music (2006-35)

Sound. Love. Life.

Zim Ngqawana plays the vibrations of Peace

by Kevin Crowe

When you talk to Zim Ngqawana, the South African jazzman known for fusing disparate styles and tribal, earthy beats, you’re always talking about vibrations, those subtle beats that surround everything. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, because every thought has its own peculiar cadence. He closes his eyes, sways a little, then speaks. Slowly. Softly. He’s looking for the right rhythm.

“All music is world music,” he says, after a brief pause. “All music should be called world music. That way we can begin to communicate easily. When you say ‘world music,’ for me you refer to the music that is made by people in the world, addressing world issues, to know the meaning of life, the meaning of the world. The music becomes something else. You may call it a spiritual journey, but I just call it a meaning, to understand why we’re here. Through music you can travel, to be able to think and analyze, be able to express yourself.

“We need to learn to tap into the rhythms of this life, this universe,” he goes on. “Rhythm is viewed from a very narrow perspective. As I’m getting more experienced in music, I’m realizing that it’s very complicated to explain rhythm. The sounds, especially those of Africa, are being understood as a music. That is totally wrong. African music cannot be understood; it can only be experienced…. Pure expression is not limited by any structure.”

Ngqawana’s style is free, jazz fused with hard-hitting, pulsing rhythms. It may sound primitive at times, before he progressively knots the rhythms into something more familiar, like a samba. Hate, Nazism, sexism, chauvinism, fascism—any of these -isms—are just names, according to his musical philosophy. Just ideologies. Nothing more, definitely nothing permanently grafted onto humanity’s collective consciousness.

“There are many people in modern society that aren’t in touch with themselves,” Ngqawana explains. “Modern society has forced people to move to a rhythm that has been created. There’s a lot of programming that has almost destroyed the soul. That is why there is so much fear in the world.

“I come from a culture of thinking about things in a circular-way. People have confused this with repetition, and that suggests simplicity. All things that help you move inward should have an element of ‘repetition.’ Sound. Healing. It quickly takes into consideration all the elements. So, when you hear that music, you’re constantly aware of all of those elements.”

During the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Ngqawana directed the Drums for Peace Orchestra and performed a solo set with his saxophone. “It was a moving experience,” he says, “knowing that I was part of that transition. It was the most important time for South Africa, for all of us.” For Ngqawana, the end of Apartheid meant more than political freedom; it ushered in creative freedom that also liberated the mind.

Ngqawana says that music always finds a way, because it doesn’t die even under the most extreme oppression. “I had the music. I internalized it,” he says of growing up under Apartheid. “If you check to see if a person is alive, what do you do? You check the pulse. That’s their rhythm. The creation of all breath. The most important thing in African music is the vocalization, how one uses the breath, and how one uses the entire body to create a rhythm and connect to the Earth’s energy as an anchor.”

That need to tap into a creative vein led many black youths in South Africa to make crude instruments out of whatever they could find. These rhythms of rebellion could be something as simple as banging on a table, or something as clever as hollowing out acorns to craft an instrument that sounded a lot like a flute. It was a struggle to find the rhythms, but never impossible.

“All of it comes from the need to control,” Ngqawana continues, “to govern. I think there will be an awakening. The music is going to play a very important role in the process of healing. Detraumatizing. To show us our humanity. The balance.

“We trust that in music, that rhythm will be brought back so that people can become balanced and peaceful, and perhaps loving. When I say ‘loving,’ I mean for them to get in that peaceful zone, where they can just bathe in lovingness. When you’re in that zone, you cannot own it. Other people can only join you. It’s something we can experience together. We can delve into that space and enjoy it.”

What: Jazz for Justice , a benefit concert for the children of war-torn northern Uganda