A fantastic line – up of artists, incredible sound engineering, superb stage management, great live performances, a warm and receptive audience. Pretoria hosted a two-day jazz festival that left an indelible mark.

“If this year’s festival was so well organized, we can only assume that next year will be better. We are definitely coming back”, this is what one couple said as they were leaving Z K Matthews Great Hall, Unisa’s Muckleneuk Campus ending second day of this year’s Unisa Jazz Festival. The festival was the second instalment following its success last year.

Credit should be given the staff at the tertiary institution who worked tirelessly to put a festival that left a good impression among jazz enthusiasts.  Not even the cold and wet weather of the first day deterred festival goers from showing up at the institution. Despite the heavy traffic that is always seen in Pretoria on Fridays, the audience was seated and waiting for the festival to kick off just before 17h00 as was promised by the organizers.


First  night of five different performances

Ildo Nandja. Picture by Zamindlela Zama

First to go on stage was the Ildo Nandja Trio.  Led by Mozambican born bass player and vocalist Ildo Nandja who is currently pursuing studies in Netherlands.  His opening tunes were dedicated to the victims and survivors of Cyclone Idai that devastated homes and killed more than 400 people in Beira, the fourth largest city of Mozambique.

Ildo uses his African rhythmical abilities and expertise advanced harmonic concepts to his compositions.  His sound blends Pan African rhythms and melodies with jazz, European and contemporary music influences.  These musical diversities reflect his experiences and the result is a combination of an experimental interdisciplinary sound.  Nandja uses his music to create awareness about several issues that need the world’s attention is addressing them.

As an activist and peace builder involved in community building, Nandja’s music is an instrument and a medium to bring awareness about the situations of the world, addressing issues such as unity, justice, equality, gender and social cohesion among many more aspects that are relevant in contributing to the betterment of society.

Pianist Bokani Dyer and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko completed the trio.  The music they performed was typical of what the audiences have been accustomed to from the Maputo born genius.  The trio struck a remarkable balance between world music and jazz while complimenting one another through their remarkable performance. While the audience was still captivated by the performance, Ildo announced they were performing their final song.

Mageshen Naidoo & Pete Sklair in the background. Picture by Zamindlela Zama

Director of Unisa’s Music Foundation, Karen Devroop, introduced the next act to perform which was the Mageshen Naidoo Ensemble.  The Durban born guitarist and senior music lecturer at the University of Pretoria was accompanied by Roland Moses on piano, Pete Sklair on bass, and an extremely talented Kevin Gibson on drums.  In less than 10 minutes, they were ready to perform and this was going to be the norm for the remainder of the night.

Naidoo performed songs which were about his life journey as an artist, the countries and places he has travelled, and the diverse people he has come across in that journey.  The years of experience for the guitarist were so evident in his performance. It was not surprising to hear Naidoo describing Gibson as one of the most booked drummers in the music industry.  Sklair is an accomplished bass player with tons of confidence while Moses was very gentle the piano just like Joe Sample.

Drummer Riley Giandhari is having a career that some musicians are only dreaming of.  His Riley G Collective were next on the menu. The rest of his group was made up of saxophonist and academic Salim Washington, pianist Sanele Phakathi, guitarist Ethan Naidoo and bassist Qhubekani Mthethwa.  Giandhari always gives a different performance every time he goes on stage and is a marvel to watch.  The Riley G Collective unapologetically played straight ahead jazz and Washington was brilliant on the saxophone and flute, much to the delight of the audience.

Phakathi also hit those notes on the piano to the approval of his fellow band members and applause from the jazz enthusiasts that were given a sterling performance. Naidoo and Mthethwa also completed each other on guitar and bass respectively.  The improvisation that was seen from the Riley G Collective was world class.  As the drummer and bandleader, Gandhari was in his usual great form.


By this time the audience was fired up

Fabrizio Savino. Picture by Zamindlela Zama

Next was the Fabrizio Savino Ensemble.  From his debut album that was released in 2009 entitled “Metropolitan Prints”, the 38-year-old Italian guitarist has had a successful career despite his humility.  Savino was accompanied by Karen Devroop on saxophone, Rob Watson on drums, Marc Duby on bass and Rolan Moses was back to play the piano with Savino. His sounds were a mixture of what he has been accustomed to and what he has learned from musicians he interacts with throughout the globe.  The story of how Savino and Devroop met is an indication how small the world is to those that travel extensively.

Artvark Saxophone Quartet were something of a surprise.  The Dutch outfit was made up of Rolf Delfos on alto saxophone, Bart Wirtz on alto saxophone, Mete Erker on tenor saxophone and Peter Broekhuizen on baritone saxophone.  The group has already performed in major international festivals such as The North Sea Jazz Festival, The Cairo Jazz Festival,and The Bohemia Jazz Festival in Prague. Their sound was unique, authentic, well-rehearsed and restored the appreciation of live jazz performance.


Artvark leading in the rendition of Yakhal’Inkomo.  Video by Zamindlela Zama

Artvark meanders through musical traditions and slides across the stage according to an improvised choreography.  Artvark stands for innovative original compositions, strong individual soloists and the adventurous groove of saxophones.  Artvark thrills, stinks, growls and sizzles.  They performed only four tunes with the first being longest. Members of this quartet completely understand, respect and complement one another.  Just when the audience thought the first day of the festival was over, they were joined by some of the instrumentalists that had been performing earlier in the tune “Yakhal’Inkomo”, a Winston Mankunku Ngozi classic and one of the best jazz recordings by a South African musician.  The late saxophonist would have been proud to witness the rendition of his song.


Unisa Big Band featuring vocalist Gloria Bosman

The second day was more of a repertoire that ranged from traditional big band swing to contemporary jazz and original work. The 17- piece big band which was comprised of some South African jazz musicians including saxophonist Karen Devroop, pianist Roland Moses, trumpeters Sydney Mavundla, Sibusiso Mkhize and Siyanda Zulu.

Also, the big band included vocalist Gloria Bosman, guitarists Fabrizio Savino, Mageshen Naidoo, and Artvark. Gloria Bosman performed two songs including “House of Rhythm” much to the delight of the audience which included officials working at different embassies that are based in Pretoria. The programme of the second night was shorter that Friday’s but was a thrilling experience that portrayed the Unisa Jazz Festival as more international than local.

Unisa Big Band & Gloria Bosman perform A house of rhythm.  Video by Zamindlela Zama

One of the things that stood out about this festival was punctuality.  The other is how little time was spent in between the performances. It took 10 minutes or less to change between the acts that performed especially on the first day.  Sound quality was incredible.  Unisa Jazz Festival is growing in reputation and will be one of the major events to be hosted in this country.  It has the support from the management of the tertiary institution.

To learn more about the Unisa Music Foundation, visit their website www.unisa.ac/musicfoundation