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The New Jazz Generation

A new guard of South African jazz musicians is claiming their place as leaders of a new unfolding era of musical excellence.

One of South Africa’s foremost jazz writers, Percy Mabandu, looks at four who lead the most exciting bands touring this season.

These are musicians who have taken the life force of heritage and the pulse of the future to shape a place for themselves in the contemporary scene.

They are young, ambitious and undeniably gifted, with something new to say about the music and the world.

Zoë Modiga 

Like a blazing bolt of fiery lighting, 25-year-old mezzo-soprano singer-songwriter Zoë Modiga is fast becoming one of the most iconic vocalists of her generation.

To understand why, you have to see her live in her colourful clout. It is as if each of her carefully curated performances, like every aspect of her public engagement, flows from a singular visionary force: the colour yellow – which is esoterically associated with fire, and in turn, the purification process.

Naturally, her 23-track debut album, released in 2017, is entitled Yellow: The Novel.

She won the jazz category in the 2015 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship competition with her rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, but Modiga’s flame really started burning in the first season of the reality television series The Voice SA in 2016.

She finished in the top eight. She also sang the classic song “Amazing Grace” in the film score of the Oscar-nominated film Noem My Skollie/Call Me A Thief, led by pianist Kyle Shepherd.

A great soloist is also defined by the ability to be led, like when she is seen alongside another gifted vocalist, Ndumiso Manana, in the band Seba Kaapstad. This band was launched in 2013 by German bassist Sebastian Schuster.

Modiga has also performed at festivals such as Aardklop, the Artscape Youth Jazz Festival, UCT Jazz Festival, Joy of Jazz and The Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Tumi Mogorosi

Tumi Mogorosi

Tumi Mogorosi

Few drummers among the current crop of young jazz players in Mzansi have lived up to the idea of being as avant-garde as Tumi Mogorosi.

He has collaborated with some of the most daring jazz musicians, such as Swiss pianist master improviser Malcolm Braff, South African bass player and composer Carlo Mombelli, and British reedman Shabaka Hutchings.

Mogorosi exploded onto the scene with an expansive record, Project ELO, shoring him up as a widely imaginative composer and ferociously gifted drummer.

The record propelled him into a global circuit that tested and confirmed him as the real deal, arguably the natural heir to the legendary Louis Moholo-Moholo of the Blue Notes.

In 2016, Mogorosi released an ambitious collaborative duet with vocalist Gabi Motuba entitled Sanctum Sanctorium. It featured Braff, Swiss cellist Andreas Plattner, and German bassist Sebastian Schuster.

The record was in part about Mogorosi delivering on his creative promise. The idiosyncratic cymbal crash and scratch, the colourful wide flurries, and his capacity for tender complexity are all there to be marvelled at.

Though undeniably sound as a technician, it is the sacred streak that runs through his music that sets Mogorosi apart.

Gabi Motuba

Gabi Motuba 

She is easily the most consistently courageous creative musician working in South African jazz today.

This is even more awe-striking when there is so much incentive to sell out. Gabi Motuba’s choice of collaborations, and her musical palette, makes her a special figure.

The 24-year-old vocalist grew up in Mamelodi, Pretoria, the home of modern Malombo music.

She doesn’t see herself as just a jazz vocalist. In 2018, Motuba released her album Te-Fiti – Goddess of Creation. It was nominated for best alternative album at the 2019 SAMAs.

The magic of creation, “ancestral becoming” and the process of quiet growth are at the heart of her thematic creative concerns.

Before Te-Fiti, Motuba and her partner, Tumi Mogorosi, have devised a set of adventurous projects – first, their 2016 record, Sanctum Sanctorium, and The Wretched, which is a sonic reflection and reckoning with the message of the age-defining text by Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

The music, with violins, cellos and operatic voices, dares to bring non-traditional jazz instruments onto their band stand.

It is this capacity to go where many won’t dare that makes Motuba a voice to watch.

Mandla Mlangeni

Mandla Mlangeni

Mandla Mlangeni

Trumpeter and composer Mandla Mlangeni has for some time now been standing out as one of the hardest-working musicians in South African jazz.

His propensity for high-energy and full-bodied ensemble sounds are as refreshing as they can be confrontational.

The 32-year-old musician from Soweto, son of the late anti-apartheid activist and human rights lawyer Bheki Mlangeni, emerged as a decidedly political voice on the contemporary jazz scene.

Mlangeni is a consummate composer who leads two bands, the Cape Town based Tune Recreation Committee (TRC) and the Native Groove Collective (NGC), and the Joburg-based Amandla Freedom Ensemble.

The TRC is a quintet with whom he released his latest record, Afrika Grooves, which was nominated for best jazz album at the 20th South African Music Awards this year.

The TRC was formed during Mlangeni’s studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The Amandla Freedom Ensemble was named partly to emulate the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, the outfit that was historically led by Jonas Gwangwa in the ANC’s cultural diplomacy programmes during the struggle against apartheid.

Mlangeni made his debut record, Bhekisizwe, with the Amandla Freedom Ensemble in 2015.

His lofty efforts as a socio-politically committed musician have earned him the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 2019.

The accolade is set to give him the kind of attention and support to take him to the next plain of excellence.

 

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