Eric Alan: the light of a beacon for South African jazz dies

Eric Alan Wannenburg, known better to jazz lovers and jazz radio listeners simply as Eric Alan, founder and station manager of All Jazz Radio(AJR), died at St Luke’s Hospice in Cape Town on Tuesday June 28. Eric had undergone gall bladder surgery some time back, and not regained his health.

Eric Alan

I didn’t know Eric well – we met and talked perhaps twice a year, at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and Joy of Jazz. Beyond a distinguished broadcasting career that also included Fine Music Radio, and Radio 2000, I don’t know the details of his biography. I hope a longer and more widely published obituary will appear soon that can lay those out.

But I do know this: the ecosystem that nurtures South African jazz has suffered a tragic loss.

Eric’s interests stretched beyond jazz. He described himself on social media as “Founder-Producer-Presenter-CEO-President-Chairman-Chief Grub Maker-Pot Plant Babysitter-Serious Pinotage, Coffee & Beer Quaffer-Utterly Passionate Jazz, Blues, Latin & World Jazz Head-Good Food Lover of Note-General Dogs Body-Dog & Cat Junkie…” and shared recipes, reviews and reflections on Cape Town life. But his main love was jazz, and especially its South African incarnation.

To those who encountered him at festivals, Eric was also an all-round nice guy. As a broadcaster, he had built up his extensive music library and knowledge by creating an international network of contacts among label bosses and others in the biz. If those luminaries turned up at CTIJF, they’d barely caught their breath before he was networking them with some young South African music-maker they might not have encountered, in the hopes that a deal might develop. Sometimes, it did.

As the main presence running CTIJF’s artist press conferences, he was unfailingly courteous even to the most apprentice arts journalist in the room, encouraging questions and generous with praise when an original one was posed. The students on my arts journalism programmes at that time often told me how his kindly, humorous presence gave them the courage to speak up and question more.

That was because – and this is an aspect more personal tributes might not dwell on – Eric was a supremely skilled journalist and broadcaster.

He loved jazz, but never let that love blind him to the need for solid research on everybody he talked to and everything he talked about. He treated all the new albums he encountered with respect and an open mind. As a broadcaster, he really could make an interview feel like a conversation. Playing music, he understood what to segue into what, so there were no jarring dissonances or awkward stylistic leaps. If he could play only a track excerpt, it was unfailingly the right excerpt: the one that told you who the players were.

Victor Masondo: “we must keep his legacy alive!”

It all came together for him in 2012 when he was able to launch his dream project, All Jazz Radio, an online station broadcasting live daily from 10am to 6pm with repeats through a 24-hour cycle. Mostly, it was recorded music, but with interviews and commentary too. It offered an eclectic mix of overseas and South African jazz, heavy on the aspects Eric loved most (classic, Capetonian and Afro-Latin) but never neglecting anything new and interesting from the African continent he could track down. AJR struggled from the day it was born: too few cared to put money into a niche music project despite the massive energy Eric expended on fundraising. But whatever pennies he could locate went into keeping AJR going for as long as he had strength.

All those activities together made up the jazz ecosystem you never see. Eric wasn’t the only person doing what he did; we can all name other jazz broadcasters and organisers toiling on the same lonely path and all are due our massive respect.

Brenda Sisane: “His commitment was all-consuming”

But the formal and informal networking, the multiple friendships Eric brokered between different industry players, the showcasing for some album few others played, the knowledgeable conversations – those are things we don’t think about when we hear of somebody scoring a recording deal or a big gig, yet they form a precious part of what makes those deals and gigs happen.

As bassist and music director Victor Masondo notes: ‘One thing that jumps up is the gentleness and kindness and tenacity and passion for this art. I experienced him at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and from then on we had stayed in touch. His deep knowledge and wisdom will be sorely missed! I hope we keep his legacy alive!!”

Fellow broadcaster Nothemba Madumo, host of MetroFM’s The Urban Jazz Experience, calls Eric Alan’s passing “a seriously sad loss to the jazz community”. She writes:

“One minute we are praying and wishing for Eric Alan’s full recovery in hospital and the next we are shocked and devastated by his passing. The SA jazz world has lost a passionate and dedicated jazz radio host and broadcaster. We cannot be more grateful for his creation of the online All Jazz Radio platform that created a vehicle for South African jazz music, interesting conversations and much more. With jazz in this country relegated to a few hours on a Sunday, this channel helped and continues to keep the genre where it belongs accessible 247. I won’t forget the role he played every year facilitating the press conferences at the Cape Town international Jazz festival over the years. He owned that space with knowledge and professionalism. We’d often have light and humorous conversations about the attitudes and behaviour of some of the artists. A big jazz media void has opened with his passing. May he rest in jazz heaven and know his love and work was not in vain.”

Brenda Sisane, arts commentator and jazz organiser, who formerly presented Kaya FM’s The Art of Sunday, shares those sentiments: ” I am so sorry to see him leave this realm.

“It was Eric who introduced me – after numerous encounters in the dimly-lit CTIJF backstage area – to the album that became my go-to when I wanted to demonstrate the vibrancy of Cape Town artists and their unique sound. He actually called me up to tell me about it. Somehow, Eric had that insightful take on this music that kept him curious and engaged. We never spoke about his personal life, but mostly about the life of a jazzophile: somebody who can’t resist the allure of this music once the bug has bitten. When we found ourselves sharing [announcer duties] on the CTIF Rosie’s Stage, he would get so passionate that he’d direct what artists I could introduce and which ones he wanted – but still, we’d both have a blast because in the end it was all about the music.

“I was aware that Eric struggled with his health, but…his commitment as a jazz journalist and broadcaster was so all-consuming one barely noticed his waning health. There’s so much more I could say. We have lost an unapologetic champion and beacon for jazz in this region.”      

Nothemba Madumo: “He owned the press conference space.”

It’s probable our so-called Department of Sport, Arts and Culture won’t notice Eric’s passing. (If it didn’t notice Gilbert Matthews, George Hallett and so many others, why would we even expect it to?) But the jazz community feels it deeply, and the tracks and traces of AJR online can still remind us of how much we’ve lost ( ) Eric, you are not forgotten. Hamba Kahle.

Don’t mock the masked!

So, to the great relief of music venues struggling to pay the bills from reduced capacity, South Africa’s mandatory pandemic measures are no longer legally enforceable. No more performative hand-washing (We’ve known that curbs other infections – but not particularly Covid –for years.) And no more compulsory masks.

That’s emphatically not an instruction to joyfully cast off and ceremonially burn all our masks. It simply shifts the responsibility for caring for not only our own health but the health of others to us, the people.

And that doesn’t fill me with optimism at all. As somebody in their seventies with pleurisy-scarred lungs, your choice to “finish this mask nonsense” could still kill me, even quadruply-vaccinated as I am.

Most South Africans may have encountered Covid by now – though we are not 100% certain of that – and maybe just over half of us are vaccinated.  In both cases, we can still contract Covid (again) and we can still transmit it to others, even if we have no symptoms to speak of.

Scientific estimates of how long a previous infection protects you vary wildly, but at best it’s months rather than years, and most of the research is based on pre-Omicron variants, which adds another layer of uncertainty. For maximum effectiveness, it looks like vaccine-based immunity currently needs a booster every six months or so, particularly for vulnerable categories of people. The chances of vaccinated people getting seriously ill are reduced, and Omicron seems less vicious than its predecessors, but ‘reduced’ and ‘less’ still don’t mean zero. The uncertainty isn’t because the science is poor, but because the virus is still so new, and the variants even newer – with other, nastier ones potentially capable of popping up tomorrow.

Masks aren’t perfect. They are better at stopping you breathing your bugs out than at stopping me breathing them in if you choose to go un-masked. That’s why masking decisions should be based on care for fellow-humans, not individualism.

But they do work to some extent – even those boring, basic blue surgical masks, and even in impoverished countries where other resources are limited. (One major study was conducted in Bangladesh.) It’s another few percent of protection, and those of us who are vulnerable will take every little bit extra we can get.

Even cloth masks are reasonably good at protecting you from other respiratory infections, which can also kill at this time of year.

The more people remain unvaccinated and now can breathe their bugs around in crowded, unventilated spaces, the greater the likelihood of another evil variant emerging that is better at circumventing vaccination and filling up hospital wards. The truism that “all viruses get more infectious and less vicious over time” is a description of what (mostly) happened in previous historic coronavirus pandemics. It doesn’t have predictive power.

Since restrictions have been eased, the rolling seven-day average of cases per million in Europe is skyrocketing, even though it’s their Summer. (see ) It could be worse in our Winter, when the cold forces people to huddle together indoors.

It’s a mystery to me why we have not seen more prominent government vaccination and public information campaigns running alongside the easing of restrictions, which is what ought to be happening. It’s even more mysterious why there is so little official discussion of upgrading ventilation in public spaces, which we know, absolutely certainly, can help reduce infections in crowded conditions.

So I’ll still be wearing my mask most of the time in public. All the above is why – and if you care about the people around you, at least in public spaces, maybe you should consider still wearing yours too?

The Little Giants’ Songs of our Fathers: much better than biltong for Fathers’ Day

Instead of buying more ties, socks or biltong, why not buy your father some music for todays’s consumerfest? You could hardly do better than the latest release from George Werner’s youth band project, the Little Giants: Songs of Our Fathers, released on June 16. (Link to come.) Not that Werner’s 12-piece on this outing sounds anything like how you might stereotype a youth band. Some of the personnel – drummer Kurt Bowers, for example, or trombonist Steven Sokuyeka – are already part of professional projects, and, on this showing, most of the players could be.

Werner and the late reedman Ezra Ngcukana started the Little Giants project in 1999. A video released to accompany the album brings the story up to date.

The album’s eight tracks draw from the South African songbook of yesterday and today, with compositions spanning the eras from Dudu Pukwana, Mankunku and Chris McGregor to McCoy Mrubata and Mandla Mlangeni. Like just about every other cover of it, the opener, Malaika, is attributed to ‘traditional’. ‘Contested’ might be a better attribution, with every East African composer worth their salt staking a claim. But there is a registered composer for the classic, Fadhili William, and he probably should get the credit alongside Adam Salim, who crafted the lyric. The Little Giants’ version is brisk rather than sugary. Vocalist Anathi Mobo, whose intelligent phrasing and crystal diction help her own just about everything she sings, presents that familiar lyrical line against horn riffs and guitar excursions that evoke the tune’s 1940s African dance-band roots, rather than Makeba’s New York nightclub gloss.

Werner’s arrangements often do that kind of unexpected: totally in the tradition, but not what you heard first time around. Dudu Pukwana’s Mra, for example, becomes a triumphant uptempto toyi-toyi; Mankunku’s Thula Sana never makes the mistake of opting for an extended saxophone meditation like the master’s. What’s striking about the arrangements is how clean they are: Werner opts for conversations rather than noisy crescendi, so that the idiomatic voices of different instruments have a chance to sound clearly in solos and groups – and when he does draw on the full power of all 12, they really do blow you away.

