“Meet me at the studio, 7pm.” In an all familiar tone, pianist Ramon Alexander alerts me to our scheduled meet up. Not only is he the youngest member (by a large margin) of the current incarnation of the Cape Jazz Band, but as it turns out; he’s also hip to the workings of the niftiest modern forms of mobile communication: the WhatsApp Message, the email and occasionally the Twitter feed – notions he assures me his fellow band members unfortunately are not privy to in the least.
As 7pm arrives I meet Ramon outside the studio at Stellenbosch Conservatory. He walks up to me looking scruffy and somewhat world weary, adorned in black trench coat like he’s torn from some jazz-infused version of the Boondock Saints. In tow is veteran drummer and bandleader Jack Momple (or Uncle Jack, as he’s known by most), legendary guitarist Errol Dyers, bass boss Spencer Mbadu, New York based Tony Cedras and Ramon’s former student and now call to R&B crooner Ricardo ‘Twakkie’ De Ruiter. The stalwarts exude an air of quiet self-assuredness, having paid their dues on numerous albums, international stages and having performed for big wigs and laymen alike.
Someone remarks, “Hierdie’s mos die Groot Geeste (These are the Big Guns)! A moment of grandeur washes over me as I recall the countless glasses of whiskey on idle Friday mornings, even before my early dose of cheap coffee (upon Ramon’s request) – that introduced me to the ghoema of Cape Jazz, instantly transporting us from Ramon’s former flat in Bird Street to Cape Town’s 7th Avenue and Wesley Street. Wherever those locations exist today, they are forever immortalised on record by those who referenced them in the titles of their songs. In the meantime, the studio engineers rig the Fismer concert hall (now moonlighting as a live room) for a Cape Jazz Band re-interpretation of Pacific Express’ classic hit ‘Give a Little Love’ as originally sung by Zayn Adam and penned by Chris Schilder.
Three takes and it’s done, no click-track, no sweat, tight. Over Dyers’ neat accompaniment Twakkie belts ‘Give a little love sexy mamma…’ ad infinitum in a continuous vamp of romantic adlibbing, sounding like Timberlake with a bit more zest and a lot less autotune, as Mbadu’s dirty fretless ties it all together on top of Uncle Jack’s fat, club backbeat. Ramon and Cedras woo us out on a smooth pillow of melodic interplay between piano and flugel horn. The session is saved and the cameras miss not a single shot – a one way ticket to YouTube in an effort to promote the new Cape Jazz Band album.
With the advent of the internet, the world has become a globalised playground where musical ideas are exchanged internationally from territory to territory. Some would argue in favour of this kind of modernism while others stick to their guns in an attempt to preserve and advance the voice of indigenous music. The latter is more strongly associated with the jazz of Cape Town, where a small group of older technicians of Cape Jazz endeavour to preserve the old, ushering in the new through a group of fresh young musicians. For them, it is the passing on of the legacy that matters most. It is with an understanding of apprenticeship that one makes sense of the basis of the new Cape Jazz Band album.
You see, being the freshest cat in the outfit means Ramon is not only a harbinger of eclectic piano riffs, contrapuntal elaborations on static harmony and bebop-infused ‘plaas’ chords – he also happens to be (at least in this setup anyway) a conduit between this world and the world of generations past. “I want to be the link between passing on the message…” Yes, this dude can burn – and he rolls heavy with both old and new, holding his own in a band whose music collectively mirrors the sound of this country’s liberation movement, carrying with it the ongoing vision of those who dedicated their lives to taking the Cape Jazz to the world. One need only listen to Abdullah Ibrahim’s iconic and recognisable ‘Mannenberg’ to conjure in the mind a tableau of black and white ‘struggle’ motifs, of the sort that flicker concurrently behind the eye lids.
