“He fell in love with South African jazz through listening to Abdullah Ibrahim long before visiting Mzantsi.  On his first arrival, he found a country that was going through a political transition marked by several incidents.  His regular patronizing of live venues inspired him to start his own jazz club and has earned a reputation for combining food and jazz in events he hosts. Nothing will ever come between him and rich music he thinks can be exported very successfully”

Aymeric Péguillan is a curious and passionate life traveler guided by his instincts, and always happy to expose his ears to new sounds emerging from mankind’s creativity.  The father of two daughters studied in the French cities of Strasbourg and Paris in the late 80’s.  He holds a Technical University Degree in Hospitality and a Master’s Degree in Hospitality Management, which probably explains the reason his events always combine food and jazz.  After working in the hotel industry for 2 years, he went to join a small events company where he developed his skills as a salesman and later, attracted by foreign horizons, went on to work for 18 months as a field logistics officer on a large scientific film production based in Chad and Niger.

This trained violinist who never pursued music career beyond playing in youth orchestras and a bit of chamber music, loved the atmosphere in the African countries he visited.  “I always find that people are happy to discuss and share a meal with you, tell you about their reality, their life, their culture and what matters to them.  And there is music of course, especially in West and Central Africa”, he told Jazz It Out.  It was while in Chad that he bumped into a team of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) partnering with the Chadian ministry of health, and developed a willingness to join the organization.  Upon his return to Paris, he made a formal application to join them and his first assignment was a deployment to Sierra Leone in 1990.  Later he went to work in Liberia, Nagorny-Karabagh (Azerbaijan), Bangladesh, Central Asia and South Africa.

His work at MSF was quite an eye opener.  “It makes you appreciate what matters in life I suppose.  You meet people that are at crossroads, at the weakest or most vulnerable in their existence, which makes you think very deep”, recalling those early experiences and encounters.  This made him think about what he valued as a person, what he should focus on, his priorities, how much solidarity and compassion to show while caught in the middle of these political agendas that seemed to escape out of control.  He and his colleagues had to help victims of conflict situations to get back on their feet and continue living with dignity which often was difficult to accomplish.

Aymeric Péguillan. Picture taken at The Orbit by Siphiwe Mhlambi

It was while based in Bangladesh in 1992 that Aymeric first came across Abdullah Ibrahim’s music.  “I literally felt like I was hit by a train when I first heard Abdullah Ibrahim’s music”, looking back to that experience.  By then, he was a bit familiar with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and the extraordinary Bheki Mseleku who had just released the album “Celebration”.  A friend of his who had spent some time in South Africa told him about what the country was going through, the unbanning of political parties, the release of political prisoners, negotiations to map the country’s future, violence, political uncertainty, exciting times, and a lot happening in the music scene, all of which he shared with him during a full night of listening to Abdullah’s music.

It was in January 1994 when he first arrived in South Africa, a moment he describes as “very special”.  He could not have chosen a better time to arrive because a lot was happening.  “Being there as the country was moving into a new positive dawn, which was dreamt by so many, in and outside the country.  Lots of emotions, lots of hope, lots of fun, lots of excitement, things were happening every day, several times a day”, with vivid memory.  The 3 months before the elections were so uncertain.  The Bophuthatswana crisis, ANC/IFP fighting all over, the Shell House massacre, bombings at Bree Street, Jan Smuts Airport (now called O R Tambo), and Germiston taxi rank.  It was so intense and worrying with concerns of which direction the country was heading.  But all these ugly incidents did not derail the process and elections were held in April of that year.

The French national did not want to miss out of what was happening in South Africa.  He would visit many live venues that populated the greater Johannesburg at the time.  After 2 years as Head of Mission in South Africa, he left the organization and, while immersing himself in Johannesburg jazz club scene, started freelancing in the French communication arena, working as language coach, teacher, and bilingual copywriter in advertising.  It was in 2000 when he and 3 partners opened Pegs Cosy Corner which was based in Troyeville. They would have listening sessions, and occasionally some live gigs.  He played a lot of SA and US jazz in the sound system while patrons read magazines such as a “Jazz Times” and “Downbeat”.  They were open from Thursday to Sunday from 6.30 pm till 2.30 am, and food served till 1.30 am.  “We ended up being voted best late night kitchen in 2001”, he told Jazz It Out.  One of the problems he had with Johannesburg, from a late dinner culture himself, was to find a place to sit comfortably and have a good meal after 9 or 9.30pm.

