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  • Writer's pictureNikilitha Mantungwa

Reviving Jazz: Kujenga Joins Kopton Music

Kujenga, the vibrant upcoming jazz band from Cape Town has taken South-Africa by storm! After a successful album launch followed by a tour and various concerts around the country, most notably being the annual Cape Town International Jazz festival, the band has settled down and found themselves at the Home of Sound; Kopton Music!

The name 'Kujenga' originates from the Swahili language, meaning "to build." This symbolism lies at the core of the group's philosophy, reflecting their commitment to crafting profound experiences and connections through their music. The band members are brothers  Zwide (bass guitar) and Owethu Ndwandwe (piano), Tamzyn Freeks (trombone), Matthew Rightford (saxophone), Bonga Mosola (trumpet) and Thane Smith (guitar).

Having found a home at Kopton Music with their very first publishing deal, the band says that it has been really exciting and refreshing working with Kopton in terms of the agency’s supportive approach, simplicity, and transparency. “I've been to many workshops and classes but none have gone that deep into the intricacies of the business. What I like the most is realising how much I don't know about this aspect of music and learning from someone who does and who also genuinely cares about the people they're working with” Tamzyn said. 

Zwide, the band’s bass guitarist and manager feels like this was a very important step for the band because their music is being received quite well and is being platformed in several places. He finds it comforting to know that they can earn from the labour that has gone into producing their music and to secure their legacy by signing this publishing deal. "Our independence is an integral part of our growth and development as a group. It’s how we were able to forge the path of our career as a band and get to where we are now. Despite the financial obstacle of putting this all together on our own, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing that we’ve done this on our own terms is the biggest reward."

In an ever growing industry, it is very important to understand your rights as an independent musician, especially within the context of a group. I asked the group how important maintaining the band’s independence is to them and what some of the benefits have been so far. Zwide said: “I think independence has enabled Kujenga to maintain a rebellious spirit that I really cherish and I feel like that spirit can become increasingly restricted as independence diminishes”. Owethu, the band's pianist, added that the business side of music feels like a completely different job for performers in South Africa and that it’s rarely spoken about. "Getting to learn about it has been very fascinating, considering that there are multiple ways of earning income outside of the 'one trick'."

Thane commented on the fact that being independent means that you’re doing everything yourself in your own capacity. While it comes with a lot of fun, one learns and figures things out along the way but the process altogether allows for one to shape their own path to success. Tamzyn added to this by saying “I think it's integral for the band but also artists in general to have independence. I believe all art forms are reflections of the soul. Because of this, you can hear and feel when something is genuine or not. Being told what to do and having no control over the things you create has the potential to make you fall out of love with what you're doing but more importantly chip away pieces of yourself. This could seep into and be reflected in your creations themselves causing a disconnect not only between you and the consumer but between you and yourself as well”.

Zwide Ndwandwe of Kujenga at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2024
Zwide Ndwandwe of Kujenga at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2024 (Photographer: Jonathan Inglis)

Reflecting the times: Honouring Chris Hani

At the heart of Kujenga's music is the belief in their role as creators, aiming not just to perform but to construct something meaningful with each note. I, like many of their young listeners in South-Africa, discovered the band on Tik-Tok when “Hymn for Hani” went viral. I asked Zwide, the band’s bass guitarist, what inspired this nostalgic song and whether or not he ever imagined that this would be the song to catapult them into the industry. “What inspired the song was really the desire to have uTat’ Chris Hani’s contributions to the struggle and consciousness acknowledged in song, particularly within the field of improvised music. The gradual depoliticisation of everything has made it crucial for us to reintroduce certain politics and historical figures, especially within the landscape of a cultural institution such as South African black improvised music. I never imagined that it would be so well received, let alone become our signature song that people connect the most to. Knowing that this music and the politics that informs it is not popular art, it was a surprise to see the way in which it resonated with so many listeners.”

In the spirit of Nina Simone, Kujenga reflects the times and pays homage to the iconic South-African anti-Apartheid activist, Chris Hani, through their music. I asked Thane how important it is for musicians to reflect the times and how important this song is to the band. “Music is a spiritual weapon and it is also universal because it transcends language barriers. As musicians, we have that power at our disposal and should not take it lightly. It should be used to inform and make people feel that which has been shoved to the back of the mind, unveil that which has been covered by injustice or silenced through oppression. Jimi Hendrix says it best, ‘Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in the world it can only happen through music’. So to create that reflection for yourself and for people who have come to receive is key. Hymn for Hani stands as a testament to that and it has become our biggest song not just because it's a tribute written for Chris Hani, but because it reminds us of the injustice he faced just like so many other South Africans did during the Apartheid era. To me, the song’s spiritual embodiment matches no other and I think as a guitarist it’s surreal, scary yet also beautiful to be able to lead listeners through such a journey. The music is powerful and not only does it hit but I believe it serves its purpose fully.”

