Notes from the Listening Room

By Ntombizikhona Valela

It begins with a prayer: summoning a celestial being to saturate the listening room with its presence. The listening room is more than just a physical room. It is the telepathic space where the artist and listener surrender themselves to a musical energy that allows for newness- whatever this may be. It is a space that embraces inventiveness, a working out of musical concepts that forerun and usher in a new musical era. And this is not the first instance where music has experienced such inventiveness. Siya Makuzeni is an addition to the long line of musical geniuses Monk, to Simone, to Ngqawana.

Makuzeni is exactly what South African Jazz has been waiting for. Named the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, is unafraid to craft and define her own sound. Performing for over a decade, she’s played with the likes of Carlo Mombelli, the ZAR Orchestra and the Blue Notes Tribute Orchestra.

“Out of this World”, Makuzeni’s debut album is a portrait of an artist who’s no novice to the game. Having picked up a trombone in her years at Stirling High, East London Mdantsane-born Makuzeni is a genius experimenting with different musical sounds that are not necessarily within the bounds of Jazz. This is what makes her exceptional.

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Makuzeni reminds the listener that music is boundless, that genre will never be enough to contain musical genius. Her raspy vocal timbre carries with it a heritage of a long line of Nguni musicality through the ages. And do not misrecognize this moment, or what she is offering to you in this listening room that you enter the moment you press play: It is not retrospective. Rather the listening room is the space in which the past, present and future of music meet. New Age follows with an almost G-funk like swing to it. Here I am immediately reminded of Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” beat as if the Godfather of Rap himself would drop 16 bars.

Makuzeni’s sound disrupts Jazz audience respectability. However, if you did not come into the listening room ready to appreciate music’s boundlessness, your body may stiffen with every unconventional phrase. But worry not: she’s got you at Brazen Dreams. Makuzeni reminds us that she is more than a vocalist. Brazen Dreams is a reminder of her roots in Jazz and shows off the beauty that is this ‘genre’. But at the same time can you say it’s conventional? I don’t know. Anyway, back to the present-past-future.

sima_at_30june16_001Through her vocals, her genius as a composer the title track Out of this World creates (as Janelle Monae would call it) emotion pictures narrating a history of the human spirit, its capacity for joy. And to see her on stage! Makuzeni is like no other. Her pintsize structure moves in a way not all who have stubbornly held on to what they understand as conventional jazz performance may be comfortable with. This is the kind of misrecognition Thelonious Monk’s eccentricities fell victim to. Black performers continue to deal with being read through an anthropological gaze; and in this case Art performed by black bodies remains read as ancestral- an occupational hazard of sorts.
It is in Through the Years (arranged by Bheki Mseleku and Abbey Lincoln) that she invokes the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald while at the same time punctuating a nostalgia for the era of Sophiatown. The somewhat melancholic texture of the sound could provide the perfect soundtrack to Can Themba’s “Requiem for Sophiatown”.

sima_at_30june16_006Once again, Through the Thunder serves as a reminder of the vastness of her artistry. Giving the vocals a rest, the trombone takes over in narrating the story of Jazz as you no longer know it, and concludes with the uplifting Hold On.

And she does not walk alone. The Siya Makuzeni Sextet boasts a collective of gifted musical storytellers musical geniuses in their own right including Benjamin Jephta (bass), Thandi Ntuli (piano), Ayanda Sikade (drums), Sakile Simani (trumpet) and Sisonke Xonti (saxophone). With Makuzeni at the helm, the musical tapestry crafted is one that leaves you gazing in awestruck wonder at this living, breathing and ever-evolving art we call Music.

Images courtesy of CuePix.

More stories in Issue 76

Contributors

Ntombizikhona Valela

Ntombizikhona Valela is an MA candidate at the university currently known as Rhodes.

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