There is much to ponder with Soweto Kinch. Soweto plays like a classically brilliant jazz musician one minute and breaks out into a tremendous rap the next. He is an impressive man who arouses curiosity and admiration in the same thought.
To be physically next to Soweto is to feel like you are with a man who is indestructible – he’s the kind of person who makes you feel safe – in an Indiana Jones kind of way. Yet there are layers to him you can’t know. He has an apparent nonchalance on stage, which is part of his presence, but he’s not nonchalant. He is himself hugely successful but as grounded as you can be. And kind.
So is he ‘gangsta rappa’ or ‘jazz supremo’? Is he ‘dangerous to know’ or a ‘huggable softie’? “Why does all this matter?” - one might say. “He’s a musician isn’t he – we go to hear him play?”
Yes... but you simply cannot go to a Soweto gig and not feel the dichotomy of his onstage vulnerability and the power of him as a man. It is in his music that these opposite forces are perfectly reconciled. I have had opportunity to look closely at Soweto the musician and the man – he has graced the south with his presence a lot recently, at the Jazz Ticket and the workshops with SYJO (the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra) and other youngsters which he led with Dan Mar-Molinero at the Turner Sims; the “Jazz Ticket” gig at The Southampton Guildhall and then a personal gig with his band on Friday 6 May back at the Turner Sims.
I have had the privilege of chatting with Soweto, hearing him play and seeing him at work with the youth of SYJO and of course the talented Dan – himself a superb and impressive conductor. Dan and Soweto share a touching professional understanding – which is no doubt part of the success of the Jazz Ticket project
Soweto Kinch live at the Turner Sims
Soweto’s gig on the evening of 6 May celebrated the release of The New Emancipation. Soweto played the saxophone like he was pouring his soul into his instrument and giving himself away. His play went from soaring joyful melodies to proclaiming political commentary. His feelings and thoughts and even his body seemed to flow into the saxophone. The image of Soweto “full play” is a lasting one – his imposing figure bent into his instrument, his face given over to complete concentration, bodily joined with his saxophone in an intimate way. To witness him play is a touching, pure and humbling experience. And worrying too – in case he has given all of himself away so there is nothing left of this charismatic man when the music stops.
Ironically, Soweto could not perform so persuasively; could not capture the frailty of humanity, so truly from within himself unless his belief in his music and the strength in his soul were powerful. His valiant ability to personally capitulate to his sound is truly awe inspiring. His vulnerability and conviction makes his music utterly moving and credible - Soweto is a man to believe in.
As the gig moved on, a presence in the music made itself felt. A human voice started to come through Soweto’s play. There seemed to be language and words in the notes and compositions. This sense of talking was also felt in the type of songs and pieces played – they had a conversational dynamic to them.
The whole band followed through this feel of “chat” with accents of sound and phrasing in the music that brought to mind human conversation. So while being taken by the music you also felt like you were talking with Soweto and his band too. Having a full on discussion in fact.
As the evening progressed, the narrative theme grew stronger and was ultimately placed before us in the raps that Soweto wowed us with. And the rapping is not just “a little bit on the side” – it is a language Soweto owns – a torrent of feeling and understanding, which he naturally slides into words.
His gift as a rapper is unfettered and adaptable: towards the end of the gig Soweto threw down the gauntlet to the audience. He asked for random words relating to freedom and emancipation (and family friendly!) beginning with the letters in Turner Sims and promised to compose a rap to it.
Here’s what Soweto was given:
T - toffee (!) U – ultra R – retro N – new album E – Egypt R – rambunctious S – symbodic (some debate about this word but Soweto took it on spiritedly – I’ve since looked it up in my huge dictionary and couldn’t find it) I – individuality M – momentous S – not repeated!
It goes without saying, Soweto delivered. Respect. Listen to ‘Intermission – Split Decision’ on Conversations with the Unseen and you can hear that Soweto is a storyteller as much as a political commentator. It is a song about love and human frailty in the face of temptation, told with a mature emotional insight.
So while his music goes from political to escapist and is impromptu and composed, a human narrative always underpins it. Soweto the communicator is gifted not only in the art of music but also the art of conversation – he is sensorily bilingual if you like.
The power in the play that we the audience love comes from this unique combination of pure music and a played talk.
The demands for the band to perform in this way is high – the music is involved and demanding. Yet throughout the gig, the whole band played with smooth precision and sensual power.
The entire band commits to their music and we see this in their delivery and their concentration on stage – their rhythmic timekeeping and love of the music. They were simply awesome. Such is their timing that in their hands silences become a sound – almost a percussive element in their music. This would not be possible if timing was anything other than bang on time, every time.
The moves between the instruments are languid and cool, reflective of their personalities. Take Femi Temowo (guitar) for instance: face-to-face he is gentle. He is so laid back that you feel that to speak with him on the level you’d have to be lying down to match his easygoing nature. This and more comes out in his guitar playing – not only is his play easy and naturally persuasive, Femi also plays the guitar like he is in love.
In keeping with the character of the music, Karl Rasheed-Abel on bass and drummer Graham Godfrey too have intimate relationships with their instruments that are heard in their play. Karl even joked afterwards that the bass was his girlfriend! That is how he holds his instrument on stage – she is precious and he coaxes a beautiful full beat out of her that gives a velvet background to the sound.
Graham is a spectacular drummer. Close to his drums, he is physically seated as far into the middle of his instruments as a drummer can be. His play is strong and vanquishing, muscular with a ‘beautiful thrash’ in the more political numbers; gentle and persuasive in others like “Escape”. The dynamics on his play match and add to the conversational language of Soweto’s instrument – so at times he will click, clack, clink – his control is incredible and he will stop a reverb to bolster a sweet thud – every beat, half beat and quarter beat timed to perfection.
Lucky for us that Soweto and his band can harness and convert his natural emotional and musical intellect into music with such control, interest and beauty. ‘Gangsta rappa’ or ‘jazz supremo’? Both. There we have it. An awesome talent with a true heart and intellect to match. A man of music and a man of words giving his talent to us in a beautiful meaningful sound. A man who stands up for his principles and truth – hear it in his play and see it in his actions as another year sees the Flyover Festival take off under Soweto’s captaincy.
– Rose Paul
St Pauls Lifestyle inc Overground Sound