Jazz and art history is always told as a procession of giants. These are individuals who dare fate, and seize the day to become iconic embodiments of particular moments in the movements of the people. The story of this unfolding golden era of South African jazz so far, has largely been unfolding as a story of instrumentalist. We have noted the rise and shine of prodigious pianists, brilliant bassists and dazzling drummers, horns and more.
Last night at the DSG Hall in Jazztown, Zoe Modiga stepped on stage with a dream to shape time with her voice as a promise and arsenal. She performed music from her recently released album, Yellow: The Novel. Her repertoire comprised both original and covers of compositions culled from classics and contemporary music. There was power in her handling of “Open Your Eye,” a composition by Chick Corea and Neville Potter and made popular by Lizz Wright. Young Modiga stepped into this big song with sincerity and remained faithful to its contours. Though attempting to make it her own, she did well not to take too many liberties with it as a monument of a shared secularity spirituality. The song is a call to hope for dreamers. A theme she returned to often in her performance last night.
Swinging effortlessly from party mood to the prayerful with a nod to the divine the gospel evergreen, “Amazing Grace,” delicately. Then, she would move back to the playful with a tune she calls “Uh Oh (Sensible Life).” Bouncy and playful almost to a fault, but not unforgivable.
One of the highlight cuts of the evening was “Inganekwane.” The song tells a tale of failed love and a woman’s lament against betrayal. The song more than almost most of the night’s charts, locates young Modiga in the procession of great South African vocalist. She moves mezzo-soprano to contralto and goes even lower with guttural inflections. It’s as if she was wilfully coding both modernity and traditions to claim her potential place in the pantheon of singers. She held each phrase with a promise to deliver it with the dexterity of any instrumentalist. Modiga is not simply a singer, she is a vocalist. There’s a promise here. It’s exciting to see what she can mean for the culture. This is where we hold our breath.