Ukuba noma Unkungabi
In Chamber Groove through South Africa
Jasper van’t Hof presents a new edition of PILI PILI:
The CD “UKUBA NOMA UNKUNGABI”
It’s been six years since ethno-groove band PILI PILI came out with its last album, an elaborate, richly illustrated book with CDs entitled “Post Scriptum” (JARO 4255/56-2) and celebrating the ensemble’s twentieth birthday. It seemed to be a kind of stopping point for Jasper van’t Hof, a “postscript” with a conclusive commentary on everything said undertaken beforehand; soon thereafter he introduced his project HOTLIPS with the horn section of PILI PILI. But Africa and its music simply didn’t let go of the Dutch pianist, keyboarder and eclectic composer with his penchant for romping about in the most heterogeneous musical métiers. The result is a new PILI PILI album, now in an entirely new mood.
The title “Ukuba noma Unkungabi” points to South Africa, where PILI PILI had already found new musical nourishment in 1999 when the band cooperated with the Phikelela Sakhula Zulu Choir. And it was that ensemble which brought forth the singer Smangele Khumalo, PILI PILI’s lead voice on the new CD. Otherwise the new constellation has a different sound, more chamber-music-like as it were, and there’s a reason for that. Jasper van’t Hof expresses it as follows:
“The concept is different. After twenty years with PILI PILI, I didn’t want to repeat myself. In those twenty years, Pili Pili was a concept with African music and African musicians where the African aspect was the point of departure. Now I wanted to turn that around. We’re always using the term World Music, and for us Europeans it’s completely clear: Africa, yeah, that’s foreign. Then we use our own conceptions of music and try to develop a conglomerate of African and European music. And that’s what they call World Music. With the new album, I started in Europe. I didn’t want to take African cultures as my orientation, but a European musical idea as my starting point. In other words, I want to make European music now. I composed as a European, and Africans collaborated with me on the realization, along with string players from the Balkans and a saxophonist from Amsterdam. For the concerts, we’re also going to be joined by a Dutch contrabassist.”
As before, the new PILI PILI sound is still defined by van’t Hof’s keyboards, but the strings Vasile Darnea (violin) and Anton Peisakhov (violoncello) play a decisive role as well. And with the young saxophonist Tineke Postma, a shooting comet in the Dutch jazz scene who also runs her own quartet, PILI PILI now has a horn player with a warmly purring tone at her disposal. What is more, the ensemble now goes drumless, placing its stakes instead in the percussion instruments of Dra Diarra, the only musician leftover from earlier days apart from Jasper van’t Hof himself. Yet however acoustic and chamber-musical this instrumentation is in nature, it doesn’t rob PILI PILI of its groove – there’s simply too much rhythm in the theme of South Africa, and Jasper van’t Hof’s ultimately love for the sound of Africa is simply too great to let that happen:
“First I composed, just for strings, later the saxophone was added, but then I found I couldn’t just leave my hands off the groove. That wasn’t the idea from the beginning, but in the end I had to admit that I’m just not capable of doing any differently. Now I think that it grooves fantastically in parts, and I’m very happy with it. In the end, Africa caught up with me again.”
And what about the enigmatic Zulu title “Ukuba noma Unkungabi”? It is inspirited with the ghost of Hamlet, for it means: “to be or not to be”.
Jasper van’t Hof explains:
“For someone like Smangele, who comes from a township in KwaZulu Natal, to be or not to be is an obvious, omnipresent question of existence. With regard to myself, the band had ended after twenty years because I had the feeling I had already said everything I wanted to say in connection with Africa. Six years passed, and I missed PILI PILI, and the entire concept, and the situation of working with a band. And so there the question was also to be or not to be, i.e. do you want to do it again or not?”
He did, as can now be heard.