04/09/11

12th Annual Cape Town Jazz Festival

Christopher Loudon reviews annual festival in South Africa

Rashid Lombard is a lot like the jazz festival he created: compact, clever and bursting with energy. In his previous life as a globetrotting photojournalist, Lombard covered most of the world’s great music events and, inspired by what he was witnessing through his lenses, decided it was time to put Cape Town on the international jazz map. He began laying the foundation for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in the late 1990s, as South Africa was emerging from the cultural boycott that had so seriously curtailed both its import and export of musical talent. The inaugural festival was mounted in early 2000 and quickly gained recognition for both the caliber of its programming and its dedication to ensuring that a minimum of fifty percent of the two-day schedule is devoted to African artists. Now, twelve years on, Cape Town is not only recognized as the finest musical convergence on the African continent but has also earned its place among the most respected festivals on the annual jazz calendar.

JazzTimes caught up with Lombard one day before the 2001 festival got underway on March 25. Asked how the festival has evolved over the past dozen years, he suggests that, “it has gone beyond a jazz festival and become a lifestyle festival. The people have taken ownership of it, and it is now governed by the peoples’ choice.” Hence the need to cater to various musical tastes and extend the programming to embrace more R&B and blues artists, this year including top-billed Earth, Wind and Fire and the long-anticipated reunion of the 1960s South African rock-soul cover band The Flames. “Different genres get us a wider audience coming to the festival,” says Lombard, “and it also helps us cater to younger listeners,” who are vital to the festival’s long-term success.

Which is not to suggest that Lombard’s primary focus has shifted from jazz. U.S. imports for this year’s event included Dave Koz, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Patricia Barber, Christian Scott, Hubert Laws, BeBe Winans, Chuck Loeb, Monique Bingham, Tortured Soul, former Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman (who recently wed Carlos Santana – Shorter was among those at the December 19 ceremony) and pianist Larry Willis, partnering with perennial festival favorite Hugh Masekela (whom Lombard befriended in 1972, when they met at the Manhattan School of Music). With the exception of young dynamo Hanjin, a Hong Kong-based producer and songwriter who has developed a side career as a kickass crooner, and Spain’s Carmen Cuesta (partnered with Loeb), the balance of the roster consisted entirely of African artists. Most, including Masekela, vocalists Simphiwe Dana and Lisa Bauer, pianist Don Laka and trumpeter/composer Feya Faku are of South African descent. Emerging vocalist/poet Naima McLean (Jackie McLean’s granddaughter) was born in New York but now resides in Cape Town. But the 2011 line-up further extended to Senegal (acclaimed singer/percussionist Youssou N’Dour), Angola, Botswana and Mozambique. As Lombard notes, “African artists are on par with any across the globe, and this is our opportunity to share them with the world.”

Lombard also shared a charming, pre-festival tale. Upon her arrival in Cape Town, Spalding told him that one of the things she was most excited about was the prospect of meeting Shorter for the first time. Lombard, knowing that Shorter’s arrival was imminent and that neither artist would be required for rehearsals or interviews for a couple of days, took time out from his frantic schedule to arrange a private game reserve visit and overnight stay for Spalding, Shorter and Shorter’s wife. So, while hundreds of festival staffers and volunteers were busy with myriad finishing touches, Spalding and Shorter were getting to know each other while simultaneously sharing a search for the Big Five — elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo.

Presented across two weekend evenings, the festival covers five stages — three indoor and two outdoors — within the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The words “convention centre” typically conjure images of exposed steel beams and cinderblock walls. But the Cape Town facility is a notable exception, an architectural gem made all the more attractive when dressed in finery for the festival. It is a classy operation that, despite the same hiccups — delayed artists, technical snafus — that plague every festival the world over, tends to run like clockwork, a fact made even more impressive when you factor in a sold-out crowd of over 35,000.

The necessary evil of any festival (jazz or otherwise) is scheduling conflicts. Staying for all of Dana’s dazzling set meant missing at least half of Spalding’s performance, catching N’Dour made it impossible to see Winans or Masekela, Laka overlapped Shorter and Faku collided with Koz. But there is a curious bilateralism to the Cape Town festival that minimizes the impact of such conflicts. South African attendees, who represent the vast majority of the audience, are primarily interested in seeing the big, international acts. Smooth jazz showman Koz filled the massive “Kippies” space beyond capacity and ignited the sort of audience euphoria one would expect from a room filled with pre-teen girls basking in the pubescent glow of Justin Bieber. Earth, Wind and Fire overflowed the same space twice and generated nearly as much excitement. Likewise Shorter and Spalding, though booked into less cavernous venues, attracted rapturous, SRO crowds.

