African Jazz Is Alive

Hugh Masekela performing during the 16th Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Image Credit: Esa Alexander / The Times

I googled “African jazz musicians” the other day… the immediate hits came as no surprise.  Icons of the genre whom we have lost, to the grave. Hugh Masekela[efn_note]Feature photo credit: Safa[/efn_note], Miriam Makeba and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, to name but a few.  The names and images of other jazz legends whose physical presence we are still blessed with, are also on the list of search results.  Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya are among these.

The aforementioned musicians are owed no small debt by generations of Africans – in all the vastness of their cultures and lived experiences – for the collective musical, social and political contribution they have made to us and to the rest of the world. Grazing In The Grass (Hugh Masekela), Pata Pata (Miriam Makeba) and Yakhal’ Inkomo (Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi) are all tunes that transport many lovers of music through a journey of reminiscence and reflection. They remind us how music has historically been an illuminating light that has pierced through even the darkest of times in Africa and the diaspora.

Then and now…

Jazz was a popular genre, the world over, in the 1940s through the 1960s and, to an extent, the 1970s as well.  So much has changed, however, in the last three decades as far as jazz music is concerned. Jazz has long fallen off the wagon of mainstream music – both in the global market as well as on the continent.  Think about the Cameroonian electric bass sensation, Richard Bona, for instance. Bona is undoubtedly one of Africa’s greatest gifts to modern jazz music. “Heritage”, Bona’s most recent album (2016) in which he worked with Afro-Cuban band “Mandekan Cubano” was released under the ‘World’ music genre. Other prominent jazz musicians like Kirk Whalum and Robert Glasper are at the forefront of fusing jazz with popular genres such as gospel, hip hop and RnB.

Well, it’s 2019 and notions of purism in jazz have long been dispelled.  Jazz has become a gift to the musical realm in its entirety, and to the arts in general.  We ought to welcome the artistic expression of jazz in whatever form an artist chooses to deliver it.  Young African jazz musicians are taking an active part in the preservation and the evolution of this beautiful genre.

African Jazz – 5 exciting acts

I thus want to briefly profile a few incredibly talented young African jazz artists who are keeping the genre alive and blooming with new possibilities.  If I could overcome the limitations of space and time, my list would be endless – a testament to the abundance of young jazz talents produced by our continent – but in this installment, I will introduce you to five exciting acts to look out for!

I have considered African jazz artists under the age of 40, who have at least one recorded album. They also have already had some degree of recognition both in the continent and beyond.

So, here we go – in no particular order:

Afrika Mkhize (South Africa)

Afrika Mkhize – Image Credit: Suzy Bernstein

A multi-award-winning pianist, Afrika Mkhize famously landed a gig as music director and pianist for Miriam Makeba in his early 20s. Mkhize spent several years in France. He immersed himself in the live performance scene which was a melting pot of various nationalities from around the world.  He has worked with many African and international artists. Mkhize lent his prowess in composition and arranging, as well as his clinical delivery of the most exhilarating piano playing, to two live recorded projects of Bänz Öster & The Rainmakers, a collaboration of Swedish and South African musicians led by Swedish bassist Bänz Öster.  Mkhize released his highly anticipated debut album, “Raindancer” , in 2015.

Zoe Modiga (South Africa)

Zoe Modiga – Image Credit: Mandisa Mpulo

Zoe Modiga is a jazz vocalist who epitomises versatility.  She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town’s music school, a cradle for some of the finest jazz talents to come out of our continent.  An all-round entertainer with a high-energy band, she delivers electrifying performances complete with dazzling choreography. Modiga exhibits a wide vocabulary of styles in her singing. This keeps you guessing about where exactly to place her as a vocalist.  She is a member of Seba Kaapstad, a neo-soul outfit. It comprises members from Germany, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and, of course, Modiga herself representing South Africa. Her debut album, “Yellow the Novel”, was released in 2017. This truly magnificent body of work showcases her originality, depth of thought in songwriting and vocal dexterity.

Somi (Uganda / Rwanda)

Somi – Image Credit: Terrence Jennings

Born in the USA, Somi was raised in Zambia as well as Illinois, where she spent most of her teen and adult life. She is a vocalist of Rwandan and Ugandan descent.  Somi’s voice has a soothing tone, with the kind of novelty that makes a global superstar. Pan-Africanism is as deeply embedded in the rhythmic beats of her percussions as it is in her lyrical themes of such topics as blackness and African women. Somi has had great success in the African as well as the international market. She has summited Billboard charts and has collaborated with renowned artists such as Common and Angelique Kidjo. From 2003 to date, Somi has released six studio albums.

Nduduzo Makhathini (South Africa)

Nduduzo Makhathini – Image Credit: Iris Dawn Parker

If there is a modern-day jazz musician who can be credited with shifting paradigms in African jazz music, it is Nduduzo Makhathini.  He is one of the most sought after session musicians on the South African jazz scene. For both live and studio work, Makhathini is not just a pianist, but also identifies with “ubungoma”.[efn_note]A Nguni word for traditional healing [/efn_note]

This calling is an integral part of his dual work as a musician and a healer.  In addition to a packed local and international performance and recording schedule, Makhathini is also an academic. As such, he teaches at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Having released seven studio albums over a period of four years, Makhathini is the gift that keeps on giving. Makhathini’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the South African jazz scene has been accompanied by many awards and recognition from institutions in academia and the arts.

Bokani Dyer (Botswana / South Africa)

Bokani Dyer – Image Credit: CUEPIX / Niamh Walsh-Vorster

With roots in Botswana and South Africa, Bokani Dyer is a prolific pianist. Son of South African musician, Steve Dyer, his music tells colourful stories even in the absence of words.  He weaves a tapestry of diverse musical threads, to ultimately form a picture of the new face of African jazz music. Dyer has scooped numerous accolades. As a result, he has attracted all manner of opportunity to study under the world’s best and to perform on some of the biggest stages in the world.  Apart from the many live and studio ensembles Bokani has graced with his creative presence, he has four studio albums to his name. The most recent release is a trio project entitled “Neo Native”.

Jazz is indeed alive in Africa with infinite future prospects for the hardworking musicians who are reimagining and reshaping the genre. This bodes well not just for them but also for us, the fortunate consumers and enthusiasts of the music! For other musicians shifting the musical landscape (albeit not necessarily in the Jazz genre) click here.

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sharing with you some of my musical “faves” (as I would call them in social media lexicon). I must say that I struggled to keep these profiles short. There is so much more to share about these incredible musicians. Try their music out and share your thoughts with me. I’m also keen to know who your favourite young African jazz artists are. So, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@sbumsi22), to keep the jazz alive!

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S’busiso Msimango is a strategic designer, passionate about the intersection between business, technology and human sciences and how this union enables innovation. He has worked for Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, where he has been part of project teams that delivered significant innovations and brand relaunches. He holds a Master's degree in Customer Experience and Innovation from IE Business School in Spain. Areas of interest that inform his worldview are history, human rights, religion, art, music, popular culture, and geopolitics.

2 thoughts on “African Jazz Is Alive

  • October 2, 2019 at 4:08 am

    Thank you, I have copied a link for this article on SA Township Jazz Facebook page

    • October 2, 2019 at 8:42 am

      We do not have a problem with that Ntuthuko as long as you are kind enough to cross-reference.

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