Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The vision, talent and inspiration of jazz giant Zim Ngqawana lives on

Zim Ngqawana has certainly left his mark. Reports in the media this week referred to him as a genius. His son, Ludwe, drafting the press statement, referred to him as an icon. These superlatives are no exaggeration; Zim was a professional musician of note   one who operated in the world as if he had a clear mission and a singular calling.

On 9 May 2011 Zim played his beloved instruments for the last time. Rehearsing at his Johannesburg home for a forthcoming gig, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he died the next day from effects of a stroke.

Saxophonist, flautist and composer extraordinaire, Zim was highly talented and inventive, creating distinctive sounds and boldly combining various styles of jazz. Musically he was a visionary. He was always pushing the boundaries, trying to go beyond what he created before and frequently fusing indigenous sounds with stylistic elements from the canon of western jazz. He never patronised his audiences, always believing in their capacity to appreciate the avant garde.

He not only played music for his and other’s enjoyment, music for him was a meditative space. Through it, he seemingly strove to reach a deeper core of human existence. Many of those who listened to him came to appreciate this, and turned up at his gigs with a fitting mindset. Others did not quite get this, sometimes causing Zim frustration as he played. They did not get that he wanted music to be approached with a certain reflectiveness, that his stage could be seen as an altar that could help life-weary listeners enter a sacred space (even if that place was the space within). It’s not that he opposed people having a beer or scotch in the venues where he played; but he did hate it when a venue was like a bar-room, when excessive drinking and raucous banter superseded the listening.

Zim had many visions (some might even say lofty ones) for his music. This is why he called it Zimology – he saw it as an approach, a way of thinking and a way of being in culture. Music to him was part of a journey of spiritual discovery he was undertaking. In radio interviews, questioned about his music, he found an incredible articulateness about the meaning of his music. Tapping into his inner core, he spoke wisely about the deeper sources and meanings of music.

I haven’t seen him much in recent months, but in earlier times   a few years back   he was driven by a need to try to create a physical home for Zimilogy. He dreamed of establishing a renowned jazz club cum rehearsal space cum academy. He identified certain buildings/venues and submitted offers or expressions of interest, but nothing came of this. He bought a farm in Walkerville and some wonderfully crazy, creative and collaborative things happened there. But this venue never really took off in a big way. The dream of a special and spectacular 'space' always eluded him, slipping through his fingers.

Zim established two organisations to carry his vision, the Zimology Institute and the Zimology Development Institute (Zimdi). Zimdi expressed his commitment to young artists and was meant to be the forerunner of the major academy he dreamed of. There were debates about how much the work of Zimdi would be structured and how much would be a kind of loose mentorship based on the idea that the protégé would learn from spending time with, observing and listening to the Master. Numerous young artists   rough diamonds   were nurtured and honed by Zim, and have emerged as accomplished musicians in their own right. Zim was by nature a person constantly generating knowledge, thinking and insights. With the exception perhaps of jamming with fellow jazz musicians, he liked nothing better than sitting in a lounge or a kitchen talking, reflecting and discussing. These discussions covered views of life, culture and, as often lately, existential questions.

Zim achieved greatness in seemingly deft and clearguided ways; but much of it was underpinned by relentless hard work. He won many awards and played with renowned jazz musicians across the world. He netted a slew of SAMA awards and, early on, was hailed as the brightest and most exciting young jazz artist in Mzansi. He featured as a solo saxophonist at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.

But lately things for Zim began to move to a certain point – a decidedly downward turn. His health took a dip when he had more than one minor stroke in the last three years. His farm was vandalized and a grand piano senselessly damaged. As is the case for most jazz musicians, it was a struggle to ensure strong and steady income streams from his work. He saw his dream of establishing an iconic jazz club and successful academy wither, thanks to closed doors on the part of financial institutions and myopic vision from relevant public bodies. His mood became sombre and sometimes depressed, and in an interview just after he turned 50, he made a point of discussing his mortality. Latterly, he even began to wonder if jazz would ever get its place in the sun and be properly appreciated in our society. He seemed to be overcome by a weariness and he told one friend days before his untimely death that he was overwhelmed and another that he needed rest.

At his funeral on 10 May, a rainy evening, scores of people packed his home to say their final farewells. Although there were many musicians present, there was no sound of a musical instrument to be heard. Even at the graveside, there seemed to be a sombreness. We should have been celebrating an icon, remembering him with bold brassy sounds and vibrant vocals; instead the mood and much of the discussion between mourners was pensive and somewhat downbeat. Perhaps it was just the rain and the mud and the piles of slippery brown leaves on the roadway and the verges. Perhaps and more likely, it was the huge sense of loss – our realization that, even though Zim would be with us in so many ways thereafter, we would not see him play on stage again, at one with the sound being created and, simultaneously, profoundly connected with those present.

One thing is for sure: the greatness, the inventiveness and the pioneer spirit that is Zim will live on in the ouvre of great works he produced, and in the hearts of his numerous followers. He was a grand master of his game, and has laid down tracks and planted signposts that will influence jazz for many many decades to come. I honour him – go well, anointed one ....

(Please feel free to add your views in the comment box).

1 comment:

Dwelu said...

Thank you Bra Frank it is a wonderful piece and I am sure Zim is smiling. I remember those meetings we used to have at Zaide's house mapping out the establishment of the organizations and also looking for the spaces.... *sigh*