The Interview – Rashid Lombard: How to strike up the band

2014-03-30 14:00

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The Cape Town International Jazz Festival celebrates its 15th birthday this weekend. Percy Mabandu chats to festival director Rashid Lombard

The air of the Cape Town International Convention Centre is thick?–?and it is more than the salty ocean air that characterises the Mother City.

A discordant cling-clang and bing-bang of hammers and rigs can be heard everywhere as workers set up the venue for Africa’s grandest gathering?–?the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

It’s Wednesday and festival director RashidLombard has the most sought after ear in town. While some people are trying to score free tickets, there are distress calls from staff struggling with some detail needing his attention.

I steal the 63-year-old jazzman for a quick chat about the 15-year milestone of the festival and memories of his life as Nelson Mandela’s official photographer in the early 1990s.

As he sinks into the sofa of the coffee shop, the light catches his thumb ring and a fresh mood suddenly percolates into the occasion. Lombard gains an easy-going guise as our conversation takes off. He wears his distinctive Kangol cap backwards. The beak of its brim rests on his grey ponytail.

The work he has been doing as a “cultural activist” –?this is how he defines what he does with the jazz festival?–?has obscured his long history as a photographer.

“I worked as a photojournalist for 28 years until I stopped after the 1994 elections,” he says.

Part of the big story of his career as a newsman was his second Mandela stint when the statesman was released from prison.

The first was the state’s cat-and-mouse game with Mandela as the elusive Black Pimpernel. The third was last year with the death and funeral of the icon.

“I was privileged to be part of the team that showed the image of the old man walking out of prison,” he says. A few of his pictures made it into the historic exhibition, Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, which runs at Museum Africa, Newtown, Johannesburg.

After being tasked by the ANC through Pallo Jordan to “capture for us, Mandela’s movement”, Lombard travelled with Madiba on his first post-prison visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As a result of those years, Lombard has an archive of pictures of Madiba that has not been seen anywhere else.

He describes Mandela as a “humble leader who always kept a caring eye on the people he worked with”. He remembers how Mandela would ask whether they had eaten, insisting that he was not talking about a measly hot dog, but whether they had been served the same meal as he had been.

The story of how Lombard discovered photography is also connected with how he discovered jazz. In his youth, Lombard thought he was going to be a musician. He tried his hand at a few instruments before he got a bite at the camera.

“My father had bought me a small one so I started documenting these musicians. Then a tailor called Sakkie Mischbach gave me my first Canon,” he remembers. This set him off on a new journey.

He says his love for music comes from growing up with musicians in Cape Town. Lombard talks about listening sessions at Sis Francis Kente’s house in Nyanga East, where he used to hang out with the likes of Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Ephraim “Cups and Saucers” Nkanuka, Duke Makasi and others.

“She really took us in and nurtured us. In fact, James Matthews [the poet] played me my first Nina Simone record. Those were the times,” he smiles.

Jazz would later occupy a more sacred space in his life as an adult. “Later, when I worked as a photographer covering conflict across Africa, it was the music that helped me to calm down. Jazz gave me a sense of therapy, so it grew on me like that.”

In 1995, when he stopped working as a photographer, he says it was natural to play jazz on radio. He worked as a station manager at Fine Music Radio, where he had a jazz programme before moving on to P4 radio station, now known as Heart 104.9?FM, to work as a station manager.

At this time, he went on listening trips to the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands and it was there that he decided to launch a jazz festival in his hometown. He teamed up with the Dutch to help him set up what is now a 15-year-old gig.

Just as he benefited from a skills transfer from the North Sea team, he has insisted on building a training agenda into this festival.

It includes various workshops for journalists, sound and light engineers, among others. “I still live by our political motto of each one teach one,” he says.

The music man still has dreams of pursuing his hunger to take photographs. “I want to go into the [Democratic Republic of] Congo to take pictures, to look at the plight of the gorillas. I want to do more soft stories in some of the most stunning places and be famous as a photographer.”

Lombard says this as he lets out a laugh. His phone starts ringing again and he turns his attention to organising his jazz festival.

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