After the Joy of Jazz fest, Kevin Naidoo, the owner of The Orbit jazz club, a major Johannesburg jazz venue, had a “post jam session” for the remaining musicians in the city, as well as festival participants and local jazzheads.
Those dynamic festival highlighters, the Nairobi Horns from Kenya, performed, and they were still fired up. “This is our first time playing in such a large festival and now Orbit,” said MacKinlay Mutsembi, the trumpeter and co-founder. “This is fantastic!”
“This festival is a major event on the jazz calendar in South Africa,” stated Naidoo. “The Orbit has, over the last two years, had a jam session on the day after the festival ends. We feel this is such a great opportunity for local and international artists to jam together, for international artists to have an everyday Johannesburg experience and for local musicians to get exposure to sounds from around the world.”
The young trumpeter/composer Mandla Mlangeni stood out like a full moon. He plays with an exploratory edge, a distinct improvisational South African sound. Such a sound will get him to jazz clubs in New York City.
A few days later The Orbit (bar and restaurant similar to NYC’s Jazz Standard) featured musician, saxophonist and composer Femi Koya, who paid special tribute to Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, multi-instrumentalist and activist.
“Fela Kuti has huge significance for the African continent,” said Naidoo. “His music talks to the struggles the continent has faced and the call to arms to raise above those struggles.”
Koya is a hard-working saxophonist whose band invokes West African Afrobeat submerged in funk. The trombonist’s funky blue riffs were similar to the fearless Fred Wesley. The band was a crowd pleaser no teaser, a real dancing throwdown.
One of South Africa’s most significant musicians is Pops Mohamed, who plays multiple native instruments of Africa with his contemporary band. I had the pleasure of interviewing him two years ago in Cape Town. During this weekly gig at Queen of Sheba’s Ethiopian restaurant, he performs African history in the now as he plays the kora (African harp with 21 strings), mbira (thumb piano) and the Khoisan mouth bow (from the aboriginal people of the sands).
His originals included “Honey Song” in the native language and “Never Again” (relating to apartheid). He introduced one of his young students to the stage, guitarist/singer/composer Lauren Ruth. She is somewhat like Laura Jones, but with a hipper witty edge.
From the jazz spots, I went to the Market Theater to see my first South African play, “Congo: The Trial of King Leopold II,” starring celebrated veteran actors John Kani and Robert Whitehead, a work adapted from Mark Twain’s “King Léopold’s Soliloquy” about his defense for his Congo rule.
If King Leopold II were alive today, there is no doubt he would be on trial in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity for his depredations in the Congo at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Kani played the senior attorney and Whitehead played King Leopold II. “We are trying to expose colonialism and make the world aware,” stated Kani during our brief conversation after the performance. The hour-long performance was a riveting drama brilliantly acted.
Kani starred as T’Chaka in the Marvel studios blockbusters “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther.” One South African woman described Kani as one of the country’s most important actors, carrying on the tradition of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.
Victor Dlamini is South Africa’s most important portrait photographer. “I have been shooting extensively and people finally know my work,” he said.
He graduated cum laude at the University of Natal, Pietermantzburg, receiving an honors degree in English literature.
My interview with the photographer and ardent jazz collector and fan took place at his studio at Joburg’s Constitutional Hill, in an art studio building. His studio space is more than 2,000 square feet, a very airy space with large photos filling the wall space, as well as artworks. Dlamini is also an avid art collector.
“A photo is a visual performance,” he said. “I ask people to perform for the camera, and for shoots I only use one roll of 12 exposures.”
He began shooting in 1993. He was also the representative for the Mandela family.
He has photographed writers such as Lewis Nkosi, Gabeba Baderon and Bongani Madondo, international African models and music performers such as Ray Chikapa Phiri (a mainstay of Paul Simon’s Graceland band), Simphiwe Dana, Hugh Masekela (a huge lifelike photo that captures the trumpeter’s inner thoughts), Randy Weston and Dianne Reeves among others.
Photographers that influenced Dlamini include Lalick Sidibé, the Malian photographer noted for his black-and-white studies of popular culture in the 1960s in Bamako and in the U.S. He also notes Gordon Parks and Art Kane.
“You must decide what is important in your own life, and then do it with all the love and care possible,” said Dlamini. Visit his website at Victordlamini.com.
A young artist in the same artist building is Mandlenkosi Mavengere, who works with acrylics on canvas. “I use working class people as my subjects, migration of Africans to other African countries, stereotypes of the economy and identity,” he said.
He migrated to Johannesburg from Zimbabwe for economic reasons. His artwork is extremely penetrating. The details of his subjects jump off the canvas. Check his work at Mandla41@gmail.com or #mandlaartist.
Back on the jazz scene, we visited Durban, known for its beaches and great weather. We visited The Chairman jazz lounge. If such a club existed in New York City, it would be very difficult for me to miss a night. It has five different rooms, all very intimate with antique furniture. One is called The Gallery because of the hanging artwork, another is Kind of Blue, honoring Miles Davis.
The Chairman has three bars, a VIP section with couches, a private lounge and “record bar.” It is open Thursday through Saturday (only one set at 11 p.m., followed by a DJ and dancing). Pizza, chicken, pasta and ribs are served.
The young quartet playing attended Durban’s music school and the keyboardist, Lebow, was only 16 and in the 12th grade. The leader and trumpeter, Nhlanhla Moletsane, said, “We just love jazz and wanted to play.” It was only their second week playing together. The Chairman lounge is owned by Ndabo Langa, who is an architect with his own firm.
I had the opportunity to catch the jazz exhibit by Siphiwe Mhlambi in Joburg. The self-taught photographer’s solo exhibit featured more than 45 photos that included photos of McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane (during South African performances), the pianist Ibrahim Abdulla and singer Phutuma Tiso. “My uncle was a jazz player, but my motivation was inspired by the American vinyl jazz covers of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Lou Donaldson,” said Mhlambi. “This is my third jazz exhibit in the last two to three years.”
Mhlambi continued, “My first camera was given to me by my school teacher. I grew up in an orphanage, and that camera changed my life completely. I learned everything about the camera through trial and error, but now I read and study everything.”
The latest jazz club to spring up in the past 18 months in Joburg is Marabi, visible from the street only by its black canopy above a small metal door in downtown Joburg. It is in the basement of the Hallmark House, a chic boutique hotel, open Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. to midnight. The Marabi offers a cozy ambiance, a great chef, a nice comfortable lounge and a long bar.
They have a regular house band that plays everything from Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” to Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do (Is Think About You),” which caused a bee line to the dance floor.
“We are not a strict jazz club,” stated Marabi’s owner Dale de Ruig. “Dancing and talking is allowed.”
Check the website themarabiclub.com.