George Werner

Because solos aren’t credited, and these are new players whose voices haven’t yet become familiar, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint individuals. Guitarist Uviwe Caso certainly shines, on Malaika and on Errol Dyers Tintinyana, and you’ll hear soulful trumpet and sax solos on Mrubata’s Mr&Mrs Adonis. There’s a particularly ferocious four-person trombone line, which generates creative solos on Blackie Tempi’s Thandanani (very much in the spirit of Jonas Gwangwa) and on Thula Sana. The ‘bones are also the powerhouse of the call and response between Caso’s guitar and bright, sparkling brass on Chris McGregor’s You&Me, irresistibly reminiscent of the Brotherhood of Breath era and numbers like Funky Boots March. The two drummers, Bowers and Dane Paris, provide constant, measured pace, and drums stretch out imaginatively on You&Me and Mlangeni’s Iwalam.

Tintinyana also gives us a rare chance to hear Werner himself stretch out on piano, reminding us that when he’s not talent-scouting, arranging, coaching or conducting, the man’s a formidable pianist: warmly lyrical, yet subtle and understated.

What it’s hard to understate is how important Werner has been and remains for the development of jazz in the Western Cape. And one now almost-traditional route has been high school to Little Giants to National Youth Jazz Festival, to (often) UCT and then the stars.

So alongside the good news of what’s possibly my favourite Little Giants’ recording to date, it’s sad to report some very bad news indeed. Standard Bank, while maintaining its overall sponsorship for the National Arts Festival, has pulled its sponsorship for both the Makhanda Jazz Festival and its component National Youth Jazz Festival for the period 2022-2025. The sponsorship was ended earlier this year, but formally announced in a media statement on 15 June. (Nice own-goal timing there, on the eve of Youth Day.)

The Little Giants

The statement describes this decision as “evolving and adapting to the environment , to ensure our approach continues to have maximum impact in the arts.”

Dropping support for the main jazz festival could, at a stretch, be seen in that light, in that a jazz festival might more easily have its sponsorship sourced from elsewhere than some other aspects of the National Arts Festival. That ignores, however, the special character of jazz at Makhanda, which focused on showcasing cutting-edge South African jazz artists and putting them in on- and offstage conversation with representative (you can never call them ‘ordinary) national artists from other countries who are also willing to teach, rather than on a few overpriced big names. The risk is that another sponsor – if one is found – might want changes to that philosophy, so that its brand can be associated with mass-appeal genres with just a bit of jazz round the edges. We have, after all, seen that happen before.

But if it’s “maximum impact in the arts” you want, there’s no way on earth you can justify dropping support for the youth jazz programme.

It’s the only jazz Winter School in the country. For kids from schools with no or constrained music resources, it’s their only precious chance to live and learn as jazz players for a concentrated period; to engage and network with professionals – and to discover common ground with peers from all kinds of backgrounds, with the learning happening in all directions and not just about music. It’s a tragic decision, and one that demands urgent reconsideration.

So listening to the Little Giants is bittersweet – I can’t help thinking what we might be losing if there is no national youth jazz programme for some of these brilliant young players to move on to.

SAMAs 28: genre bridges falling down

The SAMA 2022 nominations are out. Much as the notion of music prizes, rankings and comparisons continues to be absurd, it’s worth looking at what they tell us about the current SA commercial music landscape.

Why absurd? Well, once a musician gets past the stage of learning their craft and is able to hit a note, shape a phrase, or hold a time signature (or bend any of those deliberately rather than by accident) there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. There are just different sonic visions, and the only criterion is what you like or don’t like, whether you’re a music-buyer or a SAMA judge. Still, being shortlisted for, or winning, a SAMA offers a definite marketing and profile boost, so it matters to the musicians.

What does this year’s landscape look like? Original musical vision is popping up everywhere, not just in the jazz category where readers of this column know we’ll always find it. The jazz nominations are a selection where it really doesn’t matter who wins, because everybody deserves to. There’s veteran Jimmy Dludlu with History in a Frame. And he deserves to because…well, because he’s Jimmy Dludlu. But if that wasn’t enough reason, History in a Frame is an interesting album that doesn’t only showcase Dludlu’s appealing Afrojazz fusion numbers, skilfully played. It contains thoughtful interpretations of older repertoire, including Grazin’ in the Grass, Get Up, Stand Up and Black and Proud, which demonstrate the guitarist’s elder statesman status and ability to blend historic and contemporary musical conceptions. The other four nominees are all superb albums I’ve written about when they appeared: bassist Herbie Tsoaeli’s At This Point In Time…; pianist Sibu ‘Mash’ Mashiloane’s Music From My People; reedman Steve Dyer’s Revision; and another reedman, McCoy Mrubata’s Quiet Please.

Without any disrespect to these deserving players, one might have wished for a broader reach. Trumpeter Feya Faku’s Impilo and Live at the Birds Eye, drummer Ayanda Sikade’s Umakhulu and trombonist Malcolm Jiyane’s Umdali rocked everybody who heard them: for me, those are the most glaring omissions. There’s no vocal music. And apart from Durban-based Mashiloane, it’s a pretty Gauteng-centric list, when Cape Town’s jazz sounds matter too; Kyle Shepherd’s inspirational After the Night, the Day Will Surely Come and Hilton Schilder’s Hottie Kulture are only two examples from the past year. But it’s still a good list and I’ll rejoice with whoever the winner turns out to be.

Outside of jazz, SAMA28 looks like it could be singer Msaki’s year. She’s nominated for Artist of the Year, Best Female Artist, Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best-Produced album, as well as for Best Collaboration for No Rainbow with Da Capo.

