Home is where the music is for Sisonke Xonti

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‘Music was what made me happy,’ says Sisonke Xonti played the clarinet before switching to the saxophone at age 13. Pictures: Supplied
‘Music was what made me happy,’ says Sisonke Xonti played the clarinet before switching to the saxophone at age 13. Pictures: Supplied

TRENDING | JAZZ


The teenage musician is disconsolate. His horn is broken and he needs to practise at the weekend. “Don’t worry,” says the instrument repairer. “I’ve got one in that I’ve fixed and it’s not going to be collected till Monday. If you’re very careful, you can borrow it. But don’t tell anybody…”

“And that’s how,” says reedman Sisonke Xonti, “for a whole weekend, I got to play Winston Mankunku’s horn. I never met him, but I’ve played his horn…”

Xonti’s second album, uGaba: The Migration, launched in Cape Town earlier this month.

Conventionally, careers are established on second albums. A debut recording is often a showcase of everything a musician can do, and their next release is expected to be a much tighter statement, one that declares, “This is who I am!” And uGaba is certainly that.

Xonti’s debut offering, Iyonde, appeared in 2017. Unlike many debuts, it established an immediately coherent character, one dominated by quietly lyrical compositions and solidly in the jazz tradition that Mankunku epitomised.

My father used to play Mankunku records all the time. When I got hold of a saxophone, I immediately made the connection: ‘This is the sound I’ve been hearing.’”
Sisonke Xonti

That elder statesman of the music was a presence around Xonti’s playing from the start. Xonti grew up in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, began clarinet lessons at age 10 and started playing classical saxophone at 13.

“My father used to play Mankunku records all the time. When I got hold of a saxophone, I immediately made the connection: ‘This is the sound I’ve been hearing.’”

In his mid-teens, Xonti joined the Little Giants, a grassroots youth jazz project established in 1999 by musicians Ezra Ngcukana and George Werner. He had heard of them at a school event and nagged his father relentlessly for an introduction. As he got deeper into jazz, he discovered John Coltrane, another of his horn heroes.

Album

“I loved Coltrane’s music. But I got fascinated by Mankunku. I used to play along with his solos all the time. I didn’t realise that what I was actually doing was transcribing.

“And when I was doing that – it’s hard to explain – I used to get highly emotional. It was almost like he was with me, as if he was holding the saxophone and I was just playing it.”

More than a hobby

All that rigorous practice – a habit he retains – led to eventual selection for the National Youth Jazz Band at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. Still, at that time, he saw the music he loved as a hobby.

He intended to study law. His protective parents, though, were reluctant to let him loose at a distant university and, after some indecision and discussions with Werner, he auditioned for the music programme at the University of Cape Town. After a year, still unconvinced that music could be anything more than an enjoyable side hustle, he switched to law.

But in his final year, as he told the All About Jazz website, “we had to go to court to watch over cases. Watching the lawyers, I remember thinking: ‘Man, this guy looks sad. And that guy looks very sad.’ I had this epiphany that, 40 years down the line, that would be me. I didn’t want to be that person and I realised that music was what made me happy.”

Xonti moved to Johannesburg in 2013, gained gigging experience everywhere he could, and began leading his own small groups. That’s how Iyonde was born. But the Xonti who made Iyonde, he says, was not who he is today. That transition is what uGaba maps.

The value of roots

The change wasn’t in his sound, but rather in what he chooses to say with it. Gaba is Xonti’s clan name, and his “migration” has been towards becoming more aware of the value of roots and of his place in the world.

“I didn’t grow up privileged, but I was highly protected, sticking to my studies, and I lost out on a lot of information about what was happening around me.

I loved Coltrane’s music. But I got fascinated by Mankunku. I used to play along with his solos all the time. I didn’t realise that what I was actually doing was transcribing.
Sisonke Xonti

“Around 2017 and 2018, I was travelling, started reading a lot more, watching the news … and I got scared that I hadn’t been aware of so much. I was no different from a migrant worker 100 years ago, moving across the country, seeking a better life, only you find out that it isn’t better. There’s more strife, less love. Home is where the love is.”

That’s summed up in the four-part Migration Suite that forms the core of the new album’s nine tracks, with music that travels from traditional to urban sounds, from edgy abstraction to swing, and eventually through chaotic dissonance towards the gentle melodic resolution of its final theme, Rubedo. A poem by Tebo Moleko underlines the levels of the journey and its dilemmas – personal, historical, national – “Should I go home or remain?”

Xonti is reluctant to restrict his music with a political label. “I just try to be honest about what I’m feeling at the time and convey that in my music,” he says, but his awareness of current issues is reflected in the tracks.

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The opener, Minneapolis, was originally sparked by the Central Park Five documentary When They See Us, but became a searing lament for George Floyd, who was killed by a white policeman in May, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “I didn’t need to think too hard about it. It just really touched me emotionally.”

Another track, the rollicking Jazz Ministers-style Nomalungelo, is a reflection of where he has come from, as well as what he’s thinking about now. It’s an homage to the township jazz repertoire of the Little Giants: “That’s where I started, those groovy melodies. But the lyrics – ‘Please Nomalungelo, give us money so we can go and drink’ – have another meaning, too. It’s also to our leaders. We’ve put them in power and now they’re enjoying their drinking alone behind high walls, not thinking about us.”

To counterbalance, there’s an uplifting song of hope, The Call, from vocalist Keorapetse Koloane.

Jazz
'I just try to be honest about what I’m feeling at the time and convey that in my music,' says the artist

Interesting spaces

uGaba stays faithful to Xonti’s trademark combination of catchy tunes and improvisatory risk.

“I try to have simple, memorable melodies. But when I work on the harmonies, I try to do something more complex so that the guys have something really interesting to improvise with on stage. I’ve got a very strict practice regimen. When I lose that and start having fun jamming, that’s when a melody comes to me. Then I take it to the piano and think about what I can add with the chords.”

On the album, the group takes full advantage of those interesting spaces. Co-producer, pianist and vocalist Yonela Mnana, bassist Benjamin Jephta, main trumpet Sakhile Simani and guest trumpet Lwanda Gogwana are all people Xonti has known or worked with for nearly or more than a decade. Xonti calls Gogwana “big brother”, and says that when he was composing the trumpet parts, “it was Sakhile’s voice I heard”.

I didn’t grow up privileged, but I was highly protected, sticking to my studies, and I lost out on a lot of information about what was happening around me
Sisonke Xonti

He sees the rhythm crew – Jephta, drummer Siphelelo Mazibuko and percussion maestro Tlale Makhene – as a vital propulsive engine for “pushing the band to explore. As much as you rehearse, you take a different direction when playing live. Besides, Siphelelo brings us lightness. Jazzmen on stage can sometimes look very serious, and he has this smile…

“It’s important,” Xonti reflects, “to have good relationships with the people you play with”

This article was first published by New Frame – newframe.com


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