The new jazz brotherhood

2015-03-29 13:15

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It’s amazing to think about – a bunch of guys from Cape Town getting an opportunity to play the most famous concert hall in the world,” says Kesivan Naidoo, sitting on the balcony of The Orbit Jazz Club & Bistro in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

He proceeds to explain how it happened.

“We were playing a Monday-night rehearsal gig at my club Straight No Chaser, and had a real cracker of a gig,” he says. “Afterwards, this guy came up to me and asked: ‘Are you interested in playing Carnegie Hall?’”

“I laughed and said: ‘Everyone wants to play Carnegie Hall, what are you on about?’”

That guy was Andrew Byrne, a director at Carnegie Hall in New York.


Even the precocious young buck from East London on the drum kit, who was schooled by some of South Africa’s jazz greats, couldn’t have imagined playing Carnegie Hall so early in his career.

Naidoo made his professional debut at the age of 14 and played with Hotep Idris Galeta when he was still in high school.

By the age of 19, he was playing drums for Bheki Mseleku and, by 21, was studying Indian modal music in Kolkata with sitar guru Sanjay Bandophadyah.

This set Naidoo off on an exploration of Indian modal music with the free jazz ensemble, Babu. At the same time, he pushed jazz to its limits with fusion bands such as Closet Snare and Restless Natives.

But this year, Naidoo finds himself in an interesting position in the South African jazz firmament.

He is fresh from a tour of the US with his band The Lights, which came after the release of his sophomore album, titled Brotherhood.

His new album features young jazz stars Shane Cooper (29) on bass, Kyle Shepherd (27) on piano, Reza Khota (37) on guitar and Justin Bellairs (24) on alto and soprano saxophone.

Naidoo has shifted from being the young prodigy and has become the band leader and mentor to a generation of South Africa’s leading young jazz stars.


“I wasn’t even going to do an album until next year, but you can’t go to Carnegie Hall without a new record,” he says, then bursts out laughing.

The name of thenew album was suggested by trumpeter Feya Faku, who features on six of the double album’s 14 tracks.

“He [Faku] phoned me one day and said I had to call the album Brotherhood,” recalls Naidoo.

Faku had been impressed with the young jazz stars under Naidoo’s leadership and had rather perceptively piped up: “Wow, you guys are amazing, you are like brothers.”

The young musicians on Naidoo’s new album are no strangers to each other.

Shepherd and Naidoo have combined magnificently in Carlo Mombelli’s most recent quartet, Cooper plays bass in Shepherd’s trio and in Khota’s quartet, while Bellairs, Khota and Naidoo play in Cooper’s quintet.

“Reza and I have been playing with each other for a very long time. Probably since I got back from India,” says Naidoo. “When I got back, I was very into Indian classical music and he’s also very into it, so we formed this band called Babu with Shane Cooper and Roland Skillen. We started to really grow up in that band, getting into modal music and ragas and stuff.”

Naidoo’s fascination with modal music and ragas continues on Brotherhood with the magnificent Eclipse 2 & 3 and Dream Weaver, two highlights from the double album.

Speaking about Cooper and Khota, he says: “I have been watching both of them growing up since their teens, just keeping an eye on them, because even then they had something special.

“There is a group of us young jazz artists who are conscious about not wanting to see what is good enough locally, but what is the world standard,” says Naidoo. “I have been very fortunate to work with some great jazz musicians. You look at them and ask, ‘where is the benchmark?’ and then you realise, oh, actually these guys work very hard to be this good.

“We need to stretch ourselves to improve,” he adds. “Nowadays, I want and need to practise more than I did when I was at college.”

When you look for the future leaders of South African jazz, they are right here in Naidoo’s band The Lights, and one gets the sense he understands that and feels a responsibility to help mentor them.

“I try to keep my compositions as simple as possible because I love the way these guys play. There are long solos on therecord because I want to hear them really kicking ass,” he writes in the album’s liner notes.

“I know when I listen to this record who’s playing on it,” he says. “My idea of leadership is to bring out the voice of each individual.”

Fittingly, Brotherhood features four duo improvisations where the four young musicians in his band get to express themselves in conversation with Naidoo.

He also takes time on Brotherhood to reflect on his years under the mentorship of Mseleku, with a composition titled Time with the Masters.

“When I first played with him, I was 19 years old,” he writes in the liner notes. “When you are spending time with the master, you have to deal with yourself and your limitations.

“I didn’t know half the things I know about music now, yet he still treated me like an equal.”


But on the balcony at The Orbit, Naidoo’s new role as band leader and mentor is not at the top of his mind. Rather, he wants to talk about the state of jazz in South Africa and the state of our nation.

For many, jazz in the country has been transformed from the music of the proletariat to the music of the bourgeoisie over the past 20 years. In this process, they say, it has been bastardised, stripped of its revolutionary zeal, its pain and blues, and has become diluted as it becomes entertainment rather than art.

This is a problem for Naidoo. “It’s strange for me,” he says. “Jazz has always been rebellious music.”

He begins to chuckle, but it is more of an uncomfortable laugh than a genuinely amused one. It is clear as day that this shift in South African jazz since democracy troubles him.

“It’s kind of sad for me,” he says as the chuckle fades. “It’s a different struggle now, we are struggling for real equality and we don’t have that yet.

“We have only scratched the surface of abolishing apartheid,” he says. “There is this official thing that apartheid was abolished. When? So why are the same people who were poor back in the day still poor?

“A lot of the people who loved jazz or used it for political expression in struggle times are now in power and, in some circles, jazz has almost become a bourgeois thing,” he says. “The guys are not really thinking about inequality that much; everyone is trying to make a living and hustle.”

Anyone who has had to fork out exorbitant amounts for a ticket to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival or the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival to see South Africa’s premier talent will nod when they listen to Naidoo speak about this.

For many, it’s all about fancy clothes, expensive liquor and being seen.

It has become a statement of status and is no longer about challenging art and politics, which directly contradicts the way South Africa’s jazz legends thought about the art form in the past.


For Naidoo, who was raised in a politically conscious household with a grand uncle, Marcus Solomon, who spent 10 years on Robben Island, politics and jazz cannot be divorced from each other. He attempts to express this discomfort on his new album with the composition Freedom Dance, which samples Nelson Mandela’s first speech in Cape Town after he was released from prison in 1990.

“We have waited too long for our freedom; we can no longer wait, now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts,” says Mandela.

It is Naidoo’s way of stating that the revolution is not complete, that every day we witness the legacies of apartheid in our society and, until we do something about them, we cannot claim to be free.

The young jazz star remembers sitting with his family in their home in East London when Mandela made that famous speech. He remembers his family being in tears.

He says Freedom Dance is intended as a critique on how South Africans have removed themselves from their past and how the political elite appear divorced from the daily struggles of poor South Africans.

It is a poignant message delivered from one of South Africa’s leading lights of jazz. How South Africa can overcome its challenges is not clear, but with Naidoo at the helm of this talented young group of musicians, the future of South African jazz looks bright.

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