Interview With Kyle Shepherd

At 21 years old, Kyle Shepherd burst into the South African jazz conscience without prior warning. Following in the footsteps of heavyweights such as Marcus Wyatt, Andile Yenana, and Zim Ngqawana (whom he would collaborate with in future), Shepherd demonstrably proved that he is a presence worthy of reckoning. A couple of years down the line, coupled with culturally-fulfilling work and collaborative social exploits with the likes of filmmaker Dylan Valley (Afrikaaps), as well as Aryan Kaganof and the late Zim Ngqawana on “Exhibition of Vandalism”, we sat down to discuss identity, journeying through sound, culture, and survival in contemporary South African society.

What is the significance, time-wise, of your new project “South African History !X”?

I’ve for a long time been interested in the history of South Africa, and the history of my ancestry and lineage, and trying to understand it. And also trying to uncover the truth behind it because, as you know, a large part of our history – especially the history of people of colour in this country – has been supressed and buried alive in many ways. So I’ve been trying to uncover it in an attempt to just know myself and understand myself, and understand our country as a whole. And I’m still on that mission; it’s proving to be quite difficult because these things are pushed so deep. I wanted to create an album because it is a document that sort of throws it in time forever; I wanted to create an album that is dedicated to that history and uncovering that history

It definitely is not an easy thing, but do you feel that with this album you have begun the journey to re-discover the history of the First People of the land?

Well, I don’t think one album of music can do the history of the First Nation people or the ‘indigenous people’ any justice, but it’s my humble attempt at acknowledging the respect I have for the history.  There’s only so much you can do in an album because it’s also still a musical statement, with some non-musical meaning attached to it. So it’s really just my humble attempt at bringing to light these historical things and paying my respect to the traditions.

So how do you decide on the balance between making a socio-political and cultural statement, and going all-out as a composer?

Well, each album is a world unto its own, so this album is kind of like a concept album, but it isn’t, the reason being that I never really set out to compose music according to this concept. I compose all the time, so I’m never composing with an album in mind. But once the compositions are there, and once I come up with an idea for the album, I choose compositions that suit the idea. With this album the concept really came later. I have this fantasy that there are certain messages, and with this album it’s this historical interest. The hope is that people who are attracted to the music might pick the album up, enjoy it, be moved by the music, and then also take time to think about the title. So the music serves a greater purpose.

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You have the likes of Zim Ngqawana and Buddy Wells on the album. Being that you are part of the more ‘current’ generation of jazz cats, how important was it to bring that side of the lineage – the not-so-old, but not-really-new either – into the fold?

For me, it was a great honour to have a great master on one of my albums. Not long after he recorded with me, he unfortunately passed away. He only plays on one track, but the importance of that to me is indescribable. I’ve spent a lot of time with him, travelled and played with him, and learnt so much from him. I can’t think of a better way to honour my relationship with him than to have him play on the album.  It’s one thing to play live; it’s great, and that’s that moment. But the beauty of an album is that it’s a certain moment that will be frozen in time forever. I’m so deeply honoured to have Zim on this work, for my own relationship with him, but also for music in this country in general. As for Buddy Wells, I have specific reasons why I  play with the musicians I play with, and Buddy’s somebody I’ve played  with on my first album, and it’s been years now that we’ve been  playing together. I love his playing style and his sensitivity and musicality. I think I’ll play with him for a long time. You find certain musicians that you connect with; I don’t really like to chop and change musicians. I like to play with the people I play with for very specific reasons. They give me what I want, but they also inspire me in many ways, and I really dig their musicality.

True. And everytime we see you, it’s always the core set-up of Jono Sweetman on drums and Shane Cooper on bass…

I really believe in honest connections. The truth is we don’t connect with everyone. If there are ten bass players in Cape Town, you may connect with only one. And I have connected with them, we work well together, and I really appreciate what they do with me, and what they do outside.

