Sisonke Xonti — uGaba The Migration

uGaba The Migration is the beautiful, highly anticipated second album by South African saxophonist Sisonke Xonti released in November. This was to be a momentous year for Sisonke, as he was the recipient of the prestigious 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz and the year was set to be one full of performances, tours, and other opportunities. Due to the pandemic and the country heading into national lockdown, Sisonke instead focused his energy on writing and recording the album. It features him on tenor and soprano sax, along with Yonela Mnana (piano and vocals), Benjamin Jephta (double bass), Sakhile Simani, (trumpet), Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums), Tlale Makhene (percussion) and additional lyrics and poetry by Keorapetse Kolwane and Teboho Moleko. The album gets its record release via As-Shams records next year. For now, it is available on all good online platforms. Listen back to my Worldwide FM show to hear some of the tracks from the album, and part of this interview!

AK: Let’s talk a bit about conceiving the album and how you landed at the title uGaba The Migration?

SX: Initially, it was just going to be Migration and a couple of weeks ago I changed the titled and added uGaba The Migration. So, the whole concept behind it is me becoming more aware and more conscious. I always felt that even though I’m from the township, I’ve always lived this cushioned lifestyle. My parents were always protective. And I was always living through this floating state, not really aware of what’s happening around me. You know, everything is good, the world’s a beautiful place. And I sort of went through that floating that state, all the way through varsity even at the beginning of my professional career around 2013.

Around 2017, I went through some personal problems and I just started finding myself. I shifted the way I was thinking and the way that I viewed the world. Hence, I called it Migration because it was a migration of my state of consciousness. I started becoming more aware of what’s happening around me and the world that we live in. Aware of the places that I travel to; the people that I meet; the cultures that I get to interact with; the music that I get to play with different people. So, migrating from being one person to being the person that I am today

And I realized that wherever I go, I migrate with my ancestors. My clan name is uGaba, hence I named the album uGaba The Migration. So whatever changes I go through, my people go through those changes with me or through me.

AK: How did the recording process go, considering the album was made under lockdown?

SX: So, with the album, half of it was created before the lockdown and half of it was conceived during lockdown. The crazy part is that I was ready to record at the beginning of April. I had the guys ready to go to studio. The album was going to be different because I had different music for it. I had a different concept, that was still part of Migration. But when the president announced the national lockdown, I went into a panic because I was meant to be going into studio in a weeks’ time. I panicked for about two weeks then accepted the lockdown for what it was. And then I just started writing music again. And I was just so thankful that it happened because I wrote this new music which I really dug. And I thought why not actually scrap some of the songs which were supposed to be on the album and put some of the new ones in, because they reflect the times that we’re living in. It captures some of the changes that I’d gone through, so I really wanted to tell that story as well. Song like ‘Nomalungelo’, ‘The Call’, and ‘Migration Suite Part 4’ — those songs were written during lockdown. So, I’m really grateful for that break.

I’m thankful for the lockdown because it helped me create these new songs which are now on the album. It was a very difficult time because it was hard to gather with the band to try out new material. We were helped by the fact that we performed at the Makhanda Jazz Festival in June, so that’s where we tried the music out for the first time and thank God it worked out. Just after that we went into studio to record the music. As difficult as it was, I’m just glad that it all worked out. And it’s so good now to be back playing live gigs. It’s been a difficult year. Some of us have been able to do online gigs but it’s just not the same without an audience. There’s an energy missing, that little spark. It’s really great to be back to performing.

AK: So, the first track I’ve chosen to play is one of my favourites,Nomalungelo’, can you tell me a bit about this song?

SX: ‘Nomalungelo’ has also become one of my favourites. I really didn’t like this song initially. I was really just fooling around when I wrote it. I sent a recording of this song to Yonela Mnana. And he was like “Man, this is it. This is it!”. I guess the song is quite playful but serious at the same time. The direct translation of nomalungelo is the name of a woman who owes me money for something, but I need to use this money to drink and party. But the serious part is that its actually directed at our leaders who have forgotten about us, who have forsaken us. We put them into power and now they hide behind big walls and security fences, drinking expensive drinks, throwing lavish parties — and all we want is just a sip, just a small sip, so we can also be good too.

AK: The second track we’re playing is ‘Newness’, how did this song come about?

SX: ‘Newness’ is my other favourite. I wrote this song just before I went on tour to Mozambique in early 2018, so it was written late 2017. I had fallen in love and met an amazing human being. As I said, around 2016 I went through a rough patch in my life. And then, this lovely person just came through and helped me heal. Just made me smile again. It’s just a celebration of that newness, that shift from the darkness to the light. So, that’s what ‘Newness’ is about, its dedicated to that period. Just celebrating lightness and happiness.

AK: The final track from our selection is ‘Migration Suite Part 1’, taken from the four-part suite on the record. What was the process of writing this suite like?

