Twenty-Seven Years (excerpt)

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From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.

25

The music library on my computer begins with Abdullah Ibrahim, and I’ve kept it that way, deleting Aaron Copland and others. More specifically, it begins with ‘Blues for a Hip King’, the solo piano version on the album African Dawn. I like it so because the hymn-like chord progressions in that piece have a total inevitability about them: it sounds like some kind of pianistic manifesto, and a history lesson too.

I first found the CD circa 1998 in the house of my girlfriend’s mother, Rachael, in North London. She was sceptical of me at first, had made it very clear that she never bought Outspan oranges during the 1980s, once told me that ‘white South Africa has a lot to answer for’. Of course I knew that in some indirect way; yet no one had ever said it to me outright. But over the years we became close. She told me that going alone to jazz clubs had helped her get through a messy divorce. She had lots of pianists in her collection: Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Art Tatum. She had several Abdullah Ibrahim CDs, and ‘Blues for a Hip King’ (which is not really blues) started me on a slow pilgrimage that has eventually led to this piece on Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, the musician who was once spoken of as the inheritor of Ibrahim’s mantle, but who died in 2001 at the age of 27.

I listened my way through the canon of South African jazz in the cold north of Scotland. In the Edinburgh City Library there was a music basement, and someone there had once been chasing the same sound. The catalogue had real depth, and I would clatter through all the CDs, check some out, then walk round the Crags listening to the lowing basslines of Johnny Dyani, feeling very homesick. Sometime around then I remember connecting to Wi-Fi for the first time, and thinking how miraculous it was that I could harvest music from thin air, just as the pot plants in my little tenement attic were taking in light and water.

My relationship ended but Rachael and I still kept in touch. Shortly before I left the UK for good, she sent me a listing for Keith Jarrett: Solo Piano at the Royal Festival Hall. I took a train down from Scotland immediately. I arrived at the auditorium and she wasn’t there; she was late. And I knew how much Keith hated latecomers, how the doors would be barred. Seconds before he went on stage she slipped into the seat next to me.

Jarrett played for about three, four hours, solo improvisation. For the first two thirds, it was dissonant, angular. He shouted at the audience for coughing, for taking pictures, and I loved him for it. ‘I love you, Keith!’ shouted someone from the balcony, as he was scolding us. ‘Well, it’s nice to be loved,’ he replied, ‘but it’s not nice to be coughed at.’ He kept stopping and starting, irritable, complaining about the acoustics. For a moment it seemed like the whole performance might fall apart. More dissonance: relentless, cascading scales of (as Sibelius wanted it) ‘pure cold water’.

Then, slowly, his playing began to thaw. We heard the gospel chords pulsing underneath, coming slowly back, the warmth. We entered the major phase.

The playing began to do something that I have also heard sometimes in the warm, reverent work of Ibrahim and Molelekwa: to spill, as if there was excess of it, and all the ways of subdividing sound into different tracks, numbers, movements, suites, albums and any given arrangement were just arbitrary, were artificial holding patterns for one lifelong composition that was now – like the glass of Scotch and milk on the piano in Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’, ‘like the very cup of trembling’ – pouring out, now threatening to, now beginning to spill over itself, the keyboard and all of us there.

 

26

Enter the world memory of the internet in search of Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and you will find him playing in a Yin and Yang cap with headphones on, or crouched over mixing desks. Hitting drums, hitting his chest, working out polyrhythms with his percussionists: scenes with no context, studios that could be anywhere. The blurry, hazy quality of the footage seems related in some way to the introverted concentration that many people speak of when remembering Moses, the daze of creative excitement that he seemed to exist in. He would always be nodding his head when he spoke to you, but whether in agreement or because he was marking an internal tempo, it was difficult to say.

In one of the many clips that I have watched (making up for lost time), there is footage from an old SABC programme called The Blues Room. An old white jazz custodian introduces Moses, who politely hears out the rather patronising introduction, responds as best he can to questions about the making of Genes and Spirits, then sits down and works at the piano with his calm hands. He plays ‘Bo Molelekwa’, my favourite of his compositions. It has a wandering chord progression, but at the end of each stanza comes a dotted, slowly swinging refrain. As is often the case with truly gifted instrumentalists, the playing seems almost to be slowing down (even though it’s not). The notes are late, just late, but they are also perfectly in time.

Finally, it sounds like something being underlined several times, something very calm, very confident – something that is sure it will be heard and understood.

 

27

‘I went through a couple of books to see how people describe musicians, you know,’ says the pianist and composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa in an interview recorded in the late 1990s, ‘how people describe music. And I haven’t really found a satisfactory answer.’