Sunday, March 9, 2008

For the beauty of the earth

So I am here. We are here. At the same time, in the same place. There are no words.

It is summer in South Africa, and this week it felt and smelled it. The smell of summer is the grass baking. We had a few days in a row of 90 degrees in the shade, followed by cool evenings and walks to get ice cream and mountain hikes at sunset and music late at night.

There is a fantastic jazz jam out in Ottery at a place called Swingers every Monday night that totally impressed me. This week, the crowd was full and eager to listen. The screaming house band, led by Alvin Dyers, really set the standard. Then they stepped down and offered the stage to other players to sit in. And then they came, drummers and guitarists and bassists and hornists all - droves and droves of young players, each with his own developing sound and something different to say. Donald Byrd once told our class, "You play one note, I can tell you your whole life story, everything you been through up till now." And you really do get to know people that way, listening to them and playing with them. Highlights included a great pianist from Durban working on his Masters in Music at UCT, a drummer from New Orleans (though Canadian) also studying there... And these pick-up groups, sometimes made up of 100 percent people who had never played together before, were tight. And that is a jazz community.

I have two major projects at the moment, one being a great young sax player from Mozambique called Ivan Mazuze, who I sat in with on Friday night. I met him at an improvised music festival last weekend - an incredible event featuring several free improv groups from around town. Ivan's group included a really intelligent-sounding guitarist from Norway and a crazy drummer who played things backwards and dropped cymbals on the floor. Another favorite was saxophonist Mark Fransman's group - probably the most melodic of all the groups - which really brought out Mark's strengths as a free soloist with his long, meandering, lyrical lines. Hopefully plans to talk with Mark will come together later.

My other project is working with Cape Town's composer laureate Mac McKenzie. He was on my list of people to find, and I found him playing guitar one morning at the District Six museum. So I introduced myself and we had tea and started to talk. He is really determined to create a place for the creative musicians in Cape Town - those who make their own music, rather than playing standards or covers. There has been too much aping, too much imitation of Western music among South African musicians, he says. He began teaching Andy and I some of his compositions. Mac is militantly original, and has received a grant from the Swiss government to build a composer's workshop in his backyard. He is currently clearing the ground for the foundation. His enthusiasm for the project is incredible and untiring. Our periodic practice sessions are often interrupted by deliveries of concrete and questions from builders. When Mac needs a break from music, he goes out in the back and turns earth for a few hours. "Sometimes your instrument is the spade," he said.

We hiked Table Mountain yesterday, an exhausting, totally rewarding adventure. I've never seen anything so beautiful as these green mountains dropping down into the little towns nestled by the sea. But my knees may never forgive me. We started out at noon; then it took us about four hours to reach the top, and probably three more down the other side. Getting back to our car where we started was an adventure, but it worked out in the end. Below is the mountain with mist settling on it, seen from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where we've also been spending a lot of time - especially at their sunset concerts. It is bad to be on the mountain when the mist comes. But we were lucky and had a gorgeous day.

I am up too early, as Andy is off to cycle the Cape Argus race today. This one is for moving slowly, drinking tea, making cookies.