20 feet from legend: thandiswa mazwai in new york
By Piotr Orlov
March 20, 2019
The lobby-like front room and cafe of the Africa Center, an art museum and cultural center on the Fifth Avenue doorstep of Harlem, is not a big space, and, normally, not an acoustically forgiving one. In its defense, few if any foyers of New York’s recently built real-estate towers — a ground-floor of which this institution occupies — are designed with musical pleasure in mind, much less expect to be the set and setting of a transcendent experience. Then again, it’s unlikely that any comparable city lobby has had the opportunity to host Thandiswa Mazwai in order to prove its worth as a concert space. Though, it didn’t matter that the Africa Center’s front-room did not excel at that task; because simply listening to Mazwai sing with an exceptional jazz quartet there this past Saturday night felt like some sort of a miracle, sonic and otherwise.
If you don’t know Thandiswa Mazwai (aka “King Tha”), you really really should. Hers is a career that mirrors much of South Africa’s musical evolution the last quarter of a century — from her teenage start as part of the group Jacknife, making pioneering kwaito (think SA’s early ‘90s answer to Chicago house); to international superstardom as one-third of the dance-pop-rap group Bongo Maffin in the late ‘90s and early Aughts; to a subsequent solo career revolving around a rich, personal tapestry of Black diaspora sounds and jazz-like improvisation. It’s fair to say that the immensely powerful singer, musical leader and human presence has become among her land’s pre-eminent female vocalists.
Yet Thandiswa’s importance carries more than just musical weight. Her creative journey — born on the Eastern Cape the year of the Soweto Uprising, grew up in that Joburg township’s hotbed of anti-Apartheid activity, during the movement’s final push, and came to prominence as a new nation formed — also encompasses South Africa’s struggle into being. The deep joys of freedom and celebration (not only of Blackness but of feminist womanhood), the connection to land and tradition (much of Thandiswa’s singing is in Xhosa), the rebellion against historically embedded atrocities, and self-oppressing scars of post-colonial culture — Mazwai’s artistry makes space for all these. It may be a blatant cliche that there are artists whose music embodies their specific time and place, but that is exactly how Mazwai’s can make a listener feel. Especially when in her presence.
Which made Thandiswa almost the perfect artist to inaugurate the Center’s Salon Africana, a new agency and series founded by the singer-songwriter Somi that celebrates “contemporary African artists whose work in the performing, visual and literary arts interrogates African identity politics with a cosmopolitan spirit, the vigor of urban hybridization, and a deep connection to heritage.” Joining Mazwai in only her second NYC appearance since 2006, and co-headlining the evening, was the incredible SA pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who had worked on Mazwai’s jazz-minded 2016 album, Belede. (They were joined by a trio of crack locals: drummer Clarence Penn, bassist Tarus Mateen, and a South African in New York, saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane.)
Live, the spirits announced their presence almost immediately. What at first glance could have passed for a soft piano recital, solidified into something considerable more intense. Within minutes of taking their places before the intimate gathering — no more than 120-130 people — the players were all demonstrating their own fluency in musical gravity, and an understanding of how their group could achieve lift-off.
Mazwai’s wordless melody and Penn’s quietly tidal motion around his kit were creating a kind of current; Makhathini’s supple, busy melodic movements on the keys, and Sikhakhane softly shrill tenor, making two- and three-note patterns, were instigating a sort of undulating chaos; meanwhile Mateen, playing a hollow-body fretless acoustic guitar, was providing a kind of solid center, when he was not himself undermining its own grounding with fusion bass licks. The overall sound was that of “spiritual jazz,” as anyone who’s heard a Kamasi Washington or Pharaoah Sanders record could instantly tell you. Yet how the music’s individual parts fit together, and what they seemed to be voicing, was subject to its own, unique logic.
Much of this was due to the interplay between Mazwai and Makhathini. Or, more precisely, how the two approached playing with each other and the band, improvising inside the space their music made.
Thandiswa’s voice would, for the most part, carry each song’s dominant melody, most of which were grounded in the great well of South African melodies, a cultural trademark that stretches from gospel and mbaqanga, to the country’s contemporary house and rap music. Mazwai’s vocal improvisations pivot off her astronomical harmonic and rhythmic range, as well as in the emotional flourishes of sound-effects she calls on at will. (Oh, and a pair of whistles.) She would take individual lyrical phrases for minutes-long rides that would bend them to the needs of the band, or become the lead lines for the other musicians to play against — as she did on an epic reading of “Nidiyahamba (I’m Leaving),” a 2006 song that she’s revisited and re-contextualized many times since.
By contrast, Nduduzo’s piano found the melodies in between. They were often fractured by his precisely messy way of playing, but were also always harmonically sound and sturdy, like gorgeously carved cornerstones. His incandescent smile at the other side-men, with Mateen and Penn often beaming right back, did not just lead them down musical pathways, it betrayed an absolutely freewheeling good time, even if, at times, the music could not have been any more serious.
The tension of radiance and melancholy was interwoven in every part of the set, and into the moves with which King Tha, dressed in an all-black industrial-material dress, Dr. Martens and a traditional women’s skullcap made of shells and beads, would waltz around the stage monitors. There was not much room for physical expression here. But she knew how to make it mean something just the same.
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