South African jazz lovers should brace themselves for a whirlwind musical experience from award-winning Canadian bandleader Sundar Viswanathan and his Toronto-based world-jazz ensemble Avataar. The band is in the country for a four-city tour, which began last week in Cape Town and will end in Johannesburg on 30 September.
Viswanathan – who composes, sings and plays the saxophone – has worked with jazz luminaries such as English bassist Dave Holland and Grammy award-winning US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Viswanathan is expected to use his long experience in the jazz scene to unleash energetic performances in South Africa.
Music In Africa spoke with Viswanathan ahead of his South African performances.
MUSIC IN AFRICA: What should fans expect from your band?
SUNDAR VISWANATHAN: My goal with the band and music is to take listeners on a musical journey – to transport listeners outside the space where they are hearing the music. There are a lot of things people hear in this music, from deep groove to lyrical melody and lush soundscapes. You could call it ‘world jazz’ but there are so many influences in the music that I hesitate to place a label on it.
People have said it reminds them of John Coltrane meets Mahavishnu Orchestra, meets Oregon, meets Enya, meets Antonio Carlos Jobim, meets Jimi Hendrix. There is also a very spiritual element to the music and sound of the band. Your jazz audiences will appreciate this description that we use: ‘Imagine John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett taking in the atmosphere of an open-air market in New Delhi while the sounds and smells of the earth and sky filter in.’
What inspired you to come up with this tour?
There’s optimism and an energy in the air. The people [South Africans] are so open and friendly, there are so many great musicians and I really wanted to share my music with everyone there. I believe there is a universal quality and message in Avataar’s music that people in South Africa will resonate with. It also helps that this is one of the most beautiful countries that I’ve been to in the world. (I’ve been around!) And how could I not mention Castle Milk Stout? It tastes much better when you’re drinking it in this great land.
When were you last in South Africa?
I was here in 2004, I believe, and again in 2017. The first time, I was invited by US pianist Darius Brubeck to play with him and present a workshop at the South African Association for Jazz Education Conference. In 2017 I came to present an academic paper at the University of Pretoria and also played with artists like Mageshen Naidoo, Karendra Devroop, Nduduzo Makhathini and many other fine musicians.
Any collaborations during the tour?
Not this time. There was simply too much going on in too little time. Next time around, though.
Who would you like to collaborate with given the opportunity?
If you are talking about the South African scene, there are so many that would be great to play with given the opportunity. I mentioned Nduduzo Makhathini but also Mageshen Naidoo, Concord Nkabinde, Carlo Mombeli, Karendra Devroop, Reza Khota, Mike Rossi, Neil Gonsalves, Roland Moses, Melvin Peters and Kesivan Naidoo. These are all people I know, but there are so many others that I am not recalling now. Jazz is such a versatile art form that we could play with virtually any musician in the country and make it work. I have also heard great things about Afrika Mkhize, Andre Petersen and Bokani Dyer. Of course there is always Abdullah Ibrahim. I would love to play with him. Mr Ibrahim, if you’re reading this?
What’s your general comment about the state of the South African jazz? Any concerns and areas that you admire?
There are so many fine musicians in the scene here. I was hoping to get Nduduzo to sit in with us in Pretoria at the State Theatre, but he, unfortunately, was not able to do so. I like that the jazz styles here, like marabi, are so reflective of the culture and are so imbued with history. Of course, like most places jazz is not a ‘popular’ music genre and I see that there are many challenges here, financial and otherwise, to keep the music flowing.
I would really encourage your readers to go out and support your local artists who are working so hard to make the world a better place through music. And there is nothing like live music, live jazz, to teach you about the world and yourself.
Anything worth mentioning before taking to the South African stages?
I want to sincerely thank the Canada Council for the Arts, Paul Bothner Music and Slowlife for tour support and help along the way. And my website, where people can hear Avataar’s music and see videos and the schedule.
Tickets to Avataar’s SA tour can be bought at the venues. For more information, visit Music In Africa’s gig guide.
Avataar South African tour dates:
26/09 – University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
27/09 – The Chairman, Durban
28/09 – The South African State Theatre, Pretoria
29/09 – University of South Africa, Pretoria
30/09 – The Orbit, Johannesburg