Aymeric Péguillan with Mandisi Dyantyis. Picture by Lindo Mbhele

Serving meals at Pegs Cosy Corner is something he would implement in all businesses he would be involved in.  He explains the reasons for it: “Sharing food and wine with others is probably the most socially enriching act there is.  Around food, so many things happen in our human lives.  And music, jazz in particular, is another type of food, food for the soul and spirit, a food that is source to very powerful emotions.  The combination of the two makes it unbeatable, I think.  It is the ultimate experience”.  He has qualifications in Hospitality Management after all.  When the venue closed, Aymeric started travelling regularly for the advertising network on work projects that took him mostly to Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania.

In November 2011, he started working on the jazz club project which gave birth to what later became known as The Orbit.  “I was still in Swaziland (now ESwatini) at the time, but still in contact with a number of Johannesburg based artists.  As we were preparing to come back to Johannesburg with my family, I had no real work plan, and when I closed Pegs Cosy Corner in 2002, I had promised myself that I would one day reopen a better, bigger, live jazz club”, he told Jazz It Out.  He longed for a place that would compete with the best venues internationally, and could accommodate the best local and international musicians in good performing conditions.  While looking through his CD library as they looking for a good name, he bumped into Clarke Terry’s 1958 recording “In Orbit” on the shelves, which features Thelonious Monk as sideman, and the name struck a chord.  Most importantly for him and too many artists, was the necessity to have good gear on stage.  And among that good backline and sound set up was a good piano.

The choice of Braamfontein was motivated by a few factors.  There was a strong feeling that jazz belongs in the city, not quiet suburbs, in a vibrant and youthful area.  It had bigger spaces on offer, a reasonable rate per square metres, a very good music store and good corners of the city.  The opening night in March 2014 was very special, with trumpeter Feya Faku, drummer Kesivan Naidoo, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and bassist Ariel Zamonsky.  “To see the place packed like that with close to 250 people, the emotions running high, my family with me on the birthday of my then wife, and to be able to deliver something really special for our first day, that was quite exceptional”, he remembers.  It had been 2 years of ups and downs, stress and lonely moments, and in the end, things were falling into place and musicians came to the party in such a big way.  While at The Orbit, Aymeric organized close to 900 concerts.

Thinking about the next project. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

Later that year on the 26th of September, they had a very special gig.  The Emergency Quintet performed at the venue, which they recorded.  It was a last-minute organized gig.  After one major artist cancelled, he approached bassist Herbie Tsoaeli to find out if he would be interested to take the date.  Ganesh Geymeier, the tenor saxophonist from Switzerland was residing in South Africa at the time, and was already a member of Bänz Oester’s The Rainmakers, together with drummer Ayanda Sikade and pianist Afrika Mkhize.  Herbie had put a band together that had Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax, Marcus Wyatt on trumpet and flugelhorn and Ayanda Sikade on drums.  This was the most magnificent concert.  The room was so quiet, with only a few “wows and ahs” emerging from time to time.  The audience was mesmerized, intense.  Herbie and the band were playing some new compositions that were the result of the afternoon of heavy rehearsal.

There was another amazing recording in September 2016 with Shane Cooper, Bokani Dyer, Kesivan Naidoo and Feya Faku, the Zero Gravity Experiment which was pure improvisation at another level.  “Our second recording was published and that was also a special night with the Pablo Lapidusas Trio (PLINT) managed by a friend from Mozambique Joni Shwalbach.  What a beautiful concert that was”, he said.  The album was released the following year.  Pablo Lapidusas (from Argentina) was on piano, Leonardo Espinoza (from Cuba) on bass and Marcello Araujo from Brazil on drums.  And a great communion with the audience that although not huge but was totally immersed into the music performance.  “It was special for us to be able to release an album recorded live at the venue.  There were a few more later, “Africa Plus” with Lelo Mazibuko, Prince Bulo, Lungelo Ngcobo and guest Tshepo Tsotetsi, “Cameron Ward Live at The Orbit DVD” with Bra Hugh Masekela appearing on one song.

Accomplished bassist Carlo Mombelli and his quartet had several gigs at The Orbit which were special.  People were getting into a trance state.  Legendary vocalist Sibongile Khumalo’s gigs were also very special.  She has a way of “owning the room”, and communicating with her audience which is second to none.  She commands attention like no one else.  Kyle Shepherd and his trio also had a couple of memorable nights.  They had amazing nights with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini several times as well, with various album launches which created good memories.  Aymeric was always happy for artists to be able to assist in getting their craft out there. “The tribute to pianist Bheki Mseleku, although hurting and a bit chaotic due to some tensions at the time with some of Bheki’s family members, was very special and moving”, he said.

