Skyjacked: Kesivan Naidoo and the Tao of rhythm

South Africa’s pre-eminent jazz drummer celebrates improvisation and collectivism, and hails the virtues of tai chai.

World-travelling drummer Kesivan Naidoo grimaces as he glugs down a foul-looking fulvic acid brew. When you fly as much as he does, he explains, you need to guard your health. East London-born, now New York-based, Naidoo is back in South Africa for the launch tour of the South African/Swiss outfit Skyjack, as well as to reconnect with family and on- and offstage friends. 

He still misses home: “New York can be harsh when you’re not working. Here, people still take the time to talk to one another; they’re not always rushing somewhere. And we have the best jazz audiences, too. When venues give them a chance, they really listen.”

Skyjack is Naidoo’s main South African collaboration, after a career that started when he was 14 in 1993 with the Webster Jazz Quintet at the Hogsback Arts Festival. It has since extended to work with most of South Africa’s greats (including Miriam Makeba, Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim) and studies at the University of Cape Town; the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India; and, most recently, Berklee’s master of music in contemporary performance programme, where his main instructor was pianist Danilo Perez. 

Skyjack came together in 2013, when the players recognised instant common bonds at a Swiss jazz festival curated by the band’s saxophonist, Marc Stucki. The outfit comprises Stucki, Naidoo, Andreas Tschopp on trombone, Kyle Shepherd on piano and Shane Cooper on bass. Their first, self-titled, album appeared in 2015; now they have released their second, The Hunter

How the music has grown, reflects Naidoo, says a lot about the politics of collective improvisation.

“Then, we were just getting to know one another, and because we were all living in different places, we simply brought pre-prepared compositions together. Now, we’ve worked together a lot. We still bring music from our own projects, but we tailor it more to the group – we skyyjack it!

“I’ll notice certain things in my music and think: ‘Wait a minute – this could be a space for Shane.’ We’ve learned to challenge one another and find out where the edges are: in our personalities and in the music. Sometimes on stage the improvisation will go somewhere, and we’ll look at one another and think: ‘Whoa! How will we get out of this?’ Or just decide to carry on, because sometimes those ‘mistakes’ are the pathway to brilliant new music.” 

Applauding the collective

Whereas right-wing commentators in the United State have portrayed jazz as the embodiment of individualism, for Naidoo, it’s the antithesis of that. “You can take those risks only because you know your brothers will look after you … Jazz has its roots in African music, and both playing it and dancing to it are a collective thing: celebrating being in the same time together.”

Such thinking has always found expression in Naidoo’s work, particularly with his band The Lights, which featured the elder statesman of South African trumpet, Feya Faku. Their 2011 debut, Instigators of the Revolution, paid respect to the cultural revolutionaries striving to transform jazz and social consciousness. Its cover art riffed on Thelonious Monk’s Underground, with an AK47 on the drummer’s shoulder and a tenderpreneur trussed up in the corner.

Today, although he enjoys working and touring with multiple outfits, the place where those ideas find their strongest expression is in his work with bassist and social activist William Parker, on whose recent album, Flowers in a Stained-Glass Window & the Blinking of the Ear, he features. 

Naidoo met Parker at the bassist’s Vision Festival in Brooklyn. “I told him I’d played drums with [late saxophonist] Zim Ngqawana. He said: ‘Really? Are you free tomorrow?’ And tomorrow became the next day, and the next day, and now…”

Naidoo says Parker’s politics translate directly into his musical practice. “He’s the kindest and most caring muso I’ve met. One time I was coming home and he arrived at my place with a double-bass in a case to be given to a musician in Soweto. And I’ve learned a lot just hearing his recollections of organising protests in the Bronx.”

Improv in the streets

But it’s more than just memories. The post-Trump resurgence of right-wing reaction in the US has, Naidoo says, served as a wake-up call for progressives. “In New York, which is pretty liberal, you’ll hear people on the streets expressing anger and talking about what they can do. And we – William Parker’s crew – engage in strategic protests. We turn up at demonstrations, and just start banging out some heavy march tune, or some free music, live in the streets. You’ve got this cacophony of instrumental sounds, and when we start playing, the whole vibe lifts. It’s the most beautiful thing…” 

That mix of learning through theory in university and praxis on the bandstand and on the streets is, Naidoo feels, something South African jazz education could build on more. “You have to learn the skill sets and the theory. But the language of jazz comes from an oral tradition. You learn it from one another, with no paper involved. 

“I learned the most about the African way of playing jazz from hanging out at the old Bassline in Melville, and hearing Herbie Tsoaeli, Andile Yenana and Lulu Gontsana: that glorious Voice rhythm section.

“And it wasn’t until I started hanging out in Harlem that I really understood where the American jazz of the 1960s and after came from. I heard it in how people were talking to one another: the rhythms, the phrasing. You can get that direct transfer only from hanging out with people, and learning from the masters. And yet it seems there’s no place for our great jazz musicians in our universities, simply because they lack the right pieces of paper. The late Bheki Mseleku is an example. But when I was at Berklee, one of my teachers was [saxophonist] Joe Lovano. I actually had more pieces of paper than him – but hey, he’s Joe Lovano. They don’t make a piece of paper for that!”

Naidoo’s dream is to build that kind of educational experience for young players here, modelled on Ngqawana’s Zimology Institute. For now, though, he’s relishing the opportunities and dealing with the stresses of being a world-travelling rhythm player. To cope with the stress, he’s doing tai chi and engaging with Chinese philosophy via the Tao Te Ching. “It teaches you not to be always hustling. It makes you live in the moment. But hey,” he says, smiling, “that’s where drummers need to live.”

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