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Etuk Ubong: EP Introduces a Fresh Trumpet Voice

By Gwen Ansell

Once upon a time, the career path for a young jazz player was clear. Pay your dues at a succession of live local gigs in increasingly prominent, demanding and high-priced venues, moving gradually from periphery to city centre. Apartheid smashed that path in South Africa. Racial and residential segregation, public gathering laws, and the smug self-protection of the white musicians’ union combined to keep musicians of colour out of the plum metropolitan gigs – and eventually, as States of Emergency tightened, to regulate township gigs out of existence.

Etuk Ubong

Etuk Ubong

Twenty-odd years on, we’ve still not recovered from that destruction of the live music ecosystem.

Small and medium-sized live music venues are scarce and struggling everywhere in the country, making that ‘natural’ career progression much harder than it should be. Historically, Cape Town has fared better than some other cities. A flourishing university jazz department provided the supply of talent; affluent suburbs and the disposable income of tourists created the demand. All of that depends on exogenous factors: the economy; the fluctuating attractiveness of Cape Town as a destination; zoning policies that protect entertainment districts against gentrification and rising rents. In recent months the dice have spun against the demand side and Cape Town jazz venues have been closing apace.

There are other ways to catch the public eye. The National Youth Jazz Festival in Grahamstown is one: get selected for the youth jazz ensemble and supported tours will bring your skill to national eyes. In that context we need to applaud the selection of bassist Dalisu Ndlazi for the band. Ndlazi has already impressed in Durban and Joburg as part of reedman Salim Washington’s outfit: he manages to balance steady reliability with thoughtful creativity in ways that make him a rising star to watch.

“Miracle offers a very attractive horn voice and enough that’s compositionally distinctive to whet audience appetites for Ubong’s future work.”

Recorded product, (preferably accessible online) is another way to fight back against the shortage of live platforms. UCT vocalist Maya Spector managed this on a modest budget a couple of years back with her release My Simple Little EP. Now another UCT student, trumpeter Etuk Ubong, has followed the same path, with his quartet EP Miracle, ( released in June this year and now starting to gain media attention.

Twenty-four year-old Ubong has already been playing for close to a decade, leading his own ensembles and supporting names such as Femi Kuti in his native Nigeria, as well as working at jazz festivals in Lagos and Abuja, and in Jamie Cullum’s On Mass project at the London Jazz Festival. He’s also played alongside South African stars such as Nduduzo Makhathini.

Etuk Ubong's Miracle

Etuk Ubong’s Miracle

Miracle was recorded with Ubong’s Nigerian quartet. Jo’burgers will get a chance to hear the music – already featured on the Expresso TV show ( ) – live at the Orbit this Wednesday August 3rd, with a South Africa-based ensemble.

Miracle features four original tracks. Ubong’s playing approach offers irresistible reminders of Miles Davis in the late ‘50s quartet recordings: a velvet tone and quiet inventiveness rather than brash grandstanding, but underpinned by quick fingers and an even quicker mind. Some of the compositions, too, have their feet in that same era’s atmosphere: Reading in the Dark has a distinct Freddie Freeloader vibe about it. That’s not negative: early Miles is a fine place for any trumpeter to start, and – as the man himself demonstrated again and again – absolutely not limiting in terms of where you can travel from there.

But there’s clearly more, and more that’s intriguing, to Ubong’s music than just remembering Miles. Prayer might start on piano like So What?, but when the trumpet begins, the note sequence is distinctively Nigerian, not American, and it’s further in that African direction that Ubong’s intelligent improvisation takes it.

An EP is always a limited launching pad: four short tracks can never demonstrate everything a player has. But Miracle offers a very attractive horn voice and enough that’s compositionally distinctive to whet audience appetites for Ubong’s future work.

This article first appeared on, the blogsite of South Africa-based arts writer and media trainer Gwen Ansell.

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