the quirky vocalists, who at one stage even lay flat on their backs on the stage and did the cockroach dance. By the time Pain ended Too Drunk To Fuck with the offhand remark, “It’s not true, you know. We haven’t even had a drink tonight,” everyone was in love.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned pure jazz yet, which was largely relegated to two smaller, seated stages upstairs – Moses Molelekwa and Rosies, where you bizarrely had to stand in line to queue and pay an extra R30 per show, much to the irritation of festival-goers who had already coughed up R550 for a weekend pass or R400 for a day pass.
Only four jazz artists performed on the main stage, but two of them were festival highlights for me.
It was a weekend full of saxophones, so Marcus Miller’s set was a refreshing change, as his bass took the starring role. Miller is a Grammy-winner who’s played bass for legends like Miles Davis, Luther Vandross and Herbie Hancock, so I’m unlikely to see a better showcase of the instrument in my lifetime.
During the media conference, the composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist gave a passionate pitch on why bass deserves more credit. “The bassist’s job is to keep everything together,” Miller said. “We drive the bus from the back, so people don’t even know we’re in charge. Everyone thinks they’re the leader, but we’re doing the real work. Bass players rule.”
The crowd seemed to agree, loving every minute of his set, especially Tutu, which he wrote for Miles Davis, and Maputo, which he co-wrote with David Sanborn and Bob James in honour of the capital of Mozambique.
Smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz was back for the second year in a row. His Grammy-nominated 2011 album, Hello Tomorrow, went to number one on the US jazz charts, with three number one singles.
Before the show, I’d dismissed him as Kenny G-lite, but Koz stole Friday night with a typically upbeat performance that moved from smooth jazz to rock to funk.
Koz, who says he tries “not to sing in public,” even took a rare turn on vocals, standing in for Bebe Winans on The Dance. Beforehand, he made the packed audience promise to still love him if he sang, but he needn’t have worried: the adoring crowd was singing along so loudly his vocals weren’t necessary anyway.
Grammy-winning jazz singer Patti Austin joined Koz on stage to awe the audience with renditions of Des’ree’s You Gotta Be and The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. She may be tiny, but that voice is gigantic, having more than held its own in duets with Michael Jackson, George Benson and Luther Vandross during her 40-year career.
Austin, still as versatile and hard-working as ever, also played a solo gig at Rosies and guested with James Ingram headlining Friday night. Ingram, a multi-Grammy winner, is best known for a string of Best Original Song Oscar nominees, including Somewhere Out There with Linda Ronstadt for American Tail and The Day I Fall in Love with Dolly Parton for Beethoven’s 2nd. I’ve always found most songs nominated by the aging Academy incredibly cheesy, so I’m not the right person to evaluate him. The audience seemed to love him though.
The visiting artists clearly enjoyed playing here, especially Koz, who grinned like a kid throughout his show. “The single best experience I’ve ever had on stage was here last year,” he told the crowd. “Cape Town is my favourite audience in the entire world – the only place on earth that sings along with instrumentals. Cape Town is my tweede huis.”
During the media conference, Koz compared South African jazz audiences to America. “The fan base in the US is mature. I didn’t want to say old, but… The fact that you have people here in their 20s interested in jazz music is incredible – it’s a very special part of South Africa and one of the greatest shots in the arm for people like me.”
Fear of a shrinking audience for jazz was a recurrent theme. “There is no music education anymore, so you’re dealing with an illiterate audience,” complained Austin. “They’re getting what they know from the last of radio, which is transitioning into the internet age, where people are hearing what they want to hear and not a lot else. There’s a tendency to listen to the music of your own generation, but this particular generation – the music is very remedial. When you’re listening to junk, it gets harder and harder to listen to anything of quality.”
She believes, “Exposure is always the answer.” In that context, the jazz fest’s diverse lineup makes sense, even if it irritates purists. Hip Hop Pantsula (HHP) joked that he wasn’t sure if the organisers “bring us here to entertain their kids.” As HHP’s younger fans wandered between the stages, some may have stumbled on new favourites within the jazz genre, although this would happen more if Rosies wasn’t hidden away upstairs behind a pay wall.
The Cape Town International Jazz Festival is now in its thirteenth year, but it isn’t running perfectly yet. I was incredibly grateful that my press pass allowed me to jump the daunting queues. Shows ran as much as an hour late and there were long moments on both nights with no one playing on any of the five stages.
But I don’t want to quibble. I don’t have space to mention all the great performances I saw, let alone the ones it broke my heart to miss. With five stages and 41 bands, the fest is more like a mixtape on shuffle than an album you listen to from start to finish. The jazz fest was a driving factor behind the approval of plans to double the size of its venue, The Cape Town International Convention Centre, but there’s already more than any one person can see.
The jazz fest is about more than the music these days – it’s now billed as Africa’s Grandest Gathering. I saw a lot of suits enter the corporate hospitality areas and fewer leave, as it’s a work night for many sales people in the audience. The fest, which sold out 35 000 tickets thanks to “jazz refugees” from across the country, is as multicultural as Cape Town gets, so plays an important role in nation-building. There’s even celeb-spotting for those less interested in the music – this year, there were many tweets about stalking actor Idris Elba, in town to play Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom.
The jazz fest is now so diverse it strikes a chord with anyone who attends, even government. President Jacob Zuma hailed the jazz fest in his state of the nation address last year for contributing more than R475 million to the economy and creating 2 000 jobs in 2010, numbers which are likely to have risen again this year.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent