Cricket stumps creativity on DSAC’s to-do list

The past ten days have made it very clear where the arts stand on DSAC’s priority list: bottom.

Those who believed the Minister’s flaccid response to the National Arts Council (NAC) crisis simply reflected an inability to take decisive action have been proved dead wrong. With Cricket SA’s recalcitrant Management Committee he did exactly the right thing, and he did it right on time.

Faced with their refusal to accept the proposed reform agenda, he waved the big stick of government takeover (which meant potential exclusion from international sporting arenas) until they buckled, then withdrew the threat. Matches were saved, fans can anticipate future internationals and – just possibly – both governance and diversity in cricket stand a chance of improvement. (There were compromises to secure agreement; it’s not yet clear how much these could erode the hoped-for outcomes.) The Minister deserves congratulations for some very politically savvy and effective tactics.

Compare that with the Departmental response to the state of emergency at the NAC — and in the performing arts sector more broadly – and a very different picture emerges.

Sibongile Mgoma (r) led the NAC sit-in

There’s a long history of governance and financial management questions around the NAC, going back far beyond this current board and its apparent inability to do simple sums. Yet since 1997 it has been the main national body tasked with promoting free cultural expression through support of the arts. Its survival and effectiveness are vital, even more so in a situation where Covid restrictions have severely hampered creative expression and destroyed creative livelihoods. Research shows that artists are selling their equipment to survive, making it near-impossible for some to re-enter their professions even if things pick up again.

For a full 60 days, artists sat in at its headquarters, demanding answers about how the PESP money ran out before all successful applicants had been paid; how apparently conflicted Board members had been part of decision-making and themselves been granted awards; and about how breaching contracts by withdrawing signed agreements so grants could be cut was legal.

(The March 30 South Gauteng High Court decision in favour of the National Arts Festival’s receiving its promised award robustly suggested it was not and set a useful precedent for future actions.)

DSAC through the Minister and spokespeople made a few late, hand-wringing statements about how it was all regrettable but that the matter was in process and would soon all be sorted out; how it was about “mismanagement not looting”; and how a forensic probe was to be launched. As if mismanagement on this scale of millions was somehow better… Some applicants have received their promised monies since then; many others still remain lost in the information dark and deeper in debt.

DSAC Minister Mthethwa: “mismanagement not looting”

On April 16 the NAC announced it had disbursed nearly R170 million of the R285 million available. The last substantial DSAC statement on the matter was a month ago.

Yesterday, on May 1, artists ended their sit-in at NAC headquarters. Their legal representatives announced that an application for investigation and mediation had been made to the Office of the Public Protector, with a deadline of “days not weeks” for some action.

Sibongile Mngoma, the driving force behind the artists’ action, noted that the NAC was not the only arts body with governance and disbursement questions hanging over it, and that the potentially irreversible destruction of livelihoods in the creative sector didn’t seem to be at the top of anybody’s agenda. Next stop, she declared, would be DSAC itself: “There’s still the rest of the journey to take.”

And we’re all still wondering about a Department whose portfolio should include investigating all of those questions, and which has just shown itself more than capable of hitting miscreants for six when a big-bucks international enterprise such as cricket is involved.   Where’s that big ministerial cricket bat when we really need it?

Spirits Rejoice African Spaces reappears – but there’s still little archival space for Russell Herman

Arlene Rosenfield’s cover artwork for African Spaces

So many reissues of vintage South African music are now appearing that it’s not surprising some slip through the cracks. That’s the case with the Matsuli Music reissue of the Spirits Rejoice debut album, the 1977 African Spaces, whose digital edition appeared on March 30 https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/african-spaces , with vinyl scheduled for August. What is surprising is how patchy is our knowledge of some of the contributing musicians, and in particular guitarist, vocalist and composer Russell Herman.

The album first. Primarily the brainchild of drummer Gilbert Matthews https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/07/06/where-are-the-flowers-for-gilbert/ the band brought together the supergroup who had formed the house band for the Lindbergh musical Black Mikado with some of their peers to develop a sound that could make a South African response to the modern jazz sounds represented overseas by bands such as Weather Report. The group included guitarists Herman and Enoch Mthalane, reedman Duku Makasi and Robbie Jansen, brass players George Tyefumani and Themba Mehlomakhulu, bassist Sipho Gumede and for a time Bheki Mseleku on keyboards, later replaced by Mervyn Afrika.

The band’s innovative original music won plaudits and fans, and for younger players such as saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu who joined one of its later incarnations, was an inspiring learning experience, impelling him and Gumede to explore whether an even more African-sounding response to jazz fusion was possible by founding Sakhile.

Behind the scenes, as Francis Gooding’s liner notes recount, the sailing wasn’t quite so smooth.

Spirits Rejoice

Mthalane was fired because the band’s white management could not accommodate his proud assertion of his home language, isiZulu; Mseleku’s later departure echoed those same politics. Though the music on African Spaces was recorded during October 1976, no South African label was interested in such innovative jazz; a stance reflecting their commercial imperatives (and political timidity) at a time when radio was the best way to promote records, but the SABC’s ethnically segregated stations were wary of boundary-busting music they could not comfortably fit within a language-group slot.

It wasn’t released until the band’s management took it to WEA, and came out on the Atlantic label in 1977. After that, another enthusiastic supporter, musician Dave Marks – then running the Market Café – worked hard to find ways of securing some radio play.

Nevertheless, none of the Spirits Rejoice survivors Gooding interviews feels the album found adequate space for effective promotion on a largely pop oriented landscape, even though the band secured a ‘Jazz Band of the Year’ title. 

Heard today, though, the beauty and challenge of the sound stands out. The poppier tracks, which utilise the voices of Herman and Joy’s Felicia Marion, are still underlaid by an intricate mesh of band work that is far from three-chord formula playing; the lyrics of Makes Me Wonder Why are a clear political challenge.

As with so many of those 1970s releases, Gumede’s stature as a bassist who could combine subtle complexity and rock steady walk, absolutely shines. There’s adventurous composing on both Herman and Africa’s Savage Dance and African Spaces, and Makasi’s more deceptively melodic Minute Song and an irresistible rhythm groove on Joy. Makasi and Tjefumani make no intellectual compromises in their playing whatever the ostensible character of the tune. For fans of any of these artists, it’s a must-have addition to the collection.

