With local music under the spotlight, following the SABC’s decision to play 90 percent home-grown music on its radio stations, Afrika Mkhize believes it is critical to pay tribute to musicians who paved the way for today’s generation.
Mkhize is passionate about one man in particular – the legendary jazz musician Bheki Mseleku who died in 2008 at the age of 53.
“Mseleku is acknowledged in South Africa as a modern great and his influence must never be forgotten,” says Mkhize, himself one of South Africa’s most prominent jazz pianists, composers, producers and arrangers.
And so he and a big band will be one of the star attractions at this year’s Standard Bank Grahamstown Jazz Festival, which is part of the National Arts Festival later this month, when they pay tribute to Mseleku.
Mkhize, whose debut album Rain Dancer was released last year, came up with the idea of honouring Mseleku some years ago. “I wanted to do it when Bheki was alive, but I never got the chance to do it,” he told me. “When he died musicians from around the world paid tribute to him at the time – except in South Africa.
“We then honoured him in October last year at the Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein and arranged select music from Bheki’s various albums. It was a big success so I decided grow the project and to do it for a second time at the festival. It felt it was the right time to do it again but I needed funding and then a Swiss friend came forward and helped.
“New names and talented young ‘finds’ will be featured in the band and the concert promises to be a musical highlight at the festival. The line-up includes saxophonist Dave O’Higgins from the UK, American trumpeter Eddie Lewis and Swiss trombonist Andreas Tschopp with wonderful South African musicians including Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz 2016 Siya Makuzeni on vocals.
“Bheki was able to bring jazz and African music to the forefront and mainstream and this wonderful international collaboration will introduce him to a new generation of music and jazz lovers,” he says.
Son of the iconic pianist Themba Mhkize, Afrika enrolled at a music school at 11 where he was taught classical piano and then furthered his studies at the National School of the Arts. He was a recipient of the 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz and this accolade, he said, helped open doors for him. “I was invited to perform in spaces I’ve never been in before. I received invites from the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. I’d never performed like this before on such a big stage. It was incredible and I learnt so much.”
Afrika also praised the Grahamstown Jazz Festival for giving him the opportunity to connect with so many international artists and because of this he was able to form a band, Banz Oester and the Rain Makers.
He explained how the musicians’ network operated and how he received invitations to perform in such glamorous locales as New York, London and even in Japan.
He believed that the only times a festival truly works is when musicians from all nine provinces came together to perform on one platform.
“Lots of musicians from the provinces practice hard and hope to be featured at these events,” he says, “but this is not always possible because many lack the required standards. We need an educational programme in place that will elevate these musicians, school them in their chosen fields, so that one day they can take their rightful place on the stage.”
He lamented the fact that for South African musicians it was expensive to perform at overseas festivals and that more efforts should be made to import overseas artists to South Africa where local musicians can learn from the best.
He talked about the serious lack of corporate sponsorships for the arts and how this has hampered realising South Africa’s musical legacy.
“We are not always able to honour those who have contributed to our musical heritage and this is sad. I really want to rectify this.
“People think that the Grahamstown Jazz Festival is something happening far away from them but it has had a huge impact on music in this country over the years. Most local professional jazz musicians under the age 40 will point to some formative experience at the festival that influenced their careers. There are also many young musicians who have attended the Festival, studied music and then used their experiences to create new versions of music that draw from jazz but capture the attention of audiences beyond jazz. We need more of this throughout South Africa.”
Taking part at The Standard Bank Grahamstown Jazz Festival are Grammy Award winners Trio Corrente from Brazil and Petter Wettre from Norway; Austrian singer and trumpeter Michaela Rabitsch and guitarist Robert Pawlik; Dutch saxophonist Toon Roos andthe powerhouse tenor sax duo of Dave O’Higgins (UK) and Per Thornberg (Sweden). Also featured are local South African musicians such as the legendary Caiphus Semenya; Simphiwe Dana; the Afrika Mkhize Big Band; Swing City and Ringo Madlingozi. For more information, check www.standardbankarts.co.za or www.youthjazz.co.za
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