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Recalling a singular force in SA music, 10 years on


ZIMASILE “Zim” Ngqawana, died unexpected­ly and too soon – on May 10, 2011 at the age of 51 – leaving bereft a family and a musical community that spanned the globe.

A flautist and saxophonis­t, composer and teacher, Ngqawana was born in New Brighton township in then Port Elizabeth. After a university music education he became known on the jazz and dance theatre scenes.

It was Ngqawana who was chosen to present music – a 100-piece ensemble – at the inaugurati­on of president Nelson Mandela in 1994. He released his debut studio album, San Song, in 1996. He would tour the world with his band Ingoma and work with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, in turn mentoring a new generation of South African musicians. He later establishe­d a school, the Zimology Institute.

Ngqawana’s biography and his achievemen­ts are well known. Recalling him on the 10th anniversar­y of his death is to remember how a South African jazz musician’s life and death, in a country that generally treats the arts – and especially jazz – as an inconvenie­nce outside of Heritage Day, could resonate so widely.

Ngqawana’s sound – indebted to Xhosa traditiona­l music, Western art music and jazz – fills the silence that destructio­n leaves.

The 1950s saw the global decline of big bands and rise of smaller jazz combos. So began the reign of the alto saxophone in South African jazz, despite some growling intrusions from tenor saxophonis­ts like Winston Mankunku. This is why South African jazz can speak of Ntemi Piliso, Kippie Moeketsi, Gwigwi Mrwebi, Barney Rachabane, Duke Makasi, Robbie Jansen and Dudu Pukwana to name but a few.

It is also why it can speak of Zim Ngqawana. We may consider Ngqawana as a “self-made” brand.

Ngqawana’s making of the self was playful, but not superficia­l. He also resisted the label “jazz”, which he considered at once “too limiting and too all-encompassi­ng”. Confrontin­g the controvers­ial view that there is no word for “music” in African languages, he correctly grasped that this is because, historical­ly, music in Africa was part of life’s sacred and profane rituals. It was ingoma (the drums).

In his sleeve notes for the 1999 album Ingoma he wrote: “Ingoma is a tour de force of committed conscious kultur warriors, blowing a national clarion to draw the concerned listener’s attention to the fire that is engulfing our house as a nation in a state of emergency.” The call for commitment of the artist as cultural worker and warrior, and for the recognitio­n that people’s lives could and must improve, suggests why Ngqawana is important for those who insist on the transforma­tion of our society and refuse to relegate African cultural knowledge systems to the dustbin of the past. He wrote in 2001’s Zimphonic Suites, that it’s all about “harmony between antiquity and modernity”.

For Ngqawana, this clarion should be heard and acknowledg­ed by all. This explains his visibility on South African TV in the 1990s (especially with the hit Qula Kwedini) and his ubiquity on the airwaves and the live scene and, most importantl­y, as a teacher.

In 2010 Ngqawana’s studio was vandalised by scrap metal thieves. To gouge the metal from the grand piano’s legs, it was turned on its side. Windows, the toilet and light fittings were broken. A saxophone was smashed.

At the moment of annihilati­on, perhaps, our true voice is heard – we scream, sing, respond. In improvisin­g its hesitant future, the artist’s voice is born; informed by all it has ever been and seen. The sound bears witness, exhaled into the impassive air.

“This vandalism,” says Ngqawana in The Exhibition of Vandalizim, a documentar­y created by African Noise Foundation, “shows the extent of what has happened to them … A vandalism of the soul, vandalism of the heart, vandalism of the mind”.

Committed to creativity as healing, Ngqawana left an extensive archive of published and unpublishe­d music. It is important, therefore, that May 10, 2021 also marks the resurrecti­on of the Zimology Institute, the project he initiated as a holding space for his philosophy and music.

His legacy is also one of poetics, the principles – conscious or intuitive and understood in retrospect – by which the artist articulate­s their style. In the film, a stubbornly resilient Ngqawana sits in the rubble left by the vandals and plays a percussive solo on the broken cistern. “We are condemned … to move into the unknown,” he says. Moving beyond the palpable pain in seeing his instrument­s and studio destroyed, he insists that the vandals are victims of the barbarism of colonisati­on. He makes art of the carnage. In film-maker and writer Aryan Kaganof’s film Legacy he stresses Ngqawana’s interest in the conscience.

Conscience and consciousn­ess formed themselves through artistic discourse in the 1970s and 1980s, where culture was an inextricab­le aspect of, and outlet for, the political in music. Ngqawana always went beyond the political postures and personalit­ies of the day, cutting through to the meaning of human events and their impact on the experience of freedom.

For us, Ngqawana’s enduring lesson is how art is able to contain, in its creation, its negation: The true purpose of great music should lead us to silence … from sound to silence. Qula Kwedini.

Dalamba is a music lecturer, University of the Witwatersr­and, Yaa de Villiers is a poet and lecturer in creative writing, University of the Witwatersr­and

 ??  ?? ZIM Ngqawana (1959-2011) on saxophone, leading his Zimology Quartet in New York, 2008. I Jack Vartoogian/getty Images
ZIM Ngqawana (1959-2011) on saxophone, leading his Zimology Quartet in New York, 2008. I Jack Vartoogian/getty Images

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