Kyle Shepherd: Paris, Japan and the place of sweet waters

SA Music Award multiple nominee Kyle Shepherd returns from tours of Japan and Europe, and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, to play trio gigs in Cape Town before returning to France to premier a compositional commission, “Xamissa“, a socio-historical sound-sketch of Cape Town.

Ference Isaacs Courtesy

Ference Isaacs Courtesy

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus Good Weekend of 2013/05/27.

At just 26 years old, Mowbray-born pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd spent 2012 growing his international reputation and touring his third album, “South African History !X“. The album was nominated for a South African Music Award for Jazz and saw the young player hailed by one Canadian critic as “grounded in the myriad and compelling sounds of his homeland, but [with] a personal stamp on his art and an awareness of jazz beyond South Africa” (Peter It as also the end of a trio of exploratory and historical pieces that Shepherd began with “fineART” (2009) and “A Portrait of Home” (2010).

‘”South African History !X” was the end of something; now there is a new stage.’

– Kyle Shepherd

“A lot of people have taken to that last record, and I am very thankful that people people understood the concept of it,” he says of “South African History !X” from his home in Landsdowne. “It’s the best I could also for; people listening to it, and people still discovering it now.  I’m very happy that in whatever small way, or bog way, this music provided that. In many ways, it rounded off a stage of development where I was exploring the history and traditional music from Africa and South Africa. On one hand, the first three albums paid homage, and on another they looked at bringing that music up to speed for a contemporary ear. Since their release, I feel I have rounded off that stage of my development, and now I can take it into another stage. It was the end of something; now there is a new stage.”

In September and October last year, part of this new stage saw Shepherd taking time off a tour of Japan to record a solo piano album in Miyawaka City, outside Fukoaka on northern Kyushu.

“I was happy to record that kind of work, on that kind of place,” says Shepherd. “It was all music I had composed before the session, and some improvised pieces I made up there; recorded in a very rural part of Japan, in the mountains. It was supported by someone in Japan who love the music, and we hope to release it in the last part of this year. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it could happen this way – it’s quite surprising and quite encouraging. They are quite a reserved type of personality generally, so the way they receive the music is not outwardly jubilant,” he says. “But I do find their ears are very big and very open, and I get the sense they feel the music in a very deep emotional way. I guess that must be it, because after two years, I find myself booked there for another tour.”

“It’s called ‘Xamissa‘, which means ‘place of sweet waters’, and is the original name for the Cape Town CBD area that the Khoi and the San used to call it, so it seems quite fitting.”

– Kyle Shepherd on his commission for Festival d’Automne à Paris in France

Shepherd will return to Japan and China in October and November of 2013 but, before then, it is off to France for the three-month long Festival d’Automne à Paris, who have commissioned a work from him, which will be premiered in Paris in September.

“It is a sound movement of Cape Town; in many ways a cultural piece,” says Shepherd. “I was attracted to the idea because it was right in line with how I was thinking in the first part of my career, so I thought, ‘Why not create something like that according to the commission they briefed?’ It features the Fazeka Youth Choir, four singers from Langa – really powerful singers, really beautiful – an Claude Cozens on drums, Buddy Wells playing saxophone and myself on piano and mouth bow. It’s called ‘Xamissa‘, which means ‘place of sweet waters’, and is the original name for the Cape Town CBD area that the Khoi and the San used to call it, so it seems quite fitting. It’s a 60 or 70 minute long piece, with all these images that make up our city. I’m hoping to perform it at least once in a place like Artscape, but support has been slow. I think it might be the usual case that i has to be performed first in Paris before people here want to see it – but that’s the way things work.”

Nudged into commenting further on this odd facet of being a South African artist, Shepherd admits that he has been musing on the anomaly. “I was thinking about that: in terms of the amount of concerts that I play, I actually have been working more overseas than in South Africa. It seems really bizarre, but it’s not just in my case. In South Africa, we have such a big following in some places, yet we don’t have the concerts, or the places to play. Touring is a necessity because, as a musician and a composer and an improviser, that’s what I have to do to stay spiritually alive – and we can make a more substantial living that way.”

* Kyle Shepherd plays with his trio – bassist Shane Cooper (Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Jazz) and drummer Jonno Sweetman – on Friday 31 May and Saturday 1 June at The Mahogany Room (79 Buitenkant St, Cape Town, shows 8pm and 10pm, R60 each or R100 for both (students R40/R70), cash only; reservations essential 076 6792697; More on

* “Xamissa” will premier at Festival d’Automne à Paris, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, France, on 25 September 2013.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus Good Weekend of 2013/05/27.


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