Can you just explore the concept of music as a process of healing, especially after being involved in bra Zim Ngqawana’s “Exhibition of Vandalism” project? What did you learn from that experience?

Zim was – it sounds like a paradox – but he was a warrior of healing.  Everything he did was in line with that. A jazz musician who is dedicated to true creativity and to depth in music, and to spirituality in music, finds it very hard to function in this world of ours. So whenever we play, it is an attempt at healing, for ourselves firstly. If that is achieved in the self, then for the people listening as well. So the “Exhibition of Vandalism”, although it was a very painful experience…I mean, I spent some months at this Institute of Zimology that they vandalised, and it was so painful to see the place in tatters. I credit it to Zim’s creative genius that he came up with the performance art piece that we did, and used what happened to create something. He could have sat back and did quite a few interviews on TV; he could have spoken about the problems in South Africa, complained, and attacked people. But instead he understood the process, and he created something.

So out of the pain…

…comes creation, yes. And it shows you what his dedication was, his dedication was to creativity.

Now, take us through the experiences you had working with Dylan Valley on the Afrikaaps project. What types of experiences did you have, and how was it touring with that outfit? Did you feel that people ‘got it’?

I think in Cape Town people definitely got it, and I got to see how people were moved by it, and also how people were liberated by that information. Because here in Cape Town you have this group of people who speak Afrikaans, but for such a long time were made to think that they were instrumental in Apartheid because they speak Afrikaans. And that was the misconception of Afrikaans, that it was a tool of Apartheid – and it eventually was because the National Party used it.  But in Afrikaaps we trace the history and we realise that it’s actually a language of the people. I know in the rest of the country there’s still this negative outlook on the language, but I found that Cape Townians who speak the language and watched the show were incredibly liberated. Because here we were saying ‘listen, it’s okay’, and we backed it up with historical accounts and with facts, and you can’t argue with facts. And for me too, it was a spiritual liberation also; we are a valid people, we are fine, and what we do is valid. And the reason why I participated in Afrikaaps was solely because of the message, solely. I think the message now lives on beyond the show, the show’s maybe twenty percent of the bigger picture.

The Goema/ Cape Malay beat informs some of the songs on your previous albums, but we feel it has been employed extensively on these projects.  Why?

Well, why not? It’s a thing that I grew up with culturally. I saw those things in the communities that I lived in. It’s strange when you enter into jazz and you go to University, and I left University for this reason, because it’s not celebrated among jazz musicians. And it’s a strange thing, because it’s such a valid music. And also, besides it being a Capetonian thing, it’s our link to the rest of Africa and the East. Because if you go around the coast of Africa, East and West, it’s the same beat. And if you even go to South America, it’s the same beat, of course evolved in different ways. You go up to parts of Nothern Africa, it’s the same thing. For me, it’s probably the most universal rhythm, and we of course have our own way of articulating it. And so it’s our link to everything.

A ‘universal beat’ type of thing

Ja, exactly! And it’s very elemental. Have you ever noticed, when every child starts to hit around, they’re playing that beat, just check it out. It’s probably the most natural thing.

Don’t you worry that by embracing the Cape beat and Cape tradition, that you are being myopic in a way, in much the same manner that people from elsewhere in South Africa view the ‘coloured’ community in Cape Town?

That’s why I never go out and say ‘I only play Cape music’. It’s one aspect to my music-making, and an important aspect. And in many ways it’s also important for me to break that ‘coloured’ stereotype. If you  think of someone like Biko who embodies an African man with great  intelligence, then I think it’s very important as well for Capetonians  to present themselves in that way. It’s unfortunate that in every other artistic sector, whether it be dance, drama, or comedy, Coloureds are always portrayed in that (demeaning) way. I’m tired of that, because there’s so much more, so much nuance to the people. It’s so sad that people limit us in that way, in the same way that anyone would limit a black man or a white man. Stereotypes are unfortunately around, but we have to break through that.

