In Conversation with Estelle Kokot

London based South African singer, songwriter, pianist Estelle Kokot’s stage debut came in 1987 with modern jazz super group Phambili at...

London based South African singer, songwriter, pianist Estelle Kokot’s stage debut came in 1987 with modern jazz super group Phambili at Kippies Jazz Club in down town Johannesburg before she went on to work with household names like Bayete, jazz greats Barney Rachabane and Victor Ntoni.

Fast forward to a year later and Kokot was to join jazz fusion band Rush Hour, whose album ‘The Perfect Way’ went straight to the top of the charts. Resultantly, the band embarked on quite a successful tour of the club, festival and concert circuit.
After having rose to national stardom with Rush Hour, Estelle’s next step was to focus on a solo career. The talented performer worked on various projects and collaborations, most notably being ‘guest vocalist’ at five Big Band Jazz Galas at Pretoria’s State Theatre and a solo show 'Beyond Belief' at the Windybrow and Grahamstown Arts Festivals.
After virtually having conquered the local scene, Estelle moved to London at the end of 1993 and soon established herself as a solo artist on the live scene, performing at Pizza Express and The Vortex Jazz clubs regularly and out of town at the Cambridge Modern Jazz Cub and Band on the Wall in Manchester.

Our own Godfrey Johnson (GJ) recently caught up with the exceptionally talented singer (EK) for a chat in which she took us down memory lane, shared details to her current/upcoming projects and everything else in-between.

Below is how the conversation went………..

GJ: My Dear  Estelle, I remember meeting you in the early 90’s at the charming Eauver The Top in Kalk Bay, I was smitten!!  I remember watching you on the tiny stage, no microphone, just you and the piano. The magical intimacy that you created was otherworldly. Do you believe that art in whatever form transcends time and if so how and why?

EK: My Dearest Godfrey how kind you are! I remember Eauver The Top too well! Opening night in Petticoat Lane in Kalk Bay, before they moved round the corner to the antique shop… a water pipe burst and two feet of water gushed through the venue. I had just arrived for my sound check and the sound desk was bobbing up and down in the water. Needless to say my acoustic show was born by default!

I do believe that ‘art can transcend time’. It has to move you and be memorable. Then again it is so subjective and personal. What moves one being, will repel another. Symbolism can play a huge role. What it says and means to you as the individual. It has to go beyond the creator of the work. Ultimately art that has stood the test of time is greater than the artist.

GJ: One of my favourite Songs is The Perfect Way, can you tell us more about that song and the impact it had on you both personally and professionally

EK: Yes, I remember when I co-wrote The Perfect Way with Avzal Ismail. I had just joined the band Rush Hour and we were rehearsing for a gig in Martin Mitchell’s (bass player) garden shed. He had a whole recording setup in there and we recorded a demo of The Perfect Way, there and then. Avzal started playing this haunting melody on the piano and the words just came to me. It was one of those instant one off moments where synergy collides. I don’t think I had a specific theme in mind but I have always believed that the perfect way is to just flow as water does. Actually I saw an interesting article about water and how it is sensitive to sound. More on that another day perhaps!
The Perfect Way got to number 1 on several radio stations in South Africa and we played it at all our gigs.

GJ: What new songs are on the horizon?

EK: Several! I did a solo recording at York University at the end of last year and managed to get 7 songs down. Now I am waiting for them to be mixed.

The themes and inspirations of my new songs come from a variety of sources, including a serial killer, Pythagoras and a builder turned artist.

I was inspired to write about Edmund Kemper, a notorious serial killer from Santa Cruz, who preyed mostly on college girls, after watching a brilliant TV series called Mindhunter.

There's a story about an online scrabble caper in Faro, which includes a marriage proposal from a man I've never met who is already engaged. This in turn inspired a song called Meal Online for One (MOFO), where clichés are questioned.

There's another one about a sidekick who pretends to be a lady and her abusive rocket man. It’s called Hash Tag Ged, drawing inspiration from the #metoo campaign.

I have also spent quite a bit of time researching political and historical figures and events.

When Genghis Khan and his warriors invaded Asia it's been said that so many people were killed by him and his warriors, that the forests reclaimed the farmlands. Sediment from his grandson Kublai's silver mines, however, still pollutes Lake Erhai in the Yunnan province of China.

The Longest War is a part jazz/part classical lament. The story takes place under a bridge in Kabul and The White House Hotel in Jalalabad, with references to the Golden Triangle and the opium trade.

A Culture of Closed was inspired by double glazed windows, pebble dashed walls, countries, borders and trouble.

The Israelites share a journey with Homer and Poseidon, skimming the eye of the needle while Orion unties his belt and swings to the backdrop of the mother of all bombs. Jacob views it all from the sanctuary of his ladder. In this song, the journey highlights how religious beliefs are often responsible for much of the conflict we see in the world and how history just keeps on repeating itself.

GJ: Do you find that your inspiration changes according to what is happening in the world?

