by Howard Lawes
Howard Lawes explores the story and music of the award-winning Zulu and jazz ensemble
"Ubunye deliver a soulful, goose bump inducing performance of original pieces cleverly fused with South African songs. It is a fantastic multi-cultural experience." (Ubunye website)
The music of Africa has been and continues to be greatly admired around the world. Africa is such a huge continent that it comes as no surprise that it is home to many different styles of music but certain characteristics such as call and response techniques and polyrhythmic patterns are found throughout. Music is very much part of African everyday life whether this be social, formal or religious and such occasions will inevitably include dance and song.
African music travelled with those that were enslaved to America where it formed the foundation of jazz, blues, gospel, reggae and any number of Latin American genres. Written and recorded versions of this music were exported back to Africa, and perhaps most notably to South Africa where local artists such as Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba became renowned jazz musicians. The imposition of apartheid forced them to abandon their homeland but launched them onto the world stage. In 1986, despite a cultural boycott because of the apartheid regime in South Africa, American singer Paul Simon incorporated Zulu voices in his hugely successful album Graceland. As in much of Africa, the music of the Zulu is highly regarded, enabling the communication of emotions and situations which could not be achieved by merely talking. Zulu music incorporates rhythm, melody and harmony – the latter is usually dominant and known as ‘isigubudu’ (which can be translated as converging horns on a beast, with tips touching – an inward spiral that reflects inner feelings). The Zulu voices heard on Paul Simon’s Graceland album were those of Ladysmith Black Mambazo who subsequently toured the world with numerous stars and received three Grammy Awards. They and the Soweto Gospel Choir have popularised the music of South Africa around the world.
Ex-patriates from the African diaspora have long entertained and excited the residents of their adopted countries with music, singing and dance from their homelands. The Notting Hill Carnival in London and Africa Oye in Liverpool are established festivals while the first Leeds International African Festival took place recently as part of the Leeds 2023 Year of Culture. However back in 2005, musician and educator, Dave Evans established and directed the first Garforth Arts Festival which featured the Zimbabwean dance group Siyaya working with local primary schools. Over the next 10 years, the festival regularly featured a variety of art forms, including comedy, theatre, circus, music, literature, art and dance. Most events were commissioned educational projects involving children and professional artists. Dave's interests in Africa, jazz and education may well have influenced festival line-ups that included jazz stars Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch, Hugh Masekela and Femi Kuti. In 2009 the event was host to 400 children who took part in an African music exchange project (with the help from Garforth Academy's Partner school: Mzuvele High School, Durban, South Africa). In 2011 the procession featured a collaborated song written by the Mzuvele High School and the ‘Fruit Tree Project' (a jazz trio of Evans Higgins Wibrew) and involved another 400 local children while in 2012 the Mzuvele High School Choir, travelling from Durban for their first performance in the UK performed at the festival. (The video is here). In 2013 the Playground Party at Garforth Festival saw performances from children working with a Huddersfield based group called Zulu Tradition and Phoenix Dance Theatre while in 2015, the last festival featured performances by a band called Ubunye (which was partly drawn from members of Zulu Tradition and a jazz trio called the Fruit Tree Project (Dave Evans - keyboard, Kenny Higgins - bass guitar and Alex Wibrew - drums).
Ubunye received the award of 'Best Ensemble' by the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Group which was presented to them at Pizza Express Holborn on 4th July 2023. Afterwards, I caught up with two band members, Dave Evans and Xolani Mbatha via Zoom. As it transpired Ubunye will be appearing at the same venue during the EFG London Jazz Festival on 18th November which prompted Dave to pay tribute to John Cumming (founder of the London Jazz Festival) who was instrumental in securing Hugh Masekela for one of the Garforth Arts Festivals. Dave couldn't identify exactly how his interest in African music came about but what he did remember was a visit he paid to Mzuvele High School as part of the African music exchange mentioned above. On arrival at the airport in Durban, he was greeted by the schoolchildren and he was welcomed with song and one can only imagine the lump in his throat that he must have felt. As part of the music exchange project the children from the school, which is in KwaMashu, composed and recorded songs and these were played at the Garforth Festival in 2011, and then in 2012, enough money was raised to bring some of the children to perform in the UK. Following the appearance of Zulu Tradition at the Garforth Festival in 2013 Dave visited Xolani and friends in Huddersfield where he was "blown away" by the music and vocal traditions that he heard and this was the lightbulb moment when Dave and Xolani decided to form Ubunye. Xolani arrived in the UK in mid-winter 2005 and it was so cold he was ready to go straight back to warmer climes. He and his friends have trained as both classical and traditional singers and spend time visiting schools, colleges and events performing songs, music and dance from both Zulu and Xhosa traditions as epitomised by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir which Xolani cited as influences. One aspect of the language of both Zulu and Xhosa people is the use of clicking and this element is evident in the songs that they perform.
