By Dinga Sikwebu

When Feya Faku began his month-long national tour of five South African cities in April, there was a scramble among young jazz musicians to join his bands. As he moved from one city to the other, the celebrated trumpeter assembled local musicians and invited them to play with him in the launches of his two new albums, Impilo and Live at the Bird’s Eye. With musicians such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa no longer around, young artists in the country look up to musicians such as Faku for a definition of what it means to be a jazz musician in South Africa today. They regard the trumpeter’s creativity and musical approach as an embodiment of key South African jazz sensibilities – rootedness in local sounds but with strong musical cosmopolitanism. Over the years, Faku’s music has inspired and influenced a new generation of jazz musicians. “Bra Feya is a kindred spirit, a loving man and very giving too. When you play over his beautiful melodies, there is no limit to what you can do. With him, it’s just freedom”, says saxophonist and winner of Standard Bank young artist award for jazz in 2020, Sisonke Xonti. “I’ve always looked up to him, not just as a musician but as a father figure”.

The guru
The arrangement where notable musicians are regarded as role models is not uniquely South African. Within jazz, there is a long tradition where music is passed from one generation to the other. Intergenerational learning occurs within jazz dynasties, where musicianship percolates within families.
The bandstand is another platform through which sharing between musicians of different ages occurs. But the most persistent method to maintain the tradition, is for young musicians to attach themselves to a guru or a “master”. In different parts of the world there are musical initiatives to formalise cross-pollination between generations. Every year more than 5,000 young musicians from Australia and New Zealand gather at Mount Gambier to learn in workshops and clinics from established jazz artists. The Generations in Jazz Festival has been going on since 1987. Similarly, for more than a decade, the Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York hosts yearly a multigenerational celebration, where more than 100 young musicians play over four weeks alongside veteran musicians in 30 different line-ups. The highlight of the annual event is the “Lessons from our Masters” series, where generationally-mixed bands play compositions by living jazz legends. In South Africa, the equivalent of these intergenerational initiatives is the week-long annual Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival that takes place in the middle of winter in Makhanda. The youth festival brings together 300 students, 40 teachers and 60 professional jazz musicians in a series of workshops, rehearsals and performances. It is at the festival that young talent is spotted and drawn into already established bands. At the festival, the dreams of budding jazz musicians to meet and play alongside their legends are realised. Despite these formal ways to ensure continuity of the jazz tradition, Xonti feels that there is still a role for gurus. The saxophonist believes that being a master is not about success in the field or excelling with the instrument. For the Cape Town-born musician, the “guru-disciple” relationship in jazz is about how to lead a life in music and be successful at it.
“I liken the master to a parent. Just as it is important for any child when growing up, to have parents who lead them in the right way, it is important for a young musician to have a master to look-up to.”

Benefiting from the master
For many young jazz musicians in South Africa, Faku is a figure to look-up to. In their biographies, pianist Bokani Dyer and guitarist Vuma Levin relate how the trumpeter has had an impact in their lives and musical careers. In Dyer’s case, although he grew up with Faku around as a member of a band that his father Steve Dyer led, the desire to one day play with the trumpeter grew when he regularly watched him perform. “When I was at the College of Music at the University of Cape Town, it was always a dream for me to one day play in Bra Feya’s band. The music was progressive, high-energy and very inspirational.”
Levin gives a similar testimony. Selected in 2009 as a guitarist for the Standard Bank jazz youth band, Levin had for the first time an opportunity to share the bandstand with Faku. Performances with the youth band were also the young guitarist’s first experience to play professionally before audiences.
But it was Faku’s musicianship that had immense impact on the young lad. “Bra Feya’s melodies are extremely strong, catchy and very soulful. My experience with him in the jazz youth band was really transformative, profound and an incredibly inspiring moment in my life”, says the guitarist who teaches music at Wits School of Arts. “The experience in the youth jazz band with Bra Feya forever changed me. It probably put me on the path that I have been on since then.” Both Dyer and Levin have gone on to compose songs dedicated to Faku. For the pianist, in his dedication to his hero, he felt the energy, fire and strong spirit in the trumpeter’s compositions. Dyer decided to call his composition, Fezile. In the case of Levin’s For Feya, it is the rhythmic and textual treatment of the trumpeter’s composition Inner Passion that was the trigger: “Bra Feya’s music strongly references Southern Africa whilst at the same time it gives a nod to music from the Americas and Europe.” Faku is fully aware of the high regard that other musicians hold him in. It is out of this recognition that he decided in his whistle-stop tour to work with different musicians. “The fountain of youth is the music itself. I myself benefitted from the masters who came before me. My role now is to share my music with young people and also learn from them.”

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