On the prowl for new sounds, this Afro­naut is a per­pet­ual stu­dent

• Shep­herd re­mains hum­ble de­spite his many ac­co­lades and tro­phies

Business Day - - LIFE - Tsep­ang Tutu Molefe

In Aryan Kaganof’s film, The Ex­hi­bi­tion of Van­dal­izim, leg­endary jazz icon Zim Ngqawana finds his base, the Zi­mol­ogy In­sti­tute, in an in­de­scrib­able state. It has been ran­sacked and left for dead by scrap metal thieves. Ngqawana and his prodigy, Kyle Shep­herd, make no at­tempt to sal­vage the re­mains, but in­stead con­front the de­struc­tion head-on. Shep­herd plays a pi­ano that has been raped and vi­o­lated, and some­how he is able to res­cue it from the limbo of a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment too dam­aged to serve the pur­pose for which it was cre­ated.

What is more fas­ci­nat­ing is how they refuse to be mere vic­tims or by­s­tanders.

Within the trashed walls of the in­sti­tute, the de­struc­tion feeds their imag­i­na­tion and the jazz they pro­duce in re­sponse is time­less avant-garde sounds.

Their faces show­ing that they are on the verge of mad­ness, they throw them­selves over the edge of the precipice.

If a fic­tion au­thor gifted with a thick and il­lu­sive prose had told this story, he would have been ac­cused of hav­ing a way too ex­cited imag­i­na­tion.

But this act of van­dal­ism re­ally hap­pened in 2010.

Ngqawana passed away in 2011 and Shep­herd’s ca­reer has since blos­somed. He is widely re­garded as one of the coun­try’s most ac­com­plished jazz pi­anists and com­posers.

His sound­track for the film Noem My Skol­lie was nom­i­nated for Best Achieve­ment in Orig­i­nal Mu­sic at the South African Film & Tele­vi­sion Awards in 2017. Gallo Record Com­pany has en­tered it for the Os­cars.

He has re­leased crit­i­cally ac­claimed al­bums with three of them — fineART (2009), A Por­trait of Home (2010) and South African His­tory !X (2012) — earn­ing him South African Mu­sic Awards nom­i­na­tions.

He is launch­ing a new dou­ble al­bum soon. Sound Por­traits From Con­tem­po­rary Africa is be­ing re­leased by SWR Jaz­zHaus in Ger­many fea­tur­ing Shep­herd on pi­ano and key­board, Lionel Loueke on gui­tar and vo­cals, Mthunzi Mvubu on sax­o­phone, Shane Cooper on bass and Jonno Sweet­man on drums and per­cus­sion.

Shep­herd reg­u­larly per­forms in con­certs lo­cally and abroad as a solo pian­ist, while also lead­ing his trio with Cooper and Sweet­man and his quar­tet fea­tur­ing tenor sax­o­phon­ist Buddy Wells.

He is pre­sent­ing his lat­est work as part of a se­ries of in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary con­ver­sa­tions on South African mu­sic cu­rated by


Dr Stephanie Vos of Africa Open In­sti­tute for Mu­sic, Re­search and In­no­va­tion. The dis­cus­sion will cen­tre on his master’s the­sis en­ti­tled In­ter­ro­gat­ing the Own: A Prac­tice-based, Auto-ethno­graphic Study, and there will be a solo pi­ano per­for­mance.

In his lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion with master bass gui­tarist and com­poser Carlo Mombelli, the pair played a sub­tle and med­i­ta­tive set. The per­for­mance was car­ried by the con­stant ex­change of ideas and en­er­gies.

“As mu­si­cians and par­tic­u­larly com­posers, we are in a con­stant state of per­pet­ual re­search. In a way, it’s a re­quire­ment in cre­ative mu­sic, to con­stantly be find­ing new ways of do­ing old and new things,” Shep­herd says.

“There is a pe­riod of re­flec­tion post-per­for­mance or af­ter a prac­tice, which is where the growth hap­pens.”

With his dis­play unit packed with tro­phies and ac­co­lades and his name al­ready en­graved as one of the greats, Shep­herd could be busk­ing on the il­lu­sion known as hype and walk­ing around with a head swollen with su­per­star­dom.

But he seems to main­tain a cool head and an even tem­per. Hum­ble, quiet but far from dull. An Afro­naut of some sort, lured by what lies be­yond the lim­its. “I ap­proach my mu­sic mak­ing purely from the stand­point of the stu­dent,” he says.

“I feel that when mu­si­cians start walk­ing around with the ‘master teacher’ at­ti­tude, the growth stops. Even true mas­ters like Her­bie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are still search­ing. Zim Ngqawana was the same.” As part of the con­ver­sa­tion, Shep­herd will have with Vos, he will look back over his ca­reer and dis­cuss how Ngqawana and Ab­dul­lah Ibrahim shaped his prac­tice of jazz.

“Bra Zim taught me so much in a short space of time, both on the stage and off. This search­ing spirit is prob­a­bly the most pro­found les­son I learned from him,” he says. “He had an in­sa­tiable thirst for what was un­com­mon in the mu­sic and de­manded of us, his side­men, that we play some­thing that we haven’t be­fore.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence of Ab­dul­lah Ibrahim goes back to my early years when my mother, Michele Shep­herd, played vi­olin with him and toured with him and a string quar­tet back in 1993. She then went on to teach at his school, M7 ....

“I re­mem­ber see­ing many of his solo pi­ano con­certs in Cape Town and be­ing pro­foundly moved by the en­ergy that seemed to be ra­di­at­ing from the stage,” Shep­herd says.

Con­ver­sa­tions on Pop­u­lar South African Mu­sic is at the Gallery Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch on Tues­day at 6pm.

/File pic­ture

New jour­ney: Kyle Shep­herd, one of SA’s fore­most jazz pi­anists and com­posers, will per­form at the Stirling Au­di­to­rium in East Lon­don on Satur­day.

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