During the apartheid era in South Africa, a heady brew of danceable Jazz bubbled up from the townships. The all white National Party hated it and a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ followed. As soon as one venue was shut down by the police, another would spring up. The music was resilient and hopeful. No racist or repressive regime likes Jazz because it has rebellion, hope and joyous defiance in its DNA. The Zimbabwean born Thabani Gapara imbibed South African Jazz from his earliest days, eventually taking up the saxophone, that most anti establishment of instruments. Since then, he has performed in Zimbabwean, South African and New Zealand projects.
The powerful influence of Cape Town Jazz is especially evident – the cradle of South African improvised music. Since coming to live in New Zealand he has collaborated with many well-known musicians; The Hipstamatics, Batucada Sound Machine, Stan Walker and others. He has recently completed a B. Mus. in Jazz at the New Zealand School of Music and after graduating, he formed this group. Unbelievably, this was their first gig.
There were a few ballads during the night but the music was mainly of a danceable, high-octane, delightfully groove based type. The key to the vibe was leader Thabani Gapara. What a great stage presence he has; the ready smile that he flashes when someone mines a groove. It is also his tone on all three horns, the marvellous compositions and tight arrangements. His compositions all reference his life’s journey and they strike a nice balance between groove hooks and flights into melodic ecstasy. I am always drawn to musicians who dance while they play. This is not an easy thing to pull off; it can affect concentration and in a reeds or winds player, it can affect the embouchure. Gapara skillfully utilises body movements to enhance the groove and he does so without a hint of contrivance. He wowed them and the audience gave back, and during that interaction, the spirit of live improvised music glowed like a fire.
There is no doubt that the band was well rehearsed. No group can generate that sort of energy or negotiate changes or tricky rhythms without being comfortable with each other. I have heard guitarist Nathan James once before; on this gig he was wonderful. The interplay between he and Gapara was conversational, the sort of conversation that friends might have on good night out. When his solo’s intensified they never strayed far from the groove. The other chordal instruments were played by Peter Leupolu, nice effects and in the pocket; subtly pushing the others; urging them on. Lastly, we come to electric bass player Issac Etimeni and drummer Elijah White. The audience was wildly enthusiastic about both. The punchy post-Jaco electric bass; the groove-based drumming bravura.
They played a number of Gapara’s compositions; ‘The Journey’ (which I have posted), ‘Places and Faces’, ‘Tears’, ‘Family’, and ‘On The Beach’. All of these strongly referenced Southern African Jazz. To my delight, they also played Roy Hargrove’s fabulous ‘Strasbourg St Denis’ – a great tune and executed with such verve and Joy. The remaining numbers were, ‘Spanish Joint’ (D’Angelo), ‘Time Will Tell’ (Bobby Watson), ‘I Can’t Help It’ (Stevie Wonder), and ‘I Want You Back’ (Jackson Five). I still have a 45rpm of that at home (the Jacksons first’ break-through Motown recording). After the gig, I talked to Gapara about his music. I told him that I had experienced this style in Paris where it thrives in clubs like the New Dawn: played by the likes of Etienne Mbappe, Hugh Masekela etc. He agreed, saying that Paris is the new centre for experiencing these Jazz blended, bass heavy, African influenced styles. Now, as migration increases, the styles are evolving again; evolving as they move around the planet. Influences are never static; they bounce back and forth endlessly.
If you see this group playing anywhere, grab a ticket and experience the fun. They truly deserve to do well and I hope they stay together for the long haul. Another great night, in an already wonderful CJC, Thirsty Dog season. Get down there on a Wednesday folks.
Thabani Gapara Project: Thabani Gapara (alto, tenor, soprano saxophones), Issac Etimeni (electric bass), Peter Leupolu (keyboard & piano), Nathan James (guitar), Elijah White (drums) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 13 September 2017.