Review: Swing City – featuring Loyiso Bala, Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro and band at The Standard Bank Jazz Festival which is part of the vNAF Virtual National Arts Festival 2020

❇ Scroll down for production credits and ticket info.

Wow and wow. Swing City is an absolute tonic.  From the first beat, this is an upper of a show with Loyiso Bala, Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro in full swing.

I loved this concert so much that I watched/listened twice. I wanted more. The concert is part of The Standard Bank Jazz Festival, a popular platform at the National Arts Festival which usually takes place at Makhanda but due to Covid-19, the entire festival is streaming digitally. The jazz festival is in its 33rd year.  Performances at the jazz festival (the physical event) frequently sell out.

Most of the offerings at the vNAF are pre-recorded. It is not easy to perform in a studio – with no audience – and conjure up a sense of live performance. Well, Loyiso Bala. Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro deliver a superlative concert. They banter between sets and reflect about the situation that we are in: Masks on at the start. They muse how great it is to wear suits again – and that are alive. They look very smart. As I sit typing this, in my dressing gown in Cape Town (uhm two gowns -as it is cold), I can say that I really get the effort in dressing up during this time of the pandemic.  Lots of shtick in this concert. I am paraphrasing but it goes something like this: “No you can’t fast forward us but don’t worry it will be fine…”; “Give us a round of applause- three clapping emojis or three hearts…”

The jousting between the three is great. Ro repeatedly refers to being at “The Grahamstown Festival.” A bemused Bala gently informs him that Grahamstown is now called Makhanda. Ro says he does not know this and blithely carries on saying “The Grahamstown Festival”. The dialogue may be scripted. I don’t care. It works for me.

Bala tosses in quips such as –“don’t stand so close – social distancing”. Great timing – smoothly slides it – a riff off a note – here and there. When they are discussing pandemic terms like ‘new normal’, Bala  raises the term “pivoting”, which is as I understand a lockdown buzz word- let’s pivot to another platform or transition into something else or somewhere else – emotionally – if not physically.  “Let’s pivot to Makhanda”, Bala enthuses. Yeah, let’s do that. During the vNAF, we are doing exactly that – pivoting to Makhanda.

The three singers are in top form but for me Bala steals the show. Oh my, when he croons Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy: “Don’t worry be happy…everything is gonna be alright.” Listen out for Bala’s contribution to the Afrikaans folk song. Sarie Marais which segues into Daar Kom Die Alibama [published in the FAK song collection – Afrikaans folk music published in 1937 by the FAK – the Federation of African Cultural Societies]. Goose bumps folks.

Then there is the famous Paradise Road song – yeah those words – now. Paradise Road was written in 1979 by Patric van Blerk and Fransua Roos and was recorded by the group, Joy, in 1980: “There are better days before us… Take my hand down paradise lane. Away from heart ache without any pain… You must believe – you must believe this…There are better days…” We can all relate. And hope that there are better days before us.

Pata Pata wraps up this extraordinary concert. The song was made famous by the great Miriam Makeba and was recorded in the USA in 1967 but according to some sources, she recorded it in South Africa in 1959 with her group, The Skylarks. Anyway, it is song that is a story in itself. Watch this concert and you will get as swing version of it – with Pata Pata dance moves.

Back to Swing City: Camera work/cinematography is outstanding –with close-ups of the fabulous band. This is a stand-out concert – nuanced musical arrangements, lockdown sensitive/compliant playlist, chat, mirth, dance (they move, yes they do- this is swing). The artists’ ease with performance comes across as they break through the 5th wall – if I may call that -of digital space. They acknowledge that this concert is being filmed during lockdown and that they are there and we are somewhere else. However, it feels like there is a deep connection; that I am there. In Swing City, there is a sense of these suited crooners who have dressed up for us and are putting on a helluva swing show. I want to hold onto this concert and dip into it again.

Swing City at The Standard Bank Jazz Festival 2020, vNAF Virtual National Arts Festival

Vocalists:  Loyiso Bala. Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro

Band: Justin Holcroft (sax), Neil Engel (trumpet), Bez Roberts (trombone), David Cousins (piano), Amaeshi Ikechi (bass – NG), Justin Badenhorst (drums)

Duration: 1 hour 10 minutes

Age Recommendation: all

Direct booking link:

✅ Tickets: Full Jazz pass costs R500. Pay R45 to attend a single show on the Jazz Festival. R600 full festival pass – provides access to the jazz AND the entire curated programme. The R80 day festival pass provides access to everything on The Curated Programme – which includes the Jazz Festival. The vFringe is not included in these passes.

✅ Festival info: Click here or see

Image credit: Nathan Ro, Graeme Watkins and Loyiso Bala. Photo supplied.