Home 9 Literary Archive 9 Kujenga’s Art of Building Together – In The Wake’s Album Launch © Deon-Simphiwe Rakaku

Kujenga’s Art of Building Together – In The Wake’s Album Launch © Deon-Simphiwe Rakaku

Kujenga’s Art of Building Together – In The Wake’s Album Launch

© Deon-Simphiwe Rakaku

Expectation as a human feature is naturally flawed. This entity, very easily and perhaps deceptively so as someone more cynical might say; promises a lot without any guarantees that the promised or anticipated will be fulfilled. Thus disappointment is usually experienced in the end when our expectations are not met. To minimise the full impact of disappointment in case the desired outcome does not materialise, we are often encouraged to “manage our expectations” by not having much expectation in the first place or none at all. But this cautious approach, as noble as it may be, does not often last because expectations, much like other human entities such as feelings, are fluid and very often affect us in ways we may not be able to fully control despite various resolves we undertake to do so. Thus we continue to hope and expect some things to turn out the way we anticipate them to – with a very big chance of being disappointed in the end.

Despite the ever-present possibility of disappointment, I am full of great expectations when I finally arrive at 196 Victoria Road, Woodstock on Thursday, 21 March 2024. I am here for the launch of an album called In The Wake, a second studio offering by Kujenga, an immensely talented jazz improvisation outfit based in Cape Town that is set to perform at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. How can I not be brimming with expectations when I have been so deeply moved by the group’s live performances I saw on YouTube and the studio-recorded music I listened to on Spotify? I was introduced to this vibrant and intriguing band by a colleague friend back in November 2023. It was the same colleague friend that alerted me to the group’s album launch on the morning of the event, which led to me hastily buying an entry ticket and swiftly reorganising my day so as to make it to the launch venue on time. The last time I was completely captivated by a musical band was when I discovered The Brother Moves On, a pulsating and immensely talented band from Jo’burg that admirably fulfils the essential and sacred social commentary objectives that music as an art form ought to.

When I finally manage to find a comfortable spot in the packed courtyard of 196 Victoria Road, where Oli The DJ is playing a soothing brand of music with a cocktail of people swaying and chatting over a variety of beverages, I consciously try to reduce the levels of expectations I am now experiencing – lest I get disappointed in the end as it had happened with other artists’ live performances that did not meet my expectations.

It is not long before Kujenga members; all dressed in black as if returning from a funeral, walk onto the stage and take their places. Soon there is music in the air: The horns, keys, guitar, bass and drums; all wailing at the same time. They are performing The Awakening, the opening track from the very album they are launching tonight. Much like the recorded version of this short introductory song, the live version is also rich in its musicality, only made better by the raw elements of a live performance and a recognisable tuning process some of the musicians are seamlessly doing on their instruments as the music unfolds. Similarly to the album intro, this live version carries a mournful element that seems to feature drawn out notes that appear to confirm a kind of finality such as death.

Then emerges that striking and hurried keyboard sound opener of Clarion Call, to the great cheering, ululating and whistling from the crowd! Soon the drums, the bass and the guitar join in at the same time, with the drums feverishly setting up the tempo along with the rumbling and sullen bass as a companion. Then the guitar briefly takes on the lead with fast-paced strumming. Soon the horn section takes over in what may easily pass as one of the song’s refrains. For some reason, as it is often the case with resonant music, this piece takes me back to the tumultuous days of political protests in black townships of South Africa during the hey days of the crushing weight of Apartheid. It is Clarion Call’s general sound and tempo that somehow reminds me of the rhythmic chants of the Toyi-Toyi and Mzabalazo protests, which in some ways gives me a similar experience to that I get from other great South African compositions.

The late Mam’ Sibongile Kumalo’s Ngibiziwe carries this distinctive and evocative tempo for me; so is The Brother Moves On’s Shiyanomayini and BLK JKS’ Molalatladi among others. In some strange and perhaps perverted kind of way, the vibrant tempo of Clarion Call gives me nostalgia, a kind of madness considering how brutal that period was to the millions of Black South Africans. But perhaps it’s the gift of music that ultimately gives my unusual nostalgia a redeeming aspect, as it is the very presence of music in the lives of the oppressed that carried them through the darkest times of their psychic and physical suffering; traumas that have not yet been dealt with to this day for many people.