None of them is adequately remembered in either the media or the scholarly record. But the lack of archive for Herman’s work is perhaps the most tragic. Born in District Six in 1953, he worked not only with Spirits Rejoice but with other experimental  jazz groups of the era including Oswietie and Estudio. When he and drummer Brian Abrahams found conditions in South Africa too intolerable, they left for the UK in the early 1980s.

Russell Herman in London with District Six

There, Herman continued playing and composing. He worked in the groups District Six (with Abrahams) and Kintone (with another SA exile, tenorist Frank Williams), and can also be heard on Jonas Gwangwa’s London-recorded Flowers of the Nation, Winston Mankunku’s Jika and flautist Deepak Ram’s Flute for Thought. As a composer, he contributed to multiple albums. Gorgeous compositions South Africans may not know include Sivela Kude on the District Six album Akuzwakale (whose music has no trace online) and Freedom Song on Kintone’s Going Home https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsTyz5_Yeww .

Herman also did impressive work as a producer. He worked on three of Mseleku’s albums: Celebration, Meditations and Timelessness and was also another rock of friendship and support when the pianist was in London.  Additionally he was part of the Melt 2000 production team for Moses Molelekwa’s Genes and Spirits and Vusi Khumalo’s Follow Your Dream.

Herman died tragically after a heart attack in 1998. He was only 44.

It’s unjust that an artist who made such a significant contribution to South African music here and overseas is so little remembered in any accessible record. But it’s not unusual. Once more, the history that Google presents when we search is massively incomplete – and yet it’s what South African youngsters doing research often mistakenly believe comprises all the knowledge in the world. It’s time we started writing more of our own. 

PS: See this blog from Patrick Lee-Thorpe on another musician of that era, Robbie Jansen, and his later recording: https://wifidead.blogspot.com/2020/07/making-records-with-robbie-jansen.html

Andile Yenana and Khaya Mahlangu live at the Market Theatre: the many visions of tradition

19/04 SEE UPDATE ABOUT SOURCING THE CDs BELOW

For some of us, it was the last substantial event before Covid closed jazz down: the January 2020 weekend of Living Jazz Giants concerts at the Market Theatre staged by Ike Phaahla’s Collaborative Concepts production house, featuring an evening each led by Khaya Mahlangu and Andile Yenana.

Khaya Mahlangu

Now, 15 months later, both double albums are out. They’re the first planned instalment of an extensive documentation plan that also includes DVDs and transcriptions.

I reviewed the performance now released as Khaya Mahlangu and the Liberation Orchestra: Visions, at the time https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/01/19/kaya-mahlangu-at-the-market-a-giant-legacy-for-jazzkind/  Everything I wrote then about the music and performances remains true. It’s a tribute to the production team at Peter Auret Audio that the CD faithfully retains the feel of the live show, itself beautifully engineered by Friederich Wilsenach.

The Yenana set, Andile Yenana and Azania Dreaming Big Band: One Night at the Market Theatre is introduced by Phaahla with a tribute not only to the players but to the two arrangers.  Why, becomes clear when you hear, for example, Siya Makhuzeni’s sensitive, lyrical expansion of a Zim Ngqawana piccolo theme for 15-piece band, or Afrika Mkhize’s 18-minute re-visioning of Tembisa with its polyphonic call and response. We tend to think primarily of those two as performers, but the arranging skill on display in this set is formidable. 

So is the musicianship. This is Yenana’s first CD as leader since We Used to Dance , and you may have missed his 2018, five-track solo contribution to the Durban Piano Passion Projecthttps://pianopassionproject.bandcamp.com/album/piano-passions-double-album , some of whose material is reprised with this big-band

For that reason, hearing him make his keyboard and voice entry on Kuyasa on this new album is almost like a sigh of relief – where have you been?

The pianist is joined by a powerful ensemble. Makuzeni is one of four trombonists, the reeds are Mthunzi Mvubu, Phumlani Mtiti, Sisonke Xonti, Sydney Mnisi and Muhammad Dawjee; the horns, Mandla Mlangeni, Sakhile Simani, Sibusiso Mkhize and Thabo Sikhakhane; with Tumi Mogorosi on drums and much-missed, normally US-located, bassist Jimmy Mngwandi. Not counting all the inspired solos that line-up makes possible (and it does), even the chorus and ensemble work shimmers with quality.  

Seven of the nine tracks are Yenana originals, plus Zim’s Tune and Mnisi’s Tembisa: that latter a song now thoroughly identified with both of them, so often has Yenana interpreted it.

Listening to both CD sets, it becomes clear that South Africa doesn’t only have – as is now almost universally acknowledged – its own jazz tradition: it has several. Some are explicit, in tunes titled in tribute to legendary bandleaders and music organisers. There are the marabi and mbaqanga structures that Mahlangu nods to on Emjibha and Kwa Guqa, and the modern jazz and fusion flavours of his Spirits Rejoice. There’s the still-underestimated South African indigenous hard bop feel of the 1970s and ‘80s period, whose voice sounds at multiple points on both outings; Yenana’s draught of deep community roots on Itshoba Lenkomo, and the unchained freedom of his Exit Left , carrying the contemporary improvising spirit of Pukwana, Moholo-Moholo, McGregor, Ngqawana and more.  

Yenana once asked Who’s Got the Map? and these two performances actually provide a pretty good cartography of the sources whose confluence sounds through South African jazz players today.

Andile Yenana

The CD sets are presented in nicely-designed gatefold packages, though for overseas listeners – who should hear these – captions to the line-up photos and a note of soloists on each track would have been useful additions. We instantly recognise, for example, Sydney Mnisi’s sax voice; they may not.    

Perhaps the only real criticism is that the music is not yet on any of the digital album access sites, though Phaahla assures me that’s coming soon. For now, contact the following numbers to buy the CDs: Mandela Malambe on 078-285-6895; Andile Yenana on 064-216-1756; or Khaya Mahlangu on 082-531-8109.

