Every week, artists appear on our radar that we had not heard about before. The wonderful South African trombonist Malcolm Jiyane uses his instrument to blow with the emotions of life.
Last year, Brownswood Recordings, the record label of the influential BBC DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson, released a compilation featuring young, innovative South African jazz artists. That says a lot about the current jazz scene in South Africa, which is carrying on the legacy of Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba with great bravura. Johannesburg is even called the new London by some.
“Oh, that's great,” jazz musician and visual artist Malcolm Jiyane grins on the phone from South-Africa. “The jazz scene is constantly changing, it moves in waves. It's nice that it is in the spotlight right now but there have always been good jazz musicians from South Africa. During the pandemic, things were difficult for a while, but now everything is coming back to normal. That makes me very happy. Without jazz, the world would die.”
Did Black Lives Matter cause a renewed awareness among African jazz musicians, as it did among Afro-pop artists? “It is great that attention is drawn to the violence done to people of colour, but that violence is nothing new, it permeates our history. Jazz reflects life, so it also reflects black strife. I am a follower of the Ubuntu philosophy: everyone is equally worthy, no matter what colour or origin you are, whether you are from South Africa or Ukraine. The suffering of others is my suffering. Jazz taught me that. Music cuts across. I wish world leaders would listen to a bit more jazz, then there would be more peace.”
Jazz and politics have always been closely linked. In the US during the heydays of the civil rights movement, but also in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. “Jazz will always be touched by politics as long as there are politics, but jazz is not political, politics come from outside,” says Jiyane. “Jazz is a weapon. Not like a gun, but a means to fight evil, a way to translate emotions you get from seeing injustice, climate change, pain and joy, beauty and decay.”
Last year, Malcolm Jiyane and his Tree-O debuted with Umdali, a spiritual jazz record full of mesmerising, hymn-like jazz compositions that spent three years on the shelf while he recorded a new album. “I had recorded the songs, but I didn't have the money to release them properly. On top of that, there were big events that turned my life upside down, people who were close to me died, and at the same time I became the father of a daughter. So I waited for the right moment to release it, and in the meantime I composed and recorded new tracks.”
His daughter is called Sierra Leone and adorns the cover of Umdali. “'Umdali' means Creator. This album is my tribute to Him who created everything, who gave me my beautiful daughter, who gave me the talent to be a musician.” The latter was not so easy to achieve. Jiyane's mother abandoned him when he was nine months old. For a while, he lived with his grandparents but to avoid abuse, his grandmother thought it safer to put him in a home. When he was nine, he ended up in Kids Haven in Benoni, a home for orphans and children in need. That turned out also to be his salvation as one day the South African jazz trumpeter Johnny Mekoa walked in. “He had set up a music school and came with his big band to our home to entertain us. When I heard him play the trumpet, my hairs stood up.”
Mekoa told the principal that the children could always come to his school to learn an instrument. “I went there the very next day. They showed us all kinds of instruments, and when they asked who wanted to try something, I stood up. I started on the drums, and everyone clapped. I had never experienced that before.” Jiyane continued as a drummer, but he was still in love with the trumpet. “Johnny said it wasn't going to work because I smoked. One of the children at the children's home played the trombone, but he was lazy. Whenever he was not playing, I would sneak into his room. (Laughs) Suddenly, it struck me that I had fallen in love with that instrument. I never looked back. I practised every day and night, I pretty much moved into the music school.”
One of the songs on Umdali is called “Ntate Gwangwa's Stroll”, and is a tribute to South African trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. “He is one of those loved ones who died recently, just like my mentor Johnny Mekoa. When I started studying trombone, it was always about foreign players like J.J. Johnson or Curtis Fuller. I wanted to know if there were any South African trombonists. That is how I bumped into Jonas Gwangwa. He has been very important for South African jazz, but he was also a leading activist. It turned out that he knew Johnny Mekoa, and that's how I met him at the music school.”
Jiyane is very thankful that he has ended up on this path, for a boy who grew up on the streets it is like a dream come true. “I am incredibly grateful that I can now touch and connect people with my music.”