International visitors, on the other hand, especially the more than 300 journalists who descend on the festival, are more interested in seeing the African artists, the majority of whom rarely, if ever, perform offshore. Carving out an Africa-centric path through the festival proved as easy as it was educational and exhilarating.

The festival opened with the freshly-assembled Cape Town Tribute Band, a top-drawer assemblage of regional players led by musical director and guitarist Alvin Dyers to vividly honor such recently-demised jazz giants as saxophonists Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi, Ezra Ngcukana and Robbie Jansen, pianists Hotep Idris Galeta and Tony Schilder and vocalist Donald Tshomela. Concurrent with the Tribute Band (requiring a few mad dashes back and forth) was Angolan vocalist Sandra Cordeiro, whose unique blending of Afro-jazz and bossa nova earned her a place on last year’s list of Africa’s Ten Best Artists, as compiled by Radio France. Next up, Faku, one of the foremost jazz artist on the contemporary South African scene, delivering a blistering set that drew heavily from his latest album, Hope and Honour.

The cross-cultural guitar trio Guitarfrika — South Africa’s Steve Newman, Mauritius’ Eric Triton and Niger’s singular Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla – united to celebrate the history of guitar in African music. Don Laka, easily Faku’s equal in terms of artistic brilliance and popularity, is widely acknowledged as the father of kwaai-jazz (the fusion of jazz and South African dance music), though his roots go much deeper. The founder of Kalawa Jazzmee Records, he has arranged and produced sessions for such disparate, genre-blurring artists as the Soweto String Quartet, Brenda Fassie, Mango Groove and Mafikizolo. As a soloist, his debut album, Destiny, became the first jazz release to reach platinum status in South Africa. His festival set focused more on selections from his new album, Poison, with many of the environmentally-focused tracks inspired by a documentary film on the increasing deterioration of polar ice caps. “I feel a passion for saving the earth,” said Laka as he introduced such grandly eloquent tracks as “Acid Rain” and “Broken Glacier.”

In-between the Africans, there was the marvelously effervescent Hanjin, standing such Tin Pan Alley standards as “That Old Black Magic,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “The Nearness of You” on their ear with his take-no-prisoners vivacity. (More on the cyclonic Hong Kong singer in a subsequent installment of “Hearing Voices.”)

Saturday night began later than anticipated; with Dana missing her 5:15pm start by more than an hour (the delay centered around persistent sound equipment problems). However, within two minute of her arrival on stage, the stunning vocalist, gloriously garbed like a latter-day Nina Simone, had transformed the rowdy crowd into a mass of mewing worshippers. Reigning high priestess of Afro-soul, the satin-voiced Dana is poised for international stardom. Remarkably, she has yet to be invited to perform in the U.S., an oversight that her stellar festival set and equally dazzling new album, Kulture Noir will surely help correct. (At last year’s festival, crowd demand for Dana required an upgrade to a larger venue. This year, she opened in the gargantuan “Kippies” space, which was still not big enough to contain all who wanted to see her.)

Like Hanjin, Botswanian bassist Citie proved one of the festival’s most exhilarating surprises. He opened with a slow-simmered, seven-minute, solo rendering of “Summertime” before teaming with his seven bandmates (including his vocalist sister, Lapologang Seetso) for the crowd-pleasing “Chamza” and other selections from his debut album, Initiation.

Citie was scheduled opposite Naima McLean, making it impossible to see more than a closing snippet of the third-generation sensation’s set, but crowd sentiment was overwhelmingly positive, and the consensus in the press lounge was that McLean, who is soon to release her debut album, Things I Wish, will vibrantly extend her family’s rich musical legacy.

Young vocalist Lisa Bauer, though still at university, has established herself as a mainstay of the Cape Town jazz scene, working alongside dozens of local artists, recording with the a cappella group Track Five and touring with such celebrated World Music outfits as Starkravingsane and the LMR Trio. An understated vocalist and deft composer, Bauer is rather like the South African equivalent of festival-mate Patricia Barber, and certainly shares Barber’s hushed intensity. Her set was a study in focused emotional dissection, her voice as clear and pure as mountain rainwater.