Msaki: five nominations

“Outside of jazz” is of course an arguable category. We can all remember past years when singers significantly less jazzy than Msaki made it on to the jazz list – or even won. That’s not a proposal to put her there, however. it’s simply an illustration of how old-fashioned the genre categories are starting to feel. These days, there’s far more good music that’s genre-fluid, rather than genre-bound.

Mandisy Dyantyis’ album Cwaka is nominated for Best African Adult Contemporary. How is that different from the other ‘Adult Contemporary’ category? A question of language? Given the language demographics of South Africa, it’s the African-language songs that should form the main Adult Contemporary category, with a small side-room for albums with English and Afrikaans lyrics. And most South African record buyers purchase Dyantyis’ albums under the impression they fit within the broad church we here call jazz.

The other interesting breakthrough is concert flautist Khanyisile Mthetwa. She’s nominated for Best Female Artist, Best Classical/Instrumental for her album African Bird, and Best Newcomer. Mthetwa has actually been around since the 20-teens, but has been rather too busy winning prestigious international flute awards to register on the SAMA judges’ radar before now, which is what ‘newcomer’ seems to mean in this context. African Bird contains music such as Bheki Mseleku’s Angola – another signal of how permeable those genre boundaries are.

Khanyisile Mthetwa: flute music

Those of us in the jazz world know that if there wasn’t a separate ‘Jazz’ category, that music we love might not get nominated anywhere. So the category probably has to stay even as we observe how in any given year its meaning, and what recordings are in or out, are mutable and often unpredictable. The labels serve marketers; they’re not about anything essential to any piece of music.

That’s perhaps best illustrated by the insulting, perfunctory , five nominations gathered under the label ‘Rest of Africa’. This year, Nigerian pop music dominates that list, with one example of the 21st-Century take on SeSotho famo music. For South Africa to deal with a whole rich, musically vibrant continent in this way represents precisely the same kind of arrogant dismissiveness we all used to complain about in the bad old days when South African sounds were stuck on a ‘World Music’ shelf. Etuk Obong? Oumou Sangare? Vieux Farka Toure? Mdou Moctar? Obviously it’s all ‘Rest of Africa’ to the SAMA judges…And at that point, I think we have to say: either deal with the continent’s music respectfully, or leave it alone.

“A camera is more powerful than an AK47”: hamba kahle Mike Mzileni 1942-2022

Mike Mzileni during a 2014 interview Pic: Antonio Muchave

Sophie Mgcina gazes out at us from the page, uncompromising and direct. She’s just swung around from the piano to face us; behind her, a score sits open. It’s 1993, and she’s been telling journalist Z. B. Molefe, “I had to work like ten Black women to get where I am today.” But if she hadn’t said it, photographer Mike Mzileni’s accompanying image would have stated it loud and clear.

Respected elder statesman of press photographers Mzileni died on Thursday at the age of 80, after a series of debilitating ailments, but not before an exhibition in January at Newtown’s Gallery 1989 had finally brought together both facets of his long career: news photography that captured history, and music photography where artists had the visual space to be who they really were.

Ndumiso Mzileni had been born in Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape on 16 January 1942. His work featured in publications including The World, Drum, the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, with his longest stint at City Press, which he joined on its establishment in 1982, rising to become Chief Photographer and Photo Editor by his retirement in 2000.

Tributes were not slow to pour in: just about every young photographer who encountered him had memories of his kindness and support for their own careers, of the high newsroom standards he set and of the steadfast Africanist politics that informed his lens. “A camera is more powerful than an AK47” he admonished; be responsible in how you employ it. (For a full career obituary, see )

For jazz fans, it is Mzileni’s images of music-making and musicians, collected in two books, A Common Hunger to Sing (the source of that Mgcina image) and All That Jazz, which bring home most powerfully the skill and insight we have lost. Alongside his vibrant performance images, Mzileni’s jazz portraits in particular established a standard and an approach that inspired and influenced younger counterparts such as Siphiwe Mhlambi.

Philosopher Susan Sontag asserted “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses” – in other words, the truth of a photographic subject is there already; the photographer’s art is finding it and expressing it as an image so viewers can find it too. But photographers make, not simply find and “take” photographs. Their choices about a subject’s setting and pose and how a shot is framed and lit, can reveal or obscure that subject’s truth, and sometimes even (accidentally or deliberately)convey something else entirely.

The worst of music photography – today’s unskilled point and shoot pap and fan shots, which editors too often use instead of employing specialist, skilled photographers – doesn’t tell us much except what an artist was wearing, how wide their mouth gaped behind a mike, or how dazzling the stage lights were.

The back cover fold of all Mzileni’s portraits from “A Common Hunger to Sing”

But that was not Mzileni’s enterprise. The discipline of black and white photography takes away the easy dazzle of stage lights and sequined costumes that a full-colour image can ride on, and makes intelligent choices about framing and lighting even more crucial. We see clearly how powerful those choices can be in the portraits of female artists Mzileni created for A Common Hunger to Sing.

There’s a democracy between the artist in front of the camera and the one behind it in how Mzileni presents these women. Some have chosen to wear African finery (Mara Louw). Some, such as veteran Snowy Radebe, sit in their best chair, in their best jacket and neat beret: a respected matriarch of family and church. Others, like Mgcina, Lynette Leeuw, Nothembi Mkhwebane and Sathima Bea Benjamin present themselves in the context of their music. Mgcina has that piano; Leeuw cradles her saxophone; Mkhwebane proffers her guitar ahead of her; Benjamin fans out some of her albums. Some smile; some look thoughtful, challenging, solemn or sad.

