Kheswa & Her Martians, 'Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz'
Nowhere do the parallel cultural identities of South Africa and the United States – nowhere does our parallel racial ethos, if you like – speak to us more intriguingly than through jazz.
If, following the New Orleanian Alvin Batiste, we allow that “hipness is a profound colloquialism that expresses an abstract truth,” the jazz vernacular has thrived in both countries thanks to a visceral connection to abstract truths and social and cultural realities owned in common by our two countries. The late Albert Murray spoke, of course (in 'The Hero and the Blues'), of sinister circumstances “cooperating” with jazz creators and “generating the necessity” for the artistic heroism of the greatest jazz musicians. Murray said the greatness of our jazz heroes can be measured “only in scale with the mischief, malaise, or menace” they can dispatch, and that “the degree of cooperation is always equal to the amount of antagonism.”
The American-South African common jazz vernacular has also been nourished, for more than a century now, by a once physical, now also virtual, exchange among musicians, fans, critics, and other enthusiasts. Since the birth of jazz in America, South Africans have been loquacious, respectful yet self-respecting partners in a spirited dialogue with the American head office. For a thirty-year period or so, however, framed first by the self-imposed exile of a significant part of the country’s jazz talent in the early 1960s, later by the restrictions of the anti-apartheid movement’s “cultural boycott” through the1970s and 1980s, the nerve centers of South African jazz were displaced to London, the most popular exile destination, and to New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim (born Adolphus Johannes Brand and called “Dollar” for his youthful enthusiasm for the American jazz records traded for with U.S. seamen), lived in semi-secluded effervescence, spinning improbable beauty from dreams nourished as much by memories of Cape Town as by the vocabularies of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. More than a decade into post-apartheid South Africa, South Africa’s jazz has awakened from the slumber of that earlier period, yet is still finding its footing in the new political, social, and cultural terrain.
If you are hip to the richness – and renaissance – of jazz in today's South Africa, or just curious, you will not want to ignore Nonhlanhla Kheswa. Kheswa is an actress and vocalist who has opened up a "fourth pole" for the music (after Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London) in New York City.
Discovered for the stage by the legendary director Peter Brook – for whom she has starred in Paris and worldwide in an adaptation of Can Themba's iconic Sophiatown parable “The Suit” – Kheswa's work is in artistic synchronicity with what the likes of what Kyle Shepherd, Kesivan Naidoo, Mark Fransman, and their many Western Cape colleagues are doing in the Mother City, with what Khaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata – and the now departed Zim Ngqawana – have long been doing in Gauteng, and what Adam Glasser is doing to safeguard and to exalt the "London township" aesthetic born of exile. As with all these worthy artists, her performances are at once anchored in the music's history yet beguilingly original.
Kheswa & Her Martians fit hand-in-glove, especially, with the aforementioned Capetonians' youth movement. The group's live performances – such as the one captured on this record – sing electrically, and always with an undercurrent of that uniquely South African “crying sound” that one hears in all the great saxophone soloists like Kippie Moeketsi, Barney Rachabane, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, in the so-called “sax jive” of players like Thomas Phale and David Thekwane, or Henry Sithole of The Drive, and in Hugh Masekela's trumpet or Pat Matshikiza's piano.
Kheswa's vocal range and clarity, her grace and timing, and her pixie wit will rank her immediately among the music's most interesting newcomers.
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).
(c) 2013 Xippi Phonorecords