Mountain Records label boss Patrick Lee-Thorpe, a key figure in the commercial development of Cape Jazz (and in the careers of Jonathan Butler, David Kramer, Coenie de Villiers and Robin Auld) describes it as: “a cultural music of the people of the Cape, of the Coloured people. Essentially it is blues or folk music, jazzed up, or new music composed which is inspired by the folk music of the Cape. There are common threads like the up-tempo ghoema rhythm of the carnival music, common harmonies in the voicing of the brass and vocals, sometimes similar to the Cape Malay choir style of singing mixed with Christian church music.”
As Ramon asserts, it was the indignation of the late Robbie Jansen, pioneer and mentor of Cape Jazz and founding member of the Cape Jazz Band that became the turning point that would change everything. At Woordfees, sometime in 2008 in a smoky club; Ramon remembers Jansen’s life defining words while being chastised publicly for playing American funk, “Who are you? Play South African music!” Jansen’s remark was interesting, considering the band featured both a tattoo-laden Macedonian and an Afrikaans boy from a very popular rock band.
Clearly something stuck, because Ramon has since adopted a suitable mantra for the music he creates, “I come from the soil, I’m a South African. I can’t take coal to Newcastle!” and cites the role of Cape Jazz as a cry for the restoration of the cultural heritage of Coloured people.
“Coloured people, having their roots here; are so lost. Khoisan is a political buzz word, but if you’re not doing it for the right reasons – you don’t care about the people. I mean, you hear that people are anointed…but it’s where it comes from that gives it value. It’s not about what you play, it’s who you are, your stories (that count).”
Historically, the Cape Jazz Band in its entirety is somewhat of a tribute to Jansen, having had its first outing in 2007 as a replacement for him on a tour to Southeast Asia, shortly after he fell ill. Then, it was made up of an all-star ensemble of Cape Jazz players both old and young. Jansen believed in “passing the message on” by mentoring young players and introducing them to the genre.
The latest offering, ‘Musical Democracy’ is the 4th instalment in a series of pivotal records reflecting the cultural heritage of the people of the Cape. Where its predecessors characterised a compilation of tunes from pertinent Cape Jazz artists, this instalment is comprised of a number of originals composed by a core group, consisting of legends (Uncle Jack, Errol Dyers, Spencer Mbadu, Stephen Erasmus) and newbie – Ramon.
Ramon was recommended for the role of pianist after Uncle Jack sat in on his homecoming performance in the small town of Mamre. Lee-Thorpe then received a copy of Ramon’s debut album ‘Picnic at Kontiki’, where he was taken in by Ramon’s command of the Cape Jazz idiom. It wasn’t long ‘til Ramon was invited for an audition cum rehearsal, which later developed into the tunes that are heard on the final album release.
The album also features a formidable horn section comprised of 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman and Lou-Anne Stone with Jonathan Rubain on bass, Dizu Plaaitjies on percussion and Tony Cedras playing acoustic guitar, flugelhorn, trumpet and accordion. Stand out tracks include ‘Jakkals Draai Ghoema’(a guitar-led ghoema ballad with a hymn-like accompaniment), ‘Three Khois in a Fountain (Ramon’s bebop-like brainchild), ‘Die Maan Skyn So Helder Vanaand’ (Kyle Shepherd’s expressive re-interpretation of the folk song), but it’s ‘Then Take Me Back to Cape Town’; a nostalgic tribute to Cape Town sung in the vein of Ray Charles by Stephen Erasmus – that sums up the album and hits you square between the eyes:
“I can go the whole world over wherever I may roam, then take me back to Cape Town ‘cause Cape Town is my home. You can send me to New York, to London or to Rome, then take me back to Cape Town ‘cause that’s my home…”
The album also features a song called ABREM, a tribute to former Cape Jazz players who have since passed on: Alex (van Heerden), Basil (Coetzee), Robbie (Jansen), Ezra (NgCukana) and Winston (Mankunku).
All in all it is a solid follow up to its predecessors and a suitable addition to the collection. In as far as it warrants the survival of Cape Jazz as a relevant art form, one need not worry – I think it’s in safe hands.
Musical Democracy is available for purchase on iTunes and in selected retailers.