“As a speech and drama student at an art school, he would hear the school band practicing in the class above theirs and ask himself if he was in the right place.  This bothered him for the whole year until he decided to part ways with drama to study music.  At once stage he considered studying medicine but his obsession with music made him forget about the profession” 

This year has not been very good for musicians.  But for Viwe Mkizwana, he has a reason to smile.  He received 5 nominations from his second album and won the Best Jazz Song at the Mzantsi Jazz Awards.  The double bassist, musical director, educator, composer, arranger and father to a 5-year-old daughter was born eMdantsane 32 years ago.  “My current home is Duncan Village in East London”, he told Jazz It Out.  Viwe has been very energetic and focused from a very young age and has maintained that discipline as a professional musician.

He spent the first 10 years of his life living with his grandmother in East London and moved to Daveyton in 1998 to live with his mother.  At primary school, he was an athlete and excelled in hockey.  His favourite subjects at high school were Mathematics and Physical Science.  “I wanted to study medicine so that I could be a doctor before music forced me to change my mind”, he said.  Viwe also loved RnB and some hip hop.  “My favourite RnB artists were Joe, Maxwell, Tevin Campbell, Whitney Houston and Jodeci to mention a few”, he recalls.

At the age of 17, he began playing classical double bass at the East Rand School of the Arts. His decision to learn the double bass was influenced about what he witnessed the previous year.  “When I went to the art school, my focus initially was on speech and drama.  But I would constantly listen to the school band practice while I was in class and always felt l should be there instead of where I was”.  The following year he switched to music.  These were early signs that he was going to be a professional musician in the future.

Double bassist Viwe Mkizwana. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

The double bass was actually not the first instrument he started playing.  His music lessons began with the piano and a bit of guitar.  Unfortunately, both the instruments were not orchestral and all his friends were playing in an orchestra which he wanted to be part of.  His piano teacher also played the double bass and offered to give him lessons.  “From that first double bass lesson I just knew that this is my instrument through its incredible sound”, he said.  On his way home, he was thinking he couldn’t wait to be at school the following day so that he could practice the bass.  He still plays the piano when writing and arranging music.

When he told his mother about his plans to study music further, she had mixed feelings like most parents would.  “It was not an easy discussing as she asked me to reconsider my decision.  After I convinced her that this is what I wanted to do, she gave me her blessings”, he recalls.  In 2008, Viwe enrolled for a National Diploma in Jazz and Popular at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) which he obtained in 2011.  From there he enrolled for a Bachelor of Music Honours Degree at the University of Pretoria which he completed in 2016.  While studying at both tertiary institutions, he was lucky to perform in several gigs including two where he travelled with his lecturers to perform at Seychelles.

In 2014, Viwe released his debut album with the Mkizwana Ensemble titled “African Skies”. The personnel had an impressive line-up of artists including trumpeter Ntsikelelo “Jack” Mncwabe, saxophonist Malusi Masia, drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, pianist Thandi Ntuli, trombonist Lebo Mabe and vocalist Keorapetse Kolwane.  The album offered the combination of keyboard, double bass, trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones.  The ensemble gave a unique sound but most importantly, Xhosa and other African genres showcasing talent these young jazz musicians possessed.  Viwe had known Ntsikelelo and Malusi from TUT where they studied together.

The album Tributes which has been brought him several nominations and a Mzantsi Jazz Award

Asked what influenced the recording of “African Skies” and what message was he sending across, Mkizwana said: “I was fortunate to feature these great musicians on the album.  The message was inspired by the beauty of the continent and all the small things that are often overlooked.  As people we generally focus on all the negatives such as politics, crime, poverty and forget that we also have so much to be grateful for”.  He undoubtedly wanted to create an album that highlighted all the beautiful things that are under the African Skies.

His passion for music has seen him performing in many parts of the globe. These include Amsterdam (The Royal Concertgebouw), Germany (Berlin Konzerthaus, Elbphilharmonie), Belgium (BOZAR) and Sweden (King’s Castle).  Viwe has played alongside international artists such as Nils Landgren of Sweden, Rodolfo Maderos of Argentina, Gilberto Gil of Brazil, Anders Paulsson of Sweden, Camile Favre-Bulle of France, Grammy Award Nominee John Fresk and Grammy Award Winner Wouter Kellerman.  In South Africa, he has worked with the likes of McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Nduduzo Makhathini, Marcus Wyatt, Thandi Ntuli, Nomfundo Xaluva, Hugh Masekela, Sibongile Khumalo, Andile Yenana, Zoë Modiga and Khaya Mahlangu.

The Viwe Mkizwana Ensemble released their sophomore album titled “Tributes” in September last year.  “When I was selecting the compositions for the album I realized that they were actually all tributes.  I thought it was very interesting.  Apart from that I believe we should honour people while they are still alive hence I paid tribute to all these individuals”, he told Jazz It Out.  He also wanted to break boundaries starting with the size of the band which had 14 members.  Mkizwana further used the combination of strings and horns to bring the elegant touch to the sound, making it an easy listening yet sophisticated album with music catering for a wide audience including young people, mature listeners, scholars and purists.

Thando – Viwe Mkizwana

He was in a sad and dark place when he penned “Sicel’uXolo”.  Viwe was asking himself why the most spiritual, kindest, forgiving, resilient, passionate, loving race is the most suffering in the world.  “I could not come up with a conclusion.  I asked myself why is the Black race being punished like this, and thought that maybe we have the wrong creator in some way that we are not aware of”, trying to figure it out.  “I thought maybe instead of asking why, we should start by asking for forgiveness from God”, he added.  “Ekhaya” is a tribute to his home in East London, friends and family that reside in the town.  Stylistically he chose the chordal progression he thought was appropriate for the song.

“Tributes” received two nominations at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) which were for Newcomer of the Year and Best Jazz Album.  The album also received three nominations at the Mzantsi Jazz Awards which were Best Jazz Album, Best Male Jazz Artist and won Best Jazz Song for “Sicel’uXolo”.  Mkizwana was truly honoured for the nominations and winning the Best Jazz Song which encouraged him to focus on his craft.  “I am quite ecstatic about the thought of creating more music that will be a representation of my people and my home”, he said.

Some of the lessons he learnt from the Covid-19 and the lockdown is that artists should not solely rely on live performances. “It is time we start thinking out of the box and develop more online concepts”, he suggested.  He doesn’t think life will ever be like in the pre-Covid era, but is optimistic that 2021 will be a better year.  His favourite bassists are Thembinkosi Mavimbela, Nhlanhla Radebe, Lex Futshane, Ariel Zamonsky, Romy Brauteseth, Amaeshi Ikechi, Dalisu Ndlazi, Shane Cooper, Steven De Souza, Regomoditswe Thothela and Professor Leon Bosch.

In his spare time, Viwe enjoys cooking, hanging out with friends, listening to music and travelling.  His Facebook account is Viwe Mkizwana.  Follow him on Instagram @viwemkizwan, @veebass on Twitter and subscribe to his YouTube channel Viwe Mkizwana.