Fronted by jazz diva Emily Bruce, the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra takes time off educational workshops to play Cape Town’s city centre for the inaugural Ubuntu Festival – and Mandela Day.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 4/5 July 2009.
The inaugural Ubuntu Festival aims to “create massive awareness around the adoption of an ‘ubuntu’ code of conduct as a solution to the intolerance and ignorance which exists amongst many people”. It is the brainchild of the South African Ubuntu Foundation, who hope that a greater sense of “ubuntu” – the consciousness that one is a person through other people – will help South Africans to embrace transformation and change, and make positive contributions to society and to understanding their fellow citizens. The management of Mandela Rhodes Place have developed the festival as a not for profit benefiting the Ubuntu Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
“The Cape Town Jazz Orchestra is really something very special,” says Emily Bruce between rehearsals for the Mandela Day performances and her other projects. “It has come such a long way since it was launched by the Minister (Pallo Jordan, then Minister of Arts and Culture), and the musicians are so talented.” She pauses and then adds, “You also can’t go wrong under the leadership of Alvin Dyers – he has turned a group of young people into a dynamic musical force, and grown the repertoire to include jazz standards and South African standards that have been arranged specifically for the Orchestra.”
Bruce, who is a popular professional singer, is also delighted that this CTJO outing can include her – much of the Orchestra’s work sees it building on the success of last year’s Breede River and Winelands tours, and travelling to rural areas for performances and workshops. “I’m stoked,” she grins, “We don’t often have these city gigs that include me – the last time was the big concerts at Artscape. I’m a busy working professional, so they call me in for the special selected performances, and I’m honoured to be part of this project. There are so many wonderful singers in Cape Town, and when Alvin called, I just though, ‘Yay, they’re asking for me!’ I usually work in a trio or combo situation, so the Orchestra has really opened up my headspace. Also, I’m excited to be part of Madiba’s birthday celebrations – that, in itself, is a great honour.”
The CTJO plays as part of the “Amarula Spirit of Jazz Jamming Seasons” component of the Ubuntu Festival, and indoor extravaganza of artists which includes veteran Cape jazz reed-man and vocalist Robbie Jansen, goema and world rhythm bassist Spencer Mbadu, pianist and composer Mervyn Africa (who was invited to play solo piano for then President Thabo Mbeki at a performance for Queen Elizabeth II), master guitarist and Tananas co-founder Steve Newman, Cape jazz master guitarist Errol Dyers, SAMA Best R’nB winner Claire Phillips (“Say My Name”), multi-instrumentalist and “penthouse goema” co-creator Hilton Schilder, Afro-meets-classical-meets-electronic ensemble Coda and musical mover-shaker John Pretorius, amongst others.
The Ubuntu Festival also features a free outdoor concert on St George’s Mall, featuring Coda, Guguletu Tenors, 3 Tons of Fun, Darren Green, Khoi Khonnexion, SA Navy Band, Lynne Holmes, Yusuf Ganief and Desert Rose Music, Jimmy Dludlu, Natalia Da Rocha and “Waar was Djy”, Hessel Van Der Walt, Dance 4 All, Amy Biehl Musicians & Dancers, Nants’Inqgqayi youth performers, The Rockets Frankie & the Rabbits featuring Monique Hellenberg amongst others, and a programme of workshops and seminars to explore the practical implications of ubuntu as a philosophy in the workplace. The workshops (13 to 16 July), aimed at corporates and employees, use comedy, industrial theatre, story-telling and life-skills interaction to “provide tools to cope with ‘cultural/generation clashes’ within the workplace… with a view to increasing levels of tolerance and acceptance of change”. The seminar (Friday 17 July) targets business owners and corporate executives to discuss the ubuntu and the challenge of establishing good corporate citizenship with speakers Mfuniselwa J Bhengu, author of “Ubuntu: The global philosophy for mankind” and Dr Mamphele Ramphele, amongst others.
For Bruce, the CTJO is more than just a collection of musicians with a mandate to take jazz to the people, especially in rural areas. “It is wonderful to work with Alvin and Jai (Reddy) – they are like father figures. They’re like the uncles you always wished you had, who can assist with so many things, from music to career tips to things about personal growth. Even though I am considered a professional musician, I am still a young person, and I look to them for guidance. Musically, they are also so approachable. We’ll be rehearsing something and I’ll talk to Alvin afterwards and say, ‘I was wondering about doing it like this…’ Then, at the next rehearsal, somehow he has found the time to write new parts for the orchestra. It is such a privilege to work with these musicians.”
Bruce is also working on a tribute to jazz singer Billie Holiday, and a new project that sees her step out of her usual jazz beat. “It’s fifty years since Billie died, and the tribute was another amazing opportunity, offered to me by Cliff Wallace, who runs the Nassau Jazz series,” says Bruce. “We’ve been doing a lot of research to work out a specially selected and fantastic repertoire that really shows Billie’s music.” The new project is called Free Quincy (pronounce it “frequency”) with singer, songwriter and composer Gershon Naidoo (Nukphonik). “It’s a mixture of acid-house, and rock with a fun groove; but with a stronger message,” says Bruce. “Jazz will always be my first love and my first passion, but it has been interesting and challenging to play this music, which might seem less complicated. We’re having fun with it; when we play it, it creates a buzz. But these aren’t just pointless songs about ‘You can call me’ or ‘Do you love her’. They are about finding balance in life, with messages about relationships and people and life, but over an extremely awesome collection of beats with happening bass and amazing guitar.”
Internationally, Mandela Day concerts have grown out of the inaugural 46664 concerts to “celebrate the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world and the ability to make a positive imprint”. This year’s concert at Radio City in New York sees Jesse Clegg, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Freshlyground, Sipho Mabuse, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Chris Chameleon, Thandiswa Mazwai and Loyiso, amongst others, playing with a start-studded cast that includes Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Will.i.am, Gloria Gaynor, Aretha Franklin, Baaba Maal and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
The Ubuntu Festival outdoor concert is from 10am to 6pm on the upper stretch of St George’s Mall on Saturday and Sunday, 18 and 19 July. Emily Bruce and the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra play the“Amarula Spirit of Jazz Jamming Seasons” to commemorate Madiba’s birthday on Saturday 18 July, and also on Sunday 19 July (Rainbow Room, Mandela Rhodes Place, St George’s Mall, 2 to 6pm, R75). Booking advised on 021 4814000 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Details of workshops and seminar from the same contact numbers. More on MandelaDay.com, SAUbuntu.co.zaand MandelaRhodesPlace.co.za. Emily Bruce performs the Billie Holiday tribute at the Nassau Centre on Sunday 12 July (Groote Schuur High School, Palmyra Rd, Rondebosch; details 021 7612726).