SX: The migration is really about my personal journey. As I said, me migrating consciously and in terms of the way I think. Being more aware of what’s happening around me, even in my travels. Just to be more appreciative and more aware of that floating, semi-privileged state. ‘The Migration Suite’ is my third favourite off the album. It was supposed to be one long composition with different parts, but I broke it up because of radio play. I loved the journey it takes musically. It was nice to write that and I pushed myself to write a long-form piece of work. I did for the first time and I’m quite happy with it. It’s just a piece of music I’m really proud of. I guess that’s why it’s also the title track of the album.

AK: What was the writing process like behind the track ‘Minneapolis’?

SX: The song was inspired by the tragic events that occurred in Minneapolis with the death of George Floyd. I only heard about it about a week later. At that time, I was staying away from the news and I was in a heavy practice routine. And I went on Instagram one day and saw everyone talking about. I stumbled upon the story and thought, it’s so brutal. And of course, these things happen in South Africa, but they also not spoken about in the news. And then this story came out, it really, really, really took me aback. I didn’t even plan to write a song. Just after I read that story, I was on the piano, just playing and came up with this. That song for me, is just one long meditation. It’s quite repetitive. It just builds and builds and builds. When I started playing that, I just started thinking about George Floyd again. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I was playing this over and over again, meditating on the story and thinking about how brutal the world we live in is. It wasn’t planned, it just came to me, so I named it ‘Minneapolis’.

AK: ‘Sinivile’ is another stand-out track, what is the background there?

SX: ‘Sinivile’ speaks to my teachers to say thank you. This is our time now to pave our own way forward, to create our own sounds and not to be held back. When I wrote this song ‘Sinivile’, I wasn’t thinking about that Pink Floyd song, not even in the slightest way. It was written for our teachers to give us a space and room to grow and express ourselves fully.

AK: Was the album originally planned for this year, to coincide with the Young Artist Award?

SX: I actually wanted to record the album last year already. It just so happened that I got the award towards the end of last year, so that kind of helped me do it a little sooner. I wanted to get it out in April this year. The reason why it took so long was because the trumpet player Sakhile Simane, who I wanted to use, was based in East London as he is teaching that side. After we planned to record in April, then the president announced the national lockdown at the end of March, so it took longer than I anticipated, and we only ended up recording in June this year.

AK: For you, how does this album feel different than your debut Iyonde?

SX: Every aspect is different really. Because it was made in a different time. It was made by a different person, or rather someone who had changed or grown up. I felt like when I did Iyonde, it was just more about me getting my music on record, I didn’t have any solid plan in terms of the concept of the music and sound. I felt with this one it was more intentional. I had a bit more direction. I knew what I wanted to achieve. I knew the artists that I wanted to work with.

AK: Let’s talk a bit about the musicians who feature on the album?

SX: It wasn’t a really difficult one for me. I had an idea of the sound in my head. When I started thinking about the album, I was living with Yonela in Newtown, in about 2017. I just knew that I wanted him on it. He is such an underrated musician. A great pianist and great vocalist. And he also happened to co-produce the album. He was the first guy I had in mind. And then, Benjamin Jephta and Sphelelo Mzibuko, were supposed to record on my first album but that didn’t happen. I wanted them to be on this one, so that was a no-brainer for me. And then I was toying around with this idea of having a percussionist because I felt the music was quite heavy rhythmically. It felt like if I just had drums it wouldn’t capture what I had in my head. And so, the first person who came to mind was uBra Tlale Makhene, who is on a lot of albums I listened to while growing up. Albums from the 90s and early 00s from South Africa. So, I had to have him on it.

AK: It’s so great to hear some throat-singing feature throughout the record.

SX: On ‘Migration Suite: Part 1’, uBra Tlale had done that at rehearsal and I was like “WOW. Bra Tlale you need to do that again!” It captures the music so beautifully, or rather enhances it. I’m so glad he did it because it worked out beautifully!

Throat-singing is nothing new. It’s how we sing as African people. We’ve always had that tradition while singing, even Yonela does it on ‘Nomalungelo’. It’s not something that jumps out for me to be honest. It’s just our way of singing sometimes. I think our conditioning from the Western ways we’ve been taught music, has somehow made throat-singing a thing and its really not. If you go to traditional ceremonies that’s how people sing and its nothing out of the ordinary. It’s just how we sing.

AK: Finally, can you talk a bit about your song-writing process?

SX: I don’t have a set song-writing process. I don’t put much pressure on myself. It must be as honest and organic as possible. I always write when I’m practicing something specific, whether it be on the piano or saxophone. I don’t really have a process but I’m just glad ideas come to me. Sometimes they flow or sometimes it takes months and months. I guess that’s also because of my background because I was not taught music composition and arrangement. For me it’s a natural thing.

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