« It’s not a question of Africa or America »

Interview with the saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, by Sabine Cessou

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Forty-two-year-old Zim Ngqawana studied jazz at the University of Natal before going to the United States to train with the likes of Max Roach and Wynton Marsalis. On his return to South Africa, he toured with Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela whilst also developing his own style. His record collection comprises innumerable works by John Coltrane, along with Mozart and the Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Open to everything and in search of spirituality, Zim Ngquawana considers himself as a free man. This practicing Muslim refuses ready-made formulae and labels. On his latest record, Zimphonic Suites, he performs the traditional songs of his ethnic group, the Xhosas. His approach refuses to limit his music to being specifically South African. He rejects local colour whilst at the same time challenging globalisation. He doesn’t play jazz; he plays music. He isn’t African; he’s universal.

What do you think of the older generation of South African jazz musicians, the Chris McGregors or the Winston Mankukus, who died unheard of and at times penniless?
The system always sought to suppress jazz as an art form because jazz addresses important social questions, because it helps you to think and be free. Those musicians constitute my heritage.
How do you answer your critics who accuse you of being too influenced by America, of not being African enough?
It’s not a question of Africa or America. The American masters belong to my people. Duke Ellington is my father. John Coltrane is my father. I have to connect with all the people in the Diaspora who do the same thing as me, who practice the same form of expression, based on the same social conditions. I don’t want to discriminate, or limit myself to South Africa. The world is not South Africa.
Has the country’s opening since 1994 significantly changed South African jazz?
No, because most of the great innovators were around before, and were often in exile. Music and thought has deteriorated since 1994 for economic and political reasons.
What reasons do you mean?
The way life is taken hostage so that people do not realise the meaning of their lives. The modern slavery that exists all over the world, people programmed to sleep, work, and consume. People whom the artists entertain. I’m not here for entertainment’s sake.
Are you angry?
I empathise. I’m not angry anymore, otherwise I wouldn’t play the music I play. Anger is dangerous; it can consume you completely. You have to channel it, to understand it and use it as a stimulant in order to affront life. You can get the best of yourself from it.
Do you ever consider leaving the country?
I have already left, spiritually speaking. Johannesburg remains my base for logistical reasons, a place where I can plan and accomplish other things, such as family life, which I need to stay balanced. When I say family, I mean all people who think and who want to attain positive goals.
Are other jazz musicians a part of your family?
There is no jazz community here. It’s frustrating. That’s why I had such a good time in Paris at the last La Villette jazz festival. I met American musicians, critics, people who were sensitive and aware of what is going on in the world, activists. I also went to visit the dead; I went to see Frederic Chopin and Edith Piaf’s graves.
What do you think of jazz adaptations of traditional maskanda?
There’s no such thing as maskanda or anything else! Music is as free as the air… We live in a technical world where tradition is considered underdeveloped. That’s all nonsense. We need to develop technicality, technology to be compatible everywhere…
Do you think you are better appreciated abroad than at home?
Africa, South Africa, is the only place I have problems in playing my music.
Because people carry on talking when you play… Africans need to understand their reality and adapt. It’s all very well preaching the African renaissance and not putting it into practice. If you want to be primitive, why carry on living in chic neighbourhoods? We ought to dress in our skins and beads, our traditional clothing, and go to the office in them… Tradition needs to be transformed, reworked to be made compatible with our urban lifestyle, our world, and our reality. We don’t have any other choice: I can’t go to Paris on horseback! We need to rethink things in general, not just music, if we want to play a role in the global village.

///Article N° : 5520


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