How are you breaking down those stereotypes? Are you maybe involved in projects or workshops to combat that mentality?

Not in that form, but I really do feel that my job as a musician is to keep playing music on a certain level, and keep making albums. That’s my way of saying things. The best way of saying things for me is  unfortunately not in a workshop situation; for me the best way is to  play, because in that way then people can make up their own minds,  interpret, and be fulfilled or not.

Image by Ference Isaacs
Image by Ference Isaacs

What was the thinking behind signing with Sheer Music?

For the first two albums, I opened my own record label to release my music. Being independent as a record label is just a lot of work and a lot of resources, and I got myself to a point that I couldn’t go further, the scarcity of resources being the main reason. Sheer has always been a label that has supported South African jazz, and they have great artists on their catalogue. For me to be on that stable is a great honour, and also a natural next step.

You left varsity due to the lack of acknowledgement that you saw for South African jazz as a whole; there’s no emphasis on learning South African jazz standards, for example. Do you think there is a chance, especially with the cats coming up now who are becoming teachers, to break that mould?

It’s unfortunate that the cats taking on those roles are already bred by the University. So I’m not seeing a drastic change; perhaps the change is slow, but I’m not seeing it. And it’s unfortunate because there are generations of young people who come out of high school and into University, and they go through the same thing. And the sadness is that they don’t know themselves, the emphasis is not on self- discovery. For me, if your roots are European-African, and you  discover yourself as someone that’s meant to play Western classical  music, then for me that’s honest. At least you went through the process of self-discovery. At University, there isn’t an encouragement for that. The modules are already set, you are forced into a traditional way – which is great – but I think as a lecturer, the responsibility is to open the mind of the student, and let the student decide. Maybe you’re a free jazz pianist, or maybe you’re a traditional pianist in the style of Budd Powell or whatever; you should be allowed to study that, but that’s not the case.

Would you at some point take it upon yourself to rectify that?

Up till this point, I think that my stand against it is my work and me leaving, and me also openly speaking about my feelings about the Institution as a whole – and I do speak about it quite often. I’m not  sure what more I can do right now, but I think in the future, I would  like to teach a few students and impart the knowledge that I have  gained from other great masters; people like Zim, people like  Abdullah.

Looking at the history of great musicians, they were so ‘into’ their work that it ended up consuming them; the likes of Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk for instance. How are you guarding yourself against the ideals that consumed so many others before you?

For instance, in the case of Monk, or even our South African people, people like Bra Hugh, Abdullah and Miriam Makeba that had to go into exile, their work kept them alive spiritually. They kept strong in the face of persecution. In our context, with the changing world and a globalised vision, you almost have to be going through life with blinkers, but with some holes in those blinkers so that you are also aware of your direction. I like to do what I’m doing, but I’m very aware of what’s going on around me, I know what people are doing. And I also know what contemporary guys are doing in new movements in hip- hop, new movements in jazz.

Jazz is big in South Africa, and one only needs to go to the townships in order to fully grasp that. But it is not very easy to sustain one’s livelihood purely from shows. How do you find your way around that?

This is the thing, whenever I travel to Europe or Japan, I get a sense that the people over there have hundreds of years head-start in terms of concert-going. In African traditions, the function of music was different. It was never the performer there, the audience here; it was integrated, and everybody took part. And also dance, music, and poetry were never separated, they were a communal thing. That’s why we haven’t gotten to where Europe is in terms of concert-going. If you think of classical music, it’s already so deeply engrained in the public’s mind that they will pay to go and see somebody perform. We are slowly getting there now. But I also think it’s a beautiful thing that we have, because I think the moment you separate the audience from the performer, it then becomes like a group of people watching a race- horse, and seeing how fast it can run. I think true music-making is beyond concertizing – that’s only one part of it. True music-making is beyond that, it’s personal.

Website: http://www.kyleshepherd.co.za

(This post originally appears on Mahala)

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