Concord Nkabinde – inspiration from choral music
18 December 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, it’s good to have you with us, thank you so much for downloading and listening to this podcast and time to chat some more music and a legendary artist joining us on the podcast today.
He’s been around for a while, has really made a name for himself in the South African music scene and beyond. What a great pleasure to welcome Concord Nkabinde onto the podcast. Concord, welcome, nice to catch up, thanks for joining us today.
Concord Nkabinde: Brad, thank you, it’s good to be here.
BB: Concord, music has been part of your life for so long, has it always been that way? Were you musically inclined growing up?
We are a very musical bunch
CN: Yes indeed, music has been part of my life since day one because I was born into a musical family and both my immediate and my extended family are very musical. So I think in one way or another, I was going to pick it up somewhere.
But my dad was also involved in training choirs and gospel groups around Soweto and I used to tag along and just sit there and listen. Looking back, I realised how important those years were, just in terms of me absorbing the sound and the passion from music.
BB: I love that, especially as a kid growing up in a family like that. I love music and I’m fairly musically inclined, but funnily enough, didn’t grow up in a music family. I can’t imagine what that must be like. Can you remember your earliest memory that’s related to music? You mentioned those times with your dad and the choirs, when was the earliest that you can remember music being part of your life?
CN: You know, it’s difficult to say because even as a baby you were taken to church every Sunday and this is the sound you start absorbing and you were always surrounded by it. The other thing is, my dad had this tendency to wake my brother and I up quite late in the evening. Whenever he felt like singing a song and he would use us a guinea pigs to give us parts to sing.
All of that, it was so much intertwined with our upbringing and it was only, I’d say at the age of 10 where I took interest in wanting to play an instrument and we had a guitar at home, but we couldn’t play it. My brother had a friend who could play guitar, but he didn’t have a guitar of his own. So he used to come to our house to practice and I’d just sit and watch him and as he leaves, I’d pick up the guitar and try and imitate what he was doing. That’s basically how I started playing guitar.
BB: That’s fantastic. Concord, who were some of your influences growing up, who did you love listening to?
Who inspired you?
CN: Obviously a lot of gospel music, being raised in the church and being involved with church music. But in the same street where I grew up and this is at the Dube location in Soweto, there was the house where the Soul Brothers, the band, Soul Brothers used to rehears.
What I’d do is I’d just walk and sit outside the garage cause they were rehearsing in a garage and just listen for hours to this band playing music and that had a lot of influence in my loving the use of western instruments in creating sounds that are more home or more South African or African.
Then I discovered other bands like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and so on and on the international front, even though I interacted with jazz much later, but in my early days I actually hated jazz, couldn’t stand it. My brother had all these jazz records that he used to play at home and I’d just walk out of the house cause I didn’t like it.
But I was listening to stuff that was influenced by jazz, but I didn’t really know and understand at that time that it came from jazz. Listening to the early Miriam Makeba, we thought it was just African music, but already she was interacting with jazz musicians.
When I eventually went to university to study music, I had to choose a stream, western classical music stream or the jazz programme and without even thinking twice I chose the jazz programme. I remember writing a letter back to my brother and telling him that I was now studying jazz, he couldn’t believe it!
I must say, the church music influence for me has been quite crucial and in a sense that if you play spiritual music, the issue of conviction in terms of what you play is quite key to it, to also the element or improvisation because in our churches there’s a lot of improvisation that happens.
We don’t plan the songs, usually we don’t plan the songs a week before, what songs are going to be sung. If you are musician in a black church, you should be able to have a sharp ear, cause anyone can start a song at any time. You must be able to pick up the key and start accompanying them. That was amazing training for me and I will always value that.
BB: Let’s touch on gospel and choral musical too, I think a lot of that is also born out of gospel and churches. We’ve got a very strong choral fraternity in SA, why do you think it’s as strong as it is Concord?
Choral music enhances a sense of community
CN: I think as a start, African people generally believe that music is a communal thing. The process of making music is a group thing. That is why you struggle to get black people to sit quietly in a western classical music concert and wait to applaud at the end. If there’s something in the middle of the piece that you relate to, or it touches you, you want to be a part of it and respond to that.
The concept of one person playing on stage and the others being in the audience is foreign to us. It’s something we’ve had to learn and the world is changing. But concerts that work well are when the artist involves the audience and they become part of that process.
I think choral music is strong partly because of that, people want to be a part of the process but in our schools and black schools, choral music was compulsory for many years and that is a lot a culture of choral music. So when people left school, they felt that they wanted to continue that tradition, so they’d start community choirs as well and it’s just been growing and growing, it’s actually amazing.
BB: It is amazing and just looking at the levels and standards this year, particularly at the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, it’s been superb and it just continues to grow from strength to strength. As far as going on and studying music, I’ve seen that too with a lot of the conductors we’ve been working with around the NCF this year.
Was it a difficult decision to make, to go and study music? I think for a lot of people, particularly our parents want to push us into a conventional career and something safe and secure, did you feel any of that pressure growing up? Was there any pressure on you to go and become a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor?
Music was always going to be more than a hobby
CN: Definitely yes, and again, both from family and from society and it’s hard as a young person to make that decision, to follow your heart or your passion when people around you are telling you, you can’t do this as a career, this is just a hobby.
I arrogantly decided I wanted to pursue this thing because it was so strong, but even in my final years at high school, I could see my focus was really on finishing here and getting on to studying music. It wasn’t a very easy process in terms of finance and so on and my mother was very instrumental in helping me raise finance. All the unit trusts that she had saved for years, she pulled all those out and helped me get some university funding and I had to do a lot of gigs during my studying years to try and add to that.
Looking back, it’s a decision I will never regret. I always say to young musicians, if you have the opportunity to study music full time, do it, because it will teach you a very high level of discipline. But it will also open a lot of networks for you, just to know how other people around the world think.
You spend the three or four years studying music from all over the world and music cultures and I had amazing lecturers at university who constantly taught you in a way that puts music in a relevant space. So there’s always a context, whether it’s social, political or whatever that speaks to you finding your own purpose in terms of your use of music.
Sadly, a lot of musicians think that music is about music, it’s about the notes that we play, but it’s got to be more than just that. There has to be a purpose and for me, going to study, opened my mind to a whole lot of possibilities. Even non-musical aspects that then influenced the music that you write, so yeah, I think education is key. Of course education, it does not always have to be formal because we live in an age of information, we are surrounded by information all the time.
BB: I think that is amazing advice and like you say, it doesn’t always have to be formal, some of the best lessons, I’m sure you’d agree, some of the best lessons you’ve learnt and what I’ve learnt haven’t been in classrooms, it’s been in the School of Hard Knocks and sometimes those are the best and most valuable lessons. Concord, I think I’m going to wrap things up there, we’ll save your solo career for the next time we chat here on Old Mutual Live and chat a bit about what you’ve achieved, what you still hope to achieve in the years to come. Thanks for your time today, much appreciated, we look forward to catching up again soon.
CN: Awesome, thank you Brad.