Chit Chat: Soweto Kinch

2012-03-16 07:36

British jazz and rap activist Soweto Kinch performs at the Flyover Show in Kliptown, Soweto this month. Percy Mabandu asks him about his music and politics.

How does a British artist end up with a name like Soweto Kinch?
I was born two years after the uprising of 1976. A lot of black people in Britain were moved and inspired by what happened in South Africa. In many ways, it gave me not just my name, but a political and cultural perspective.

What got you interested in playing a sax when you could have easily been just an MC?
I started playing saxophone at roughly the same time that I started to rhyme seriously. I played the clarinet at primary school, but when I went to a music workshop in Birmingham at age nine I was mesmerised by the shiny gold thing in the corner. I spent the next few months hassling my father to buy me one. My love for hip-hop and jazz has grown together.

Your music has been decidedly sociopolitically engaged. How did that happen when it’s so easy to go bling?

I grew up in a politically aware environment. In many ways, ‘going bling’ was never really an option. My father’s a playwright and I was always aware of the power of art to transform perception. I’m always keen to create work that reflects my values.

How would you describe The Flyover Show?

The Flyover Show is a public art spectacle that takes place in an unconventional location – beneath a motorway flyover in Birmingham. When it started, it was about drawing attention to neglected corners of the city and changing the perception of where ‘high art’ can exist. I wanted to celebrate the positive things that have come from that black community, instead of the usual headlines about unemployment and crime.

What was the response to the show from the gangs who ran the areas?

Universally positive! In five years of running the event, we’ve never encountered any trouble or hostility from local gangs. It proved that the perception of these areas as dangerous, impassable places outweighs the reality. I think people see the value of having positive events in the community.

What made you decide to bring it to Joburg?
I’ve been keen to extend the idea for some time, and South Africa is the most natural place. Tumi of Tumi and The Volume came to perform at the Birmingham show in 2008 and this provided a great way of reciprocating.

Also, I’ve been coming to South Africa for eight years – playing at the State Theatre in Tshwane and Grahamstown Arts Festival – and have developed strong artistic links in the hip-hop and jazz communities. This is a great opportunity to extend and cement those ties.

How have you found musicians here compared with those from other places you’ve been?
South African musicians have a distinct sound. You can tell it’s founded on strong traditions. I was inspired to play sax and piano by hearing Bheki Mseleku, the late South African jazz man who was based in London when I was at school. South Africa has produced greats like Zim Ngqawana, Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, who are informed by that heritage. Similarly, in hip-hop circles, the MCs I’ve met are proud about not being clones. It was a revelation to find such originality and alternative approaches to the genre.

Branford Marsalis is jazz royalty, one of many to endorse your musicianship. How does that affect your creative efforts?
It’s always encouraging to have your ideas endorsed by an elder statesman, and both Wynton and Branford have been encouraging. I’ve also grown up musically in an environment in the UK surrounded by our own jazz royalty, such as Steve Williamson, Courtney Pine and Julian Joseph to name a few.

What special ideas are you planning for music lovers in South Africa?

I’m going to be showcasing some new material, with a dancer, from my forthcoming album exploring the seven deadly sins. It’s going to be the first time airing some of this material and featuring this particular ensemble. Expect the unexpected.

» Kinch will perform at The Flyover Show at Freedom Square in Kliptown Soweto on March 31 from 10am until 6pm. Free tickets can be collected at Computicket outlets across Gauteng

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