Andile Yenana: Umnqgonqgo Wabantu

Andile Yenana. Photo: supplied/NAF

“The project features arrangements of Xhosa initiation songs worked into jazz-inspired sensibilities and pulses, all the while celebrating free and boundless improvisation” – reads the #ART_IS MY JAZZ festival blurb.

The late Zim Ngqawana, the purveyor of “Zimology”, was not a man to just play music. Nor is Andile Yenana, his longtime pianist, not at his centre. South African jazz is not just about playing outward, but also inward. As Ngqawana philosophised: ‘Innertainment’ as much as it is entertainment.

With that in mind, the soul is where the beat begins, with no agency or forethought. Yenana starts off with a strong intro. That piano is not to be trifled with. It cuts through the air and it declares his presence. Slight crackling on the mic, but nothing that detracts from that piercing sound reaching the audience.

From then on in, It’s all on the fly. Improvisation is a treacherous venture and Yenana is not afraid to take that path. To his credit, he undertakes this with an impressive level of confidence and charisma. He is also not the only talent on stage that travels with him. Marcus Wyatt, Linda Sikhakhane, and Kyle du Preez with their respective brass instruments add weighting to this hour of improvisation, particularly Sikhakhane on his tenor sax. He plays a very fine line between subtlety and established projection. You can definitely hear him, yet he always remains unexpected.

An hour of improv looking to combine the defining traits of jazz with the local, more sensitive side of cultural Xhosa tradition. What does this amount to?

In all respect, a confusing and slow journey with no definite destination.

You can play fast and loose with melody, but you cannot omit it. In fact, with what Yenana set out to do, one would think that it would be to his detriment to do so. Leading this group of talented people, the structure is all over the place, leading to a performance that is all very good buildup, but little to no payoff. Everything ceases when the base tune has run it’s length. That talent is also wasted on theme that has not been clearly established. Improvisation compromises pacing. the desire to play music transforms into a necessity to keep piling the notes, resulting in a cluttered and flat tone.

Proportional sound is also an issue. Yenana, drummer Michi Stulz, and bassist Christoph King-Utzinger were what I could hear most clearly, with the brass instruments seeming to play second-fiddle to them. In the case of Yenana, it would make sense, but then you have an amazing talent such as King-Utzinger who is given very little to do. I wanted some more of that, please. Stulz is also not to be overlooked. He produces a full-bodied sound. Whatever structure there is to be found in this gig, it’s coming from him.

Umnqgonqgo Wabantu seems to be gunning for a more emotional discovery than it is technical. All well and good, but a greater priority must be placed on substance in order to elicit a reaction. The reactions varied. I know some people left in the middle of the show. It doesn’t sound good for everyone. Yenana’s ambition is compatible with his talent, but it is undermined by a botched execution of a performance.

By Sam Spiller