In 2018 Ubunye appeared at the Ribble Valley and Lancaster Jazz Festivals and established a reputation which led to them performing at several venues in the North of England. Prior to the Covid pandemic, they had released singles and an EP but their debut album was delayed for a while. Finally in April 2022, their self-titled album Ubunye came out on 33 Jazz Records and had a great critical response with radio play on BBC 6 Music, Jazz FM, Worldwide FM, BBC Radio London, BBC Introducing, and Solar Radio.
Members of Ubunye talk about their band and music in the video here.
Ubunye is essentially a collective and can draw upon a pool of musicians who have become familiar with their music. The line-up on their debut album has Xolani Mbatha (vocals, and vocal percussion), Thanda Gumede (vocals), Nokuthula Zondi (vocals), David Evans (keyboards, synths), Nik Rutherford (guitar), Kenny Higgins (bass guitar, synths) and Alex Wibrew (drums, percussion). Much of the music on the album was composed by Dave Evans with contributions from Thanda Gumede, Bongi Gwala, Xolani Mbatha and Kenny Higgins while Gwala, Evans, Higgins and Gumede contribute lyrics.. The front cover of the album features the work of live gig artist, Gina Southgate.
Once the lockdown was over Ubunye started performing again and received great acclaim at Manchester Jazz Festival where artistic director, Steve Mead commented "Ubunye is a joyous celebration and proof, should it be needed, of the creative energy and unity possible when cultures meet through the medium of music. Rejoicing in their wide-ranging backgrounds, ages and styles, they were a surefire hit with the Manchester Jazz Festival audience, uplifting the soul with their close vocal harmonies, undulating rhythms, and affirmative lyrics, and with a powerful facility to reach and affect listeners far beyond the reaches of jazz.” The implication of Steve Mead's comment is that the music of Ubunye appeals, not just to jazz fans but to a much larger audience, a view that Dave Evans would certainly agree with. Dave believes that it is nigh on impossible to pigeon-hole the band's music as a particular genre but rather that they borrow from a wide range of styles that includes jazz but also gospel, soul, dance music, electronica, highlife, afrobeat and township. However, in common with other improvised music, live performances continually develop and no two will ever be the same.
Previous winners of the APPJAG award for Best Ensemble include bands such as Ezra Collective, Phronesis and Kokoroko who have gone on to become star performers around the world. Dave and Xolani were a touch circumspect when imagining what the future might hold for them. Xolani looks forward to performing at festivals such as Love Supreme and Glastonbury while Dave clearly enjoys the more intimate setting of a jazz club where artists and audience establish a rapport that is as exciting for the artists as it is for the audience. However, both would love to take the band to South Africa which would inevitably have a special significance, particularly given Dave's earlier association with Mzuvele High School. If the band were to become as successful as some of the illustrious previous award winners this would be both welcome but also life-changing. Like all musical artists, Ubunye creates music both for themselves and for their audience but how the audience reacts and what happens in the longer term is largely unpredictable.
Future performances of Ubunye, such as at the EFG London Jazz Festival in November, are likely to include more musicians with three vocalists, a selection of horns and a rhythm section. The line-up at the moment is Xolani Mbatha (vocals, and vocal percussion), Nokuthula Zondi (vocals), David Evans (keyboards, synths), Nik Svarc (guitar), Sam Dutto-Taylor (bass guitar) and Steve Hanley (drums, percussion).
Ubunye, in the Zulu language, means 'unity' which not only describes the harmony of their music but also the universality of music as a world language promoting love and community. Following a recent performance at Wakefield Jazz Club someone said: “In that moment, it seemed hard to believe that anything so propulsive and joyous could come to a halt. The same could be said about the applause and shouts that followed.”
We could all do with a little more joy at the moment and listening to Ubunye could be a great way to get it.