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Homegrown: My South African Roots

South African vocalist Nicky Schrire gives us her personal journey in the South African jazz landscape.

Join Nicky at Jazz at Lincoln Center from October 15–16, where she and saxophonist TK Blue lead a collaborative ensemble of American and South African artists called Kuumba Collective. Nicky will also lead a listening party on Monday, October 13, where she will be sharing some of her favorite and most influential records.

I was born to South African parents in London and we moved to Cape Town in 1991, shortly after Mandela’s release from Robben Island. Growing up in South Africa, I was exposed to largely European and American musical gems. My father made sure that there was no shortage of James Taylor; Blood, Sweat & Tears; or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in our house. And my mother balanced out our sonic landscape with Mozart sonatas, Rachmaninoff concertos, and the magical world of musical theater (Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the genius of Cole Porter).

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When I was 11, I started learning the tenor saxophone. Through this golden, brassy instrument, I was introduced to the world of jazz. Although my initial encounter with the genre was with the music of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and the American jazz tradition, I quickly became aware that my musical peers had different jazz role models to mine. Early on in my jazz schooling, big band scores by Bob Mintzer were interspersed with arrangements of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg. I leapt at the challenge of learning intricate, bebop shout choruses, but when the band started playing that slow shuffling groove of Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s “Crossroads Crossroads,” my soul reverberated with a deep contentedness.

I enrolled in the University of Cape Town’s jazz program at the South African College of Music, happily willing to submerge myself further in the American jazz tradition. I became familiar with Charlie Parker’s Omnibook, played big-band arrangements by Bob Brookmeyer, and sung Sarah Vaughan’s “Shulie A Bop.” All the while, many of my peers wondered how this American, academically focused approach and music tied into their musical traditions. I wasn’t perplexed by the absence of South African jazz in our curriculum because, unlike my peers, I didn’t grow up exposed to the sounds of Kippie Moeketsi or Jonas Gwangwa. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

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“As I developed a deeper love for the improvisatory nature of jazz, the provenance of the music started mattering less and less.”

As I developed a deeper love for the improvisatory nature of jazz, the provenance of the music started mattering less and less. I had a solid musical foundation and I was now free to explore other genres and to start the process of discovering what kind of music I wanted to be making away from the confines of academia. I became more interested in the musical backgrounds and interests of my peers. I was invited to sing in a tribute concert to the late, great pianist Bheki Mseleku that friends of mine were organizing at our college. This was my first encounter both with Bheki’s music and the original music that my friends were writing—South African jazz for our generation.

What followed was a heightened awareness of the South African jazz lexicon. It suddenly seemed like every South African jazz singer was singing Allan Mzamo Silinga’s “Ntyilo Ntyilo,” made famous by Miriam Makeba, and horn players were paying homage to Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Reluctant to follow trends, I started looking for slightly more obscure songs that weren’t the “Autumn Leaves” of South African jazz. I was immediately entranced by Busi Mhlongo’s music—the vibrancy and intricacy of her “Urban Zulu” world was magnificent. All these traits I associated with the “sound of South Africa” were overflowing in her music. The grooves, the guitar sounds, the languages, the spirit of the music. I love the simplicity of South African jazz, but the chromaticism of my traditional jazz schooling has stayed with me and my ears yearn for a “crunch” or a surprising harmonic shift. Busi’s music follows both traditional South African harmonies, while being sophisticated and unorthodox at times.

While I was fortunate to perform in Abdullah Ibrahim’s inaugural Cape Town Jazz Orchestra and to play South African repertoire in the UCT Big Band, it wasn’t either of these experiences that really made me assess and develop my connection to South African jazz. I was hired to perform in the horn section for Sibongile Khumalo’s tribute show to Soweto-born jazz singer Letta Mbulu. Everything about the experience—from Ma Sibongile’s rapid-fire Zulu exchanges with pianist Themba Mkhize, to listening to Letta’s recordings in order to learn my parts by ear, to witnessing audiences at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival cheer and react to a music that really spoke to them—was an education. The musical content, much of it written by Letta’s composer-arranger husband Caiphus Semenya, really opened my ears to the complexity and variety that could be found in a lot of South African jazz, as it was in Busi’s music. It became important for me to find my “voice” within South African jazz even though there were pre-conceived notions about what I was expected to sing.

After being exposed to Letta and Caiphus’s music, I continued to seek out South African jazz repertoire, artists, and composers that weren’t commonly interpreted. It became exceedingly important to me because many international audiences were only aware of Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela as leading South African jazz figures (which they are). I love Abdullah’s music and am ever so thankful for Bra Hugh’s significance and body of work, but as I see more and more people expressing interest in the South African jazz scene, I long for them to discover artists like Busi, Letta, and the composers of my generation (Kyle Shepherd, Marcus Wyatt, Shane Cooper, and others).

Although I have been lucky to live in other countries, I grew up in South Africa and that’s the place I call home. Being invited to perform as part of Carnegie Hall’s UBUNTU festival means the world to me because I have a deep connection to the music of my country, even if I’ve come to discover it in a roundabout way. I’m thrilled to be part of this festival alongside my South African musical peers (Kesivan Naidoo, Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper), and I can’t wait to share some of my favorite South African songs—both by icons like Victor Ntoni and by peers like Mark Fransman—with New York audiences.

—Nicky Schrire

Nicky Schrire
Nicky Schrire
Monday, October 13 at 7 PM
Listening Party: Nicky Schrire

Jazz at Lincoln Center's education department hosts a listening party that features South African vocalist Nicky Schrire sharing some of her favorite and most influential records.

Irene Diamond Education Center
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Broadway at 60th Street | Manhattan | 212-258-9800

October 15–16
Kuumba Collective

The Kuumba Collective, a collaborative ensemble of American and South African artists led by saxophonist TK Blue and vocalist Nicky Schrire, presents the South African Songbook: SA to USA, featuring classic repertoire of South African jazz as well as original works.

Wednesday, October 15 | 7:30 PM
Wednesday, October 15 | 9:30 PM
Thursday, October 16 | 7:30 PM
Thursday, October 16 | 9:30 PM

Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Broadway at 60th Street | Manhattan | 212-258-9800

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