Zim Ngqawana – saxophones, flutes
Bjørn Ole Solberg – saxophones
Andile Yenana – piano
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – bass
Paal Nilssen-Love – drums
In 1995 the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and her delegation were set to visit South African President, Nelson Mandela and tour his country. Bjørn Ole Solberg was a student writing his thesis at the University of Trondheim on South African saxophone players, when he was commissioned to collect a group of musicians that would be invited to play as court musicians for the duration of the visit. This trip gave him the chance to build a working relationship with one of the most important young saxophonists and jazz musicians in South Africa; Zim Ngqawana. Because Paal and I had been playing with Bjørn Ole for some time, it was only natural that we be included in what would become an extension of our trio- the “SAN Ensemble”. This first trip to South Africa was an amazing experience! -leading to tours in both Norway and South Africa and the recording of the album “San Song”. Paal and I eventually returned to South Africa to play and record two albums with Zim: “Zimology” and “Ingoma”.
Zim Ngqawana died after suffering from a stroke in May 2011. He was only 52 years old. I feel very honored to have had the chance to work with Zim- a great human being and a highly spiritual musician. May he rest in peace!
Read excerpts from “All About Jazz” review of “San Song”, published in 2005 by Eyal Hareuveni:
“San Song represents the first appearance on record by one of South Africa’s greatest musical treasures, saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. The disc, which presented Ngqawana’s soulful vision to the jazz world, was recorded in Oslo in May of 1996 with Norwegian saxophonist Bjørn Ole Solberg and a young and rising Norwegian rhythm section. Ngqawana was 37 years old at the time of the recording; two years had passed after he led a 100-musician troupe at the inauguration of South African president Nelson Mandela, and 15 years since he began to play the flute. The disc demonstrates how culturally diversified and open jazz is, as it always has been.
San Song features two compositions by Ngqawana and four by Solberg. Ngqawana’s compositions, the opening “San Song” and the following impressive suite “Amagoduka (Migrant Workers),” demonstrate his explicit debt to the revolutionary and spiritual jazz of the ’60s, mainly late-era Coltrane, but also Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, and Yussef Lateef, with whom he studied. Ngqawana’s music is deeply rooted in the folk-based traditions of South Africa, very warm, powerful, and passionate, leaving a lot of room for improvisation. His compositions are build on melodic motifs, and like Coltrane, his improvisations, inside and out, add layer upon layer on these motifs. The affinity to Coltrane sound and spirit is also emphasized by Yenana, who clearly emerges from the McCoy Tyner piano school.
Solberg’s compositions are much more orchestrated, built around head-solo-head patterns, with a clear line of solos, but they show how tight this collective can be, and how every player has already gained a distinct voice by this early stage in their musical career. The closing piece, “Øde,” is Solberg’s most appealing composition. The serene suite is built around a repeated piano pattern, leaving a lot of space to the two saxophonists to improvise throughout its almost sixteen minutes, bringing the album full circle to the intensity of its opening.
San Song is a second-generation collaboration between South African and European musicians, almost thirty years after South African jazz musicians like Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, and Mongezi Feza departed into exile from the apartheid regime of South Africa. It’s a very convincing statement of how music can build bridges between traditions, nations, and—obviously—human beings.”