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Swing; Whatta Ting!

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Sheila’s day saw a concert by the Bruckner University Big Band at a packed Odeion theatre in the University of the Free State, ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle reports.

The Bruckner University Big Band, a 22 person strong Austrian swing jazz outfit directed by Christian Radovan, is currently on tour in South Africa and visited Mangaung on Thursday 21 February, hosted by the Odeion School of Music (OSM) with whom they exchanged notes, punctuated by the concert that had – as promised – everybody’s feet tapping and had some of us nostalgic for a time we know nothing of.

Not exactly Sophiatown

As the city’s music lovers and OSM patrons gathered in the lobby, queues for tickets and coffee swinging from long to short, there was something palpable missing. For one, there were no jazz diggers on sight – no ou toppies in Brentwoods and Florsheim shoes, nor ndogovrous with fascinators and brogues. None of the regular jazz cats – who live and breath the culture – found their way to the detached university. A stark reminder that our anemoia notwithstanding, this was happening in the real now not the romanticised past nor idyll future.

All the skills but little of the feels

Inside the theatre the band walked in to the traditional welcome applause and took up their positions and in no time we were off with Don Ellis’ French Connection which they took – as swing is supposed to be – by the scruff. They had us at hello. The youthful band clearly did not travel twelve thousand kilometres down south to play marbles. They may be students but are very much accomplished musicians. But, as top notch as the music was, the players themselves seemed to lack that Hlaudi thing. Their body movements didn’t speak back to the music, their faces hardly as jovial as the sounds emanating from their instruments. However not all of them where so subdued, one could pick up a bit of cheeky attitude in the drummer Patrick Pillichshammer and the tenor saxophonist Andreas Holler. The former’s solo on Francy Boland’s Doleful City, which had the theatre breathless, put him up as the cat with the most swing.

Yakhal’inkomo

One could be forgiven to think that during intermission, when the rest of us ran for the loo and coffee, the band slaughtered a cow for an intercession with the ancestors of the land. This because when they came back they came swinging hard. Their shoulders swayed with the music, esoteric smiles coloured their faces, there was little friendly banter between them, and at some point it seemed the mischievous trombonists were hellbent on bursting the ear drums of the saxophonists sitting in front of them. The band seemed like a group of pals not just professional colleagues, and they were having as much fun as us on the playground they had crafted for our hearts.

Even “BigBand Daddy” Christian, whose narration for the most time went unheard due to the strange accent and sketchy sound on the mic, had couple of comical moments of calculated coincidence. On Gordon Goodwin’s Backrow Politics, he announced that the trumpets would be leading it, who just so happened to be stationed at the back row. As was the sole guitarist Lukas Schmidlerner, who had his only solo of the night on the same song. Hot on his heels was his namesake percussionist Lukas Aigenesberger, also in the back row, who had a criminally short stint with the tambourine. Another such moment which had the audience in stitches was after the performance of Yakhal’inkomo, during which all but two of the horn section had left the stage, the rest of them were welcomed back with the tune All The Cats Join In.

Even if it don’t swing, still means a thing

To pay homage to the country they were touring, the band chose Mankunku Ngosi’s classic Yakhal’inkomo – the only non-swing song in their repertoire. With the overwhelming horn section silenced, one could for the first time clearly hear the brilliance of bassist Fonseca Gomes as she meticulously chased down the painful memories deeply ingrained in that lament. Andres Holler, tasked with the responsibility to render the bull’s bellow, also put his hand up for the title of cat with the most swing. But the pleasant surprise in this performance was vocalist Christina Kerschner. Arguably one of South Africa’s most known compositions, one had no doubt that these artists could pull it off. Especially after learning from their Big Daddy that they had been at it for a year. But no one expected a European to sing the words later added to this 1968 classic by Thembi Mtshali. In fact, we dreaded such an undertaking. What with the butchering of isiXhosa that was Black Panther still fresh in our memory? But clearly Christina put the year of practice for the song into good use – she got the words right, the emphasis was on point, and even the clicks could rival most of us locals who don’t claim isiXhosa as our mother tongue. For their efforts, the band got the longest and most rousing applause of the evening.

Dankie baie

All the cats joined in and got back into the swing of things, finally bringing the show to a glorious end with another South African classic Pennywhistle by Mango Groove. The Bruckner University Big Band South African Tour continues until March 3 at Jazz On The Rocks in Titiesbaai, and Mangaung is ever grateful that they swung by.

Featured image: Bruckner University Big Band. Credit: JR Photography.

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