“They say the darkest hour comes right before the dawn,” Bob Dylan once sang, quoting an old proverb.
“THE EXHIBITION OF VANDALIziM” is a film documenting a healing ceremony performed by Zim Ngqawana and his former pupil Kyle Shepherd in the ravaged body of The Zimology Institute for Higher Learning in January 2009.
The film was directed, shot and edited by Aryan Kaganof of African Noise Foundation, as a springboard to a further improvisation, VANDALIZM, that took place live in Johannesburg’s Gallery MOMO on March 7, 2009. The event was a fundraising effort towards rebuilding the Zimology Institute, desecrated by vandals earlier that month.
With Kaganof’s film, the live duet of Kyle Shepherd (on piano and violin) and Zim Ngqawana (on woodwinds) was mediated into a unique quartet, playing impossible combinations backwards and forwards through space and time. As a standalone document the film remains powerful.
The Zimology Institute of Higher Learning is located on Zim Ngqawana’s farm, half an hour outside Johannesburg. It’s a project that the internationally renowned flute, tenor and soprano saxophone improviser established in 2001 to nurture younger musicians, inspired by his own mentoring in similar environments by such luminaries as Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp. Their enduring influence is evident in Ngqawana’s profoundly spiritual, yet politically conscious approach to pedagogy.
The Institute aims “to produce leaders within the jazz community – not just musicians, but thinkers, who will be able to sustain this art form. We have to go back to the mentorship system, and expose students to the spiritual aspects of music … And we have to go beyond music itself and talk about all aspects of life.” The Zimology Institute has many notable alumni, including pianist/violinist Kyle Shepherd, recently nominated for two SAMA awards for Best Newcomer and Best Traditional Jazz Album, the youngest jazz musician ever to be recognised in these categories.
The vandals’ attack on Zim’s Institute left two grand pianos in ruins. Furniture was smashed to pieces and the building was stripped of all electrical connections and plumbing. However, despite the vicious physical damage, the unknown perpetrators could not destroy the core of Ngqawana’s work: in fact, the incident is propelling him to broaden Zimology’s vision. “We are turning something negative into something positive, doing something creative in order to raise funds and rebuild.”
Ngqawana speaks of how this destructive act has brought him misery, but also a great opportunity to further the cause of the Institute. He says he is grateful to the vandals for providing the inspiration to do the impossible, quoting Sun Ra: “The possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”
“Jazz is all about moving into the unknown. This is a wonderful opportunity to improvise and go beyond the beyond, to expand our vocabulary with instruments that are not known…” He jokes wryly, speaking in the third person of himself and Shepherd in the run-up to this performance, “Don’t worry, whatever is there, they will play it.” In the film, the two pianos are played as they were found in their broken condition on the scene. Other items, including a violin and pieces of the headstock of a double bass damaged during the vandalism are also incorporated into the performance.
Kaganof’s lens captures the healing ceremony with rhythmic empathy, the chaotic intensity of the camera work and profound darkness of much of the film emphasizing the disorder, the dark violence of the crime, the sparkling pain in Zim’s eyes, the seeming senselessness of what has happened… as well as the inextinguishable light of creativity and compassion that banishes the darkness as the film progresses.
Ngqawana’s breath is a vacuum puncturing the dusty silence, pierced again by his solitary saxophone, squeals and yelps of acute, frenzied pain, an exorcism which gradually finds a more measured groove, continuing in a smoky tango with Shepherd, sombre on the overturned grand piano.
Kaganof’s camera leads a tour though the devastated premises, blurred in places, as if through tears, now jerking and whipping around in disbelief, now staring in wonder as the artists move through the building, reinhabiting each room, exploring the sounds they can coax from the wreckage.
A three stringed violin keens in the kitchen, Ngqawana and his horn reflected in the oven door by light filtering through jagged glass and violated burglar guards… A flute graces the denuded bathroom, the acoustics of the room unperturbed by any contents… The buzz and twang of snapped, raw wires, the harsh grating of what looks like a double bass headstock as Shepherd scrapes it across the floor… The two musicians, with intense focus and feeling, are gradually working these broken pieces back into coherence. A ripped out orange plastic plumbing part becomes a multi-tonal vuvuzela with zim’s lips to it, a cracked toilet cistern holds his chanting voice, gleams back his thrumming hands in the oblique rays of sun as he warms it into a new role as the rhythmic backdrop for a new music… an exquisite, jarring cacophony that carves out strange, alien planes of expression, gradually taming their emotive chaos into musical shapes that hold. The sound fills the gutted space defiantly.
Zim speaks of improvisation as total freedom from fear, spontaneity, and a willingness to go beyond the self to selflessness. Performing this music here is thus therapeutic: it recuperates the violated space and those connected to it spiritually, allowing them to move beyond fear, anger and blame. In his understanding of the incident, Ngqawana demonstrates a great well of compassion and a sense of urgency to take this healing beyond the walls of the Institute and out into wider society.
Ngqawana maintains that the full meaning of freedom, which includes freedom for humanitarian and artistic reasons, has not been realized up until now, neither globally nor, palpably, in the specific context of South Africa. He contends that superficial “independence” has confused people into believing they are free, when in reality they are still living under a “barbaric system of ignorance and prejudice” that vandalizes their hearts, souls and minds.
Zim understands the destruction wreaked on the Zimology Institute by the vandals as being the result of multiple levels of systematic impoverishment. The perpetrators’ actions are the immediate socio-economic effect of living in a unequal society dominated by materialism and money: local unemployed people are desperate to generate income by any means, which has led to the ripping out of all electrical connections, plumbing and other items saleable for scrap. However, Zim argues that the gratuitous destruction of the musical instruments hints at a deeper dimension to the malaise on a psycho-spiritual plane: the moral and spiritual bereavement of the perpetrators.
Society’s focus on discussing petty crime should be shifted to a consideration of the bigger structures at work in producing the circumstances that lead to incidents like this, Zim believes. He holds that the particularly violent nature of the crime prevalent in South Africa is the result of the sick systems of education, religion and politics that govern our lives, and that the havoc wreaked on his farm and the Institute is just one manifestation of how this dysfunctional culture breeds illness, crime and insanity. Vandalism of the soul is the most serious crime of all, he declares.
The revival of the spirit has always been central to the mandate of the Zimology Institute. “We will recover. We will be back… I sing with a sword in my hand… I sing with a sword in my hand.” Zim intones these blues by the light of a small paraffin lamp. As the words repeat, the flame is enlarging in Kaganof’s lens until it’s burning up the entire screen.
The film draws to a quietly contemplative close out in the veld, with the soft rhythm of Kyle’s traditional uhadi symbolically resuturing spirit to natural order as the morning sun creeps up toward the horizon.