South African University students rejoin VCU Jazz

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

From left to right: Roger Pouncey Jr. (guitar), Ryan Moses (piano), Trey Sorrells (alto sax), Code Reifsteck (tenor sax), Cleandre Foster (drums), Jordan Mason (bass) and Professor Antonio Garcia (trombone) form the VCU Africa Combo. Photo by Jean-Philippe Cypres.

South African jazz musicians will perform side-by-side with VCU students Sept. 24 as part of a cultural exchange program with the university’s sister school KwaZulu-Natal University in Durban, South Africa.

Going into its third year, “A Jazz Bridge to Greater Understanding,” program seeks to educate students about the parallels of race relations between South Africa and the U.S. through the study and performance of songs composed for one another.

After Wednesday’s concert, a student and faculty member from the respective universities will compose a piece for the other university’s ensemble. The piece will be performed in addition to several collaborations at a concert held at KwaZulu-Natal’s campus when the VCU Africa Combo visits in March 2015. 

VCU director of jazz studies Antonio Garcia said the program was founded in 2011 after successfully applying for a grant offered by former provost Beverly Warren. The grant invited program directors to engage in cultural exchange programs with a sister university.

After looking into the universities associated with VCU, Garcia said he immediately recognized the name of KwaZulu-Natal and its reputation for being socially responsible and having a progressive music and arts program.

“Social struggle is a delicate matter, but it needs to be talked about so it doesn’t get repeated,” Garcia said. “The only positive thing that comes out of oppression is the voice of the oppressed, and part of that voice is their art.”

Prior to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, jazz musician and educator Darius Brubeck — son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck — formed an integrated jazz ensemble, “The Jazzians” in 1988 at the University of Natal. The university incorporated UKZN in 2004. In the years following the group’s founding, the combo travelled globally under different names, but always featured a mixed-group of musicians, black, white, male and female.

“It was a clear message,” Garcia said. “It was a way to show that communication between different races and cultures could happen even during a very difficult time in South Africa’s history.”

In addition to having an opportunity to perform with musicians from a historically significant university, Garcia said VCU students in the combo are also given the chance to travel, which is fundamental in understanding the development of jazz music.

Garcia said jazz music joins the conceptions of Western symphonic music with African-style rhythms, which makes the genre original and cross-cultural. With their different backgrounds and cultures, musicians from both continents bring their own impression of the genre. 

“(African) instruments and voice are revered for not their clarity of tone, but for the buzz tone or blues feel, or throat inflection,” Garcia said. “An African vocalist, for example, wouldn’t hesitate to color the sound in a way an operatic vocalist would not.”

Student composer and pianist Lungelo Ngcobo of the Jazz Storytellers ensemble was invited by UKZN jazz director Neil Gonsalves to return after Ngcobo missed the 2013-2014 academic season.

While there is some difference between the musical background and training between both groups, Ngcobo said he believes there is a shared culture between the youth at both universities.

“To some extent, Richmond and Durban are kind of similar, they’re small cities compared to bigger cities like Washington, D.C. or Johannesburg,” Ngcobo said. “Some people have a perception that South Africans are still wearing tribal things and have elephants or lions in the street, but we’re normal people.”

Ngcobo said he is excited to return to Richmond, having made a number of friends during his first two visits as a freshmen in the program two years ago. Ngcobo will have an expanded role during this year’s return of the program, being tasked to compose a piece with UKZN professor Burton Naidoo. 

“I know who’s going to be playing because it’s a lot of the same people,” Ngcobo said. “I know their capabilities, I know how difficult the music should or shouldn’t be, I know how far to push … I am composing it however, so I want it to be as good as it can be.”

The UKZN Jazz Storytellers Ensemble will perform with the VCU Africa Combo Sept. 24 at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall in the W.E. Singleton Center at 922 Park Ave. The concert begins at 8 p.m. and admission is free.

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