Sisonke Xonti forms part of a generation of young musicians that are taking over the local jazz scene.
Billed to headline this year’s Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 28, Xonti has also been touring with his debut album Iyonde. We caught up with Xonti before he heads off to Grahamstown.
Where did you discover your love for jazz?
It was more the love for music before jazz. I started when I was 10, playing the recorder in primary school. Then I moved on to the clarinet when I was 11, and started playing classical music. Then the saxophone when I was 13. It was at that time when I was introduced to jazz.
Do you remember what stood out to you?
When I moved to a different school, on the first day we had a surprise visit from the late Nelson Mandela. The school’s jazz band was playing and that’s when I saw all these instruments for the first time.
I started wanting to play the trombone, but there wasn’t one, so they gave me the clarinet and next the saxophone. My dad was playing music, the likes of Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa. At the time it wasn’t something I really noticed. It was only when I saw the jazz band that I took note of it. I made that connection at school, and that’s when the love started.
What inspired the title Iyonde?
Iyonde is my second name. It means “to be enjoyed”. That’s what music is for me: it’s just supposed to be enjoyed.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted the album to sound like? What you wanted it to represent?
I had no idea. When I started recording I could see where it was going, because I had many other songs that I wanted to record. I sort of then worked through them and chose the songs I felt would better represent the message I was trying to send out. Whether it came across that way, I don’t know, but that’s what I felt at the time.
Did you feature anyone on the album? If so, why them?
I featured lots of young jazz artists. I picked these people because they’d been a part of my journey up until this point. It just made sense to tell the story with people who were there when I was writing the songs.
They are: Bokani Dyer (piano), Shane Cooper (bass), Spha Mdlalose (vocals) and Marlon Witbooi (drums)
How long did the album take to bring to life?
I recorded it in September, 2016, and released it in April last year.
It’s been a year since the album was released. How has the reception been? And how do you now feel about the album?
The reception has been great. I guess a lot of people in the jazz fraternity were kind of waiting for me to release something because I’ve been featured in a lot of albums. People have been supportive. In hindsight, there isn’t anything I would change about the music, but from a business point of view I would have marketed the album better. I just went into it blindly.
You worked with Jimmy Dludlu years ago. What did this experience help you realise about yourself or teach you about your artistry?
That’s when I went professional in 2009. The one thing Jimmy teaches a lot of people is about performance. It’s one thing playing your instrument, but he makes you realise that there’s another person receiving what you’re playing. He taught me about performance and interacting with the audience.
You’re part of a wave of young jazz artists that have begun to dismantle the stereotypes about jazz. It’s become more enjoyable to younger audiences because of the vibe you bring to it.
We don’t try too hard. It comes naturally because most of us grew up listening to hip hop and house, which is what all youngsters listen to. That influence seeps into the music we write, and I think that’s why it appeals to our generation as well.
What’s your favourite song on your album right now?
I’d say Short Lived. When I released it, I was, like, “ugh, why did I put that song on the album, I don’t like it.” And I hadn’t really listened to the album in a while. About a month ago, I was looking for CDs to play in my car, and I came across my album and put it in. For the first time I listened through the album, and that song stuck with me.
Short Lived is an ode to a friend. When I first moved to Johannesburg, he was the first artist I played and recorded with in 2013. He introduced me to the Joburg scene and its musicians. I was thinking about him one day and that’s how the song came about. I met him in 2013, and in 2016 he passed away. I’d known him for just three years and in that three years a lot happened in my life. And he had a big part to play in it.
You’re one of the headline acts at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, which you first performed at when you were 15 years old. What keeps you going back to the festival?
Since I went professional about nine years ago, they’ve always invited me back to perform with different projects. So I have been lucky to get invited back. And I am always willing to go back. It’s a lovely vibe, you get to spend a week with other musicians, students and young kids. We share ideas and jam. I don’t think there’s another festival in the country that can claim this.
Why is this festival important for aspiring musicians and students?
As you get older and more established, and perform in various spaces, you come to realise that there isn’t a festival quite like this one. You don’t get to interact meaningfully with artists.