Benjamin Jephta has had a busy few years, his career quickly gaining momentum with each gig and each collaboration as the local and international music industries recognise his undeniable talent. Along with the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA), this graduate from the University of Cape Town’s prestigious South African College of Music has also earned two 2016 SAMRO Wawela Awards for Male Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year and participated in a collaborative ‘residency/tour’ in the US, which involved 25 musicians from 17 different countries. The SBYAA ‘definitely has some gravitas and there are definitely some projects in the pipeline,’ he says. The 24-year-old has already made a name for himself as one of South Africa’s premier jazz double bass and electric bass players, having performed at venues and festivals locally since the age of 15.
’I would say there were two turning points in my life. The first was meeting one of my first teachers and musical mentors, Fred Kuit, during high school [Muizenberg High School]. Lots of what I know today I learnt and experienced during those last three years of high school. It was also when I probably did most of my shedding (practising). The second was the beginning of 2014, when I graduated from university and moved from Cape Town to Joburg, and I had to hustle my way into a new scene while still trying to push my own stuff. I got to play all sorts of music with different musicians and slowly started making a name for myself.’
An important platform for his career was the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, which turns 25 this year, as well as its offshoot, the Standard Bank National Youth Band. ‘I had been going to the festival with my family since I was in grade 10 in high school,’ he says. ‘My father loved music and my sister, who has now established herself as a writer/director, was getting into theatre at the time. I got involved in the National Youth Jazz Festival in 2011 when I auditioned and made it into the National Youth Band. The festival quickly became a part of my yearly calendar and I subsequently made the Youth Band three years in a row.
‘For me, the festival was my yearly dose of musical inspiration. It allowed me to have access to a high concentration of great music and also to interact with older musicians on a more personal level off stage. The networking at the festival definitely helped when I made the move from Cape Town to Johannesburg as many of the Jozi cats had seen me perform there.’
As the 2017 SBYA for Jazz, Jephta has joined an elite group of some of South Africa’s best jazz musicians, a group whose members frequently collaborate and feature on each others’ albums. ‘The jazz community in South Africa is small,’ says Jephta. ‘We’ve already collaborated and performed with each other in various ways. Kyle Shepherd, who was a past SBYAA winner, is a member of my quintet, which will showcase at the National Arts Festival. I’ve also been working with 2011 SBYA Bokani Dyer recently and I’m planning to use both him and Kyle for my “Acoustic Elektrik” performance at the festival.’ Besides being rooted in the jazz genre, Jephta is reluctant to confine himself to a single style or genre. ‘I am constantly evolving and, as a young person, I find myself definitely influenced by a lot of popular culture. I really dig hip-hop/rap, electronic music, folk (singer-songwriter) and rock. I would say that my music has become an amalgamation of this in the context of jazz/improvised music,’ he says, once again displaying his musical depth. It’s hardly surprising, then, that he finds it difficult to pin down his influences. This ‘amalgamation’ of genres is evident in the single ‘Identity’ off his upcoming album, which features rapper Jitsvinger and vocalist Eden Myrrh. ‘The new single fuses my love for jazz, hip-hop and electronic music and the track speaks to self-expression and living your truth, fearlessly,’ he says. ‘I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Jitsvinger after working with him during the Afrikaaps show. When I came up with the concept of this track and what the message should be, it was a “no-brainer”. With Eden, I met her when I was sessioning on The Voice SA and she was a contestant. I generally dug her vibe and found out later that she’s a dope lyricist/producer so I reached out to her.’
What can people expect from this upcoming album? More collaborations? More overlap of music genres? ‘YES, YES and YES!! This album is going to be a musical collage of all kinds of music I really dig, but in the context of jazz or improvised music. There are two or three collaborations on the album, but there are definitely more planned after this album.’
Jephta’s busy year also includes a plan to do a ‘residency at the Orbit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg during the second week of June 2017. In this week, I would curate some performances with various ensembles in which I would also perform. The line-up would then end with my two performances from the projects set to take the National Arts Festival stage.’ As parting advice to fellow young musicians, ‘I would say work hard at your craft and continue to be yourself in whatever you do. Respect not only older musicians but also your peers. Study those who came before you, but continue to pave your own way by composing or honing your sound/approach.’