The Living Jazz Giants Project is one of the initiatives that the National Lottery Fund got right. This kind of project, which establishes consistent legacy archive for the future, certainly makes more sense than the scattershot approach often seen from DSAC.

As April comes to an end, there are Jazz Appreciation Month events everywhere (see for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cst8HU4yUoE ) Jazz certainly still matters. As scholars Ingrid Monson and Gerald Early point out in an article with that title https://www.amacad.org/publication/why-jazz-still-matters : “ Jazz improvisation remains a compelling metaphor for interrelationship, group creativity, and freedom that is both aesthetic and social. Improvisation transforms, one-ups, reinterprets, and synthesizes evolving human experience and its sonic signatures, regardless of their classical, popular, or cultural origins.”

But if you want to know what that actually sounds like – listen to these albums.

Blessings and Blues: Neil Gonsalves’ southern migration to a space called home

“I’d  much rather just pitch up for the gig to play,” confesses Durban-based pianist Neil Gonsalves. “But then I’d be betraying the music, my band, my students, teachers, peers and audience. I have to engage more.”

It’s true.

Earlier this month, Gonsalves launched his fourth album, the trio outing Blessings and Blues (https://neilgonsalves.bandcamp.com/). Yet despite those albums, a playing career that has seen him share stages with, among others, Busi Mhlongo and Johnny Clegg, a distinguished teaching record at UKZN and a role as Director of that institution’s Centre for Popular Music and Jazz, until Blessings and Blues came out you’d have been hard-pressed to find any substantial media coverage of him online.

That’s not only a consequence of Gonsalves’ own preference for simply getting on with the music, of course.

As I’ve noted before, music made outside the metropoles of Joburg and Cape Town gets even shorter shrift from a South African media already largely cold-shouldering original local jazz. That’s despite the active and increasingly nationally important jazz scene around UKZN, which also hosts Salim Washington and Sibu “Mash” Mashiloane (among others) as teachers, and has produced many remarkable young players including reedman Linda Sikhakhane, bassists Dalisu Ndlazi and Ildo Nandja, drummer Riley Giandhari – of whom more later – and more.

The dozen tracks of Blessings and Blues, however, are beginning to attract radio play, currently the best route around newspaper indifference. It’s worth learning more about the man behind the notes. I talked to Gonsalves via e-mail this week.

Neil Gonsalves

Though his family weren’t musicians, and most music came into the home via radio, “My mum tells the story of my infant self instructing her to play records , turn them over, and play them again, before I could speak, “ he says. “[And] I remember sitting in my dad’s car, listening to King Curtis’s Memphis Soul Stew (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Loy55z4GpA ) over and over again until my dad warned me that I was running the car battery down! I was fascinated by the instruments and how they entered and fit together as King Curtis called them out.”  

After that early excitement, his music studies took a more conventional route. His father, an educator, brought library books about music home. The young Neil had lessons on the family organ, and at school – “I was a horrible recorder player” – then played with the folk choir at his local Catholic church. Through friendships formed there, he began listening to friends’ jazz records.  “Only when I heard Andrew’s (Nair) record collection and had the social experience of focused listening and our subsequent jam band was I able to reconcile my solitary [music lesson] experience with the fun to be had from music-making as a communal thing.”

A career-focused attempt to study computer science – “the idea of playing music to make a living was implausible” – bombed out. With the support of family friend, pianist Melvin Peters, “who was doing just that”, Gonsalves auditioned for the Diploma in Jazz at the then-UND. 

“I walked through a door that Melvin had opened,” he says.

All Gonsalves’ recollections are peppered with tributes like this to those who’ve helped him build his musical identity: to Centre for Jazz and Popular Music studies founder, Darius Brubeck; to pianist Bheki Mseleku; to fellow students and band-mates, trumpeter Feya Faku and bassist Lex Futshane.

Sandile Shange. Pic: Rafs Mayet

“I’ve been thinking recently,” says Gonsalves, “that my seminal music influence is the late, great guitarist Sandile Shange.( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9RVSpAyZnY ) I played a lot with him when I was a student. I remember playing My Favourite Things: he had an arrangement; I was reading the chart from the Real Book.  He showed me the chords he was playing, and explained why he had changed them – it was for the emotion he was going for. I’d never had music explained this way before, and I can’t remember if I knew we were allowed to do this, but I see the connection in my practice. Sandile was also a great composer . All the sass and elegance of the township poured out of everything he did, but so much musical sophistication too. It’s what I aspire to.”

That open, practical approach is how Gonsalves aims to teach, too: “I prefer to operate in the classroom as a musician who’s interacting with younger musicians…In this way I find myself to be constantly learning and appreciating new perspectives.”

It’s in collaboration with two of his former students, Nanja and Giandhari, that he has created Blessings and Blues, a collection of originals that he says, address directly the question of “realizing a musical world that’s more directly rooted in a South African music aesthetic.” For a long time he says he’s been moving gradually further away from simply “adding conventional jazz practice to South African standards… (…towards giving…) more space to hear and phrase the melody in a way that felt more rooted, and with a cadence that was of home.”

We hear that simplicity very directly on the second track The Musician’s Wedding (inspired by a real one: that of Bongani Sokhela) right from the opening thoughtful, melodic hook. That number also reflects the important role Nandja plays. Gonsalves says he’s begun writing independent parts for the bassist, so he can set up “another conversation in the bass and tenor range.”

In any case, his composition process often starts, he says, with melodies followed by bass lines. “I record and document everything on my phone. Besides serving as short-term memory, it’s a useful way to chart the compositional process  and can provide fascinating insight…especially over a longer period of time.”

From this, in collaboration with bass and drums, Gonsalves builds what he calls “a system of interlocking parts, typical of African music”.

Ildo Nandja

The pianist values what his rhythm partners bring to the enterprise. Nandja’s earlier background in traditional music, he says, “brings him additional resources in terms of how he opens things up (…) I don’t need or want him to be the kind of bass player that is content to lay things down and be the foundation. These groove-oriented tunes can make for quite rigid structures, and we’re all seeking to find our freedom within this.” As for Giandhari, Gonsalves characterises him as “a painter at the kit [who] plays with colour and texture and breaks things up …a wonderfully orchestral player who provides the full dynamic range.” The compositional sensibility of bassist and drummer, he says, helps create “a very conversational and negotiated music-making experience.

