Top African talent on show at Grahamstown jazz fest

The Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF) has become one of the most significant jazz development programmes in southern Africa, bringing together over 300 students and 40 teachers annually from diverse backgrounds, with nearly 90 professional jazz musicians and educators. This year’s festival takes place between 2 and 12 July in Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke. Photo: Brantley Gutiurrez
Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke. Photo: Brantley Gutiurrez

Held within the larger Standard Bank Jazz Festival and the National Arts Festival, the SBNYJF incorporates innovative jazz performance, rehearsals, workshops, lectures, networking and an opportunity for South Africa’s future jazz stars to interact personally and musically with their peers and the country’s top performers.

Headlining the festival this year will be three heavyweights in the field of African music. Chief among them is Zimbabwean singer/guitarist Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, who boasts a career spanning more than 35 years and 50 original albums, and has performed his signature brand of ‘Tuku Music’ on leading stages on five continents. He performs on 10 July at 5pm and 11 July at 9pm, both at the DSG Hall.

Another major coup for the festival this year is guitarist Lionel Loueke. Born in Benin but now a resident of New York and naturalised American, he has studied at some of the world’s most prestigious schools of music. Praised by his mentor, Herbie Hancock, as ‘a musical painter’, Loueke combines soaring melodies and complex harmonies with a deep knowledge of African folk forms to create a warm, evocative sound of his own. In Grahamstown he performs with some of South Africa’s best jazz musicians, including Concord Nkabinde, Siya Makuzeni, Marcus Wyatt, Shane Cooper and Ayanda Sikade (on 3 July at 7:30pm and 4 July at 10pm at the DSG Hall).

Not one to be overshadowed, award-winning Nigerian jazz guitarist Kunle Ayo is increasingly one of Africa’s most celebrated guitarists, greatly in demand for his dazzling live performances as well as his production skills. Ayo has six albums to his name and leaves his fans inspired and full of positive energy after every performance. Catch him on 11 July at 5pm at the DSG Hall.

As always, Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners, both past and present, play an active role throughout the Jazz Festival. One of the highlights of the upcoming festival’s line-up is pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini. According to African tradition, it is believed that people don’t die but multiply; after their passing they continue to live as aphanzi - ancestors or ‘the ones from the ground’. Thus, in his concert entitled Listening to the Ground, Makhathini pays tribute to those legends who have contributed to the great legacy of South African jazz, such as the late Bheki Mseleku (3 July at 5pm and 7 July at 7pm, DSG Hall).

Another Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner making multiple appearances is the rapidly ascending Bokani Dyer, who returns from his extensive 2014 European tour, where he united with the four gifted representatives of the Swiss jazz scene who will now play alongside him in Grahamstown (2 and 4 July at 5pm, DSG Hall). Another young jazz star, drummer Kesivan Naidoo and his band, Kesivan & the Lights, who played last year at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, USA to a standing ovation, now reprise this performance for the Festival on 5 July at 10pm at the DSG Hall, with the addition of two Swedish guests who were central to Naidoo’s original 2009 Lights band. Naidoo pops up again, along with fellow Young Artist Kyle Shepherd, to perform with bassist Carlo Mombelli and the Storytellers on 2 July at 7:30pm at the DSG Hall.

Plenty of South African musical heavyweights appear in the mix this year, including Ray Phiri, whose career as solo artist, session artist and leader of platinum-selling band Stimela has seen him become a household name in South African music circles. Catch him on 10 July at 7pm at the Monument. Pianist Don Laka has been performing and composing for nearly four decades, continuously building the ‘Kwaai-Jazz’ brand – an eclectic musical fusion of classical, traditional, modern and jazz with numerous award-winning albums, most recently the ambitious Afro Chopin. He will perform on 10 July at 9pm and 11 July at 12:00 at the DSG Hall. Pops Mohamed, South Africa’s leading indigenous multi-instrumentalist, will collaborate with Dave Reynolds, the country’s leading steelpan player, to fuse world music, Caribbean soul and South African jazz with an underpinning of African traditional instruments. They perform on 7 and 8 July at 5pm at the DSG Hall.

Other artists to look out inclde the fast-rising Amandla Freedom Ensemble, led by Mandla Mlangeni, who will perform on 4 July at 11:30pm at the Auditorium, joined by Swedish guitarist Ola Bengtsson, head of the Jazz School at the Stockholm Conservatory. Vocal and trombone artist Siya Makuzeni will be collaborating with hip young South Africans and a legendary Swiss saxophonist (5 July at 5pm, DSG Hall), and will be followed by the talented Benjamin Jephta at 7pm. South African-born guitarist Vuma Ian Levin appears alongside a fantastic international array of his classmates from the Amsterdam Conservatory on 5 July at 9:30pm at the Auditorium, while the Lindiwe Maxolo Quintet will be performing songs from her debut album titled Time (9 July at 5pm, DSG Hall). 

Other jazz talent from further afield includes award-winning saxophonist Yuri Honing (Netherlands), drummer André Charlier with pianist/organist Benoit Sourisse (France), the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra (Sweden), one of the world’s premier contemporary Big Bands, as well as a solo performances by one of its key members, alto saxophonist Johan Hörlén with reknowned Finnish drummer/pianist Jukkis Uotila. Other European talent on show at the fest includes trombonist Peter Dahlgren (Sweden), Karl-Martin Almqvist (Sweden), Robert Nordmark (Sweden), pianist David Helbock (Austria), violinist Chi-pin Hsieh (Taiwan) and pianist Kai-ya Chang (Taiwan).

Also on the bill are South African pop acts Thandiswa Mazwai, Beatenberg and Mi Casa, a plethora of school and youth jazz bands, and nightly jazz jam sessions. For more details and to see the full schedule, visit the NYJF website.

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