I have been trying to recall when exactly it dawned on me that pianist, trombonist, drummer and visual artist Malcolm Jiyane was a genius. The first time I saw him playing live was in 2009 on a cold rooftop in downtown Johannesburg as the keyboardist in the band Future History. I didn’t even know his name yet, but I recognised the band had a gifted keyboardist.
Did it dawn on me when I saw Jiyane play a solo piano show on a mild November night in 2015 at the Afrikan Freedom Station, the arts hub in Westdene, Johannesburg? He had rigged up his piano to a midi controller he was using to manipulate the sounds from the keys. The results were captivating – South African jazz piano affected and deconstructed. Those lucky enough to be huddled on the Freedom Station’s wooden benches that night sat spellbound.
Was the moment during a performance in February 2016, after a torrential summer downpour, where Jiyane and three collaborators reworked the great Yakhal’ Inkomo (The Bellowing Bull) at that same venue? Released in 1968 by Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi, the song is thought to be the most successful South African jazz record of all time. Jiyane’s partners in art that night were drummer Tumi Mogorosi, guitarist Sifiso Buthelezi and writer Percy Mabandu. Listening to their interpretive performance of the classic piece of jazz was a spiritual experience.
Portrait of the artist
Jiyane was a regular at the Freedom Station. In 2015, a few weeks after I watched his solo piano show with the midi controller, I moved into the neighbourhood, a few streets up from the arts hub. I began to watch Jiyane play regularly as he featured in a number of bands that called the Freedom Station home.
Back then, he played regularly with his band, the Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O, as part of Mogorosi’s Project ELO, and as a member of Linda Buthelezi’s GSAND. Jiyane is incredibly loved and respected by his peers, but because he has never released an album as a bandleader, he often remains on the fringes of the spotlight.
Listeners may have heard him on records by Herbie Tsoaeli, Idris Elba, Simphiwe Dana, Project ELO and Nduduzo Makhathini, to name just a few. The reverence Jiyane’s mentors and peers have for him is always self-evident. Steve Kwena Mokwena, the force behind the Freedom Station, says it was the musicians such as Jiyane that made the venue what it was. “What Malcolm does with music is something that people will write about when we are long gone,” he once told me matter of factly.
During one of the many times Jiyani and I have sat down to chat over the past few years, we talked about that 2015 show with the midi controller. He told me that show was an experiment and he was interested in the possibilities that the electronic world offered.
He said the appeal of the midi controller lies in “the beauty of not knowing” what things will look like when they “bloom”, and the beauty of knowing if you plant something and nurture it, it will grow. “It’s the mystery of it, the avant-garde of it,” he said. “The soil is very generous.”
Over many subsequent chats with Jiyane, I have come to understand that he loves speaking in metaphors of the earth. “Touching things that make sounds, I am fascinated by it,” he said. “I get to see all those colours.” “Touching a midi controller makes me a rose and touching something else makes me another flower … I see music like nature – you plant and you hope the seed will manifest and grow. If things die, they die, but they will bloom again as long as the earth is fertile. I have learned to accept that creation doesn’t end. That’s how it is – I just die and bloom and die and bloom again.”
Switched on to jazz
Growing up, Jiyane’s musical diet had consisted of gospel music and Radio Ndebele. “My grandmother is very Christian and my great grandfather and grandfather were pastors, so I grew up in church,” he said. “There was a guy who played keyboard at church. He used to play the bass with his left hand and the right hand would do other things on top of the gospel.”
Jiyane said he was drawn to the keyboard from the age of about eight or nine, but it would be a while before he got his hands on one. “I used to be scared to touch it. I knew if I put my hands on that thing, something would happen,” he said.
It was Milt “Bags” Jackson who turned the young Jiyane on to jazz, particularly his 1952 hit Bags’ Groove. At age 17, in December 1996, while Jiyane was living in a children’s home, a big band from the Music Academy of Gauteng came to play a concert for the kids at the home. When the band played Bags’ Groove, Jiyani said his hair stood on end. “My life changed,” he said definitively. “The song had so much energy.”
Inspired by the song, Jiyane signed up with other children from the home to learn music at the academy. A bus was organised to take the kids to the academy every day, and Jiyane began to learn how to play his first instrument, the drums. “I am a drummer by profession,” he said, chuckling.
He recalled how he embraced the academy wholeheartedly. “They ended up giving me the keys to the school because I used to get there early. I only slept at the home, often getting back at 8pm or 9pm.”
Johnny Mekoa, a legend of South African jazz, who at a young age was denied the opportunity to study music because he was black, founded the academy where the young Jiyane sought refuge.
Over the years, Mekoa shared the stage with other South African legends such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Barney Rachabane, Early Mabuza, Pat Matshikiza and Busi Mhlongo. As I chatted to Jiyane’s peers, they kept repeating the same thing: “You have to go see Bra Johnny”.
When I visited him in early 2017, Mekoa’s office looked like a musical storage room, with piles of instruments everywhere. It might have been the last interview Mekoa granted – he died a few months later in July.
“You know how I met Malcolm? He came from a children’s home called Kids Haven in Benoni. He was a street kid. I used to chase them in the street when they dodged school,” Mekoa recalled, laughing. “I knew all the corners where I would find them, and I would park the car far away and then pounce on them. I put them in the car and took them back to school!” It’s clear from the way Mekoa talked about Jiyane that they had a close relationship. At one point, he referred to Jiyane as his son.
By 1997, Mekoa had formed a big band with the children from Kids Haven, with Jiyane as the drummer. “I used to watch him as he played,” he said. “He was very rhythmically sensitive.”
Jiyane soon picked up a second instrument, the trombone, which he borrowed from another boy who lived at the home. Mekoa remembered that Jiyane took to the instrument with relish.
While at the academy, Jiyane got to attend many master classes and workshops with visiting international musicians such as trombonist Brent Wallarab. Mekoa recalls that they were always impressed with Jiyane when they jammed.
“I tried to push Malcolm to study,” he said. “I managed to get him into the University of KwaZulu-Natal.” But things didn’t work out – the week after Jiyane left for university, he called Mekoa to say he was coming home. “He said, ‘Bra Johnny, there is nothing for me here. I will come home and explain to you,’” said Mekoa.
Mekoa chuckled as he explained Jiyane’s reason for leaving so soon – his talent had eclipsed the talent of the university’s trombone teacher and embarrassed him. He also spoke about the time he took Jiyane to the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival, because he had heard that trombonist John Fedchock was going to be in Grahamstown. When Jiyane started to play, “all hell broke loose” while Fedchock stood dumbstruck.
“That boy is gifted,” Mekoa exclaimed. “He is something special.”