Perhaps these seemingly odd resonant experiences with Clarion Call and other forms of music with similar evocative elements are born of a yearning for a civil society to reclaim the power and bravery of its collective voice as inspiringly demonstrated by the United Democratic Front in dark days where such positions could and have had dire consequences that included death. Perhaps it’s my very deep yearning for the same united voice to re-emerge and begin to change and end the current horrors of corruption, relentless poverty, ethnic and racial divisions among other ills from our very beloved South Africa. The depressing reality is that we live in a world environment whose systems have profoundly poralised its people, such that each one of us is left preoccupied with their own individual struggles to the tremendously devastating neglect of the collective voice that can bring about much-needed and consummate change to our current conditions of suffering.

On the other hand, Clarion Call is a masterful piece full of optimism and expectation. The piece is also a deep melancholy that is sublimely anchored on a distinctive rumble of the bass that effortlessly softens into a mumble and an odd belching here and there when needed – only to add a perfectly fitting texture to the overall composition. All the brief solos on this piece are as magnificent as the entire music has been thus far! And when you don’t anticipate, just as the music becomes tender, there is a peak, which seems to be the band’s signature approach to their music. And that peak, when it prevails, has combativeness akin to a spiritual warfare. Then the music softens again, marking yet another remarkable and eloquent transition that takes the heart through oscillatory feelings of personal reflections and the appreciation of such consummate musicianship.

When Remembrance is performed, a delicate piece of music that demonstrates the band’s versatility, one cannot help but feel great admiration for the band. The piece, led by a beautiful and bluesy electric guitar, is a tribute to the band’s lost close friend. It is also a general tribute to the experience of mourning and grief as vocally expressed by Zwide, the group’s bassist, before the song commences. What ensues afterwards is graceful sombreness that carries a kind of mournfulness that reminds one of personal losses that are still being grieved. Then the impeccable tempo change prevails once more, evoking a kind of fleeting optimism with horns wailing as if in despair. And just as one thinks the song is ending, a very delicate keyboard solo takes over the reins, stalked by the brooding bass and beautifully hopeless guitar that are both spurred on by mellow drums.

To say I am experiencing the same kind magic as when I was watching the band’s live performances that are hosted on YouTube, would be a major disservice to both experiences. The live online experiences, as wonderful as they are, are often experienced in solitude; whereas the first-hand live experience offers an unmatched dynamic of physically-present audiences and the privilege of proximity to the band itself. Now I am fully immersed in the unfolding experience of the captivating live music. “To hell with precautions around managing expectations!” I tell myself; now completely assured that there shall never be any disappointments here. Not with such sophisticated performance thus far. Not with such vivaciousness of both the band and the crowd.

The outfit’s members that are performing at the launch are twin brothers, Zwide Ndwandwe on bass and Owethu Ndwandwe on keyboard; Thane Smith on guitar; Thamzyn Freeks on trombone; Bonga Masola on trumpet; Danel Dippenaar on saxophone (standing in for Matthew Rightford); and Keno Carelse on drums (playing all the album’s drum parts that were recorded with Skhumbuzo Qamata). The band’s rich experience with good music is apparent in how versatile and refined their artist expressions are. It’s also easy to infer that the outfit has a sharp socio-political consciousness from all the commentary Zwide makes before and after each song; a feature that the music devoid of any words also abundantly carries in its layered compositions. Just before A World Within, A World Without commences, Zwide makes a very striking commentary. He says the 21st of March is not a Human Rights Day [as observed by the South African government] – it’s Sharpeville Massacre Day, he emphasises! Then he delivers a chilling lament about the violence perpetrated by states during the dark period of lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He mentions murders of George Floyd, Nathaniel Julies and the Palestinian people.

Indeed, some of our realities need to be questioned. The suffering of the people, as ancient as this phenomenon has been, seems to have intensified and perhaps accelerated by greed and the ever-present need to control the naturally free spirit of the people. A mere previous four years captures a deep woundedness of people that ultimately altered the very make-up of the world’s psyche. Not only did we realise that we can in fact do away with a lot of unnecessary and accumulated things, we also realised just how negligent we had been to our relationships and other truly cherished aspects of our lives. Suddenly, households could do with the bare minimums in terms of food and related items. Workers could now work from home when the employers were previously hell-bent on having everyone at their mutual workplace prior to the onset of the pandemic.

