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Nonhlanhla Kheswa website

Kheswa & Her Martians


A South African Township Girlhood: Nonhlanhla Kheswa (who most often goes by her surname alone, “Kheswa”) grew up between two hardscrabble townships of Johannesburg – Alexandra and Soweto. She credits several primary school teachers with instilling in her a love of storytelling and singing. She attended Soweto's Morris Isaacson High School, where, two decades before Kheswa's time there – more precisely, from June 13 to June 16, 1976 – the Soweto Uprising, a major turning point in South African political history, had been set in motion by Teboho Mashinini and other students. Before leaving school in 1998, Kheswa was recruited by South African film and television director Darrell Roodt ("Sarafina!", "Cry, the Beloved Country", "Dangerous Ground", "Winnie Mandela") for a role in his Soul City. On the heels of that, the illustrious composer, arranger, and producer Lebohang “Lebo M.” Morake snatched her up for Disney's "The Lion King", where she cut her teeth in that inimitable production on Broadway for over five years.

New York, Just Like She Pictured It – With the Clef to the City: New York City would of course prove to be a laboratory for Kheswa's explorations of vocal performance drawing upon both the rich Zulu and South African traditional music of her girlhood and the panoply of world music, hip-hop, and jazz peopling her new life. While making a name – and a living – as a steady member of Wyclef Jean's ensembles for nearly a decade after leaving The Lion King , Kheswa used every available opportunity to delve into the New York jazz scene and Brooklyn's eclectic, cross-pollinating youth music culture. Nourished by that ethos, Kheswa has become a musical polymath, with a strong penchant for surprise – for isn't jazz sometimes called “the sound of surprise?"

Peter Brook and “The Empty Space”: British theater director Peter Brook – longtime artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Festival, and later the founder of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris – a theorist, adventurer, and icon of the modern stage – discovered Kheswa at a 2011 audition at New York University for his new adaptation, with music, of a stage play by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon based on a famous short story by Can Themba called "The Suit". In the leading role of Matilda, a young township wife yearning to break free of the pressures of apartheid-era South Africa, Kheswa has thus far performed in Brook's The Suit in Paris, London, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Shanghai, Beijing, and New York (at The Brooklyn Academy of Music). In the remainder of 2013 and through the summer of 2014, she will continue in the role in another hundred performances in prestigious venues in Japan and Singapore, and, back in the United States, as follows:

Ann Arbor (Power Center, University Musical Society), February 19-22, 2014
Philadelphia (Prince Music Theater), February 26-March 8, 2014
Washington, D.C. (John F. Kennedy Center, World Stages International Festival), March 11-13, 2014
Seattle (Seattle Repertory Theater), March 19-April 6, 2014
Los Angeles (Ralph Freud Playhouse), April 9-19, 2014
San Francisco (American Conservatory Theater), April 23-May 18, 2014

Kheswa & Her Martians: In the summer of 2013, and back in New York on summer hiatus from The Suit, Kheswa began to develop in earnest her leadership of a jazz ensemble steeped in the hard-bop accents of Jackie McLean and Gary Bartz, the spirituality of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and the diverse strands of South African jazz from pioneers like The Manhattan Brothers and Kippie Moeketsi through their immediate heirs – Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Zim Ngqawana, McCoy Mrubata, and Adam Glasser – and today's young lions like Mark Fransman, Kyle Shepherd, and Kesivan Naidoo. The “Martians” take their name from Jackie McLean, as they are, to a man, all players from within the orbit of the great alto saxophonist and educator, all having come through McLean's legendary Artists' Collective in Hartford or The University of Hartford's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. The urbane McLean, who passed on in 2006, famously – though good-naturedly – liked to refer to Connecticut's capital city as “Mars”, to distinguish its provincialism from the cosmopolitanism of his halcyon youth in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood, the world's capital of African-American culture at the time, and arguably still today.

"Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz" is Kheswa's debut album, slated for worldwide release on November 5, 2013.

Kheswa & Her Martians: Nonhlanhla Kheswa (leader, vocals), Taber Gable (piano), Andrew Renfroe (guitar), Matt Dwonszyk (bass), Jonathan Barber (drums), Josh Evans (trumpet), Jovan Alexandre (tenor and soprano saxophones), Karim Rome (tenor saxophone).