Featured Hitting through the hiccups

Hitting through the hiccups

I was highly critical last year of the Standard Bank Jazz and Blues Café venue. It was an acoustic disaster, and had zero atmosphere. Reassured that this year’s venue (Saints Bistro in High St) was a very different story, I ventured forth on Thursday night to hear a quartet of Eastern Cape musicians pay tribute to our South African jazz heritage. I was, I must confess, familiar with only one of the musicians: trumpeter/ flugelhorn player, Sikhele Simani, and that only recently, when he impressed with his beautiful sound and good taste in Siya Makuzeni’s band at DSG Hall. (Drummer Lloyd Martin was not originally billed in the NAF printed programme).

Lulama Gawulana performs with South African Jazz Classics at the Standard bank jazz café venue in Grahamstown on 9 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Gawulana was joined on stage by Sakhile Simani on trumpet and Donné Dowlman on bass guitar. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

The chaotic front-of-house set-up did not augur well. The problem is that the venue operates as a restaurant up to 10pm, and thereafter becomes the Standard Bank Jazz and Blues Café. Thus each patron – whether there for food or jazz or both – needs to be told how it all works. In the street in the meantime, we’re freezing our butts off. Once in, I head for the few rows of chairs laid out in front of the stage and, after some confusion, manage to order a well-priced, tasty calamari plate with an excellent glass of sauvignon blanc.

When the young MC (I’m told this is his very first gig, and he does better than some I’ve experienced) announces that those who don’t have a ticket or wish to buy one will need to leave or move to the back of the venue, some vanish into the night, among them writer Mike van Graan and Market Theatre director James Ngcobo. The music begins. And the acoustics are great! However, the distant conversation buzz of the banished mingles with the closer chatter from customers who have paid for the music, the makers of which have enough to contend with: Lulama Gawulana’s guitar amp begins to emit unpleasant sounds on their fourth tune. Chief sound engineer Les van der Veen tries to rectify the problem as the musicians soldier on but to no avail; Festival Director Alan Webster’s in the house; he leaves the house to seek reinforcements. Eventually, a replacement instrument is found, and the music continues, although the second guitar also makes some dodgy sounds towards the end of the set. Gawulana responds by playing it behind his back!

It has to be said that a ten-minute hiatus with no announcement or acknowledgment is as disrespectful to the audience as the chatterers are to the musicians. My own enjoyment is also impaired by my neighbours, who, variously, stomp the floor, punctuate solos with “woo woo”s, use cellphones, keep questionable time by pounding into the back of my chair, etc.

Yes, but what of the music, you say? Simani and his mentor Gawulana make truly lovely music together, the latter sounding a little like an Eastern Province version of the late Allen Kwela; African harmonies combine with a solid sense of US jazz heritage. Drummer Martin and electric bassist Donné Dowlman provide solid support and are given a small space to shine in the last tune, a second composition by Hotep Idris Galeta. Other composers who are featured are the infrequently-honoured Duke Makasi (Baby, I Don’t Know), Abdullah Ibrahim (Mandela and Tsakwe-Royal Blue) and the Eastern Cape composer of the lovely Ntyilo Ntyilo, Alan (or Allan) Silinga. The band plays a respectful version, with little improvisation, straight after the unscheduled interval.

The band is positioned in front of a large window. As a questionable bonus we get a backdrop of High Street at night with curious passers-by peering in and even pointing. Who needs virtual reality?

This quartet has another gig tonight at 10pm. Hopefully, the technical gremlins will have departed along with the chatterers and you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy some good late night music. Even though this venue is obviously meant to be more relaxed than the DSG Hall/Auditorium venues, the musicians and other audience members still need to be respected. If you go tonight, switch off your cellphone, shut up and listen. You should be amply rewarded.

Nigel Vermaas
Cue specialist writer

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