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UBUNTU: The Evolution of Kesivan

Composer and drummer Kesivan Naidoo is one of the exciting leaders of the next wave of Cape jazz performers. Here he describes his development as an artist and his generation's responsibility to "forge a new sound" in South African music.

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.

“The rest of the world is looking to my generation for that new sound.”
—Kesivan Naidoo

“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 Revolutionmay 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

Kesivan and the Lights
Thursday, October 30 at 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.

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