IT HAS TO BE JAZZ has shown a significant growth in its almost 5 years of existence.  The project is a brainchild of father and son duo who wanted to expose raw talent of young musicians in South Africa and other parts of Africa as a continent.  With 12 albums released so far, no one is prouder than the father whose business mentorship is now bearing fruits.  The son was just 14 years old when he was given family accounts to handle, a task that turned to be a huge empowerment years later.

Ray Maseko bonds differently with all his children because he knows they are different human beings.  One of those is his son Tshepo Maseko who is a B Com graduate from the University of Canberra in Australia, sound engineer, curator and videographer.  From the time he was born until he was about 6, jazz was the only music genre Tshepo knew because of what Ray constantly played at home.  “There were nights I would wake him up just to play with or play jazz for him, something he did not seem to mind judging from that broad smile of his”, Ray told Jazz It Out.

Tshepo describes himself as an introverted extrovert.  “By that, I mean I like keeping to myself and achieving my own goals but I do enjoy the company of like-minded people with positive energy”, he said.  He was born in Gaborone West, grew up between Lobatse, Tlokweng and Gaborone for the first 6-7 years of his life before moving to Orlando West in Soweto.  His father describes himself as a people’s person and thrives where there is positive energy and music.  Maseko senior is a diehard Sowetan and has fond memories of growing up in that township.

A much younger Tshepo Maseko. Picture taken at Randpark Ridge Photo Studios

He describes Tshepo as someone who is purpose driven, focused, giving, loving, caring and sharing.  But he is also strong-willed.  Tshepo on the other hand describes Ray as someone who makes the most of what he has and gives his very best in everything he does.  What the duo has in common is putting others first and truly caring from the heart.  “We are go-getters and never settle for less when there is the best”, Ray said.  “We both believe in our ancestors and live our lives according to those beliefs”, Tshepo added.

Ray believes his father was the wisest man to ever walk the surface of the earth with a tremendous ability to teach, nurture and guide.  Despite growing up during apartheid, his parents created a protective layer to cushion the impact and provided a loving environment.  “My fondest memories are my mother’s sense of humour and the way my parents cooked”, he said.  He has recollections of a very popular man in his neighbourhood who was known as Bra Skipper.  “He had a huge collection of 8 track cartridge cassettes for his car which was a convertible”, he remembers.

Bra Skipper was the only source of music until his family bought its own hi-fi in the late 60’s.  Ray had the priviledge of listening to The Beaters which were later renamed Harari with Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse as its leader. The Movers also came into the scene.  The Sowetans were lucky because most of the bands were always accompanied by dancers.  “The unforgettable moment was the pennywhistle era with the Lerole brothers.  How can one forget the gumboot dancers?  I also fell in love with Gibson Kente’s amazing musicals at the theatre”, reminiscing on what he witnessed growing in the largest township in South Africa. 

Ray Maseko. Picture by Elephant Maseko

It was in 1967 when Ray discovered jazz.  “One day Bra Skipper was washing his car and was playing something most of us had never heard before”, he remembers.  That instrumental music that they were hearing for the first time was the sound of Shirley Scott.  His affinity for this new-found sound grew over time and was glad to know that there were South African musicians who played it too, the likes of Winston Mankunku and Dollar Brand (who later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim).  By the time he discovered Phillip Tabane, his appreciation had gone deeper.  His continued exposure and inquisitive questions about different sounds ultimately lead him to the world of jazz.  “So, basically I listened to jazz long before I knew that sound was defined as jazz”, he added.  He also discovered Soul Symphony, Gene Harris, William Thomas “Champion Jack” Dupree, Jimmy Smith, Les McCann and Sonny Stitt.

Career wise, Ray has done different things and found courage to leave when realizing he had lost interest.  His first career was in statistics because he had always loved numbers.  He thought he was going to settle for statistics as a profession until he discovered mainframe computers.  “We used to programme in assembler code which demanded in-depth knowledge of the internal workings of a computer”, he told Jazz It Out.  The introduction of Microsoft Windows and personal computers destroyed his love for computers because it meant less thinking.  Project management became his next passion.  “I found it fascinating and the fact that I could use it with my previous career made it even more exciting”, he added.  From project management he ended up in business consultancy.

While studying towards the Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Canberra, Tshepo found himself playing at different nightclubs in Australia which made him fall in love with sound engineering as he wanted to create his own music in the future.  “I managed to strike a balance between studying and playing at clubs without missing deadlines for my assignments while earning money as a DJ”, he said.  As a matter of fact, he would submit some of the assignments long before they were due and was good with time management.  His stay in Australia was great even though there were some bad experiences.

Tshepo Maseko the project manager. Picture by Meshiane

Upon his return to South Africa, Tshepo worked for an event management company where he got exposed to so many aspects of that field.  Just before leaving the company, he had a deep conversation with his father about the impact youth can have in growing jazz.  Maseko senior thought the young musicians could be good ambassadors to promote jazz among their peers and gave the idea his blessing.  This led to the formation of It Has To Be Jazz in September 2016.  What was unique about this concept is that they would get young musicians to jam sessions resulting in CD recordings.  Multi-instrumentalist Malcom Jiyane played a pivotal role in getting those young musicians.

