The Kwela Mafia running the streets.
Kwela is Zulu for “get up.” It’s happy music. It’s something I’ve noticed in Cape Town: the music is happy. Iconic Cape Town jazz compositions like Winston Mankunku’s Yakha’inkomo (“The Crying Bull”) are, despite sad and atrocious inspirations, musically joyous. Perhaps it’s in spite of. The music heals. Who wants to hear a sad song after a sad day in the life. It’s like the ‘blues mentality’—you might be down, but you can always get up. Kwela!
Kwela began as street music featuring the penny whistle, which is inexpensive, versatile, and conveniently fits in your underpants as you travel around. On a any given day, one can hear groups like the Kwela Mafia perform in the city center.
Check out their jams on myspace:
Clinton Heneke (playing percussion with the Kwela Mafia in the picture above) learned kwela and other local music forms by playing with street musicians. He now lives in Berlin. Yet, whenever he visits his hometown, he heads right to the streets to play. Clinton promotes local veteran street musicians with CAMA’s “Street Music Project.” The Kwela Mafia are among those featured. In Clinton’s own words:
“Through the Street Music Project, CAMA has set about uncovering a special group of ‘unsung heroes’ for whom music making is an essential part of life – music makers who are either hidden, unheard-of or simply unacknowledged. They are old and young, play on the streets, or for their township communities. Some of them do not perform at all, but keep their music a treasured secret. Their talent and musical ability could well stand beside better known names in South African music.”
The penny whistle in action.
The Kwela Mafia has evolved. The traditional penny whistle has been replaced with a saxophone. Sadly, very few penny whistlers remain. Western instruments became popular and joined kwela, so someone began calling this new sound mbaqanga. Mbaqanga follows a simple, melodic I-IV-V harmonic progression (fundamentally, the blues) first heard in yet another style called marabi. The repetitious harmonic sequence of marabi is immediately recognized by most anybody in Cape Town. More to come on mbaqanga in the future.
The Xhosa Sound
Dizu’s promo pic.
Dizu Plaatjies performed with his 30-piece Ibuyambo Ensemble. Ibuyambo means a renaissance, or rebirth, which is literally what Dizu is doing for traditional Xhosa music. Really, the ensemble champions a multiplicity of music traditions of the greater South African region. Why be exclusive? I must say, Ibuyambo is the most astonishing show I’ve seen in Cape Town. I’m unable to upload my own video clip right now (which features some wild dancing). Below is a more mellow selection already on Youtube.
Last week, I had the great pleasure of performing at the Mahogany Room with Goema maestro Mac McKenzie, whose life work has been reinventing Goema through rock, jazz and Western classical music. I connected with Mac via his Cape Town Composer’s Workshop. Unfortunately, with limited rehearsal time, we weren’t able to get together two fresh pieces of my own, written in India… another time, perhaps. But the gigs were hip. There’s nothing like blowing over a Goema groove. And Mac has a lot to say with his pencil. Below is a clip from one of our shows. The energy and contribution of the audience fuels the music. I think this captures the spirit of goema.
A segment of NamaQua with Mac’s goema group.
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Cape Town Natural, a local music/arts blogs, covers the local music being played yesterday, today and every day after. Gregory Franz, the blogger, tirelessly covers the Cape’s jazz scene. I see him at almost every late night Monday jam at Swingers with his camera. Don’t remind him about his day job. His photos, thoughts and local artistic events are presented on Cape Town Natural. I smiled when Gregory mentioned he knew a past Watson Fellow who visited the Cape–Aisha Fukushima, who is making (bigger and bigger) waves through Raptivism (Rap Activism).
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Music is a mirror of a culture or people. Through it, we understand each other better. Look into your own musical mirror. You might see yourself more clearly too…