Performance Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 8:30 PM

Kesivan and The Lights

Zankel Hall
Kesivan Naidoo is one of the exciting leaders of the next wave of Cape jazz performers. A composer and drummer, Naidoo leads a fiery quintet that is equally exciting when playing a standard or an original composition, or covering an Ornette Coleman tune. Kesivan and The Lights make their New York debut in this concert.


  • Kesivan and The Lights
    ·· Kesivan Naidoo, Drums and Percussion
    ·· Justin Bellairs, Soprano and Alto Saxophones
    ·· Kyle Shepherd, Piano
    ·· Reza Khota, Guitar
    ·· Shane Cooper, Bass
  • with
    Feya Faku, Trumpet and Flagelhorn

Event Duration

The program will last approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.


  • Kesivan and The Lights

    The Cape Town-based multi-instrumental jazz collective Kesivan and TheLights is one of the best-kept secrets in South African music. Although still considered to be modern jazz, the quintet's sound boasts a litany of influences from from funk and South African roots music to hip-hop.

    The band consists of three previous winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz, one of South Africa's leading musical accolades. The eclectic lineup includes drummer, founder, and bandleader Kesivan Naidoo, who is also the owner of the Cape Town jazz bar Straight No Chaser, which has gone a long way towards revitalizing the city's jazz scene.

    Composer and double bassist Shane Cooper is one of the leading voices in South Africa's new wave of jazz artists. He champions a brand of music categorized by improvisation and lucidity; his award-winning album Oscillations has cemented his place as one of South African jazz's most beloved acts. Saxophonist Justin Bellairs is one of the most active and sought after musicians in the South African jazz scene, having appeared on several albums both as a featured artist and as a session musician. Pianist Kyle Shepherd has already released three critically acclaimed records, all of which have earned him South African Music Award nominations.

    The lineup of Kesivan and The Lights is completed by guitarist Reza Khota, whose playing can be best described as experimental. His flirtations and interests in South Asian sounds, classical music, and the avant-garde has helped nourish the music made by the group with a uniquely global perspective that also remains locally relevant.

    Kesivan and The Lights is an outfit that takes pride in recollection with songs often based on the history of South Africa and the memories of its people. Its sound is defined by a lush, cathartic, melodicism that owes its roots to a mixture of composition and improvisation. The group is also known for its high energy inventiveness when performing live, a mode in which the members erode the melancholic and often make way for a stronger, more aggressive sound-a brand of music that attempts to exorcise the demons of the past.

    -Sihle Mthembu

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  • Feya Faku

    With more than 20 years of trumpet-playing under his belt, special guest Feya Faku is one of the most respected musicians in South Africa. Along with frequent performances with Kesivan and The Lights, Faku has five solo albums to his name, the most recent of which was completed this year after being recorded in Switzerland.

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Kesivan and The Lights

The Evolution of Kesivan

This performance is dedicated to the people who have given their lives in the strife for equality. One day we will get there. For under the heavens, on this earth, we are all one family.

Few musicians bring the experience of freedom—of living in a world that is open and limitless—as intimately as South African jazz drummer and composer Kesivan Naidoo. Watching him perform live is like marveling at a cross between bop mathematician Max Roach, free-jazz architect Sunny Murray, and ... Animal, the wild drummer of The Muppets fame.

“A lot of people say I’m a rock drummer trapped in a jazz musician’s world,” Kesivan laughs. “And I consider that a compliment.”

His idiosyncratic style has its roots in his youth in South Africa. One of the first non-white students in a formerly white school, Kesivan grew up in the 1990s surrounded by grunge rock heads. For a kid who fell in love with jazz at the tender age of 10 and  was performing professionally by 14, it would have been easy for him to sneer at his rock contemporaries. Instead, he listened in.

“I always try and bring the energy and angst I got from rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden into jazz music because I believe it’s for everybody—it’s about expression,” he says.

The energy Kesivan is talking about is, of course, his experience of freedom after South Africa’s democratic revolution. Born into the generation of South Africa’s “freedom children”—those who got to celebrate the liberation their parents fought so hard to achieve—he’s always been conscious of the need to forge a new musical identity.

“The rest of the world is looking to my generation for that new sound,” he says. “Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim are iconic. Their message was politically driven, but now it’s different. We have a responsibility to forge that new sound.”

For Kesivan, this new sound is rooted in the art of improvisation, in rapturous expression and radical invention—and most important, in listening.

“South Africa needs to have more of an open mind to the art of improvisation,” he says. “The magic that happens when people are improvising—it’s like you’re witnessing telepathy. It’s inter-soul communication. Improvisation is one of the gateways to get there. Being in that moment right there and then, it’s an acknowledgement that we’re all alive together.”

It’s this vitality that has informed Kesivan’s collaborative vision. Over the past two decades, he’s forged relationships across the world, having performed in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America with countless jazz luminaries. He’s also honed his diverse musical vocabulary, anchoring innovative groups that include Tribe (traditional jazz), Golliwog (funk), Closet Snare (electronic jazz), Babu (world music), and Beat Bag Bohemia (contemporary classical). His latest crew, Kesivan and The Lights, is both a testimony to his openness to collaboration and a celebration of a musician coming into his own.

“Groove is quintessential to the way we write, feel, and experience music,” he says of his new album Brotherhood. It’s this groove that the drummer and composer has been exploring since he first released his debut as a leader, Instigators of the Revolution, back in 2010. Conceived primarily as an homage to his musical mentors—including Bheki Mseleku and Winston Mankunku
Ngozi—the album was a landmark record in acoustic South African jazz. Segueing from reverential in-the-tradition renditions of standards (such as Mseleku’s “Monk’s Mood” and Mankunku’s “Dedication”) to playful postmodern deconstructions of Björk’s “In the Musicals” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Kesivan was making a declaration of artistic intent. Here was a young jazz drummer and composer saying, “You’ve got to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going. Now let’s forge a new sound.” 

The fact that it’s taken Kesivan and The Lights four years to release a follow-up record to Instigators of the Revolution may be seen as commercial suicide in an age of brand-conscious hyper-consumerism. But for the drummer, the impulse to make music has never been commerce. 

“I think everybody’s looking for beauty,” he says simply. “Life is art. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist 24 hours a day. And if you’re always in the present, you can find the beauty there. For the last four years, I’ve been working on this material, searching for the right configuration of musicians to give voice to this beauty.” 

In Shane Cooper (bass), Kyle Shepherd (piano), Reza Khota (guitar), Justin Bellairs (saxophones), and special guest Feya Faku (trumpet and flugelhorn), he’s finally found a band of brothers dedicated to developing this new sound.

Bridging worlds, exploring melodicism amid mayhem, bring together old and new, playing between jazz improvisation, pop, hip-hop, rock, and acoustic approaches, Kesivan and The Lights are rewriting jazz history to create the future sound of now, while remembering yesterday.

“I’ve worked with the greats. They’ve been guiding lights for me. So therefore I have a responsibility to take it further and keep it going. My generation is trying its damndest to make sure the music stays alive,” he says.

—Adapted from writings by Miles Keylock

Program Notes


UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa

Lead funding for UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, The Howard Gilman Foundation, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the Mai Family Foundation, South African Tourism, and South African Airways.

UBUNTU is held in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture of the Republic of South Africa and the South African Consulate General in New York in celebration of 20 years of freedom and democracy.
This concert and The Shape of Jazz series are made possible by The Joyce and George Wein Foundation in memory of Joyce Wein.
This performance is part of The Shape of Jazz.

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