South African History !X | by Andre Marais and Steve Adams

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

Introducing Kyle Shepherd

Kyle Shepherd re-imagines freedom, a whole new musical language his toolkit to unlock the doors of liberation with spare, meditative, emotionally-charged renderings.

He composes music derived from the almost extinct click language of the Khoisan — beautifully arranged melodies flow from complex ancient chants into haunting piano riffs. In addition, his reworking of Afrikaanse volkliedjies, goema grooves and Cape Malay calls to prayer navigate a jazzi slam poetry sensibility that is a joy to watch.

His 2010 theatre production, AfriKaaps, explored the alternative legacy of Afrikaans as spoken by the disenfranchised ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ people of Cape Town. The piece, which he wrote, directed and performed in, was a moving tribute the richness and revolutionary aspects of the language, recalling its history as a vernacular of resistance and fightback.His rediscovery and fresh renditions of old poems and music showcased what Shepherd has consistently tried to capture in his recorded music and live shows – a hankering to understand the spirits beneath the obvious and the banal, both the angels and demons that make up our present.

Although best known for his work as a solo jazz pianist, Shepherd also works in a trio with Shane Cooper (double bass) and Jonno Sweetman (drums), and is equally comfortable playing the saxophone and the xaru (traditional mouth bow). Shepherd sees no division between poetry and music, viewing them as mediums for the same spirit.

Barely in his mid twenties, Kyle has released three critically acclaimed albums — fineART (2009) Portrait of Home (2010), and his most recent offering, South African History !X launched with a live concert at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre in April 2012.

Amandla! interviewed reached Shepherd by phone in Switzerland, where he was touring.

Amandla!: You have produced three albums to date. Can you say something about the title of your latest album South African History !X?

Kyle Shepherd: ‘X’ in mathematics represents the unknown, and for many of the current generation of South Africans the truth about our history remains largely unknown. This album is dedicated to the unearthing of our heritage while at the same time it acknowledges the prominence of the ‘x’ as in the click sounds of the Nama languages.

On the album I briefly address the music and importance of the First Nation people of Southern Africa and their rich history in pieces like ‘Xam Premonitions’ and ‘Xan Do Do (with Piano Improvisation)’.

A!: One track on the album Zimology alludes to the late Zim Ngqawana, a mentor and collaborator of yours. He also played on this album. Can you say something about your relationship and collaboration with him?

KS: Zim’s music, and the message he conveyed through that music ,changed my life and my thinking when I first met him. I went on to study with him (informally) and then to play with him.

He promoted discovery of the self, the necessity of which is often overlooked by the average musician. He also believed in music as a spiritual force, and I do too, so we hit it off immediately.

A!: Recalling one’s roots and the past seems to be an important theme in your music, for example in songs like ‘Bobbejaan/minstrels go to court’ or ‘Die maan skyn so helder vannand’. What’s the story behind you choosing to play those?

KS: I realised the importance of addressing this traditional music and decided to leave my impressions of them. As a student of music one has to acknowledge the past. What came before informs what we are doing now, sometimes without us even being aware of it.

A!: What does ‘jazz’ and being a ‘jazz musician’ mean to you in 2012?

KS: I don’t see myself as a jazz musician. That in itself is too limiting if you think of what jazz has become, an establishment of sorts, through jazz schools and jazz academics.

I am a person telling my story through sound. I can play many instruments, but I prefer to think of myself as a composer and improviser. The instrument is just mechanics.

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