Given the number of excellent pieces published in the wake of Zim Ngqawana’s recent tragically untimely death, this was always going to seem too little too late. I didn’t know him, though I met him a couple of times, and didn’t quite get around to interviewing him. It was something I intended to do, and there were a couple of failed attempts to do so for my radio show a few years ago. Zim was willing, but the timing was never quite right and then, suddenly, there was no more radio show. And now, even more suddenly, there’s no more Zim. As someone once said, regrets … I’ve had a few. Reading, over the past week or so, some of the interviews he did give, that might end up being one of them. All of which makes me especially glad that we have Vadzimu, his fifth and last substantive album for Sheer Sound, released in 2003, to remind us, not quite exactly, but about as closely as the artificiality of a recording studio can get, precisely what we’ve lost.
Vadzimu is a Shona word, despite Zim’s Xhosa origins but reflecting the universality of his approach, designating the family spirits, and the album, which is divided into four thematically linked suites, entitled Satire, Diaspora, Liberation Suite and Nocturnes, appears, more than usual, to be something of a personal manifesto, even for an artist whose music was always as much a mirror of and even a vehicle for his very being as Zim’s was. Of course, many artists will make that claim for much of their work, but in this case it really does feel like it’s specifically designed that way.
Satire deals with the musician’s own South African musical roots, perhaps as much from the perspective of an outsider as from any internal expression of reality. Umthakathi, raw and raucous and characterised by shouting, whistling and traditional drumming, segues into the gorgeous ballad, Kubi, where the expressiveness of Zim’s singing more than adequately compensates for any vocal limitations he may have had. He plays all the saxes on the record, from baritone to soprano, in a line that takes in Coltrane and Dolphy, Sanders and Shepp, Moeketsi and Pukwana and even Albert Ayler, and his soprano solo on Kubi is especially striking. The suite closes with Amagoduka Part 3, a tribute to migrant workers. Its head melody’s folkishness might be emphasised by Zim’s rudimentary harmonica playing, but Andile Yenana’s solo is the perfect encapsulation of the marabi to Monk method of many of the best South African pianists.
Diaspora ranges as widely as its title and seems to trace a lament of Eastern European Jews on their way to a New Orleans funeral via Cuba and the Middle East, yet everything fits beautifully and leads logically into Abdullah Ibrahim’s joyous Tafelberg/Carnival Samba medley, the introspective Unamaqhinga Na, a tone poem for Zim’s voice and brilliant flute extemporisation, and Anthem, a more personal investigation of Nkosi Sikele’ iAfrika’s musical and emotional possibilities than the one once so memorably essayed by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. More hymnlike than anthemic, and more hymnlike than Haden’s, its various moods tell the struggle story as well as any conventional history could.
The last section, consisting of three solo piano studies played by Zim himself, follows the title track’s cathartic atonal block chording with the quiet, spiritually content Thula Sizwe in a summary of the album’s demonstration of how, in the right hands, folk music and the avant-garde are simply two sides of the same coin. Vadzimu won the award for Best Traditional Jazz Album, whatever that may mean, at the South African Music Awards. Although the recognition is important, its categorisation hopelessly misunderstands the truly visionary nature of what Ngqawana achieved.
first published in the business day of 23 may 2011