17 October 2010

Jamming in Daveyton

“These schools should be all over the cities, all over the townships - they will change people’s lives” enthuses Dr Johnny Mekoa, noted jazz musician and founder of the Music Academy of Gauteng, as we walk towards the newly constructed home for the school.

Since opening in 1994, the academy has helped to produce some of South Africa’s most exciting Jazz talent. ‘Even when we were housed in a small, windowless building because that’s all we could afford, we were producing musicians that could hold their own on the world stage,” he says with pride, as he goes on to list some of the famous jazz musicians who’ve passed through the school.

The centre is located in Daveyton one of South Africa’s townships where money is scarce and many of the student’s wouldn’t have other opportunities to develop their talent. “I’ve been working with talent for over 50 years. You find a rough diamond, and you don’t even need to cut it - you just clean it up,” he enthuses.

In the background, the sound of students rehearsing speaks for itself. They’re warming up for Ravi Coltrane - who’s giving a workshop at the academy as part of the annual Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival. Leaving Johnny to wait for Ravi’s arrival, I follow the sound of the music into a hall filled with about 50 young musicians, eager to talk to them about their career choice and what they’re expecting from Ravi.

“I just fell in love with the sound of the saxophone,” says Thembi Nhlapo, “although the first time I picked one up I couldn’t get a sound out of it,” she laughs. She’s excited about what she’ll learn from the workshop. “To be honest, I don’t want to hear his speak - I just want him to play,” she says.

In due course, Ravi arrives. As if sensing the mood in the room, he unpacks his sax and, before he says anything, begins to play to a hugely appreciative audience. And then he talks a bit - about himself, John Coltrane his father’s, influence on him - and about jazz. “It’s like one big conversation,” he says. And then he plays some more, with some talented young musicians joining him and his band on stage to everyone’s delight.

As I listen to this conversation, I get what Ravi was saying, and what Thembi instinctively knows. Jazz is a conversation between members of the band themselves, but it’s also much bigger than that. It’s a conversation between Africa and the west, between the past and the present, the young and the old, the audience and each aspiring musician. The talent here in South Africa speaks for itself and I’m really excited to hear more of what it has to say!

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