Original Jazz Malcolm Jiyane Plays It Forward: New Frame

For a while, musician Malcolm Jiyane has been jazz’s worst-kept secret.

He had been on the radar of serious fans for almost 10 years, first as the fearless and original teenage trombone voice from the Gauteng Academy of Music to Benoni, then on voice, bone, piano and the canvas – he’s also a visual artist – at Steve Kwena Mokwena’s Afrikan Freedom Station in Westdene, Johannesburg. He quickly gained respect, including from his older jazz peers such as bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, who featured Jiyane on his African Time album. But that very originality meant less space for his genre of music on major commercial platforms such as festivals.

This has changed, however. In 2020, Jiyane led the Spaza ensemble, improvising the soundtrack for the documentary Soweto Uprising. Uprize, which has attracted considerable international attention. In the week we speak, they’re preparing a video for The Guess Who? party in Utrecht. And on November 12, his first album as leader of the group Tree-O, Umdali (the creator), launches in vinyl.

Jiyane was born in Benoni, in a difficult family situation. He spent time in Kids Haven, a home for orphans and other children in need, in his early teens and it was there that he met the late trumpeter, activist and music school principal Johnny Mekoa. Mekoa brought the large group from his Gauteng Academy of Music to Kids Haven to perform, hoping to recruit any kid interested in music. Jiyane has recounted on several occasions how he felt when he heard the band perform. Bag groove: “And my hair stood on end.”

After hearing Mekoa blow, Jiyane wanted to study the trumpet. But Mekoa “found out I smelled of cigarettes” and warned him, saying that smoking was bad news for a horn player’s lungs. Still, the teenager’s interest in brass continued, “and there was a friend of mine who studied trombone at the same school and also stayed at Kids Haven. He was lazy to practice, and on the weekends when he wasn’t around I would pick him up, open him up, and try to do what I had watched him do. Since that time, I have never looked back.

A long time to come

Jiyane’s long-term relationship with the Afrikan Freedom Station has helped Umdali. Mokwena, the founder of the cultural space and the gallery, wrote the album cover notes. In these, he recalls how Jiyane and his Tree-O outfit debuted when he first opened the venue in 2012. Jiyane returned, even after that first show was bombed, and the two have worked patiently through often disappointing door holds to build an audience. Tree-O was still on display – now a big crowd favorite – when the place closed to relocate in 2019.

Andrew Curnow, co-founder of Mushroom Hour Half Hour (M3H) label, said they were finalizing a new Tree-O album in early 2021 when sound engineer Peter Auret told them he already had an album. Jiyane’s complete record on her hard drive, recorded in 2018 in a session hosted by Mokwena.

Left: The leaflet for Umdaliis the launch. Law: Umdalidigital album cover. (Images courtesy of Mushroom Hour)

“The first track he played for us was Umkhumbi ka Ma. We were flabbergasted! [Although] the recordings were raw and hadn’t been mixed yet, they sounded good. We all immediately knew we had to release this music before the album we were on [currently] registration.”

Curnow describes rushing to edit, mix and send Umdali for mastering within three weeks. In addition, he says, the label is actively researching other unreleased tracks from Jiyane.

We cannot predict what it will be. Although Jiyane’s musical passions started with jazz, they now extend to all genres, from folk music to classical and avant-garde. “I believe there are more uncharted waters,” says the trombonist. “Just like the universe, we are still discovering new stars. So art is also a never-ending story.

Between tradition and innovation

Umdali has only five tracks, each carefully chosen from among Jiyane’s myriad of compositions, he says, “to work with the artists I had on hand” and pay homage to the personalities who have helped shape his life and his music . What makes all of the tracks so intriguing and distinctive is the way the frontman walks a cutting edge musical line between South African jazz tradition and innovation.

M3H label co-founder Nhlanhla Masondo says Jiyane perfectly escapes what he calls “the trap” of South African jazz. On the one hand, the voice of the music is unique and its quality immediately recognizable, although both are difficult to pin down in words. On the other hand, some musicians go to such lengths to capture that uniquely South African sound “that they end up being very… cornball.” The music ends up being banal and unoriginal. Of course, it will stand out with its national character, but it will be totally crazy … [But] in Malcolm’s case, you can hear the long line that this music comes and continues … It is both old and brand new.

Masondo says that Jiyane’s originality, which is rooted in the South African jazz tradition, is “old, because the lineage is unmistakable… These are South African grooves. Yet the sounds are as fresh as the Jazz Epistles or Heshoo Beshoo or Batsumi must have sounded when they were released. The music does not stay in an amorphous South African but clearly belongs to Malcolm, who is South African, and his colors are revealed. As Jiyane says: “As an artist, you are always shaped by your space. ”

Malcolm Jiyane distinguishes between South African jazz tradition and innovation on his new album. (Photograph by Tseliso Monaheng)

One place where the lineage rings particularly loud is in the tribute track, Ntate Gwangwa walk, written for the late Jonas Gwangwa who had been among the first patrons of the Mekoa school. “When I started wanting to learn more about trombonists,” says Jiyane, “most of the masters of this instrument that I studied came from abroad: JJ [James Louis] Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Albert Mangelsdorff and so on.

“But then I started looking for what this continent had in terms of jazz trombonists and I came across Bra Jonas. His music exploded my soul. Jiyane remembers hearing Gwangwa’s words Flowers of the Nation like another chilling moment in his musical journey. “From that point on, I knew I had to study it. As a trombonist, composer and arranger, I hold him close to my soul. I believe in her music, she speaks to me in a language that is my source of life.

Ntate Gwangwa walk evokes the deliberate, bluesy solos and call-and-response conversations with the band that Gwangwa used in his own compositions, including a perfectly vintage trumpet contribution by Tebogo Seitei. “I dedicated this song to [Gwangwa] purely because of the beauty I found listening to his music, ”says Jiyane. “I love it.”

Advancing the music

He continues: “There is a Zulu saying, indlela ibuzwa kwaba phambili (it is always best to seek advice from those who have walked the path before you). So this whole generation of Bra Jonas, Bra Johnny, is a source of knowledge… Studying their archives allows you to create your own.

The sense of mission that Jiyane admired in Mekoa continues to give her direction in her life. “My schooling ended in the 6th year, because my grandmother did not have the means to take care of all [my] siblings alone. Without Bra Johnny, there wouldn’t even have been a music school in Daveyton Township. The lack of outlets for creative expression in poor areas “pains me deep in my soul because it is still happening in 2021”.

Associated article:

  • The Brubecks, jazz and the fight for justice

One of Jiyane’s dreams is “to use what is in me, this gift, to create change in our country… I would like to open a music school in KwaMhlanga in Mpumalanga, where my mother lives. Every time I visit this place I observe how helpless and bored young people are. No leisure facilities, no libraries, nothing. After all, I wouldn’t even have become a musician if Bra Johnny hadn’t responded to his call to do something.

Malcolm Jiyane’s album spear Saturday November 20 at 4 p.m. at 17 Madison St, North Doornfontein, Johannesburg.

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