For a listener, that all comes together beautifully on the track African Time, where complex patterns underpin what starts as a catchy melody, then dissolves into a much more unchained exploration that nevertheless keeps returning to its invocation of drums and the patterns of the dance.

The album offers much more than this: lots of syncopated, leaping rhythms; some sonorous churchy-feeling organ voicings in the title track; some really catchy tunes ( Let’s Do It Again stays in the memory); the Latin café feel of Southern Migration; as well as a few different, lighter and more lyrical excursions, including the gentle closer, Quantani , which, says Gonsalves, was one of two tracks not initially conceived around a bass line. (In mood, that track is reminiscent of the feel of Paul Hanmer’s Water and Lights album)

Riley Giandhari

But it’s the overall atmosphere of Blessings and Blues that is most engaging: the intimate interchanges between three musicians shaping and reshaping sonic spaces in process as they play. It also serves as an excellent introduction to the work of Nandja and Giandhari if you don’t know them already. (Both have albums of their own out: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/riley-g/1491501267; and https://music.apple.com/za/album/paz-a-todos/1084226658 )

It seems, as he discusses his music, as if Gonsalves’ musical journey has been one long Southern sonic migration.

He’s freely confessed (https://ukvibe.org/archive/interviews/2021-interviews/neil-gonsalves/ ) to being initially foxed by the rhythms of Futshane’s Xhosa-inflected compositions back when he was a student, and having his ears challenged and transformed working with Clegg, Mhlongo and Brice Wassy. Those experiences led to his “hearing jazz differently: hearing ingoma as swing and maskandi music as the blues,” and that sensibility is what he brings to this outing.

“I was wondering the other day,” he reflects, “if the natural progression is to become a mbaqanga musician?” After Blessings and Blues, the answer feels increasingly like, why not? 

International Jazz Month: let’s welcome back onstage – Feya Faku

April is International Jazz Month, culminating on April 30 in the International Jazz Day initiated ten years ago by Herbie Hancock and adopted by UNESCO.

On March 4 this year Feya Faku played a live streamed set with Plurism in Switzerland; this picture shows a previous NAF gig with the same outfit

2020 was supposed to be South Africa’s time to host the event, but Covid halted that. However, you can still watch last year’s IJD discussion forum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJpZzHhAjao – now doubly poignant, because of the participation of the late Sibongile Khumalo.

The 2021 calendar of events https://jazzday.com/events/ is still going to be pandemic-constrained, but a significant number of events will now be virtual, giving those with internet access and funds for data the opportunity to participate in a genuinely international day – given time zone variations, it should be possible to programme a solid 24-hours of round-the-world jazz watching.

But that opportunity is not available to all South Africans. Close to half are still not connected; more than half don’t have spare cash for the data required for private viewing of a stream; many can’t access a reliable electricity supply – and that’s before any potential load-shedding.

If, as seems likely, we emerge into a post-Covid world where many activities and processes have migrated permanently to virtual platforms, then closing the South African digital (and electricity) divide must become a people’s demand, and not merely a tech preoccupation. If not, whole worlds of opportunity – cultural, economic, academic, health-related and more – will increasingly become even more inaccessible to multitudes of South Africans.

And if that demand is not granted, peoples’ initiatives need to develop self-reliant work-arounds. There are South African events already on the IJD site – but where are the safer, open-air or well ventilated large venues offering free public screenings so more people can access them without cost?

After the much mourned death of Chick Corea in February, there are already multiple events on the IJD calendar featuring piano tributes, including one from South African pianist Avzal Ismail and Time Zone.

But one of the most welcome South African IJD events will be taking place far from home, at the Birds Eye Club in Switzerland https://birdseye.ch/ where the day will  be celebrated with a concert led by South African hornman Feya Faku.

For those of you who don’t know, Faku was laid low by serious illness for a significant part of 2020. His work to recover his health was hard, determined and courageous. And successful: by March, he was able to travel to Switzerland to play with one of his regular collaborations, Plurism, with reedman Ganesh Geimeyer, drummer Dominic Eggli and bassist Raffaele Bossard.   

You can catch the band’s March 4 Basel live stream here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv8HcR7NWJ4 . It’s truly joyous – in a year dominated so far by sad jazz news – to hear again that intelligent, soulful horn voice. The Plurism gig offers nearly an hour of intense, contemplative work together. Beautiful music, and a welcome return for one of the powerful creative forces who have shaped the sound of today’s South African jazz. Despite all the snags, it provides a genuine reason to celebrate International Jazz Month. 

Festival re-runs: sweet streams are made of this

Sankofa: well worth a re-run

Last night, March 27, saw the second streaming event of the JazzFix online series https://www.capetownjazzfest.com/single-post/cape-town-jazz-fest-launch-jazzfix-an-online-series-ft-jonathan-butler-and-many-more , which (thanks to Covid) is what we get this year instead of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

JazzFix plans to feature a streamed rerun each month of what the organisers have selected as landmark performances from festivals past, re-packaged with artist conversation and reminiscences about the event. The first two – Jonathan Butler 2019  on 27 February and then Judith Sephuma yesterday – were probably good choices to kick off a series. They were undeniably top-notch performances, but also firmly middle-of-the road in terms of audience appeal, likely to establish a broad audience among those who can afford the R80 ticket.

Cape Town – like all South Africa’s international festivals – also faces the problem that video footage of many of the international acts it’s featured over the years are governed by restrictions from those artists’ managements or labels, often seting tough limits or very high price-tags on any re-showing. So we may not get to see many of CTIJF’s previous international acts.

The late Zim Ngqawana: play his CTIJF set again, please!

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A second viewing ought to convince doubters (if any remain) of the incredible quality that South African performers consistently bring to festival stages. I hope JazzFix   still has the footage so it can bring us, at least, guitarist Themba Mokoena’s solo outing from 2016, something – anything – from Miriam Makeba or Winston Mankunku, the late Jonas Gwangwa’s roistering 2017 closer, Feya Faku’s 2018 festival gig, Project ELO’s 2016 outing, and Zim Ngqawana’s concert from 2012. I suppose it’s too much to ask that they might have preserved Moses Molelekwa’s set from 2000?

