Kesivan Naidoo Carries the Flame


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By Daniel Hutchinson

South African Young Artist Award Winner for Jazz in 2009 Kesivan Naidoo prefers to be called by his first name. It epitomizes his down-to-earth nature that he shies away from using his surname, and it also puts him in the same index as Miles and Mankunku. Whether or not he will reach the same recognition as these two great jazz artists remains to be seen, but as he says in relation to his artistic journey, “I'm not even half-way yet. This award is only the beginning".

Of course, while Kesivan has yet to achieve his longer term goals which include playing with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, he has been already been moving with determination on a musical journey met by significant mentors along the way. He loves to talk about the people who are important to him, especially the late drummer Lulu Gontsana whom he met at a youth jazz festival in 1995 and who was his first teacher. It is from Gontsana that he inherited his special swinging style, a fact that has been considered particularly significant given the rarity of a true swing touch.

The next master to take Kesivan under his wing was Bheki Mseleku. Kesivan relates how Mseleku called him on the phone when he was only 19 years old and initiated a life-changing relationship. “Bheki introduced me to the spiritual side of music" says Kesivan, “he is the greatest musician to ever come out of this country". Mseleku's recent death affected Kesivan deeply: “I was touring in Europe when I heard the news. I cried all the way in the bus from Switzerland to Poland. It was the saddest day of my life."

He has been performing Mseleku's compositions with his bands, together with the music of John Coltrane and of course his own profound compositions, strengthened by his immersion in Indian classical music on a SAMRO overseas scholarship in 2006. “The source of anything is the purest of what it is; it goes downstream and collects a lot of things on the way. The message comes from the source, but the message goes to everyone. I've been to the source, and now I take it to the people."

Miles Davis is also an inspiration to Kesivan as a bandleader. What Miles Davis developed over a forty year career with his different acoustic, electric and electronic periods, Kesivan juggles all at the same time. “Miles went with the times, but we've got history to draw on and technology on our side." He leads a number of different groups at different times of year, including the experimental lounge music of the Restless Natives, the multimedia project Closet Snare, the international drumming quartet Bean Bag Bohemia and the modal mayhem of Babu, a jamming together of Indian classical music and jazz. He uses his different bands to mix paints, but his canvas is the hearts and minds of the audience: “I want everyone to feel like a better human being after a concert," he states emphatically.

The medium matters less to him than getting his message across, so he writes music that fits into all his bands. But he gives the impression that his latest project, Kesivan and the Lights (launched at this year's National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa), is the closest to his pure conception. “It's my acoustic approach to things, and it brings out my philosophy. It's very personal--all the songs are messages, but I couldn't call us The Messengers, so I called us The Lights, which basically means the same thing... I wanted to launch in Grahamstown because I've got history here, I developed here as a musician."

He doesn't like to talk about himself much; the conversation keeps veering to his collaborators ("they're my friends") or his musical heroes. “My biggest arrogance is that I've had the opportunity to play with all my South African heroes."

Maybe this is why so many of the current generation of South African jazz musicians look up to Kesivan as a leader. A born philosopher, Kesivan's leadership takes the form of hanging out and conversing with like-minded musicians as much as writing and rehearsing music. “What makes my leadership is the message" he says. “I can't just work with anybody. They must have the light" he says, only half-jokingly.

Kesivan has done an unprecedented amount of performing at this year's National Arts Festival, seven nights and multiple gigs in total. “I like the feeling of being able to do contribute and do something positive, and I just love playing and being exposed to as much as possible" he explains. On being the young artist of the year for jazz, Kesivan is overwhelmed by the experience. “I feel like a special part of this festival; It's an amazing feeling."

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