And Mzileni’s lens doesn’t treat any of this as incidental to zoom in for the big shiny grin that has become the cliche of photographing female singers. Every fold and print detail of Louw’s attire, for example, matters for that image, because her vocal identity is as a consummate stylist of song. The clearly-lit experience lines on the faces of stage veterans reinforce their authority and stature: the portrait of Dorothy Masuku is distilled down to the fierce intelligence of her expression, and the working hands that wrote her songs. Mzileni was fond of chiaroscuro and used it well: light illuminates the joy of those who have told interviewer Molefe untarnished, happy tales; shadow underlines the regrets and frustrations of others. The full-page portrait of each artist does not just complement the full-page interview it sits opposite; it underlines but also enriches each story. The shared authorial credit on the book’s cover is more than justified.

Another master photographer, the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, declared: “it is an illusion that photographs are made with the camera…they are made with the eye, heart and head.” With Mike Mzileni’s passing, we have lost the eye, heart and head of a titan of South African music portraiture. Hamba kahle.

Muneeb Hermans plays one for Hanover Park

Africa Day last week was celebrated with a South African jazz first: the first release on the Blue Note Africa label: Nduduzo Makathini’s In the Spirit of Ntu. For once, nobody has to fret about the absence of profile and coverage for a South African landmark. Congratulations to Makhathini for deservedly scoring interviews and showcases all over the place. You can read and hear his thoughts on the album here and here

That should – but won’t automatically – ensure that other voices in South African jazz also attract more international attention. Ours is currently such a joyfully diverse musical landscape that it’s impossible to pick a single “typical” release. Over time, Blue Note Africa represents an opportunity to showcase all of that diversity.

The jazz shaped by the lives and communities of the Western Cape was one of the earliest to make an impact worldwide, in the persons of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and vocalist/composer Sathima Bea Benjamin. It’s had a persistent international presence – witness the US career of trumpeter Darren English, and the regular touring of McCoy Mrubata, among others. And new voices continue to rise. A fortnight ago, Hanover Park trumpeter Muneeb Hermans launched his debut as leader: the quintet outing One for HP.

Album covers always declare an identity, and Hermans’ is no exception. The backdrop of a narrow alley between yards, with washing strung high, asserts community roots. And the five black-clad, shades-sporting musicians – if not exactly the wreathing smoke and formal dinner suits of a Herman Leonard image – nevertheless declare something akin to that kind of jazz. You can expect this to be music where the head is stated and then the impro does most of the heavy lifting, demanding serious chops and tight swing all round.

Hermans, alto sax Justin Bellairs, pianist Blake Hellaby, bassist Sean Sanby and drummer Kurt Bowers don’t disappoint.

It’s hard to imagine Hanover community roots that go much deeper than Hermans. He grew up in a klopse family, linked to that most historic of troupes, the Pennsylvanians (who were founded in 1932 although their current incarnation dates only from 1989). Fascinated by the sound of Louis Armstrong, he joined as soon as they’d let a child in, simply to get his hands on a trumpet, “and then there was Miles Davis [who] captured my heart rather than my ear.” Over time, he also played with the Seven Steps and D6 troepe.

At high school (Alexander Sinton) he was spotted by legendary jazz teacher Ronel Nagfal, and later by another mentoring titan, George Werner, who found him space in the Little Giants, with whom “I saw the world”. In 2012, 2014 and finally 2017 as part of Buddy Wells’ National Youth Jazz Band, the Joy of Jazz National Youth Jazz Festival at Makhanda (then, Grahamstown) played its part in growing his musicality. Jazz performance studies at UCT followed. Then the usual rounds of tours (Europe, Asia and the US as well as South Africa), theatre and club gigs and festival shows ensued. Last year, his streamed Jazz in the Theatre concert won a Makhanda Festival Ovation Award. Drummer Bowers was a high-school buddy who travelled much of that same journey with him.

Hermans shapes a velvety trumpet tone that definitely owes something to his youthful bromance with Miles. His compositions extend beyond that historic style, though. The eight album tracks stretch from the meditative opener Inner Peace Parts 1&2 , through the jaunty, catchy, goema-flavoured Kaapstad and the churchy, anthemic Song for Douks (written for his late paternal uncle, and possibly the most retro in conception: definitely a timers’ song) to the Trane/Tyner-ish soaring of Yet Another Day , the hard bop of Me and the slow, narrative unfolding of the closer, The Bridges We Build.

Muneeb Hermans

It’s all recognisably music of history and community: there are songs a dancer could jazz to (if they were good enough), the yearning horn voices of the Basil n’Robbie era and the crisp kkr-tick of goema drums. But these are young players who have absorbed much more, and newer, and worldwide. So they’re not confined inside those legacies but rather use them as jumping-off points for impro that’s recognisably individual and contemporary. (Hellaby’s unashamedly early Dollar-ish piano on Kaapstad, for example, takes multiple detours into the edgy and modal.)

Everybody has the chops to make the compositions sound good. Hermans can do the speed-merchant thing when he wants to, but sensibly doesn’t overload the more moving, lyrical compositions with tricky technique: another Miles legacy is letting stuff breathe. Bellairs can shout when the emotion demands, but also respects space. And the rhythm team of Bowers and Sanby is a dream: the former possessing the controlled energy of a tightly-wound spring; the latter never retreating to mere routine foundations and adding resonant, growling, singing solos. As a result, everything swings like the clappers, just the way it’s supposed to.

Hermans’ album respects the traditions rather than attempting to break any mould – it’s the skill and commitment of the playing that keep it sounding fresh. You can hear that for yourself on Amazon Music, Soundcloud or Spotify, or catch the live launch gig here:

The slow detumescence of the DSAC flagpole

A government department would have to be pretty dense not to realise its error when even the President jokes about it. ( ) A more perceptive and democratically inclined departmental leadership might, however, have responded slightly more swiftly to days of criticism about the proposed R22M flagpole from all kinds of people.