But I regret that I probably won’t get to see again one of the most perfect live performances I’ve ever seen at CTIJF: US bassist Ron Carter’s 2012 set with its sublime closing version of Seven Steps to Heaven.  

Ron Carter: let’s hear those Seven Steps to Heaven

And that got me thinking: if other South African jazz festivals adopted the JazzFix model, what should be the re-run choices?

When I posed the question to friends who’ve been longtime Cape Town attendees, Carter’s set popped up on many more memory-boards than mine. But several people also pointed out that for unfailingly interesting (often unique) South African jazz gigs, we ought to be pressing the rewind button on the Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Even when the DSG jazz venue gets a full house, that’s still not as many people as ought to hear the kind of inventive, inspired sounds Makhanda often hosts.

A case in point – and it’s not the only one, but it is an excellent example – is the powerful 2019 Makhanda set from reedman Salim Washington and Sankofa. Shamelessly exploiting my journalist’s privilege, I got a chance to re-hear the performer’s tape of that one.

Sankofa is a moveable feast of a band: a judicious selection from the many musicians who relish Washington’s challenging material.  Afrika Mkhize is the pianist here (it’s often Nduduzo Makathini), with Ayanda Sikade on drums. They are joined by two other regulars,  altoist Phumlani Mtiti and trumpeter Sakhile Simani, and bassist Nhlanhla Radebe. The powerful Zoe Masuku (Zoe the Seed) controls vocals and spoken word.

Many of Washington’s compositions are familiar from the first 2017 Sankofa album: the stately Oshun, Imlilo, The Light Within and Charcoal, Clear, Beautiful All Over. On Uh, Oh, Masuku’s gift for inventive vocal swing creates a fresh texture, different from the album version. The ballad Afrika Love (not on the album) starts modal and then soars out quite Trane-ishly to the stars.

But Washington as leader always seeks material that speaks sharply to the times and his audience, and in 2019 that was a jazz re-arrangement of Lauryn Hill’s Black Rage; not only perfect for Masuku’s beautifully articulated declamation and wordless, churchy song over testifying horns. That’s typical of the combinations and juxtapositions characterising Washington’s ensemble sound. Sikade’s intelligent drum underpinnings and solo remind us why he’s so admired. The version stays faithful to the spirit of Hill’s original, but this Black Rage expresses unchained jazz anger.    

Uh Oh to Black Rage gives you the measure of Washington’s stylistic range, and as usual we hear him on more reeds than just tenor, including bass clarinet. But the richness of this set is also rooted in the tight, empathetic and, yes, joyful, vibe he can create with his ensemble. Simani is positively flying.

Miriam Makeba: encore please!

There’s also always something about the mood of a live performance with an audience that’s special –that’s another reason why the JazzFix idea is such a good one.

Streaming isn’t the only option for revisiting such memories. Sankofa’s Makhanda set could make a great Live at… album too. (In Washington’s case that’s long overdue, since although he has featured on other recorded work here and in the US, we haven’t had a South African album from him as leader for four years.)

And over the years, Makhanda, Cape Town and Joy of Jazz must have amassed many more performances equally worth revisiting. 

So tell me, whether you’re an artist or an audience member – what memorable jazz set would you want a South African festival to “Play it again, Sam” ? 

NOTE THIS BLOG WAS AMENDED ON 28/03 to correct personnel and attribution errors.

Human Rights Day – not quite time for dancing in the streets

It’s Human Rights Day now because it was Sharpeville Day first

Tomorrow is Human Rights Day – which designation many South Africans see as an erasure of the 69 Pan Africanist Congress militants murdered and hundreds wounded by the apartheid regime on 21 March 1960 in what has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

The principles of internationalism suggest it’s not negative to broaden commemoration of one atrocity into a day of solidarity with struggling people worldwide. But we must never forget that March 21 is Human Rights Day in South Africa precisely because it was Sharpeville Day first and that the Sharpeville atrocity was the catalyst for creating a worldwide human rights legal framework. Shamefully, a recent survey https://theconversation.com/survey-shows-ignorance-about-big-moments-in-south-africas-history-like-the-sharpeville-massacre-157513 revealed that only 19% of South Africans felt they knew enough about Sharpeville to describe the historical landmark to a friend. What the hell are our schools teaching?

And March 21 should still be a day of proactive solidarity, not just another holiday of jol and shopping. So here’s a playlist for tomorrow with songs old and new , from here and there, underlining emphatically that the oppressors don’t have all the best tunes.

Solidarity with Myanmar Human Rights

People of Myanmar defy the coup

Right now, as you are reading this, the people of Myanmar are being beaten, shot, tear-gassed, disappeared and tortured for peacefully protesting the February military coup. Still they courageously come out onto the streets. So let’s start by listening to their song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHRh0UawdY0.  (Kabar Makyay Bu: “We will not surrender till the end of the world”). For the history behind Myanmar protest music , read this excellent article https://www.khaosodenglish.com/opinion/2021/03/01/do-you-hear-the-people-sing-a-guide-to-myanmar-protest-music/ which has links to other songs, including the original version of Kabar Makyay Bu.

At home: Not Yet Uhuru

Here’s a song that Pan Africanist Congress militants were singing back in 1960, recorded in exile in Tanzania uSobukwe ufuna amajoni https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr3FgMrUC3c. We swore, perhaps over-optimistically, back at the dawn of liberation, Never Again, as the Prophets of Da City discuss at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr3FgMrUC3c. But Letta Mbulu clearly saw that it was Not Yet Uhuru/ Amakhamandela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Js95topeKI , and Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSd1zWe7g_0 continued to warn us that as revolutionaries pass, the goals of the struggle can too easily be forgotten.

