“Versatility is how he approaches music. His passion for research has seen him publishing over 50 research publications which he presented in many parts of the globe. He is comfortable with jazz and classical music. This professor is involved in a number of music projects and wants to play all types of music really well. Despite all his accomplishments, he still regards himself primarily a musician”
Karendra Devroop, popularly known as Karén, is a Professor of Music and Acting Director of Music at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria. Devroop is a well-known saxophonist who also plays the piano. He is responsible for managing Unisa’s concert series, the Unisa Jazz Festival, Unisa’s national and international competitions and the Unisa Music Foundations community music engagement project which serves over 1 000 disadvantaged youth. The Unisa Piano Competition is rated among the best in the world and the Unisa Jazz Festival has featured extremely talented musicians.
“In addition to my responsibilities I try to publish my research and present at conferences as this is very close to my heart”, he told Jazz It Out. The hard-working academic was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg. As a child, he was constantly surrounded by music and played in several bands which performed jazz, pop, dance and Indian music. “It shaped who I wanted to be and gave me a sense of direction”, he recalls. Devroop is happy that many wonderful musicians such as pianist Ndunduzo Makhathini and vocalist Zoë Modiga are from Pietermaritzburg which gives him a sense of pride. He has not forgotten his roots and does his utmost best to impact younger artists in the city by providing opportunities for them and exposing them to national and international networks.
His father was a self-taught saxophonist who had an Indian band that played at weddings and shows. “Even though his regular job was at a shoe factory, music was his life”, he said. The band where his father played the sax recorded 13 album and 21 singles. When Karén’s father passed away, his elder brother who was the music teacher told him the band needed a keyboard player. He learned to play informally and started playing in the band. Him and his elder brother studied recorder and music theory and this formed the basis for his musical training. “I constantly listened to Spyrogyra, Grover Washington Jr, the Rippingtons and a lot of RnB”, reminiscing on those early encounters with music.
Devroop attended Bajioo and Maharaj Primary School (now called Allandale Primary) and Raisethorp Secondary School where he was fortunate to study music all the way through until matric. One of the people that had a very strong influence in him taking music seriously was Siva Dewar. “He was an incredible guitarist who helped me to enroll at the University of Natal where I took jazz piano as a second instrument to recorder”, he said. When he started playing saxophone, Siva told him: “You express yourself much better on the saxophone. You should focus on the saxophone”. Karén took the advice and concentrated all his efforts on saxophone. He was also influenced by the fact that his father and elder brother were both saxophone players, and felt inclined to be a saxophonist as well.
After obtaining his bachelors degree in music, he needed to get a job to support his single mother of 5 children, who had developed cancer. Karén was 11 years old when his father passed away. He found himself teaching Mathematics at St Oswalds High School in Newcastle. As a part time teacher at St Oswalds, he felt he needed a permanent job and be closer to home as his mother’s health was deteriorating. “I took a teaching post at Zwelibanzi High School in Umlazi where I taught music for 4 years”. This is where he learned to speak IsiZulu. He taught in a township where tensions between political parties often turned very violent resulting in killings.
As a professional musician, Devroop has recorded and performed with most of South Africa’s leading jazz artists. He has collaborated with artists from the USA, Netherlands, Germany, Venezuela, Canada, Italy, Thailand, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Mauritius and Seychelles. As a soloist, he has performed with his jazz quartet in the USA, Europe, Asia and South Africa. His most recent performances include the Kreol Festival (Seychelles), Virginia Arts Festival (USA), North Texas Jazz Festival (USA), Gretna Music Fest (USA), Amersfoort Jazz Festival (Netherlands), Taipei International Music Expo (Taiwan), Samui Latin and Jazz Festival (Thailand) and Unisa Jazz Festival (SA).
In South Africa, the saxophonist has performed with artists such as trumpeter Feya Faku, saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, vocalist Sibongile Khumalo, pianists Nduduzo Makhathini and Melvin Peters. His memorable experiences with international artists include Peter Beets (Netherlands), Artvak (Netherlands), Mateo Mera (Uruguay), Leonard Jacome (Venezuela), Koh Mr Saxman (Thailand), Bobby Ferrazza (US), James Ford (US) and Fabrizio Savino (Italy). Devroop has also performed with several national and international orchestras such as Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic, Sanremo Symphony (Italy), Orchestre del Theatro Traetta (Italy) and Lamont Symphony. “For me personally these collaborations have left a mark on my musical development and performance”, he told Jazz It Out. His is also grateful that he has not encountered musicians with big ego’s and personalities.
