Zenzi Makeba Lee and Afrika Mkhize: A Jazz Journey

Zenzi Makeba Lee in performance. Photo: Sisonke Papu.

The loyalty of jazz supporters is unquestionably one of the most inspiring aspects of the National Arts Festival. In our contemporary age of economic uncertainty, where ticket prices rise and ticket sales tumble, it is great to see jazz venues such as Saint’s Bistro (late night, every night from 10.30pm) and DSG Hall packed with people from all walks of life united in the spirit of music. This was the case for both of Zenzi Makeba Lee and Afrika Mkhize’s shows as they took their audience on a musical journey through a distinctively South African jazz sound.

Their sets began with a composition about a sangoma, Lee’s great grandmother who passed, as if to summon ancestral spirits for guidance and inspiration. This was followed by “Ngoma Nkurila” a Shangaan and VhaVenda song composed by Bongi Makeba, Lee’s late mother and only daughter to Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba. The synergy between pianist Mkhize and vocalist-composer Lee was amazing.

Even though most of the repertoire was a selection from songs made famous by Mama Africa, the way in which they were rendered was in such a manner that Lee’s personality and graceful nature stood out. From vintage jazz tunes to Sophiatown vibes, Lee’s vocal performance displayed skill and versatility, proving this artist to be one of South Africa’s most valuable musical custodians.

Mkhize’s revealingly subtle piano arrangement complimented her vocals – the song “Ingwe Emabala” highlighting a revolutionary era in African music, bringing amagwijo together with just enough sophisticated classical influences for international audiences.

However, it wasn’t until Kwame Mkhize lit the stage with his voice that the crowd got up and started moving to the music. This young boy shook the house with his performance, an affirmation that music is indeed heritage.

Having performed some of the most recognizable and loved standards in the country such as “Malaika”, “Jolinkomo” and “Pata Pata”, it would have also been nice to see the crowd participate more in the call-and-response tradition. Nonetheless, attendance in itself is a way people express their appreciation for the art.

Every band member exhibited mastery in their craft; Michael Phillips on bass, Leagan Breda on drums, and Lindelani Lee whose percussive rhythms sound as ceremonial as those of the legendary Mabi Thobejane (who famously played with Dr Philip Tabane).

Such rare moments of pure music appreciation are a testimony to the ongoing quality the Standard Bank Jazz Festival continues to showcase each year.

By Pura Lavisa