Just last week: Wits students protest education cuts and financial exclusion

Those goals inspired powerful sacrifices, as the young cultural soldiers of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble remind us with Sobashiy’Abazali https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk8t8j4f0TU. Amandla’s musical director, the late Jonas Gwangwa, clearly saw that partial realisation would not be enough: “Freedom for some is freedom for none”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA4gAy8_jTA

Salim Washington’s Tears of Marikana, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8SLxvv37AA with verses from Lesego Rampholokeng, marks one of the most egregious human rights violations of recent years. And still, after that, we haven’t demilitarised the police service in the interest of human rights.

But it would be equally a-historical to deny and erase the gains. South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights – which some politicians who should know better are currently busy disrespecting – could, if fully lived in government and by citizens, serve as a fitting memorial for the martyrs of that first March 21st. So let’s reclaim from bureaucratic official events the song that started all the trouble. In multiple versions it has served other African nations as well as us as a first post-independence anthem. Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrica is a damn good tune with a genuinely redemptive message. Here’s a version you may not have heard, from the late Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gfp3jh7P74 , with a bravura solo from reedman Dewey Redman that manages both evocative riffs on the original melody and a fighting invocation of freedom.

Gender rights are human rights

Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey

Long before public discourse foregrounded GBV here, McCoy Mrubata was reminding us through his song title (and often what he said about the song onstage) that we needed to Talk About It https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsP-g0v5bXI . I wanted to include Scholtz’s This Can’t Be Love  here, from her 2005 album Zillion Miles – a searing deconstruction of domestic violence – but it isn’t online anywhere. The divine Aretha, of course, summed up first and best the grounding principle of gender and all other rights: R-E-S-P-E-C-T https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FOUqQt3Kg0 . But even before that, in 1925, Bessie Smith was asserting that principle in her lyrics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnssU3yAa5I.  DeeDee Bridgewater and Tata Kouyate’s Bambo/No More https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAIHXuiadxE takes women’s refusal to be silenced to the African continent. Tom Robinson, in lyrics heavy with irony, asserted the place of gay rights in human rights struggles in 1978, at a time of rampant homophobia in the UK https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojnv3fegkfM . But back in the 1920s, Black, gender-nonconforming women were already fighting those battles, as Gertrude “Ma’ Rainey declared in Prove it on Me Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnssU3yAa5I . And bringing the music right up to date, women across Latin Americs in 2019 protest The Rapist on your Street https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB1cWh27rmI with an English subtitled version here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5AAscy7qbI

But where there is oppression, there is resistance

So what to do? Decide Which Side Are You On https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSZWslqjfPE . Then Get Up, Stand Up For Your Rights https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhJ0q7X3DLM . Because We Will Win https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBjRot3CHYk And after that, we can really use March 21 to be Dancing in the Streets https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdvITn5cAVc

And keep remembering Sharpeville

Sacking the Arts Minister won’t save the sector

The NAC sit-in

At time of writing, the sit-in at the National Arts Council continues. Messages on the Im4thearts https://iam4thearts.org.za/ Twitter feed suggest that at the heart of the PESP screw-up may lie something far more sinister, with NAC Board members found embroiled in organisations to which the NAC allocated funds. UPDATE 15/03: Yesterday the NAC held a Zoom meeting to say ‘Sorry’. In response to which it is tempting to channel (not a jazz artist, but the right song) Taylor Swift.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPdxiClFH7w

I’m4thearts is doing brilliant, admirable work in keeping this issue hot. They are asking all the right questions. They’ve also made it clear that the PESP fiasco is not isolated, but rather symptomatic of neglect, lack of understanding and at best half-hearted concern from the very highest administrative levels.

The buck for all that stops at the desk of the minister of sports, arts & culture – the buck for every problematic sector stops at the desk of its designated cabinet minister.  In case those ministers have forgotten, that’s what they get paid their R2.47M a year for. Im4thearts is dead right on all that. What’s less astute is the simplistic demand to fire the minister.

The buck stops here: DSAC Minister Nathi Mthethwa

The problems of the sector did not start with this minister. They are long-standing, political, systemic and societal. Demanding one individual’s head is a distraction.  Getting him fired – if it ever happened –  would just be one of those easy victories Amilcar Cabral warned us never to claim. It would allow government to signal responsivenness and bask in any ensuing kudos at minimal cost. But the only thing it’s likely to change is the portraits on DSAC office walls.

As many historians and cultural workers have noted, the ANC organisationally (though not its many highly creative individual members) came relatively late to the table of cultural struggle. Africanist cultural formations led the way in the ’76 era. The late Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile noted in 1992 that it had taken the ANC nearly 70 years from its foundation to establish a Department of Arts and Culture ten years previously, and “ even now it remains like a tolerated mischievous  stepchild…” Post-liberation, attitudes towards culture were often narrowly instrumentalist. The 1990-founded Federation of South African Cultural Organisations (Fosaco see https://asai.co.za/peoplesculture/federation-south-african-cultural-organisations/ ) was sidelined after it refused to align exclusively to the ANC. The progressive, democratically-canvassed recommendations of the 2000 Music Industry Task Team were largely ignored.

Sidelined: the debates of the Fosaco era

Today multiple genuinely grassroots arts formations are neglected in favour of the DSAC-patronised sweetheart CCIFSA (https://www.facebook.com/ccifsa/ ), whose silence about recent sector controversies has been deafening. The ANC 2019 election manifesto (see https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/emections-culture-commoditisation-made-manifesto/ ) dealt with the arts exclusively through a crude, commodifying  ‘creative industries’ lens. (And before we get oppositional about this, the other parties’ manifestos were mostly worse. Only the EFF gave the sector stronger consideration; but unfortunately as a series of diktats with no implementation strategies.)

That’s the climate within which a new DSAC Minister would have to operate, whoever he or she is.

Add to that Covid, whose recovery budgeting is in the hands of a covert acolyte of the austerity cult whose most recent budget-slashing means a terrifying, scorched-earth future for arts education.

Add endemic corruption: a decade of looting and the systematic undermining of all the excellent corporate governance principles established by the King Reports. If those had been in place and enforced, recent events at the NAC simply could not have happened. People of principle have been squeezed out of institutions; corruption and venality have become the dominant institutional knowledge.

