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
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
“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
“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