For most of his career, Karén recorded as a sideman with several groups including big bands. His debut solo recording titled “Reminiscing” was released in 2010. It received airplay in over 35 countries especially in Spain. In 2018 he released his second recording titled “The South African Jazz Songbook” with full orchestra and rhythm section. That recording broke many records with South African Tourism placing it on the entire fleet of SAA carriers (domestic and international) and was placed in over 80 South African Embassies and Missions abroad. “This album definitely surpassed my expectations”, he confessed. He wanted to do an “art album” that paid homage to the great South African composers.
He never expected that the album will achieve such national and international recognition. Some of the songs in “The South African Jazz Songbook” have been around for 70 years and they still appeal to the audiences. The acclaimed saxophonist attributes the album’s success to the selection of the tunes, the uniqueness of the instrumentation in a form of saxophone with full orchestra and jazz rhythm section. Karén has just finished recording his third album titled “Ancestral Home” which is scheduled for release soon. “This album goes back to my roots and is a more contemporary jazz album”, he said. The release was initially scheduled for March but had to be delayed as a result of Covid-19 and the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic.
Unisa has been providing music instruction for over 125 years which is primarily through distance education via online tools. Prof Devroop does not do any lecturing and is primarily in administration. The long-distance tertiary institution has several ensembles such as Unisa Bing Band. In forming the big band, they select students who are dedicated that can benefit from working alongside professional musicians. It has some of the country’s best young musicians. “We want the young musicians to grow and develop while performing with some of the established artists in the ensemble. This applies to our orchestra’s wind ensembles as well”, he asserted. Offering many opportunities to young musicians is top of his priority list, something he is extremely passionate about.
Fulfilling this mandate is made possible through the support he gets from the senior administration led by Principal and Vice Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya. “We are very fortunate to have incredible support for everything we do”, he acknowledged. This support has led to the growth of the Unisa Jazz Festival at an unprecedented rate. Planning for this festival starts over a year in advance. Devroop is also happy that Unisa has named some of its buildings such as Dr Miriam Makeba Hall after the icon as part of the country’s heritage. “Miriam Makeba did more than singing. She got the world to listen to what was happening in our country. Recognizing our artists by naming building after them is one thing but paying homage to their music is equally important”, he added.
Devroop has published over 50 research publications and presented them in many parts of the country. These research studies vary in focus. “My main focus areas are performing arts health, specifically the medical problems of musicians and also the impact of music on disadvantaged youth in our country”, he told Jazz It Out. Research leads to better practice hence the importance on focus on it in order to improve society. “I have always had a passion hence it is something I love doing”, the professor added. One of his major concerns is that as a country, South Africa is not going a good job at the grassroot level. “Music should be taught in all the schools and be part of the curriculum. I am not saying every student should become a musician”, without mincing his words.
He acknowledges that there is room for live streaming and online platforms (which has been on an increase since the lockdown was imposed) but jazz is heavily reliant on audience participation. Similar to African music where the audience is part of the performance, jazz depends heavily on the audience response. “I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon”, Devroop said. He is happy with the availability of jazz music for enthusiasts to access through digital platforms. He thinks purchasing music in any form should be encouraged because it supports the artists. “Personally, you cannot compare a vinyl to a CD, the quality on vinyl has something so unique that just cannot be captured on CD or digital platform. Hence, I understand why people still want to purchase vinyl”, he added.
The Wedding – Unisa Big Band featuring Karén Devroop
Devroop has learned a few lessons from the Covid-19, never take anything for granted being the most important. This year was going to be his most busy year with a short tour of the US, concerts in Kazakhstan, Thailand and Japan. Unfortunately, all of these have either been postponed or cancelled. However, it has allowed him to work on his new album and focus on other things. “For the first time in literally 2 decades I had plenty of time to practice”. As a tertiary institution, he feels they could have done more before the pandemic to be more digitally creative. “We should have been more creative”, he stated.
As an academic, he is regularly called upon to serve as keynote speaker at major international conferences, serve on the review board of national and international journals and serve on the management committees of conferences in South Africa and internationally. In South Africa he is regularly called upon by the National Research Foundation to serve as peer reviewer in addition to examining masters and doctoral theses and dissertations. He is a C rated researcher with the National Research Foundation.
As an artist, he loves performing all types of music and not just one style. “I think my versality is the reason why I get called upon for some many different types of concerts”, he said. McCoy Mrubata is one of his favourite saxophonists. “I truly believe McCoy is one of our greatest composers ever and time will tell. Besides he is such an incredible human being that is hard to put anyone else in his category”, he asserted. There are several young artists that he truly admires and is proud to call them friends of his. These are Linda Sikhakhane, Thamie Mahlangu, Justin Bellairs and Ofentse Sebola. Devroop’s other favourite musicians include Eric Marienthal, Chris Potter, Andy Snitzer and will forever be a David Sanborn fan. “He (Sanborn) is the reason I started playing the saxophone”. The music professor also enjoys cooking and watching movies.