Then we had to learn, incredulously so, that our freedoms as we have previously celebrated them, were not quite real freedoms but ideas that could be kneaded into whatever form of control that States could turn them into for the sake of our so-called collective “wellbeing”. The violence of lockdowns during the peak of Covid-19 was nauseating to witness. No longer could we freely walk down the road to stretch our legs or even run to lighten the weight and torture of being isolated, because doing so was now a punishable violation. How wiser have we become as a people? How free? The psychic traumas of living under lockdown are still unravelling today. If we did not allow ourselves to pause and reflect on what matters to us as humanity and work towards restoring it when the world was made to be as vulnerable and pitiful as it was during the prevalence of the Covid-19 pandemic, then we might have missed a great opportunity to do so. We may have very well allowed ourselves to be duped into make-believe freedoms that will only lock us into a vicious and sophisticated cycle of illusion and strife. But if we indeed managed to pause for a moment and reflect on the abnormalities and follies of our world as it has become of us, perhaps there is still a chance of redemption and restoration. For now, we have the music and other art forms to keep nudging us towards a point of reflection, resolve and action.

When I least expect the band to pay any homage through the music, they do exactly that for one of Africa’s greatest musician and social commentator, Fela Anikulapo Kuti with a sublime piece simply titled, Ransom. Sadly this piece is not on the band’s new album or their previous one for that matter; which is a great tragedy because of the sheer beauty of this piece. Simphiwe Dana once also recorded a homage piece to Nigerian’s finest musical icon in her song, Fela’s Azani, an elegant treatment of a homage that features among the very well done ones. The bassline on Kujenga’s tribute, Ransom, which reminds one of the finest and underrated South African bassist, Bab’uFana Zulu, is heavy as would be on Fela’s own compositions. In fact, there appears to be elements of Fela’s masterpiece, Water no Get Enemy, in how the music unfolds.

When Ransom ruptures into a full song, one gets overwhelmed by feelings of great appreciation for the music. The sax solo is devastating here in its flourish. And when the song’s tempo suddenly changes in that group’s stylistic approach, it gives off a sense of urgency like that of Fela’s masterpiece, Zombie.

Lesedi, another gem that seems popular with the crowd, is performed with the same admirable commitment. And that striking bassline, which somewhat seems to have the rhythmic lead elements of the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s Mountain Shade, carries this beauty with tenderness and passion. This prevailing dynamic plunges the keyboardist into a trance as he renders his solo. He tickles the keys as if possessed by unknown spirits to the great admiration and cheering of the crowd that is clapping and dancing.

The pinnacle of the album launch performance, at least for me and apparently the crowd’s, is my personal favourite, Hymn for Hani, which immediately sends everyone into a louder cheer. This delicate piece is a tribute to the assassinated political icon and liberator, Chris Thembisile Hani. The bass is hesitant in its opener and the riffs are intentionally skiddy. Soon other instruments join in only to bring about subdued cheerfulness. It’s the horns that finally give off tinges of optimism as they peak in their elegant and intermitted wailing. Then everything dies down – momentarily! Then comes in the roar of the bass like that of a wounded male lion! A kind of hopeless call for help. The prelude of the drums ensues, hinting that things may not be as gloomy as they appear as imminent celebration of greatness is due. Then comes in the keys with fingers tickling away with elegant intention that only prompts action. The horns start to wail once more – in an oddly orchestrated randomness that seems to encourage the music to carry on despite the prevailing heaviness. Now the bass and the drums are relentless. Then music ruptures once more unleashing such intensity that the crowd cannot help but cheer and dance some more. In celebration!

Now I want to weep. Not only because the music has become so fine now, but more so for it rupturing the many passive wounds of our collective experience. Somehow, I find myself thinking about Gaza; the multitudes of innocent people including children that have been allowed to suffer the horrors of an unjust “pseudo-war”. Inadvertently, I think about the South African (SA) government and the admirable stance it took against such atrocities perpetrated against tens of thousands of innocent people in Gaza. Whether such a firm position taken by the SA government is sincere or there is a kind of posturing in it for whatever political or diplomatic reasons there might be, is neither here nor there considering the crucial nature of such a decisive intervention against the senseless murders. What is commendable is that a much-needed humanitarian position has been taken at a risk of enormous possible diplomatic and economic harm.

Very slowly, I find myself consistently slipping into more thoughts about the dark gloom and all the suffering there is in the world, and feel a great gratitude towards the gift of music such as Kujenga’s, that not only tears open our souls, but also soothes us with thoughtful reflections that may encourage action and optimism towards an otherwise gloomy future. Now the horns are completely relentless as Hymn for Hani continues to wail and wail.

In a fitting kind of way, and as often as it is the case after being exposed to carefully-rendered artistic expressions, I find myself so inspired that I eventually sit down to pen this reflective piece after what had been a very long period of writing inactivity. The beauty and the meaning in Kujenga’s performance has revitalised my creative juices such that I have been able to regularly write again since the night of their album launch. Such is the power of the music and the artistic expressions in their very nature! After all, the band’s name represents the concept of building together in Swahili.