Words by David C. Obenour
Few things in life have the luxury of being planned. So much of what makes up who we are and what we do is cobbled together from chance and circumstance. Some attribute that to luck, some to hard work, and others to fate or the planning of a divine.
For his part, South African multi-instrumentalist sideman and bandleader, Malcolm Jiyane acknowledges what he has done to get here while putting faith in that work being a calling from God. Becoming fascinated with music through the annual Christmas performances at his child home, Jiyane has fostered that passion to become a respected performer in his own right – first with drums, then piano, then trombone.
Contributing to a number of acclaimed recordings, UMDALI is the first release under his lead. After patiently waiting in the studio they were recorded for circumstance and divine planning to align, Mushroom Hour Half Hour is helping to revive and release Jiyane’s debut LP.
Off Shelf: It has been an exceedingly rough couple of years. Can you talk about your experience throughout the pandemic? Were you based in Johannesburg throughout it?
Malcolm Jiyane: COVID really did us bad… no one was ready for such a thing. It was very challenging. I was here in Joburg, with my family — my daughter and her mother.
Ask all my friends… I think I’ve borrowed money from all of them! That’s how hard it was. I got kicked out of my cottage… I think about three times… I had to rely on real friends and family. I didn’t have any financial means. Our work requires us to be outside — festivals, venues, weddings, you know… and we couldn’t work. It was hell. Our work requires us to be able to do all these things — travel, see people, create, reflect, think… without those things, it’s R.I.P.
OS: While UMDALI is your debut album as a frontman, you’ve already amassed an impressive catalogue of recordings. Knowing this would be marketed as your “debut” how did that play into the songs and production that you wanted to capture?
MJ: I didn’t think about it. I don’t worry about that, I don’t have that kind of problem — this is God’s work. It just comes to me, my life is music — I sleep music, I drink music, I smoke music.
OS: The lead up to this album represented a time of great loss and joy, with the passing of your mentor Johnny Mekoa and the birth of your daughter. Can you talk about how those two milestones affected the album?
MJ: I was going through a lot. This was way before COVID, I think 2017… and I was already shitting myself, because of the shape of my life. I lost a very good friend of mine, Senzo Nxumalo and then after that my mentor, my father, a person who taught me so much in life — Baba Johnny Mekoa… and there was the birth of my daughter, and many other personal things.
While I was in this bubble, I was also in residency with the AFRIKAN FREEDOM STATION in Sophiatown, and Bra Steve came along and said, “I believe in you, I believe in your work… go for it!” And he facilitated that recording — UMDALI came out of that space.
Luckily, I had good friends who also love what I do, so we gave it our all. We only had a night to rehearse it, and God took care of the rest. We recorded it at Peter Auret’s studio, and we left it there because I wasn’t ready — I didn’t have resources. So, when Mushroom Hour came along and wanted to work with me, everything just happened. We went to Downtown Studios for the first session, and then back at Peter Auret’s studio — and Peter had kept it all these years. It was a coincidence; I didn’t see it coming.
OS: How has it been like coming back out of lockdown to perform the songs live? Have you played enough to notice any evolutions in how you’re starting to perform them with the feedback of an audience?
MJ: I don’t know how people feel, but I know this — nothing has changed between the human being and the music. Environments change, times change, life changes, the things we use… but God created the heavens and the earth, he gave us the power to create music, and that will never change. They are needed in life.
OS: I notice that I tend to gravitate toward percussionist-centered projects. While UMDALI is a full instrumental effort, Gontse Makhene’s work stands out. Can you talk about his contributions?
MJ: Percussion is meant to do that — to provoke the spirit. Everything else comes after that… so, well, we have to speak about the drum. And rhythm. It hits home. It’s a spiritual instrument. Gontse brought that, him and Lungelo Kunene [drummer].
OS: Now that you’ve had time to sit with the recordings from UMDALI, are there any moments from your collaborators that stand out to you as particularly impactful or impressive?
MJ: The first thing is… this is music that I’ve been hearing all my life, growing up, and as an artist. This is just between God and me. And then to hear people interpret it… that’s the most beautiful thing ever.
OS: Can you share any of your own moments from the album that you felt captured the emotion or sound you hoped to embody?
MJ: When I first heard music in my life, Bra Johnny played a trumpet; I think I was 13 or somewhere there… my hair stood on end. Ever since then, that‘s what I’ve always wanted to do to a listener. Or that’s what I want to surround myself with, musicians who can do that. I can’t pinpoint it. It’s all too beautiful to me.
OS: Trombone is a unique instrument in jazz. Can you talk about what has drawn you to it and how you like to utilize it both in your own works and as a collaborator?
MJ: My story with playing trombone has to do with the whole journey of where I started with music, and how I got to know Bra Johnny, and how I got to the Music Academy of Gauteng.
I was staying at a Children’s Home called Kids Haven, in Benoni. Bra Johnny used to come there every Christmas with his big band, to entertain the kids. We were a bunch of kids from rough backgrounds, enjoying the music… enjoying jazz. One day he said ‘anyone who wants to study music, speak to Moira’ — Moira was like the principal… or caretaker… Moira was the mother of a lot of street children around Benoni. So I get to the academy, and they’re demonstrating all the different instruments to us — ‘who wants to try the drums?’ I jumped up, and I’ve never looked back. I first learned the drums, then I became obsessed with the piano, and then the trombone came.
OS: Now that you’ve made your first statement as a frontman, in what directions of sound and exploration would you like to see your future albums taking?
MJ: I leave that to God. My main purpose is just to do it. I don’t worry about that. I just love what I do, and I’ll love it until I die. And live again. And die, and live again. Nothing will change. Expect the same love… just greater and greater.