Xonti’s “Iyonde”: broadening jazz’s cultural centre

Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti leads performance of songs from his debut album “Iyonde” at the DSG Auditorium during the performance of “Iyonde” at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

Providing a response to the proposed policy shift, of making history a compulsory subject for school children, an academic proposed educating students on iziduko/izithakazelo – the praises sung of our families, which bind us to broader social structures than the “nuclear family”.

Ahead of the curve, Xonti’s debut album Iyonde, locates the law graduate turned musician among a cohort of “friends and musical comrades” working to broaden the cultural centre of South African jazz.

“It’s never too late to become what you might have been” – a quote from author George Eliot (well acquainted with the importance of names) used to introduce Xonti’s performance of music from his 10 track debut album.

From the album’s opening track “Gaba”, Xonti having located himself and his musical intentions, led the audience to some “Introspection” with a stop at “15 Sandile Str.” – the latter, inspired by the alternative sounds Xonti and a childhood friend gravitated towards.

“We were those kids in the township” described Xonti of their affinity for the music of Nirvana and Linkin Park. This came through strongly in the rock-flavoured play from Keenan Ahrends (guitar), Bokani Dyer (piano), and Marlon Witbooi (drums). Shane Cooper kept the rhythm going on upright bass.

A short lived taste of the album’s title track “Iyonde”(composed by Xonti and SBYA award winner for 2018 Thandi Ntuli) had Xonti centre of stage, blowing the tune’s refrain. A melody with conversational tone, the refrain (and its delivery) are a convincing argument delivered with unassuming confidence.

The naked sound of it, winding through the chamber of the saxophone, guided by nifty fingerwork, and unclothed by the other instruments, the powerful second track on the album was given due prominence in the set. It was far too short.

Like the neatly curated ten track disc, better to make a definitive statement that leaves us wanting more. We got a bit more – “Bonisile” inspired by Xonti’s late uncle, who played the role of supportive family member at the young players early performances. This tune signalled the introduction of vocals from Spha Mdlalose.

To hear Xonti tell it, Mdlalose an old colleague from his school days, denied his requests for “friendship status”. With the way that Mdlalose’s soulful vocals envelop the compositions, I’d say his “friendship request” has been accepted, and that many a post has been liked and shared.

Back to the music, there isn’t much to say beyond “it all sounded as good as I’d expected”. A bit more and I might add that Mdlalose’s social media handle @spahkling is a moniker she lives up to – the live performance of “Is this Goodbye?” (written by Mdlalose and Xonti) sparkles.

Having reached the end of these afterthoughts without too many bad legal puns, the conclusion is that the only matter which might be under sub-judice is the staging of the performance.

With so much substance delivered, the performance could’ve sparkled with a bit more style. Maybe a bit more liberty taken with the arrangements?

To call on the much-referenced Miles Davis, when asked what he read as signs of a potential collaborator, Davis answered “the first thing I look at is carriage – what he wears, how he talks, how he walks, and the way he picks up the instrument…they pick it up like it’s an extension of their body”.

By Mandisa Mpulo