It has become a Cape Town tradition that Hugh Masekela helps close the proceedings. This year it was Masekela with an interesting twist, performing an all-standards set with his frequent musical partner Larry Willis. Focusing on tracks from their 2005 album, Almost Like Being In Jazz, the pair, celebrating the golden anniversary of their friendship (they met at music school in 1961), opened with an impressive “I Remember Clifford,” before easing into the likes of “You’ll Never Know” and the Nat King Cole chestnut “Answer Me, My Love.” Particularly notable was a near-flawless “Don’t Explain.” Masekela’s playing has grown slightly ragged, but he remains a magnetic performer and a delightful raconteur.

Enthralling as the Cape Town Jazz Festival is, and promises to continue to be, it is only a two-night event. Even the most ardent American jazz fan is unlikely to make so distant a voyage for so short a visit. Best to plan on at least a weeklong stay.

Fortunately, getting to South Africa is now easier than ever. South African Airways provides daily direct flights to Johannesburg from both New York and Washington, D.C. But there’s more to SAA than mere convenience. At a time when most air travel is defined by discomfort and dismal service, SAA is doing a terrific job of reinstating the glamour and fun that transatlantic adventurers deserve. Their jets are roomy and spotlessly maintained and the in-flight service and attention to detail rival any world-class airline. SAA, perennially voted Africa’s best, is clearly a cut above, making the 14-hour flight (from New York’s Kennedy Airport; slightly longer from D.C.) an absolute pleasure.

Once in Johannesburg, the best place to settle for a day or two is the lovely suburb of Sandton, where you’ll find a cluster of fine hotels, shopping that is on par with Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive and an international assortment of superb restaurants. Highly recommended is the Sandton Sun Hotel, an oasis of luxury just steps from Nelson Mandela Square.

From Sandton, it is easy to arrange day trips to such essential local sights as Soweto, where you can visit the home Mandela shared with his wife Winnie and tour the Hector Pieterson Museum, named for a 13-year-old victim of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the magnificent Apartheid Museum which traces the entire history of South African racial conflict from the nation’s earliest days to the declaration of democracy and the triumph of Mandela. Another essential stop Johannesburg stop is Liliesleaf, a sedate suburban farming estate that was clandestine headquarters for Mandela, Arthur Goldreich and other African National Congress activists in the early 1960s. On July 11, 1963, police raided the property and 19 resident activists were arrested and charged with sabotage. The subsequent trial captured worldwide headlines, lasted nearly a year and resulted in life sentences for eight of the accused, including Mandela.

Of course, no South African journey would be complete without an up-close view of African wildlife. The country is home to many exquisite game reserves, though none grander or more inviting than Pilanesberg National Park, near fabled Sun City, approximately two hours north (by car or bus) of Johannesburg. The on-site Ivory Tree Lodge is a five-star resort carved out of the wild, featuring individual guests cabins and a magnificent main lodge, complete with a full-service spa. The Lodge provides daily dawn and dusk game drives that last a minimum of two hours. The staff guides are impeccably knowledgeable about all aspects of the reserve and its resident wildlife, and are expertly skilled at getting you safely close to elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, zebras and even leopards.

From Johannesburg, Cape Town is an easy two-hour flight on SAA. Situated near the southwestern tip of Africa, Cape Town is unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities on earth. It is like the San Francisco of South Africa — a crossroads of culture, taste and intellectual curiosity nestled in a breathtaking setting. Among the city’s many highlights are the clubs and shops that line Long Street, and the expansive Victoria and Albert Waterfront complex, an exhilarating jumble of high-end merchants, local crafts stalls, fine restaurants and waterside bars, all set to the tune of local musicians who pop up like vivid flash mobs. The V&A is also the setting-off point for Robben Island. Located in the centre of Table Bay, Robben Island served as a prison for more than three centuries, and is best known as the site where three subsequent South African presidents — Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma — were incarcerated. The island is now a museum and World Heritage Site that celebrates the long, arduous fight for freedom and the ultimate victory of democracy. Venturing forth from Cape Town, essential day trips include Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula and several of South Africa’s most celebrated wineries.

The Cape Town International Jazz Festival is presented annually, over a Friday and Saturday night, at the end of March. Details of the 2012 festival, when available, will be posted on the official website.

GETTING TO SOUTH AFRICA

South African Airways offers direct daily flights from New York City (Kennedy Airport) and Washington, D.C. (Dulles Airport) to Johannesburg. Within South Africa, SAA offers multiple flights per day between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and also provides flights to all other major South African destinations, including Durban, and to many locations across Africa. SAA is also a member of the global Star Alliance, which includes Air Canada, Continental, United, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and more than 18 other of the world’s foremost carriers. To plan and book your South Africa adventure, visit their website. There is also a wealth of information on the official South African Tourism site.

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