I arrive ten minutes late for Don Laka’s show, at the tail-end of his first song. Worried I wouldn’t get a seat, my fears are abated when I see a few empty seats sprinkled around the venue. It’s amazing to me that one of the most important living pianists in South Africa is just barely filling up a show. Nonetheless, the sonic adventure he provides makes up for this slightly-above-lukewarm reception of Laka by Festival audiences.
Don Laka performs at the DSG Hall in Grahamstown on 10 July 2015 at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Laka has been a performer, composer and producer for nearly four decades. (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)
Laka is a virtuoso. He is also no stranger to subtlety. He not so much presses the keys on the piano as caresses them, on occasion gliding across the keys as if looking for something, knocking on doors to find it. The way he positions himself on stage offers few direct views of the master at work, no matter where you are in the room.
Still, you’re not here to watch him caress the ivories. The music is transcendent. Laka is a soothsayer and the piano is his calling card, as he summons the spirit of jazz to rain down on the venue. It obliges him.
By the time he reaches his third number, Laka is in a forceful mood, playing himself off of his seat, swaying in tandem with the rest of the band. It’s unexpected, because listening to a Laka recording, you never fully appreciate how heavy and drumanchored his music is. When you see him live, the picture comes into focus. I hear the drunk couple next to me – who until then had been chatting up a storm and fiddling on their phones – gasp simultaneously.
Not afraid to appropriate, Laka picks different fruits from jazz’s fertile tree throughout his set. And tonight is a full course, featuring seemingly everything from his widely-steeped repertoire: from marabi to kwai-jazz and Afro-pop. By the time he shuts down, we are in funk-a-delic territory and, despite having more than our fill, we want more.
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