In case you’ve forgotten what it looks like….

Indeed, the idea certainly succeeded in ‘bringing the nation together’ (its purpose, as described by the DSAC minister, Nathi Mthethwa), though perhaps not in the way envisaged. For one of the first times in recent history, everybody from Cosatu to the DA was singing from exactly the same hymn-sheet about how scandalously dumb the idea was.

And it was dumb. It was a wholly unjustifiable expense in the context of a post-Covid arts landscape where practitioners, venues and events are still struggling and many have been forced out of the industry by poverty. The miniscule amount of metal involved in even a giant flagpole won’t mean a thing to “the steel industry” (another departmental justification) – which will generate $7.1 billion in revenue this year despite Covid and really doesn’t need another small job. The ’employment’ may go to a few construction workers – but will go mostly to the consultants and other profiteering, tenderpreneurial elites no doubt already salivating over the prospect. And the suggested night-time illumination at Freedom Park is unlikely to inspire a sense of belonging when distantly viewed by a Mamelodi resident load-reduced for the umpteenth time because the authorities can’t spare enough electricity for her to cook for her family or bathe her child in warm water.

As usual, however, the idiocy of both the proposal and its defences has taken the debate away from some important issues and onto the terrain of the personal. I’ve argued before that reducing the debate to ‘the Minister must go’ is no solution to anything if the government disdain for arts, culture and heritage that has permitted mismanagement of the sector for so long persists. We don’t just need a new face at the helm, we need new policies; informed, committed, efficient civil servants – and a kick-start to all that from the top: the ruling party, the President and the parliamentary Portfolio Committee.

But what about the flagpole, and the idea that its existence will educate people about national unity? Perhaps DSAC should talk to their colleagues in the two Depts of Education, who might inform them that putting up a static object somewhere for limited numbers of people to passively observe doesn’t actually provide any kind of education. Learning happens when people actively engage: it’s a process, not an object or an event.

although most South Africans already know

So if you really want to use the flag to help build unity, what matter are the aspects most minimally mentioned in all the Departmental blustering: the ideas it symbolises (discussed a little), and the processes around it (discussed not at all). The official flag website ( ) is very clear that while the flag’s colours have historically had resonance for various communities and movements “no universal symbolism should be attached to any of the colours.” The key symbol is that ‘Y’: a metaphor for the coming-together of diverse elements and thus for the idea of unity as strength.

And how could you better get that idea around (because it’s not a bad one: it’s been the basis of workers’ struggles for centuries)? Well, given that there are multiple national flags in place – there should be one outside every government facility already – how about spending far less on developing teaching materials on the idea of unity, as a resource for educators? How about inviting creative artists to develop projects that engage thematically with unity – crucially, not excluding critical ideas that can spark debate? That latter would also put some of the R22M to the far more productive use of helping artists not to starve.

We don’t want citizens who unthinkingly revere the flag or unity as symbols of narrow nationalism. That way lies Operation Dudula and fascism. We don’t want citizens who pay lip-service to unity while their sons urinate over other people’s study materials. However many impressive and expensive monuments are commissioned, ‘unity’ will stay an empty word until South Africa practically enacts the spirit that inspired the struggle: to make the country genuinely belong to all who live in it. That’s our real heritage. Unity will come from a place where refugees can settle without fear; where women can live their lives safely; where poor people can access the resources and work they need to live decently; where a diminishing minority of racists feel shame for their ignorance; and where the wealthy refuse inflated bonuses and pay taxes without whingeing. That’ll take so much more than a very big flagpole. As the saying goes, it’s not about size, it’s about what you do with it.

The South African Jazz Real Book: a brilliant collection, but less real for women

We’ve been waiting too long for a collection of South African scores that makes our jazz repertoire accessible to musicians, students and teachers. Now, it’s arrived, with the South African Jazz Real Book vol 1: Jika ( jazz ) compiled by George Werner and Jannie van Tonder with Colin Miller. In almost every sense, it’s a brilliant collection. I’ll get back to that ‘almost’ later, because it’s a very important ‘almost’ for 51% of South Africa’s population.

First, let’s give credit to the massive and painstaking work of selecting, transcribing, securing rights and creating the book. It has taken years, and nobody who’s tried to, for example, secure rights to republish even one tune in the trackless forest that the SA music archive often is, should underestimate just how much sweat and dedication went into the project. The R500 selling price isn’t cheap, but for institutions and individuals that can afford it, it’s worth it. For those that can’t, don’t we have government entities called Departments of Education and Culture who might assist? You could, for example, buy 44 000 copies for the price of a certain proposed 100-metre flagpole monument…

With a book like this in place, it will be far less easy for music courses and programmes to argue that there’s nothing on which to base jazz curricula that speak to the majority of jazz learners and tell them about their own history. It will be far easier for South African musicology students to analyse the voices of South African jazz and generate new knowledge about them. And it’ll be far easier for the world to appreciate our jazz voices and traditions.

Apart from that ‘almost’, it’s a brilliant selection too. The 116 picks range from early popular standards to the contemporary sounds of, for example, Marcus Wyatt, Zim Ngqawana, Kesivan Naidoo, Mandla Mlangeni and Nduduzo Makathini. Tunes that are loved and legendary, but were very hard to find, such as Shakes Mgudlwa’s You Can Do It Too, are finally accessible. Everybody will have their preferences and quibbles, but those are matters of taste. No selection can leave everybody completely satisfied. Now there is something where before there was almost nothing, and on the foundations of that something a more representative repertoire for SA jazz education can begin to grow.

Or at least, more representative in some dimensions.

