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Playing in Lanka has been a beautiful experience - Nathi

The mention of South African music will spring to mind the names of Miriam Makeba, Naomi Wachira, Laurie Levine, Vusi Mahlahela – dubbed the Voice of South Africa and perhaps the Soweto String Quartet. There are many more no doubt who are in the spotlight and many others who share a lesser degree of the spotlight. Music to the South Africans is a natural thing, to them its like how the proverbial duck takes to the water.


Pianist – Nkosinathi Mathunjwa

Here in Sri Lanka we were fortunate to meet the South African band Mzansi whose leader was the vocalist Xolisa Kgomotso Mamaila and appreciate their creative music which was on an attractive throbbing pulse beat of the drums. Before the ensemble flew back to Johannesberg after a year of playing in Sri Lanka we met the pianist Nkosinathi Mathunjwa and the drummer Xolane Ngwenya to learn more about their world of music.

Question: It is an accepted fact Nathi that music is in the blood that runs through your veins if you are South African born, so could you share with us as to how your career as a pianist started, for you to be in the limelight as you are today?

Answer: My father actually was the one who pushed me to take to playing the piano – the keyboards – as a pastime. As time went by I became fascinated in knowing I could play the keyboards, to the delight of my father. I really fell in love with the instrument and was happy I mastered it that I decided to go to college for further studies in music. I started hanging around with my college fellow students, learnt to compose music and started getting gigs.

Q: As a young talented musician was it difficult for you to break in as a regular pianist?

A: Yes. There are quite a lot of talented players and all are experienced. So it wasn't easy for me as a youngster to break in. It took some time, until they could trust that I could handle the music. Looking back now I've been playing professionally for 22 years. I started off with a group called Native Rhythms. They were established musicians and I was like a ‘filling in’ musician, free lance as they call it. With the passage of time I became a regular pianist.

Q: Pianists generally study to play the violin or flute as a second instrument how was it with you. Were you able to master a second instrument?

A: I would love to play the saxophone. It has a strange fascination for me. But I haven't gone into that area. I can play drums just a bit, but piano has been my favourite instrument and it will be my favourite instrument forever. When I check the music before a gig the sound I fall in love with is the guitar.

Challenge

Q: Do you play for concerts and shows? Are you booked for cabarets and performances of such nature?

A: Not on a regular basis. However, an artiste will give me his music for a show and we would rehearse it. I enjoy the challenge of sight reading, it enhances your confidence and you are kept on your toes.

Q: All musicians have their influences who were your pianist influences from the South African scene and even the American scene?

A: From South Africa its definitely Bheki Mseleku. He's amazing and then there's Carl Sheppard and Andike Yenana. From the American scene my first mention is Thelonius Monk, then Mulgrew Miller, Barry Harris and Keith Jarrett. When you listen to Keith Jarrett playing he has a way of getting into you and with my gospel background I get totally absorbed by the progression of his music.

Q: Do you incorporate African folk tunes into your music?

A: Yes, I do. I have a couple of my compositions but I haven't be able to find time to sit down and record them. We have a lot of music from our country that's why we concentrate on our music. The contemporary pop ballads, I play them for myself, for my pleasure. I haven't got any gigs where I'm expected to play that kind of a repertoire. In South Africa we play original music.

Q: Some musicians are of the opinion that the music you hear today is totally different from the sounds you heard, in the 50s to the 70s – like the big band sounds of the swing and modern era and that it will not last long. What is your comment?

A: I think there are certain sounds that won't last. But on the other hand there are sounds that will last. Times have changed. We don't like to stick to the old sounds. We'd like to express ourselves with a fresher sound. Today there are many youngsters who are doing it. But in my opinion the traditional sounds won't fade away.


Drummer – Xolane Ngwenya.

Q: You and the band Mzansi have been playing here in Sri Lanka for about a year now. The band first performed at the Colombo Hilton, then moved over to Qbaa and after that to Sugar. How did you enjoy playing in Sri Lanka.

A: It's been a wonderful experience. So different from South Africa. I learnt to play cover music and I learnt a lot from your bassist Alston Joachim and pianist Kumar de Silva. They are extremely good musicians and I am happy I got to know them so well. We leave this month and we hope we could be back soon. We take back with us happy memories of interaction with Sri Lankan musicians.

The drummer in the band Mzansi is Xolane Ngwenya who started playing the drums as a hobby. He met a friend through his older brother, a lead guitarist who saw the potential in him and Xolane started working with them as a drummer before going to the university to obtain a diploma in jazz and popular music. At the university they not only teach the technique in playing drums but as Xolane said they take you into the intracies of surviving in a conflicting music world.

Q: Quite naturally, the question of your influences cannot be left out, so could you tell us how you started off in South Africa to enjoy a career as a drummer?

Church

A: In South Africa there's a guy called Ringo he's a vocalist and was a percussionist before. I listened a lot to his music, I loved his arrangements and since I come from a Christian family, the Church was the best thing and that's where I started.

There's a gospel group called Joyous Celebrations and my interest in music grew from them. I have a friend who is currently the drummer for Joyous Celebrations and it was people like them who pushed me into becoming a drummer. As soon as I got to university I was introduced to Jack de Johnette – a modern drummer. There's also a crazy drummer called Thomas Priget. I used to also visit the drummers’ centre that's where you see the likes of Steve Gadd and Dennis Chambers.

Q: As a drummer did you have the occasion to play with big bands or orchestras in South Africa?

A: I had the opportunity to play with an orchestra called Miagi, located in Pretoria. Whether I play in a big band or a small ensemble it is of no consequence to me. I love a challenge and in anything that's challenging I go for it.

Q: Are you a stickler for playing in rehearsed gigs or do you enjoy impromptu sessions and what's your comment on the present music scene?

A: I've done many unrehearsed gigs. I can fit in easily in an impromptu session and I certainly enjoy them. As for the present music scene it may not be everybody's cup of tea but we cannot be stuck in the music of the past. We have to move forward, go along with the new things which I call modern jazz – before it was something else, now it's something else, something new termed funk.

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