Four singers, a saxophonist and a drummer stand silent in the stippled gloom of the Bouffe du Nord. Beside them, Kyle Shepherd plays the xaru, an instrument that may never have been heard in this legendary theatre.
The long wooden bow is nearly as tall as its player, who holds it with one end between his lips. Its single string is struck with a short stick, and pitched with a sliding ring. With his mouth as resonating cavity, Shepherd extracts an eerie range of overtones and subtleties from his strange instrument.
Strange? The xaru has been around for a great deal longer than the Bouffe du Nord. It was played by the Khoisan, the original inhabitants of Cape Town, adopted by the Xhosa when they moved in, ignored by the white man and sidelined by the pressures of modern urban living.
This year, Paris’s Festival d’Automne focuses on South Africa, as the second part of a two-year cultural exchange with France. Xamissa is the brainchild of Shepherd and festival director Joséfine Markovits, a new work from an exceptional young composer for extraordinary forces.
Shepherd, a student of South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, has always had an ear for the sounds of the diverse world around him and an interest in expressing the complexities of his environment in his music. Xamissa is the Khoisan word for Cape Town, “The place of sweet waters”. Created for the Festival d’Automne, the 70-minute work blends the worlds of jazz, Xhosa choral music, improvisation and Khoisan tradition with organic certainty and modesty.
Much of it is simple, almost naive. The Xhosa music is homophonic, strophic and direct. Bulelani Moadondile, Busisiwe Ngejane, Portia Shwana and Xolisile Yali, making their European debuts, sing with precision, sophistication and physical confidence. Claude Cozens’ percussion is discreet, empathetic, and refined; Buddy Wells uses the full range of his hazy saxophone sound like an aural web, spinning the different worlds together. Shepherd shifts between xaru and piano, bringing to both an easy fantasy, a gentle sense of rhythm and a creative integrity that catches you in the solar plexus. This is a piece about Cape Town, its staggering beauty, its blood-soaked history, its violent present, its ebullient optimism.
Today’s Cape Town is, in many ways, as divided and unjust a place as it ever was. Xamissa is an unpretentious snapshot of grief and hope, a glimpse of a new generation that can see beyond corruption and revenge to a future where diversity becomes strength.