Because that ‘almost’ isn’t insignificant. Out of the compilers’ 116 picks only four women composers feature: Dorothy Masuka for Hamba Nontsokolo; Shannon Mowday for Woza Waltz; Miriam Makeba (as co-composer) for Pata Pata, and Melanie Scholtz (as co-composer) for Meditations on Lost Love. Several male composers get more than one pick, and on that basis Masuka (who composed close to 100 songs across her career) might merit at least another one too – and Makeba, Scholtz and Mowday also have pretty extensive compositional opuses, even if they haven’t quite hit the century mark.

The Skylarks with Mary Rabotapi 2nd left

And why does that matter? Because if women don’t feature in collections like this as composers, neither they nor their male peers (or teachers) see them as composers. At student level, that’s yet another “Keep Out: Not for You” sign posted; another of the reasons – and there are many more worth discussing another time – why many women perform with distinction in music studies, but far fewer go on to make careers as composers and instrumentalists.

“Well…given the prejudices, maybe there just weren’t and aren’t that many women composing?” The inspiration for this column was a comment by Mowday during our interview for a profile that will appear soon in New Frame (thanks, Shannon), and that was the response of a – female – friend to whom I mentioned the idea. You see, most people just don’t know.

Certainly, historic male prejudices were always a disincentive to women staying in music. They also meant that when women did compose they sometimes used a name that made their compositional identity genderless. That was the case with the Skylarks’ Mary Rabotapi (M.Rabotali, who composed Laleli Bantwana and several more of the Skylarks’ songs), Martha Mdenge (M. Mdenge), and the Mahotella Queens’ Hilda Tloubatla (H. Tloubatla: Sindiza Emoyeni and more). Because vocalist was often the only role open to them onstage in that era, they probably composed more songs than instrumental numbers – but if Hamba Nontsokolo counts as an SA jazz composition for the Real Book’s purposes, then so do many other songs, historic and present-day.

Siya Makuzeni

And today it’s not hard to think of South African female jazz artists who were or are formidable composers, with both feet (or at least one foot) in jazz. A completely random and absolutely not comprehensive first call might include Amanda Tiffin, Cara Stacey, Kelly Bell, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Thandi Ntuli, Zoe Modiga, Gabisile Motuba, Msaki, Siya Makuzeni…

This is only the first volume of the SA Jazz Real Book. Perhaps the intention is to include more female composers as the series grows. If it wasn’t, it should become such, and women really should have had a rather stronger presence in the debut volume. Because they can compose, right across the spectrum of what we call South African jazz. Listen to this tiny sample of work I’ve assembled below. There’s a lot more where that came from…

Sathima Bea Benjamin – Music

Martha Mdenge – Mdegundwini

Siya Makuzeni – Brazen Dream

Thandi Ntuli – Rainbow


Hilda Tloubatla – Sindiza Emoyeni

Gabisile Motuba – Remember Me

Martha Mdenge – La La

Zoe Modiga – Umdali

Msaki – Iimfama Ziyabona

Keenan Ahrends’ Perseverance: rhythm conversations

I probably wasn’t the only person disappointed that guitarist Keenan Ahrends’ 2018 debut album, Narrative, didn’t feature in that year’s awards lists. Absurd as the notion of “winners” (and by implication “losers”) is in music-making, Narrative told a fresh and distinctive guitar story worth acknowledging.

Now his second release, Perseverance: live at the Birds Eye ( has arrived. It archives his performances at the Basel jazz club last year, streamed as part of the 2021 Makhanda Festival. His trio’s Swiss tour (with bassist Romy Brauteseth and drummer Siphelelo Mazibuko) was part of the ProHelvetia Artist Residency programme; the recording also features Swiss guests, reedman Domenic Landolf and trumpeter Lukas Thoeni.

When I wrote about that Makhanda performance, I expressed regrets at the absence of a set list: this was new, unknown material. The album’s seven tracks correct that deficiency. I now know that one striking bass/guitar conversation took place on a number called Expendables, while drums and guitar conversed on Aunty B. And the very pretty theme that transformed itself into a very joyful, compelling goema, was called Here We Go Again. The digital download also provides a dozen minutes of two bonus tracks, Stories Behind Expression and Family. More about those later.

Domenic Landolf

I’ve used the term ‘Metheny-ish’ about Ahrends instrumental voice before (he may hate it…). What unites these two guitarists from very different contexts and generations is the sense of exploratory emotional space in their music. They both play music with head and heart. Ahrends prefers to see where a theme takes him, rather than mechanically stating the head and marching in a straight line from there. There’s no rush to the conclusion of the tune’s home, but rather continual invention and reformulation along the road.

That’s not to say that Ahrends doesn’t write or state appealing melodies. Here We Go… certainly appealed to me, as did Lullaby of Solitude and Family . But often those melodies emerge from his explorations, rather than conventionally bookending them. Nor is he a grandstanding soloist. When brass and reeds are on stage he shares the sonic space equally, so that it’s not until the fourth number, Aunty B, that the guitar stretches out alone for a long time. The side of any guitarist that often gets an audience shouting – the assertive, bluesy, rocky side – is employed judiciously, so that when it declares itself, for example, on Expendable and Stories Behind… (on that latter, alongside an equally soulful, bluesy Brauteseth) you can hear the audience riding it joyfully home.