EK: Very much so. I prefer to write about what is happening around me as opposed to what I am feeling and there is a heck of a lot happening globally right now, on every level. The planet (most importantly) is showing us that she cannot sustain our way of life. Politics is shifting. The way people do not want to be governed by an ‘us and them’ system anymore is rapidly on the rise. Negatively, this has given rise to massive populist viewpoints and figures. Positively, it means that things have to change. Personally, I believe the only way through all of this to create a better and more sustainable and habitable planet is to have a less destructive system in place that sees more equality for everyone and less capitalism. We need to stop breeding like rats too! Mother earth is buckling under the strain… that said, the elderly are getting older as science and medicine advances. Oops,.. I’m on one now! Next question?

GJ: Your subjects are varied, from the deeply personal to universal themes of war, world madness and tweeting. In your world, how does a simple idea turn into a work of art?

EK: Well, it could be one line that flies into my head based on an incident or what I see. When I wrote ‘A culture of Closed’ I was walking on the pavement in North Finchley. More suburban you could not get. In this particular street, the houses all look the same. The walls are all pebble dashed and the windows are all double-glazed.  The chorus, melody and words came immediately. ‘Double glazed window and pebble dashed walls, main road suburbia, a culture of closed’. It got me thinking about how so many people are afraid of change, afraid of what they don’t know or recognize as being part of their world… how they sometimes think that immigrants pose a threat to their working and living environment. How trouble can start in your own back yard with your own point of view and opinion and how social media can be depressing and destructive and so on… !!

GJ: Can you name a few of your favourite visual artists?

EK: You for one! Your work is very visual, even though it is probably mostly music and song based. You face is so expressive! I haven’t seen you perform in quite a while and am really looking forward to catching a show when I visit SA again in the not too distant future. I love Banksy. His anonymity adds to the mystique. We focus on his art rather than him. Art transcending time here?! His works are strong reflections of what is going on in the world at that present moment and yet there is something deeply moving and thus, timeless about his work. I love art where I am connected to the artist too. One of my vocal students is studying art and her experiments with broken mirrors and photography is quite thought provoking.

GJ: Who are your favourite composers?

EK: Gosh, that is a tough one. There are so many and in so many genres. I don’t really have one particular favourite. Another vocal student is learning ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’, at the moment - written by Leonard Cohen. The words are profound and every time I hear her sing it the hair on the back of my neck does that thing… this line really does it for me ‘Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove’
I have much admiration for Joni Mitchell and Bjork. Joni for her ability to say it exactly how she sees and feels it and Bjork for her true originality. I love the music of jazz pianist/composer Thelonius Monk. There are so many, that this is probably a separate interview!

GJ:  Do you have any favourite venues?

EK: I do. The Vortex Jazz Club in London is one I have played at a lot and it feels like home. In South Africa, The Orbit Jazz Club is up there with the finest jazz clubs in the world. I really loved Gideon’s Lucit in Pretoria. Lots of art and creativity going on there and that creates quite a unique ambience. I absolutely loved playing at Eauver the Top. Karoo Art Hotel too. Both Chris Van Niekerk and Theo Nel have created venues where art, design and being creative are all part of the deal. The Karoo of course is one of my favourite places on the planet. The vast expense and the nothingness empties the mind of all the city junk we seem to store in our thoughts and lives.

GJ: As a solo artist, you are totally comfortable on stage and you are equally comfortable collaborating. Please name a few career highlights, alone and with others.

EK: It was quite a thrill doing the Joy of Jazz Festival in Jo’burg in 2015. Having the chance to also see and hear colleagues and jazz artists globally, to hang out with some of them at the hotel… I loved doing workshops too and the one I did at Fort Hare University when I toured my Jazz Feminine in Africa show was special. Working with Chico Freeman and Jan Pulsford on their Sound of You project was interesting. Performing and doing a workshop in UKZN at the university and a lovely outdoor gig in Eshowe are highlights too.

My most memorable gig to date though was doing a fund raiser with Herbie Tsoaeli on bass and Kevin Gibson on drums for Operation Smile on the 27th of April in 2014. I was booked with my band to perform and celebrate 20 years of South African Democracy on Freedom Day at the iconic Rainbow in Pinetown. The crowd was incredible and we raised enough money for three cleft palate operations.

GJ: When and where will we be able to see and hear you again?

EK: I have a date at The Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on Sunday the 15th of September with my London line up and there are a couple of dates TBC. I am hoping to release the solo recording as an EP later in the year to raise funds to do a new album with the my UK band.

GJ: My beautiful Estelle, thank you for the chat. Will we see you in South Africa sometime?

EK: Thank you lovely Godfrey! I would love to come and perform in SA again, soon. It’s about two and a half years since I’ve been and it would be wonderful to play and sing my new work to my South African friends. There are no fixed plans as yet. I miss the bush too!



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Urban Craft Magazine: In Conversation with Estelle Kokot
In Conversation with Estelle Kokot
Urban Craft Magazine
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