I have a thing for drummers. I’m obsessed with Max Roach, Art Blakey and Cindy Blackman. So when I heard that the South African drummer, Kesivan Naidoo who’s renowned for his collaborations with jazz legends like Bheki Mseleku, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Winston Mankunku and Miriam Makeba was in town, I was beside myself. Critics have hailed his music as “majestic” and “mind-blowing,” naming him a conduit of the fresh South African jazz sound. His influential album Brotherhood (2014) premiered to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.
Fast forward to 2023, and Naidoo, now based in Basel, Switzerland, is reimagining Brotherhood as a Big Band experience, bringing his fusion of Afro-Indo modulations and cinematic improvisations back to South Africa. I was thrilled to have a conversation with him about the ambitions and influences that have led him back home.
Thembeka Heidi Sincuba: I’m curious to know what Afro-Indo fusion means, how it sounds, and why it’s significant to you.
Kesivan Naidoo: In music today, originality is rare. With only 12 notes in an octave, all genres and styles have been explored. What we have now are combinations of influences that create something considered original. For me, originality means expressing my true self through a distinct blend of influences from my South African roots, Indian classical music (I studied in India on a scholarship), jazz and classical music. I blend different genres by finding common reference points. For me, it’s about recognising the interconnectedness of cultures and traditions and honouring history through thoughtful fusions.
THS: I’d like to hear more about your album Brotherhood and why you chose it as the foundation for your tour. What made you want to rework it?
KS: Brotherhood is a significant record for me because it’s my first proper original album. Previous works were collaborations or projects with other musicians. With Brotherhood, I composed original music and brought together some of my favourite musicians to perform it. The album tells stories within a movie, and each piece represents a different character. With the opportunity to have an orchestra for this tour, I can finally realise the music on a grand scale, just as I envisioned it. Bringing my core band members together and expanding the ensemble with these amazing musicians was a natural progression. It was like unfinished business.
THS: Was it important for you to finish this business here?
KS: Absolutely, it’s all about completing the circle. You can’t move forward without knowing where you come from. The whole purpose of my global ventures and representing South Africa is so that I can bring it back home. When I play this music abroad, it’s very well-received, but there’s something special about playing it in South Africa. The connection and response from the audience are more personal and direct.
THS: I noticed that there’s an emphasis on involving more women in your band, which is a significant departure from the predominantly masculine South African jazz scene. Can you tell me more about your decision to emphasize gender diversity?
KS: There are two core reasons for me. Firstly, in my own upbringing, I didn’t have a father figure, so my mother and grandmother brought me up, which shaped my worldview. I’m not afraid to be in touch with my feminine side… Secondly, I believe in the balance of nature. Having a balance between masculine and feminine voices can create a holistic experience. I’ve always made an effort to include women in my bands. I recognise that in the past, women pursuing jazz music faced greater challenges… It’s essential for me to emphasise gender diversity, not only to acknowledge the importance of both genders but also to represent the people of South Africa. In a country with a history of separation, music is a powerful force that brings people together.
Led by conductor and arranger Adrian Mears, Naidoo’s Big Band features an exceptional lineup. Alongside Naidoo on drums and composition, Benjamin Japhta on double bass, Reza Khota on guitar, Kyle Shepard on piano, and a trumpet section including Lee Thomson, Darren English, Thabo Sikhakhane and Sakhile Simane. The trombone section features Julia Rueffert, Siya Makuzeni, Andreas Tschopp and Maxine Troglauer, while the sax lineup includes Justin Bellairs, Tara Sarter, Sisonke Xonti, Marc Stucki and Danni McKinnon. Notably, several members of the band have been recognised as Standard Bank Young Artists of the Year.
The Kesivan Naidoo Big Band Experience will be recorded for an album and documentary, featuring concert recordings from Germany, Switzerland, and the South African tour. Starting from his overseas scholarship in 2000 and his first Pro Helvetia-sponsored project in 2004 with Beat Bag Bohemia, the documentary, in collaboration with OCHRE Moving Pictures, aims to capture the development of Naidoo’s unique Big Band sound.
Rehearsals for the South African tour, which has spanned 11 cities, took place at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda from June 26 to 30, with two concerts on June 30 and July 1. In Cape Town, the ensemble performed at venues like the Star Theatre (Fugard), Blue Room, Openwine and The Athletic Club & Social. The conclusion of the tour at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg on July 8 is sure to be a banging affair!
Get your tickets here!
This story is produced in the context of an editorial residency supported by Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, the Swiss Arts Council.