Finally, remember that Ministers are rarely specialists in their ministry’s area; that they depend on bloated support teams of advisers and bureaucrats; and that the labyrinthine, Kafka-esque and exclusionary bureaucratic processes inherited from the apartheid police state have never truly been reformed  – they are replicated all the way down the DSAC food-chain. A new Minister can drown in all that as easily as the old one.

None of that means Mthethwa’s record merits praise.

His silence when action is needed (like now); some cringe-worthy utterances when silence would have been preferable (remember “South African theatre is alive and well”?); and the failure to progress the White Paper process have all justifiably been pilloried and those are by no means the whole hippo. The minister’s far more active and informed positions on some sports body problems suggest he could have given a better performance on the arts too – but didn’t. As we all feared when the two departments were merged, sports can do so much more for an ambitious politician’s career profile. That merger may have sealed the fate of the arts and culture sector. Few would weep if Mthethwa went.

However, all the energy being devoted to demanding one minister must go would be far more useful directed towards demands for:

  • The reopening of the national conversation about the politics of arts and culture, giving the organisations of the people – sidelined since 1990 – voice and agency;
  • The dismantling of departmental silos so that more knowledgeable structures (for example, the DTI) can support the creative trade and industry aspects of the arts;
  • The identifying, firing and charging of corrupt and negligent individuals in arts and culture formations fast; and
  • The reform of bureaucratic logjams to get money to artists who need it, before they starve and the entire sector withers.    

Arts & culture funding – totally NACkered

Two weeks ago it was kwaito veteran Eugene Mthetwa chaining himself to a Samro chair. This week, in a switch of genre and building, it was opera singer Sibongile Mngoma leading a demonstration at the headquarters of the National Arts Council (NAC). The ensuing sit-in was still going on as of Monday. UPDATE: see a list of artists’ unanswered questions here: https://www.newslink.co.za/2021/03/05/artists-are-seeking-answers-on-the-pesp-from-nac/

Sibongile Mgoma, vocal artist and founder of lobby group Im4theArts

Artists’ livelihoods everywhere have been devastated by the pandemic and its necessary restrictions. In South Africa, their hopes continue to be blighted by displays of mind-boggling ineptitude and disingenuous self-justification from those granted stewardship of their interests.

A storm of ethical question-marks

This isn’t the first time in recent years that questions have been raised about NAC administration.

There have been long-running disputes over the disposal of surplus funds from expired projects; the alleged bullying of whistleblower Mary-Anne Makgoka in 2018; discontent over the organisation’s paying the R596K legal bills of CEO Rosemary Mangope for an internal inquiry at which it cleared her in 2019; and related allegations of delayed and irregular funding in the same year. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of those individual matters, the very existence of such a storm of ethical question-marks in only three years suggests that some action from DSAC – of which the NAC is an agency – was overdue long before this latest farce.

And farce it is – though not so amusing if you are an artist with a family to feed.

The PESP saga

Suspended National Arts Council CEO Rosemary Mangope

In November 2020, DSAC designated the NAC to disburse R300M of Presidential Employment Stimulus Package (PESP) funds to the arts sector. This had two streams: for job retention; and job opportunities. Whether the amount was adequate was not discussed at the time, nor was the conceptual issue that ‘job’ funding is inappropriate for a sector structured around project-based ‘work’, and will inevitably favour big institutional players. At the time, the NAC smugly declared itself well experienced and capable of carrying out the task.

On January 20, the NAC found itself forced to call for regional partners to help distribute the PESP funds, as little progress had been made, DSAC was getting twitchy, and there was a March 30 deadline on utilising the money. Potential distribution partners were given five days to apply. No report was issued to the media about how that exercise went.

That’s the background to the late-February/ early-March convulsions. The NAC had received 2 486 applications for PESP funding. It had, by the time the situation became public, approved 1 374 and informed 613 potential recipients. And then, in the words of Council member and spokesperson for the Council, Sipho Sithole, the body found itself with the “sudden dilemma” of not having sufficient funds left in the kitty to pay out the remaining 716.

Surely simply adding-up the spending line during the allocation process would have forestalled this “dilemma” becoming “sudden”? It’s not exactly accountancy rocket-science – unless there was miscommunication or concealment about what was being allocated, or pressure from DSAC panicked the NAC into over-hasty, poorly documented decisions. (All of these would be equally culpable.)

The “solution”

NAC Council spokesperson Sipho Sithole

Initial funding was allocated on the basis of R25K for organisations and R16.6K for individuals per job. To deal with the “dilemma”, the NAC decided to withdraw those allocation letters – essentially, to break contracts – and reallocate the funds on the basis of a universal R10 895 per job. Sithole characterised this decision as the NAC exceeding its job-creation mandate, opening the door to not 14 000 but 21 249 potential jobs. Mangope praised it as spreading job creation “even wider”. 

Shortly after, she and CFO Clifton Changfoot were suspended. Ms Julie Diphofa was designated Acting CEO and HRH Princess Celenhle Dlamini Acting Council Chair.

Job funding: it’s not size, it’s what you do with it

The job-creation argument is totally disingenuous. Some are paper (projected) job numbers attached to projects it may not now be possible to start in time, In the climate of mistrust and disorganisation created by breaking original contracts they may not even materialise. The institutional jobs cost what they cost. If you originally budgeted each job at R25K and that was a realistic figure, cutting it to just under R11K may mean an institution can retain only half (or fewer) of its planned job-holders.

Some artists and project organisers report that even this reduced amount has not arrived yet. Some have already gone ahead with projects – remember, this was money that needed to be used by end-March – on trust, and incurred debt or been unable to pay artists and service providers. Job numbers may look good in the press releases, but are worth nothing to the artists if they remain unpaid. 

The real dilemma

The real dilemma is not the NAC’s failure at simple addition and subtraction. That’s just a disgrace. The real dilemma is what to do now.

It’s tempting to call, as some politicians have done, for mass firings and a halt to all disbursements while the mess is sorted out. But that will be even worse for artists, especially those connected to institutions, events and programmes that need significant advance planning and down-payments. Such a step could mean that 2021 – even if we all get vaccinated – could end up with no big arts events or programmes at all: worse even than 2020. The ripples from that, including driving yet more people and organisations out of the creative industries, will be felt for years to come.

