Requiem for Zim Ngqawana (1959-2011)


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By Thomas Rome

From profoundest loss I struggle to speak of the passing of one of the jazz world's most significant personalities of his generation. South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, 51, left us far too early last night at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, victim of a stroke.

Nowhere do the strikingly parallel cultural identities of South Africa and the United States (our parallel racial ethos, if you like) speak to us more intriguingly than through jazz. If, following the New Orleanian Alvin Batiste, we allow that “hipness is a profound colloquialism that expresses an abstract truth," the jazz vernacular has thrived in both countries thanks to a visceral connection to some common abstract truths and social and cultural realities. It has also been nourished, for more than a century now, by a more or less constant physical exchange among musicians, fans, critics, and other enthusiasts. Since the birth of jazz in America, South Africans have been loquacious, self-respecting partners in a spirited dialogue with the American head office.

For a thirty-year period or so, however, framed first by the self-imposed exile of a significant part of the country's jazz talent in the early 1960's, later by the restrictions of the anti- apartheid movement's “cultural boycott" through the 1970's and 1980's, the nerve centers of South African jazz were displaced to London, the most popular exile destination, and to New York's Chelsea Hotel, where the inimitable Capetonian pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (born Adolphus Johannes Brand and called “Dollar" for his youthful enthusiasm for the American jazz records traded for with U.S. seamen), lived in secluded effervescence, spinning improbable beauty from dreams nourished as much by memories of Cape Town as by the vocabularies of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane.

More than a decade into post-apartheid South Africa, South Africa's jazz has awakened from the slumber of that period, yet is still finding its footing in the new political, social, and cultural terrain.

Zim Ngqawana was many musicians in one. He was a passionate inheritor (and extender) of the South African jazz idioms. He was also an erudite and respectful listener who had absorbed the American saxophone masters (particularly), and studied with Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, and Max Roach in the States, yet crafted a highly personal sound on tenor, soprano, or alto as the context required. That sound could be, by turns, mannered and meditative, or robustly lyrical in a Traneian vein. It could be Pharaonic. Sometimes it could just be straightforwardly faithful to the rollicking “township gutbucket" of Dudu Pukwana, or to that “South African crying sound" of the legendary Kippie Moeketsi, with all the local color such faithfulness would connote.

Zim's composing and performances were the natural outgrowth of a personality exemplified in these words spoken recently to South African jazz critic Gwen Ansell: “Music isn't just notes. Every note has a social meaning. I'm singing my mother's knowledge of the plants that grew around her; my father's religion; the African transformation that we need."

In Zim, modernism met historicity. Intimism met collective song. New York met Sophiatown and the tributary fervor of the Eastern Cape. In Zim Ngqawana, an important figure in jazz emerged from Africa to launch a program, to rekindle a sorely missed colloquy.

Through Zim, South African jazz was reconnecting to its present tense. “Is" reconnecting to its present tense, as Zim would surely prefer me to say. “Trane is," Zim would write to my son Karim, in a dedication he signed on one of his CD's. It was in the present tense that Zim lived, and played.

Karim Rome, tenor saxophonist, was planning to go to Johannesburg in these upcoming months to study with Zim. Karim is not alone among the many of us sharing in a deep sense of unmet opportunities to know ourselves better, through Zim. For all of us connected to South African jazz, Zim was the unavoidable presence in our understanding of ourselves and of the music. Zim, who seemed to have produced as many unforgettable personal turns of phrase as Lester Young, liked to refer to the founding moment of democratic South Africa on April 26, 1994 as “Independence." In post-Independence South Africa, Zim transcended, far ahead of most others, the pathological ideological legacies of apartheid and its counterweights, and not in any mostly aesthetic, flimsily postmodern way. Rather, Zim embodied the existential possibilities of a thinking person's South Africa.

“Zim is" an authority, “Zim is" an example. “Zim is" one of those who search. “Zim is" a servant of higher ideals and of humanity.

Glory to the Almighty, Sustainer of Worlds. May He receive Zim Ngqawana into His favor. May He preserve in us Zim's memory. May He instill in us, for further exploration, the reach of Zim's ideas. May He keep us mindful of the fragile beauty and reality of Zim's playing, of the courage and truth-telling of Zim's teaching, of the tolerance and wisdom of Zim's approach to people, to music, to life.

Thomas Rome
New York
May 10, 2011

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