Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cape Town Jazz Fest: Esperanza Spalding to Guitarfrika!

Afropop contributor Lee Middleton was at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and filed this report for us.

Hugh Masekela
It's been over a month since the lights went down at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Though most of the artists are long gone and all the stages dismantled, the energy, spirit, and music still linger for those lucky enough to have attended the (once again) sold-out festival, which, in its 12th year, remains a highlight for music lovers across Africa. Headliners this year included legends Earth, Wind & Fire, Youssou N'dour, Hugh Masekela, and Wayne Shorter, as well as young bright lights like Esperanza Spalding.

However, let's start at the beginning. One of the real pleasures of the festival every year are all the acts that, previously unheard and unknown, blow your mind out of the blue. Guitafrika was definitely one of those.

A unique collaboration of three African guitarists -- South Africa's Steve Newman, Eric Triton from Mauritius, and Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla from Niger -- this trio was one of the real gems of the festival. Newman's finger-picking style prettily taps out the sweetest of Cape-Flats inspired melodies, while he also uses the body of the instrument percussively. Meanwhile, "Creole Jazzman" Triton belted out soul-grinding blues and funk with his left-handed handiwork and powerful vocals. The two were unexpectedly yet perfectly accompanied by Anivolla's desert rock, made up of exquisite guitar lines made famous with his band, Etran Finatawa. An eclectic and powerful celebration of the guitar as instrument and the diverse sounds of Africa made this an early festival highlight.

Next up, veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter wowed a hushed crowd at the always-packed Rosie's stage. One of the most important jazz composers of the 20th century, Shorter played two sets (one each night of the festival) with Brian Blade, Danilo Pérez, and John Patitucci. The quartet played sets of structured improvisation marked by controlled passion and a fiery energy visibly flowing between the four.

Outside at the Bassline stage, local hip hop act Tumi & the Volume thrilled crowds with their tight synthesis of bass, strings, pulsating rhythms, and intelligent lyrics, as rapped by Tumi Molekane.

Later, disco icons Earth Wind and Fire, also playing both nights, showed that they've still got it, impressing even the skeptics with their energy and groove, and reminding us all how many enormously huge hits -- "Wait, they did Shining Star? And Might Mighty? And Let's Groove?" -- this trio was responsible for back in the day, and, apparently, still now.
Esperanza Spalding

The festival's second night began with massive anticipation over 2010 Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding. Bracketing her performance at Rosies with an unconventional entrance, the diminutive double bassist with the unworldly voice and huge hair strolled in stage right, kicked off her heels, poured and sipped a glass of red, and established the mood -- relaxed, thoughtful, quiet, real -- before ripping our hearts out with bow and strings and a voice of birds and angels.

Also on Rosie's stage, South African legend Hugh Masekela graced the adoring audience with his presence, humanity, and humor, playing with Victor Masondo and Lee-Roy Sauls, and with long-time friend, Larry Willis on piano. Playing a set of jazz standards from the American songbook, Masekela put the love back in "You Don't Know What Love Is," telling stories about his early days in New York City to an enraptured audience, and filling the room with the glow of the musicians' own deep and heartfelt emotions for these classics.

A less known South African meanwhile played across the way. The Lwanda Gogwana Songbook featured Gowana on trumpet and flugelhorn, with an accompanying band playing brass instruments, drums, bass, piano, traditional Xhosa instruments and a medley of vocals ranging from traditional Western to Xhosa sounds, some of which can only be compared to the keening cries of a loon. The result: a unique, haunting, often beautiful fusion of Xhosa and jazz harmonies with contemporary music and plenty of soul.

Rounding out the festival was an explosive performance by one of the great names in African music, Youssou N'dour. Known at home as the "Mbalax King," the Senegalese singer and percussionist almost single-handedly brought this popular sound to the international stage, and has been shaping it ever since. Playing this fusion of Western jazz, soul, and rock, Senegalese traditional drumming and dance music, and Latin and Afro Cuban sounds, N'Dour put on a spectacular performance -- a dozen on-stage dancers and back-up singers, everyone in flowing robes -- that brought the house down and made a for a fitting end to yet another great year of Cape Town jazz.
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