Few musicians bring the experience of freedom – of living in a world that is open and limitless – as intimately; dangerously close as South African jazz drummer and composer Kesivan Naidoo. Watching him perform live is like marvelling at a cross between bop mathematician Max Roach, free jazz architect Sunny Murray and … Animal, the wild drummer of The Muppets fame.
“A lot of people say I’m a rock drummer trapped in a jazz musician’s world!” laughs Kesivan. “And I consider that a complement”.
His idiosyncratic style has its roots in his youth in South Africa. One of the first non-white students in a formerly white school, Kes grew up in the 1990s, surrounded by grunge rock heads. For a laatie (youngster) who fell in love with jazz at the tender age of ten and who was performing professionally by 14, it would have been easy for him to sneer at his slacker rock contemporaries. Instead, he listened in.
“I always try and bring the energy and angst I got from rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden into jazz music because I believe it’s for everybody, it’s about expression,” he says. “It’s important for me to acknowledge the energy of that that time, it was hard hitting.”
The energy Kesivan is talking about is, of course, his experience of freedom following South Africa’s democratic revolution. Born into South Africa’s so-called Y Generation – a “freedom’s children” that got to celebrate the liberation their parents fought so hard for – as a drummer and composer he’s always been conscious of the need to forge a new musical identity.
“The rest of the world is looking to my generation for that new sound,” he says. “Miriam [Makeba], Hugh [Masekela] and Abdullah [Ibrahim] have done their thing. It’s iconic. Their message was politically driven. Now it’s different. We have a responsibility to forge that new sound.”
For Kesivan, this new sound rooted is in the art of improvisation, in rapturous expression and radical invention – but most importantly in listening.
“South Africa needs to have more of an open mind to the art of improvisation,” he says. “That magic that happens when people are improvising – it’s like you’re witnessing telepathy. And through all the bullshit that we’ve been exposed to in life, telepathy is one of those things you can’t lie about, it’s inter-soul communication. Improvisation is one of the gateways to get there. Being in that moment right there and then, it’s almost an acknowledgement that we’re all alive together.”
It’s this vitality that has informed Kesivan’s collaborative vision. Over the past two decades he’s forged relationships across the world, having performed in Africa, Europe, Asia and America with jazz luminaries including Dave Liebman, Danilo Perez, Bheki Mseleku, Zim Ngqawana, Miriam Makeba, Feya Faku, Rene McLean, Selelo Selota, Judith Sephuma, Errol Dyers, Hotep Galeta, Mike Rossi, Steve Newman, Carlo Mombelli Bruce Cassidy, Jimmy Dludlu, Winston Mankunku and more. He’s also honed his diverse musical vocabulary anchoring innovative groups including Tribe (traditional jazz), Golliwog (funk), Closet Snare (electronic jazz), Babu (world music) and Beat Bag Bohemia (contemporary classical).
His latest crew, Kesivan and The Lights are both a testimony to his openness to collaboration and a celebration of a musician coming into his own and reaching the holy grail of jazz: a unique voice.
“When I turned 30 Miles’ sax player, Dave Liebman, told me ‘listen, this is the right age for you to become a leader now.’ This is the time,” he reflects.
Embracing the moment for Kesivan entailed taking a step back, returning to his passion for acoustic jazz on his first album, Instigators of the Revolution.
“It pertains to the instigators of the revolution in acoustic music back home,” he says about the genesis of the album title. “Bheki Mseleku and Winston Mankunku were monumental to my progress. “As the first record I did as a leader I had to pay tribute. You’ve got to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going.”
A true innovator, Naidoo is not content to simply revisit the music of his heroes. Instead, together with The Lights he combines history and innovation; sound, rhythm and expression to share a master class in acoustic jazz that ranges from reverential in-the-tradition renditions of Mseleku’s “Monk’s Mood” and Mankunku’s “Dedication” to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and John Coltrane’s “India”. There’s also more ‘extreme’ musical makeovers including a deconstruction of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a Goema rendition of Bjork’s “In the Musicals” and an interpretation of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”.
“I really want to have fun with the music and want other people to have fun listening to us have fun with the music,” explains Naidoo. “’Single Ladies’ is a standard. It’s a nice open tune to improvise on. We morph it a bit, there’s a vague statement of the melody, but you can basically hear the tune from the drum groove and the guitar riff. And the groove is happy.”
It’s this joy that shines throughout the Lights performace, which flows with the awareness that breath is rhythmic, life’s sound has textures and light does, indeed pulse. Veering from fiery, playful passion and sensitive downbeat reflection, to winsome, warm nostalgia and eventually, hope, Kesivan and The Lights reignite the possibility of staging a new revolution from within the South African jazz canon.
Bridging worlds, exploring melodicism amid mayhem, bring together old and new, playing between jazz improvisation, pop, hip-hop, rock, and acoustic approaches, Kesivan and the Lights are rewriting jazz history to create the future sound of now – while remembering yesterday.
“I’ve worked with the greats. They’ve been guiding lights for me. So therefore I have a responsibility to take it further and keep it going. My generation is trying our damndest to make sure the music stays alive,” he says. It’s this generation that Kesivan is leading into a brave new jazz future.
The Lights line-up performing at Carnegie Hall’s Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa Festival in New York City this October boasts a roll call of young South African jazz guns including fellow Standard Young Artist of the Year winners Kyle Shepherd (piano) and Shane Cooper (double bass), guitarist Reza Khota, alto saxophonist Justin Bellairs and special guest, Feya Faku on trumpet.
“The music evolves every time you play it,” says Kesivan. “My message is this is the starting point, and I’m definitely taking it further.” As Naidoo concludes, “Jazz music is meant for everybody, if you’re open to it, you can receive it.”
Kesivan Naidoo: Quick Facts
2000 – 2014
Graduated from the University of Cape Town with Bachelor of Music (Honors). Winner of the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition in 2000 (Youngest person to win this competition). Later he took up the scholarship in India to study under Prof. Sanjoy Banbopadhyay.
Winner of the U.C.T Honors counsel scholarship (2002).
Winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year (2009).
In April 2010 he released his first album as a band leader. Called Instigators of the Revolution the album featured some of Europe’s leading jazz musicians, this band is known as “The Lights”. The album was nominated for a SAMA award in the best Traditional Jazz Category in 2011.
As a composer, Kesivan has worked on feature films and documentaries. In 2001 he won a SAFTA (South African Film and Television award) for Best Music Composition in a Feature Film.
Kesivan brings a musician’s perspective of the artistic and organizational demands of performance. He is a Zildjian Artist endorsing both Cymbals and Sticks as well as New Clear Blasts (Blassticks under his own special name Kezonators)
As the Creative Director of Silent Revolution Music, Kesivan is also a music activist. His vision for South African Jazz is to develop the South African Music Centre in all the major cities in the country, creating a sustainable music circuit for current professionals in the music industry on a performance, education and production level.
In December 2011 Kesivan opened Straight No Chaser (formerly The Mahogany Room) along with trumpeter Lee Thomson. A jazz/ acoustic music space in Cape Town, the club was voted one of the 150 great jazz venues of the world by Down Beat Magazine.