Thane Smith, the guitarist of Kujenga joins Kopton Music
Thane Smith of Kujenga, tuning his guitar in preparation for a concert

Looking back on South-Africa’s rich jazz history, particularly as a trumpet player, I wondered what musicians Bonga, the band's trumpeter, draws inspiration from what he tries to convey to the audience during performances. "I find this question so difficult to answer because so much of influence is sub conscious and the array of people that have influenced me is so broad. I will say that the likes of Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku, Thandi Ntuli and Andile Yenena are people I listened to religiously when making the decision to pursue jazz. But I listen to everything from maskandi to reggae so I’m sure there’s a bit of Busi Mhlongo and Bob Marley somewhere in me too. As a black South African “jazz” trumpeter, I feel like you cannot help but have been touched in some way by Hugh Masekela. However, I would say that my own style of playing is more influenced by Mongezi Feza, Sydney Mavundla and Feya Faku along with American trumpeters like Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell."

"In terms of what I try to convey to the audience, I’d say it’s mostly around my own individual expression of the spirit of whatever song we are playing. Music is an abstract form of expression, but it allows you to express things that are difficult to convey in as concrete a form of expression as language, so I focus on the feeling and serving the 'spirit' of the song through my playing".

Bonga Mosola of Kujenga playing the trumpet
Bonga Mosola (trumpet)

Drawing inspiration from South-Africa’s rich history, Kujenga’s sound is a fusion of African melodies and contemporary jazz elements. When asked how she feels about being a part of Cape Town’s thriving jazz scene with Kujenga and how it's been for them for the last few months, Tamzyn, the band’s trombonist said that being a woman in a male dominated industry can be tricky at times. “I wouldn't go as far as saying that I've felt unsafe in other parts of the scene but what I will say is I've never felt as safe as I do now. I definitely believe this is also reflected both on and off of the stage and in the music itself. The past few months have been incredible but it's felt that way for me since joining Kujenga.” 

Tamzyn added that Kujenga feels like home to her; at times like church. “It always feels like there's a higher power in the room with us whether at a gig or in a rehearsal space when there's no one else there to witness. Initially, I thought I might be slightly crazy but audience members often tell me the same thing.”

Tamzyn Freeks of Kujenga playing the trombone
Tamzyn Freeks of Kujenga

I found myself wondering whether or not Tamzyn had a favourite gig and she said: "It's really hard to pick a favourite gig because every time we've played, I've deeply felt something. I really enjoyed the festivals we've played because some of them have been random and you feel the energy of the audience and wonder whether or not they'll enjoy the music. They end up loving it and it just goes to show that if you're doing something for the right reason, the man-made boundaries of race, gender and even age are nonexistent in that realm.”

She added that the gig that stood out to her the most was the Cape Town leg of the band’s "In The Wake" Album Launch Tour. “It was such an out of body experience and most of the time, my eyes were closed or focused on one spot. We played in a courtyard, surrounded by people sitting on chairs, the floor as well as the stairs and balcony. The few moments I looked at the audience, I could see in their eyes that the same feeling I was experiencing while playing was the same feeling that they were experiencing just by listening to us. Although I didn't know every single person's name or story, for that hour and a bit it felt as if our souls were joined and our pains, sorrows, joys and hopes were shared”.

Kujenga: The LIVE experience

Kujenga, Cape Town's jazz sensation on stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2024
Left to right: Matthew Rightford, Tamzyn Freaks & Bonga Mosola of Kujenga

If you've ever had the chance to witness Kujenga live, you're one of the lucky ones! Being in the middle of nowhere means that I can only hear the amazing stories from those who’ve gone or scroll through the stories of those who’ve attended their concerts on social media. I asked Owethu how the last few months have been for the band, since gaining popularity. "Where we are as a band right now feels surreal! This transition has brought the band more recognition and a larger, more organic following which is steadily increasing. Although these developments have happened quickly, it has come as a result of many shows and appearances that we have done in the past."

He added that what he enjoys the most, like Tamzyn, is seeing the excitement and anticipation of the audience as they play music from their catalogue that their fans love as well as the opportunity to play in new spaces. "We haven't played massive crowds yet but I imagine that catering to a potentially bigger crowd comes with a lot more demands, especially if we want to stay true and authentic to our sound."

The Cape Town International Jazz festival is arguably one of the most important events to celebrate jazz in South-Africa. It is considered to be the highlight for jazz enthusiasts across the country! I asked Matthew how it felt to perform on that stage this year. “It was definitely a dream-come-true and a full-circle moment for all of us. It was surreal to share the line-up with heroes like Jimmy Dludlu, Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli, Moonchild, Benjamin Jephta, and Kokoroko. I’ve been lucky enough to play at various festivals like Rocking the Daisies but none compare to the milestone sensation and excitement of playing at the jazz festival.”

Matthew Rightford of Kujenga (Kopton Music roster)
Matthew Rightford of Kujenga

As part of the new generation of South-African jazz, Kujenga embodies the spirit of innovation, independence and creativity that defines our country’s ever growing music industry. Their commitment to authenticity and exploring new sonic territories has established them as growing favourites in the jazz scene and I can’t wait to see what amazing things they end up doing in the future! After all, Kujenga is not just a band; it's a movement.



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