Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's South Africa Festival


Eastside Jazz Club, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Like that boorish uncle at every family gathering, charges of cultural appropriation and voyeurism always lurk around events such as Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's South Africa Festival Day, waiting for an unsuspecting victim to open their can of worms. It's fraught terrain, potentially teeming with issues of power and representation, and inevitability a magnet for the musical equivalents of duty-free safari curios or poverty porn. Yet what was offered by the dozens of musicians who took part in the eight-concert marathon held in the Eastside Jazz Club could not be faulted for any of these problems. It was a day that showcased the immensely rich and varied landscape of South African music, ranging from cheery big band tunes to biting avant-garde works. If boorish Uncle Appropriation was around, he certainly was left speechless by the quality and range of the festival's offering.

The performance by Naomi Sullivan and Luke Newby of Clare Loveday's City Deep for baritone saxophone and clarinet perhaps best captured the spirit of the festival. The work was commissioned in 2018 as part of the Sounding Cities project, a collaborative exchange between Johannesburg and Birmingham of musical evocations of city life run by Newby and Sullivan. Reflecting on Johannesburg, City Deep did not evoke the African metropolis through city-music clichés like honking car horns or impressions of smoggy urban skylines. Rather, Loveday took us below the conurbation, into the vast networks of mining tunnels left by the (in)famous gold industry. We hear thumping pneumatic drills at the start of the piece, which, through a series of contrasting episodes, eventually dissipate into eerie mine winds. The work, like the festival's programme overall, gave us the unexpected face of a familiar image; it told us, quite literally, to look below the surface that we so comfortably depend on.

Although cast in a fairly accessible tonal language, the work did flirt with experimental extended techniques for both instruments. Yet instead of sounding like a hangover from the bygone avant-garde (which, let's face it, clicking instrument keys and breath sounds more often than not tend to evoke), Newby and Sullivan brilliantly wove these into the fabric of the work: they sounded like just another hue in a rich and expressive palette of tone colours. Indeed, the performers were master painters here. Newby's warm and singing clarinet tone, as well as his effortless navigation of long melodic arcs, was contrasted by the focused and gripping punch of Sullivan's baritone sax playing. Clearly new music sits comfortably under these two performers' fingers, which in turn allowed them compellingly to guide the audience across the work's unknown ground.

Newby's fluency in the difficult language of the musical avant-garde came out especially strongly in his solo performance of Andile Khumalo's Tracing Hollow Traces, a work deeply indebted to the spectral music of composers such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Although incredibly abstract, Newby's controlled and easy negotiation of this hazardous score revealed the work's subtle and gentle beauty in the way it shyly plays with minute fragments of sound.

Other highlights of the day's programme included two works by Kevin Volans, Passi Leggeri for solo violin performed by Lieva Starker and Asanga for percussion performed by Gloria Yehilevsky. The group of classical pieces were bookended by jazz sets of which the evening's performance by the Bokani Dyer Trio, a relatively young outfit from Johannesburg, was the main attraction. And rightly so: Dyer's expression was tender and unassuming, but loaded with emotional gravitas and delivered with virtuosic ease.

The festival was a poignant reminder that cultural exchange can bear incredible results. It also showed us that there is no need to pull out the stereotypes when programming (South) African music. There's a lot there. All we must do is leave our preconceptions at home and listen carefully.

William Fourie

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