Some of their early recordings included “Spontaneous Combustion”, “The Exchange”, “Horn of Africa”, “Words Unspoken”, “Mother Tongue”, “Playground”, Worlds Apart” to more recent albums such as “Ancestors Danced”.  Tshepo is the more involved of the Masekos’ with It Has To Be Jazz through his company Elephant Maseko (Pty) Ltd.  Over the years, they have made collaborations with individuals and organizations they share a common vision with, roping in more jazz legends to mentor young musicians.  Many young musicians have had interactions with Tshepo, Ray or both.  The duo will even go to the extent of attending recitals at institutions of higher learning to identify the talent they wish to expose.

Ray describes the recording of “Spontaneous Combustion” as a defining moment in many areas of their lives. “The first being the project which was more of his dream that mine became a reality.  The second point is that it gave both of us a sense of clarity on what was possible.  The third crucial part was that I had spent so much time mentoring him and It Has To Be Jazz demonstrated what the pain of mentorship was all about.  Finally, we had overcome so much together but still drew boundaries that ensured nothing interferes with the father and son relationship”, he elaborated.  At work they become colleagues while at home they become just father and son.

Their debut recording titled Spontaneous Combustion. Sleeve by Khumo Manota

Their work relationship is in fact rooted in the African culture.  Mutual respect takes precedence.  “We now discuss business as equals”, Ray told Jazz It Out.  “Firstly, we have a solid plan that covers every detail and once that is done, the second part is just to tick boxes as you go down until the project is complete”, Tshepo told Jazz It Out.  Ray felt he should put something on record: “It Has To Be Jazz project was never about me or Tshepo.  It has always and will always be about creating opportunities for artists and exploring the music they create to the rest of the world.  So, every time one buys a CD and promotes it, they are promoting artists.  When that happens, our job is done and we celebrate”.

Right from inception the duo took a decision to be part of arts industry’s solution not a problem.  Therefore, exposure became the first issue they needed to address which led to the writing of books, newspaper columns and international collaborations.  That exposure is at the core of their objectives.  The work they have done and continue to do in that space continues to speak for itself.  “We already have a footprint in Argentina, United States of America, Germany and South Korea.  In the last 2 years we have extended to various South African provinces.  It is only a start but we can grow with time”, Ray beaming with pride.

In the future, It Has To Be Jazz will be recording documentaries of jazz legends.  Tshepo is looking forward to have this as his major assignment.  “I believe it is important because knowing where we come from can help where we are going.  Capturing this information on video will influence future generations who will be inspired by this amazing talent”, he said. “It has been a thrill checking some of the stories from the past”, Ray added.  There is no doubt that this will be warmly received by the jazz fraternity and young musicians who will draw a lot of inspiration from these documentaries.

Their recording titled Horn of Africa. Sleeve by Leene Mogobe

Ray told Jazz It Out about some of the things that are done to grow the popularity of jazz in South Africa.  “The community radio stations are taking a lead and so are online radio stations.  I am grateful that stations like Kofifi FM have opened up to the idea of a magazine programme.  It Has To Be Jazz has a monthly slot which discusses and plays everything jazz.  More and more newly released music makes it to some of the radio stations which is often accompanied by live interviews”, he emphasized. There is also a significant increase in masterclasses and workshops addressing most pertinent issues.  Her Own Skin talk show is picking up the momentum and its host has been invited to bigger platforms.  The Jazz Room at The Doppio Restaurant as an initiative of live jazz is commendable and so is the House On The Hill.

Even though father and son are not professional musicians, they do play instruments from time to time.  Ray said he is a closet bass player and can also play the piano.  “I have jammed with friends in the past.  I still do, time permitting”, he said.  Tshepo on the other hand has played drums as a hobby and believes he can keep up with an average drummer.  Some of Tshepo’s favourite jazz artists include Sibusiso Niyrongo, Bongani Nkosinathi Ncube, Malcom Jiyane and Clyde Chisale while some of his all-time favourite recording are from Eddie Harris, Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Al Jarreau, Miles Davis and Nina Simone.

The long list of Ray’s favourite artists is made up of Esbjörn Svensson, Michel Petrucciani, Abdullah Ibrahim, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Prince Lengoasa, Khaya Mahlangu, Andile Yenana, Fezile Feya Faku, Sibongile Anna Buda, Linda Sikhakhane and many others.  Ray is a master carpenter who designs and builds furniture.  When he has a bit of time, he participates in car restorations more especially since he does not have a taste for new cars.  “I was asked what my dream car is and I said I have two.  A Ford Mustang as in “Gone in 60 Seconds” Eleanor GT500” and a 1970 V8 Stealth Beetle.

Their recording titled Ancestors Danced. Sleeve by Khumo Manota

While Tshepo is busy with It Has To Be Jazz, he enjoys running and keeping fit.  “Other things I’m looking into is building furniture but it is still early days.  I also love working on cars and would love to rebuild and modify my own cars”, he said.  He told Jazz It Out that if given another chance to choose a father, he would still choose Ray.  “A million times over and just add infinity while we are there”, with no feeling of regret.  His message to his father as today is Father’s Day is “Well done my boy, Ke go rutile. He will get the message”, with a chuckle.  “Don’t worry he will understand”, he added.  ‘Ke go rutile’ means ‘I have taught you’ in English. 

It Has To Be Jazz is very active on most social media platforms. Purchase their merchandise which ranges from books to T-shirts and other items.  Like their Facebook Page, subscribe to their YouTube channel, visit their website and follow them @ithastobejazz on Twitter and Instagram.  Ray is on Facebook and @maseko_ray on Instagram.  Tshepo is also on Facebook and @elephantmaseko on Twitter and Instagram.