Don Laka is the pseudonym of the South African jazz musician and founder of the first independent black record label in South Africa, Jazmee Records. However, what he is known for mostly is the unique genre he created, a blissful upbeat blend of jazz and South African dance music known as kwaai-jazz. Interviewing Laka is an experience, with his deep voice drenched with enthusiasm for what he does.
He is currently in London working on promotion of his recently released album Afro Chopin, a mixture of kwaai-jazz with Chopin’s classical music. The two go hand in hand so surprisingly well, that one starts to wonder if this sound could be the revival of classical music. Influence came from a personal memory of his first piano book in which he encountered Chopin’s F Minor Etude and instantly fell in love with the Polish composer. There is a parallel between the two musicians: Chopin mastering and reinventing the form of classical music with melodies from his homeland, and Laka re-enhancing Chopin’s renowned success by giving it a twist of contemporary jazz. Musical innovation is something Laka values above all, regarding the UK as a “springboard of new ideas” due to the new styles that develop here every few months.
“I couldn’t find anything that would express me” he claims, and did not want people telling him what he was supposed to be doing so he made his own genre. Laka likes to mix South African music made popular by artists like Abdullah Ibrahim into a lot of his work. But it is more than an artistic pursuit, it’s a project with a goal to have people from all over the world come and listen to the beautiful mixture of classical music with jazz, “combining the Eurocentric with the Afrocentric” and “bridging a gap in music”.
Laka simply considers South African music as happy music that makes you want to dance, quoting what Quincy Jones said on visiting to South Africa – “they start singing from the airport’”. His record is the offspring of his idea, created to stay in touch with the people. This is where underground labels have the advantage and he sees the overall change of interest to smaller labels as an important shift currently happening in the music industry.
On asking what he thinks of current musical genres, it turns out Laka seriously appreciates hip-hop; having produced several records of the genre himself he says it’s exactly the music he would make if he were younger. This artist really breaks down music to a theoretical level, with his judgement coming from a perspective of innovation rather than personal preference – “I like to listen to what the youth are doing.” On the use of digital audio in music he sees it as something that “you could use, or it could abuse you”. He thinks there is “a very intelligent way with working with computers, but I use computers as a band member rather than letting them take over.” Regardless of genre and equipment, Laka values live music as “priceless”.
When asked if he has any advice for “the youth” he said, “You have to want to do what you want to do and don’t let anyone distract you from your ideas, because your ideas could be unique and people may choose to follow them. They might not like them immediately but you could leave a legacy behind you. I’ve done that in South Africa and now I want to do that around the rest of the world.”