Aymeric with Jeff Siegel, Dumile Badela and Sydney Mavundla

The first and second anniversary festivals at The Orbit were wonderful.  “It went really quite smoothly and we managed to attract really good crowds of passionate people”, going down memory lane.  The atmosphere was really warm, people were happy, on stage and off stage.  It was a dream come true.  They also hosted two big international names at the venue which took them to a different dimension.  Trumpeter and US jazz legend Wallace Roney came in 2015 with his quartet after the Cape Town International Jazz Festival to perform at The Orbit.  They also hosted Fred Wesley and the new JBs, that was cooking really hot funky sounds.  From the international scene, he remembers the amazing concert of Mario Legina and Maria Joao from Portugal.  He describes Maria as the most amazing singer he ever saw at The Orbit, and Mario certainly one of the greatest pianists.

Some of the artists that he was glad to see performing at the venue include Shabaka and the Ancestors, Feya Faku, Andile Yenana and Herbie Tsoaeli.  The first gig of the Brother Moves On.  Kesivan’s week of residency, the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, Siya Makuzeni’s vocal legacy with Abigail Kubheka and Sibongile Khumalo, Rus Nerwich Quintet, Thandi Ntuli, Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo, Mandla Mlangeni, Salim Washington and Sankofa.  “I really enjoyed and appreciated the late nights that ended in jam sessions, the late talks and chats on the outdoor area upstairs.  There was a strong sense of family, we felt close”, he told Jazz It Out.  Mostly, he really enjoyed witnessing and (hopefully) assisting the growth of some of the many young SA talents that came onto The Orbit stage and blossomed there.  From Thandi Ntuli to Benjamin Jephta, Lelo Mazibuko to Viwe Mkizwana, Sisonke Xonti and Linda Sikhakhane, Siya Makuzeni and Mandla Mlangeni, Vuma Levin and Titi Luzipo, Ndabo Zulu, Keenan Ahrends, Justin Bellairs, and a few more.

There were two other concerts that stayed in Aymeric’s mind.  The first is the performance by Steve Dyer and his band on a Sunday in June 2015, to commemorate the tragic anniversary of the bombing of Gaborone’s activist and art community by SADF Air forces in June 1985, and pay tribute to the 12 people who died on that day.  There were some very moving and very respectful moments, and the crowd was amazing of support and attentiveness.  The second is the commemoration/fund raiser they organized with some trade unionists who approached us for the Marikana widows in 2015.  Many musicians volunteered to play.  The Orbit was packed.  There was a lot of emotion as many struggle chants resonated into the room.  It was a powerful display of solidarity.  We were all very proud and emotional to be part of that movement.

Poster of one of the gigs hosted at Jazz On The Hill. Tutu Puoane and Ewout Pierreux

When he was still at The Orbit in 2016, they had some members of the management team of the Four Seasons The Westcliff that came regularly for concerts.  They would sometimes accompany hotel guests to the shows and the feedback they received was seemingly good. Early in 2017 (after he had left The Orbit), the General Manager of the hotel invited famous SA guitarist Jonathan Butler for a fundraising event at the hotel property.  It was a beautiful performance outdoors in the Flames Restaurant.  They started chatting after about setting up a session on the hotel property on a regular basis.  “For me, as an impresario and promoter, creating new, meaningful platforms for jazz expression is what makes me get up in the morning.  Having this opportunity, and even if the initial set up was not ideal, was a great way to move forward after the sadness and frustration of leaving The Orbit”, he explained.

The concerts which are popularly known as “Jazz On The Hill” have been going for more than 3 years.  They have had a great line up of mostly SA artists such as Siya Makuzeni, Paul Hanmer and McCoy Mrubata, Feya Faku, Nduduzo Makhathini, Steve Dyer, Vuma Levin, Lindiwe Maxolo, Billy Monama, Zoe Modiga, Sisonke Xonti, Herbie Tsoaeli, Ziza Muftic, Tutu Puoane, Linda Sikhakhane, Mandla Mlangeni…. and a few international artists like SOMI and Jeff Siegel.  It is a real pity that Covid-19 came disrupting that beautiful journey but Aymeric hopes they will resume next year.  What drives this French national to do so much for South African jazz even in some of the economically challenging circumstances?  “You know, when you have the great priviledge of receiving so much great live music from artists over the years and in different places, and you realize how much amazing emotions and reflections you have experienced as a result, you feel like creating spaces for others to experience the same.  South African jazz has been a very special experience for me as a guest in this country”, he responded.

When Covid-19 was declared a deadly pandemic, leading to the lockdown being imposed (lasting longer than anticipated), Aymeric and a few others wondered what could be done to allow musicians to keep performing safely.  “During my days at The Orbit, we recorded and live streamed the 2nd Anniversary Festival in 2016 through a great SA outfit called Militia Broadcast”, he told Jazz It Out.  The collaborated again in 2017 when they did “Downtown Jazz Sessions” that were broadcast on Mzansi Magic that same year, a series of 13 episodes featuring Sisonke Xonti, Benjamin Jephta, Viwe Mkizwana, Siya Makuzeni, Linda Sikhakhane, Vuma Levin, Mandla Mlangeni and a few others.  They were well received.  When the lockdown struck, Eban Olivier, the head of Militia Broadcast, also very much affected in the business by the pandemic and lockdown, roped in a few people together to form the Militia Consortium which gave birth to Urban Sessions, a concept of livestream concerts recorded live in studio.