Romy Brauteseth

We often don’t talk enough about the rhythm players, but if bass and drums aren’t equally strong and inventive in a guitar-led trio, the whole concept can sound thin rather than spacious, and anaemic rather than subtle. Brauteseth and Mazibuko are perfect trio partners. The drummer judges perfectly when to lay back and shade Ahrends’ colours and textures with his brushes, when to join the conversation more assertively, as with Thoeni on Wandering Dancer, and when to pull out a bouncing, rattling, magnetic solo – one of which makes Family the most satisfying closer track possible. Brauteseth possesses the same finely judged mix of empathy and power. In addition to the contributions already mentioned, strong bass foundations are often what ground the extended abstract excursions. (And there are some satisfyingly long numbers, something live recordings offer that is sometimes absent on studio cuts of the same material.) It’s the swing of Brauteseth’s walking line that helps the Wandering Dancer to dance.

The two Swiss guests, as I noted when I reviewed the streamed concert, have clearly spent far too long in the company of South Africans. Their contributions catch the feeling of Ahrends’ compositions beautifully: Thoeni’s gently upbeat solo on Revival palpably lifts the mood after the darker emotions of Expendable; Landolf’s solo on the title track definitely talks a shared expressive language. Both of them relish the celebratory mood of Here We Go…

Siphelelo Mazibuko

The Live at the Birds Eye series has consistently – and for quite a long time now – given us music from its South African guests (for example, also Zim Ngqawana, McCoy Mrubata and Feya Faku) that faithfully reflects their character in performance, with none of the South African label nonsense about “You must cut the long numbers because they won’t get airplay”. Recordings in this series always bring back grateful memories of how it felt when we heard these artists live ourselves. Gratitude doesn’t pay the bills, though; for that, you need to buy the album.

International Jazz Day: high-price, big-city clubs only?

Abbey Cindi: veteran of the popular struggle for jazz

Yesterday was the UN’s International Jazz Day – the event, if you remember, whose hosting South Africa was robbed of by the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020. The UN celebrated by livestreaming its customary mega-concert ( ), whose timezone meant not many here would have been awake to watch it. Jazz from Africa was minimally represented: superb Senegalese bassist Alun Wade and Congolese veteran Ray Lema are always worth hearing, but their music hardly represents the spread of the sounds we call jazz on this continent. Most performers were America-based. The persistent lack of a South African presence on this annual “world” jazz stage – when we are the only country outside America with a historic indigenous jazz legacy – is a distressing omission. However, as I mentioned recently, Jazz at Lincoln Centre plugged the gap more than adequately with its SA jazz season in Dizzy’s this past week.

The International Jazz Day concert has passed. Still online last I checked was the linked series of workshops ( ) including a survey of Jazz Women in Africa featuring, among others, Music in Africa’s Violet Maila, and a brilliant panel opened by drummer Terri-Lyn Carrington on Jazz without Patriarchy. Both are well worth catching up on (although much of the former is in French).

And there was South African jazz galore in this country to celebrate the occasion, reflecting how the scene is really getting its groove back after the devastations of the past two Covid years. (Look at the numbers. It’s not over yet: if we don’t want to travel even a short distance backwards in that direction, vaccinate, mask up, and ventilate your venues!)

But examine the concerts on offer and the vast majority are on city-centre stages, often of the elite persuasion. You might not think that being able to shell out R150 for a ticket (some cost much more), plus the transport to get there and back, plus whatever you’re charged for food and drinks, makes you a member of the elite. But compared to what the majority of South Africans can afford, it does.

At this stage in the discussion, somebody often points out – validly – that when people can’t afford food, whether they can access music is the least of their worries. That truth often trails a dangerous and untrue additional implication: that the arts are a luxury; that they have nothing to do with the lives of those with low or no incomes. But the arts aren’t a consumer commodity like those Louis Vuitton handbags so ubiquitous in parliamentary circles. Rather than luxuries, they are a necessity for reading and speaking to the world: they should be a public, not exclusively a private, good.

The historic power of often impoverished communities to take the making and appreciating of culture into their own hands was strikingly illustrated by an event that opened the weekend: the Wits African Jazz Cosmopolitanisms Colloquium on Friday. Rounding off the first phase of this project, the colloquium was bookended by addresses from cosmopolitanism scholars Professors Steven Feld and David Coplan. Between those overviews, a range of voices from West and South Africa talked about the popular jazz communities in their countries and the music they made, including gbokos music; the Lagos scene – and the story of jazz and popular resistance in Mamelodi.

That last, recounted by Mfanufikile Motau and Manoko Mokgonyana of the Mamelodi Arts and Culture Forum, was an eye-opener for anybody who believes that music always needs a Konka stage and champagne at R13 000 a bottle. (As the Gauteng MEC seems to believe, having in March announced a partnership with that venue to showcase new artists.) During the struggle era, music-makers, for sure, played formal events and stages if those were available. But they also played under the radar, rehearsing, teaching, learning, networking and organising in homes and backyards across the country. A veteran of that scene, 83-year-old Abbey Cindi ( ), was honoured in the telling of that history, and on the following International Jazz Day his United States of Africa took to the Wits stage to demonstrate that people’s music still lives.

Survey after survey has reflected that in South Africa musicians and audiences want their musical commons back: the local platforms and events that acknowledge and platform both the creativity and the need for beauty in every South African heart, not just the hearts of metropolitan elites. If less government money was wasted and stolen (and if the responsible Departments at national and many local levels actually knew and cared) supporting at least a few more local arts spaces (something the EFF election manifesto demanded) would be possible.

But it might be that, as in the struggle years, popular organisations need to take back control of cultural spaces for themselves, as KZN-based Abahlali base Mjondolo has done in rebuilding an activist choral tradition as part of its work.

International Jazz Day is a great initiative. But on the UN side, let’s hope next year is just a wee bit more international. And in South Africa, let’s think about how we can help more future IJD events serve both the nations living in this country – the nation of the privileged and that of the impoverished. For all the former seems to know about the latter, they might as well be separate countries.