But we can’t do nothing in the face of what – at best – looks like blundering incompetence. And again, this points back towards a Department tardy and laissez-faire in the extreme in responding to institutional and process stuff-ups that stop the arts from flourishing. NAC may have, by withdrawing those original contract letters, have broken the law. Even if the courts rule otherwise, it has damaged its own and DSAC’s reputation, destroyed any semblance of good faith in its dealings with stakeholders, and snatched food out of the mouths of artists and their families.

The average annual salary of an NAC employee is estimated at around R402 638. (A Cabinet Minister takes home around R2.47 million.) Perhaps that’s what the cheerful chap in this current NAC advertisement is smiling about? For the arts community, though, publishing that image at this time must feel like the worst possible taste. 

NOTE: This blog was updated on 8/03 to reflect the current situation of the sit-in and to correct the designations of current NAC acting office-holders. My apologies for the initial error and thanks to Theo Lawrence for the corrections.

The Beaters and Harari: Black History on the dancefloor

It’s fitting that to close Black History Month, next Monday March 1, Matsuli Music reissues two albums that tell us a great deal about how young Black South Africans in the 1970s demonstrated solidarity with African-American and African continental legacy, aspirations and struggles.  The albums are Harari by the Beaters, and Rufaro/Happiness, the first release after that band changed its name to Harari. https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/harari-2  ; https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/rufaro-2 .

I have to declare an interest here: I wrote the new liner notes and was paid for it, so this blog might be somewhat diminished in credibility. But the two albums do matter as something more than pieces of pop ephemera, and it’s worth saying why. I wouldn’t have written those liner notes if I didn’t think so.

First, of course, we have to say that despite its market positioning as pop music, and the extreme youth of its principals (drummer Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, bassist Alec ‘Om’Khaoli, and keyboardist and founder Selby Ntuli) both Harari and Rufaro/Happiness featured their fair share of jazz legends, and those musicians are an important part of why the albums are so central to the cultural landscape of the time. 

As well as Hotstix Mabuse on drums and flute, the earlier album has in its backing line trumpeter Dennis Mpale, reedman Duku Makasi and others from the distinguished crew who hung out around Dorkay House, while the second includes reed icon Kippie Moeketsi and guitarist Themba Mokoena. Those South African players all admired the work of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and their peers. They understood the hardships American racism imposed on their counterparts’ lives and avidly consumed news of events such as Gillespie’s 1964 presidential campaign, which both light-heartedly satirised conservative politics – his campaign song was “Vote Dizzy” to the tune of Salt Peanuts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTBEGimnjMI   – and seriously advocated change.  

But that jazz contingent was equally serious about their own legacy, South African identity and Black rights: the late bassist Victor Ntoni recalled Moeketsi as defying “all the rules of the then government by moving wherever he wanted because he was a son of the soil and no-one can tell him where to go…he used to be able to relate things to local ethnic sounds and be modern at the same time.”    

As for the albums’ “Afro-rock” categorization, the constraining marketing categories we fetishize today really didn’t matter either at the As-Shams studios where they recorded or at Dorkay House where their jazz colleagues gathered. A gig was a gig – apartheid restrictions and the re-tribalisation policies of Radio Bantu already made those scarce enough. 

Good music was good music. Moeketsi certainly respected the musicianship of the youthful Mabuse and bassist Om Alec Khaoli , calling them twice for jazz releases, Pat Matshikiza’s 1975 Tshona  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXioDRXNX0s and Dennis Mpale’s 1977 Our Boys are Doing It https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0_dbEpRH-E .

When I talked to Mabuse in compiling the liners, he traced the paths between America and Africa and the emerging shape of the Harari sound.  He noted how the bands had their roots in the Soweto Soul movement, which drew its stage style and fashion from US soul bands, but of course “that political influence was coming too, from America and from what was happening here, along with the music.”

Sipho Mabuse now …

This was also the era of Biko, Black Consciousness and student rebellion, “People were clued up. Martin Luther King was happening, Black Consciousness was just beginning to develop, Steve Biko was founding SASO (the South African Students Organisation),  there were cultural and political groups happening at lunchtimes and after school – all the things that became the movement behind the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and we were gradually getting caught up in that,”  he remembers.

And after the schoolboy musicians who started their lives as The Beaters spent an extended stay in Zimbabwe (then still Rhodesia), “We had been restless and curious youngsters … The liberation struggle in that country was intensifying. A groundswell of Black Consciousness influence was pervasive. In Harari we rediscovered our African-ness, the infectious rhythms and music of the continent. We came back home inspired! We were overhauling ourselves into dashiki-clad musicians who were Black Power saluting and so on.”

…and then

You can hear all that history in the music on these albums: in chants and drums reminiscent of Osibisa on the Beaters’ track Harari and in the classic Soweto Soul of Love, Love, Love that immediately follows it (with a fierce, tight closing mbaqanga break from Mpale), both sitting quite comfortably on the same disc as the teenage grind of Push it On and the bump jive of What’s Happening. You can hear it in the mbira opening on Rufaro’s opener, Oya kai   and the updated exploration of traditional chants, stamping and whistles on the closer, Uzulu.

It was the intersections, fusions and updates of all those sources, thinks Mabuse, and their transformation into something that was both a highly political assertion of identity and a powerful social incitement to dance that made the outfit so successful: “The parallel cross-influences of the Black Panther Movement and Black Consciousness via African-American soul music and Soweto Soul contributed to the way Harari became purveyors of all the musics we today call Afrosoul, Afro-pop, Afrojazz and so on in this country.”

That, they unarguably did. Harari graduates can be found everywhere on the Black popular music landscape of the 1980s and beyond: Umoja, Chess, Kabassa, Stimela, all Mabuse’s subsequent bands, all the beneficiaries of Khaoli’s studio production style, and even the jazz explorations of Spirits Rejoice.

History books can sometimes send you to sleep. These two volumes will likely have the opposite effect. And if you want to swim in the heady cultural cross-currents of young Soweto in the uprising years, I can hardly think of better introductory texts.   

Soweto Soul; Soweto style. Alec “Om” Khaoli (l) and Selby Ntuli (r)