Poster of a livestream concert by Urban Sessions where Sisonke Xonti was scheduled to perform

All 17 members of the consortium decided to bring in their skills, assets, competencies, networks and energy to make it happen, and create a virtual platform so that artists could still perform in safe and adequate conditions to audiences connecting online.  He is proud to say that the quality of the production is good and that as much as it has been a challenge in many ways, many artists came to the party and created some amazing music and equally amazing performances.  “I wish we could say that it was extremely popular but I know it has not always worked as well as we hoped on ticket sales.  It has been fluctuating quite a bit”, he has noticed.  That is concerning but not entirely surprising considering the current state of the country’s economy.  He feels the concept could have gained more popularity if the government reduce the cost of data and have operators that improve the quality of the network.    Artists who have performed at the livestream concerts that Jazz It Out has interacted with believe this is a great concept by Urban Sessions.

Aymeric has a very a very interesting way of defining jazz: “Jazz for me is the most relevant, meaningful and democratic form of artistic expression, where artists and audience are free to interpret a (mostly) improvised and original musical story told without judgement and where everyone is given a space”.  He further explains that there is a very combination of intensity, solemnity, hope, vibrancy, peace and energy in South African jazz.  Like the country, it takes you on a journey that has the potential to change you as a person, as a way of being.  The emotions it creates are deep, strong, intense, even violent sometimes.  It never leaves one indifferent.  “I think that SA jazz has already shown that it can be exported very successfully.  I believe that SA artists who have performed on foreign stages were mostly very well received”, expressing an observation he has made over the years.  He believes that what matters the most at this stage is to expose South Africans, and particularly the younger ones at school level, to the extraordinary wealth of performing artists and composers this country has produced, and to the music they have produced.

Poster of the second instalment of Jazz & Classical Encounters Festival taking place this coming Saturday at Spier Wine Farm

He finds it very sad and disturbing that the successive ANC governments and Arts & Culture executives never managed to create policies that will make jazz as an artform a priority in society.  Arts, and jazz music in particular, should be at the heart of society.  What also concerns him is that one of the most relevant initiatives of the last 10 years (Concerts SA) is still funded by a foreign government of Norway, and that the SA government has made no real attempt to take it over, is purely scandalous for him.  “It’s the perfect illustration of the apathy and immobility of the government on arts”, he said.  It is then left to the individual artists (and all other music industry professions) to find solutions for themselves all the time, in a country where there is zero safety net or social protection for artists.  Aymeric is hoping the country will pick up from the disruption Covid-19 has done to people’s lives and the economy.  “I think people are hungry for live music right now.  But we also know that many don’t have the disposable income needed for that”, he added.

Aymeric rejoined MSF as a Trainer (flying) with the Learning and Development Unit of MSF Operational Centre Geneva (OCG) in February 2017.  For the last 4 years, he has been combining his training work, which has required many travels around the world (mostly Africa, Asia and Middle East), and fulfilling his passion for SA jazz through various projects, including the creation of several performance platforms.  As director, creator, organizer, at Pegs Music Project, he co-produced the first instalment of “Jazz & Classical Encounters” at Spier Wine Farm, a hybrid Jazz and Classical One Day festival, which took place on the 23rd of November 2019. The line up of artists that performed included Kyle Shepherd Trio, Mandla Mlangeni’s TRC, The Night Lite Collective, Jan Hendrik Harley’s Ensemble Je Je Comprends Pas and Mandisi Dyantsis.  The year’s instalment of the festival will take place this coming Saturday 28th of November at the same venue and will feature Sisonke Xonti, Siya Makuzeni & Darren English, Paul Hanmer & Muyanga, and Nomfundo Xaluva who have been included as a replacement for Spha Mdlalose who pulled out for health reasons.

He admits that these two activities (setting up and running jazz platforms and MSF) have taken a lot of his time.  “I really enjoy horse riding in a free environment and sailing.  I get on a boat every time I get a chance, and that is unfortunately not often”, he said.  He also enjoys hiking, road trips and cooking. “I love theatre as well, and everything related to art”, he concluded.  His Facebook account is Aymeric Péguillan. Follow him on Instagram @aymericpeguillan and connect with him on LinkedIn Aymeric Péguillan. Follow Urban Sessions on Instagram @urbansessionsza. Like PEGS MUSIC Projects on Facebook, follow them on Twitter @pegsmusicproje1 and visit their website www.pegsmusicproject.co.za