On the prowl for new sounds, this Afronaut is a perpetual student
Shepherd remains humble despite his many accolades and trophies
In Aryan Kaganof’s film, The Exhibition of Vandalizim, legendary jazz icon Zim Ngqawana finds his base, the Zimology Institute, in an indescribable state.
It has been ransacked and left for dead by scrap metal thieves. Ngqawana and his prodigy, Kyle Shepherd, make no attempt to salvage the remains, but instead confront the destruction head-on. Shepherd plays a piano that has been raped and violated, and somehow he is able to rescue it from the limbo of a musical instrument too damaged to serve the purpose for which it was created.
What is more fascinating is how they refuse to be mere victims or bystanders.
Within the trashed walls of the institute, the destruction feeds their imagination and the jazz they produce in response is timeless avant-garde sounds.
Their faces showing that they are on the verge of madness, they throw themselves over the edge of the precipice.
If a fiction author gifted with a thick and illusive prose had told this story, he would have been accused of having a way too excited imagination.
But this act of vandalism really happened in 2010.
Ngqawana passed away in 2011 and Shepherd’s career has since blossomed. He is widely regarded as one of the country’s most accomplished jazz pianists and composers.
His soundtrack for the film Noem My Skollie was nominated for Best Achievement in Original Music at the South African Film & Television Awards in 2017. Gallo Record Company has entered it for the Oscars.
He has released critically acclaimed albums with three of them — fineART (2009), A Portrait of Home (2010) and South African History !X (2012) — earning him South African Music Awards nominations.
He is launching a new double album soon. Sound Portraits From Contemporary Africa is being released by SWR Jazz-Haus in Germany featuring Shepherd on piano and keyboard, Lionel Loueke on guitar and vocals, Mthunzi Mvubu on saxophone, Shane Cooper on bass and Jonno Sweetman on drums and percussion.
Shepherd regularly performs in concerts locally and abroad as a solo pianist, while also leading his trio with Cooper and Sweetman and his quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Buddy Wells.
He is presenting his latest work as part of a series of interdisciplinary conversations on South African music curated by Dr Stephanie Vos of Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation. The discussion will centre on his master’s thesis entitled Interrogating the Own: A Practice-based, Auto-ethnographic Study, and there will be a solo piano performance.
In his latest collaboration with master bass guitarist and composer Carlo Mombelli, the pair played a subtle and meditative set. The performance was carried by the constant exchange of ideas and energies.
It's a requirement in creative music, to constantly be finding new ways of doing old and new things
"As musicians and particularly composers, we are in a constant state of perpetual research. In a way, it’s a requirement in creative music, to constantly be finding new ways of doing old and new things," Shepherd says.
"There is a period of reflection post-performance or after a practice, which is where the growth happens."
With his display unit packed with trophies and accolades and his name already engraved as one of the greats, Shepherd could be busking on the illusion known as hype and walking around with a head swollen with superstardom.
But he seems to maintain a cool head and an even temper. Humble, quiet but far from dull. An Afronaut of some sort, lured by what lies beyond the limits."I approach my music making purely from the standpoint of the student," he says.
"I feel that when musicians start walking around with the ‘master teacher’ attitude, the growth stops. Even true masters like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are still searching. Zim Ngqawana was the same." As part of the conversation, Shepherd will have with Vos, he will look back over his career and discuss how Ngqawana and Abdullah Ibrahim shaped his practice of jazz.
"Bra Zim taught me so much in a short space of time, both on the stage and off. This searching spirit is probably the most profound lesson I learned from him," he says. "He had an insatiable thirst for what was uncommon in the music and demanded of us, his sidemen, that we play something that we haven’t before.
"My experience of Abdullah Ibrahim goes back to my early years when my mother, Michele Shepherd, played violin with him and toured with him and a string quartet back in 1993. She then went on to teach at his school, M7....
"I remember seeing many of his solo piano concerts in Cape Town and being profoundly moved by the energy that seemed to be radiating from the stage," Shepherd says.
• Conversations on Popular South African Music is at the Gallery University of Stellenbosch on Tuesday at 6pm.