McCoy Mrubata’s Brasskap Sessions Volume 3: bridging history and hope

Brasskap Volume Three,” ( ) reedman McCoy Mrubata says, “is probably my deepest search into Xhosa sounds of those three Brasskap albums. But it wasn’t a planned direction. Like all my albums, it’s the people I work with who help me to shape the sound.”album cover

One key contributor this time was roots isiXhosa vocalist Daluxolo Hoho (, with whom Mrubata had been wanting to collaborate “for years. I’d first heard him in the ‘90s, and I wasn’t certain he was still active now. But two songs for this album needed that kind of voice, and a poet friend put us in touch. When he answered the phone, I got a shock: his speaking voice sounded so different. But his singing made those compositions sound exactly as I’d heard them in my head, and also helped shape the feel of the album.”

The three Brasskap Sessions albums form a distinct section of Mrubata’s output. They’re the place where he “brings together my students, younger players, and the elders.” We tend to think of him as a Jozi jazzman, but Brasskap 3 reminds us how much his own musical history belongs to the Cape – and how much “Cape Jazz” owes its character to the historic coming together of Xhosa music and the traditions of the communities apartheid called Coloured. Record labels sometimes use the genre to exclude: to market music from Abdullah Ibrahim or Robbie Jansen but not Ezra Ngcukana or Tete Mbambisa. But right from the start (see Nomvuyo Ngcelwane’s memoir Sala Kahle District Six ) musicians were shaping jazz together in the Cape, across apartheid’s arbitrary barriers.

The album’s dozen tracks reflect that, in personnel and sound.

Vocalist Daluxolo Hoho

Hoho features on two, the galloping rhythms of Sukugxadazela and the praises of Ma Madosini, with other voices including Luyanda Madope (who also produced), Sakhile Moleshe, Titi Luzipho and Hlubi Kwebulana. Guests include baritone saxophonist Gareth Harvey, altoist Mthunzi Mvubu, longtime collaborators Paul Hanmer on piano, Jabu Magubane on trombone and Louis Mhlanga on guitar, marimba player Bongani Sotshonanda, vibraphonist Ngwako Manamela and the steelpans of Andy Narell, overdubbed at Narell’s French studio. Rhythms are provided by Lumanyano Unity Mzi and Bernice Boikanyo alternating on drums, Tlale Makhene on percussion, and Nhlanhla Radebe, Thembinkosi Mavimbela and Steve de Souza on bass. It was a big, open-armed collaboration; I’ve probably omitted some other important names.

The breakout radio hit has been Bamba. That’s the kind of slow, searching modern jazz tune that composers like Eric Nomvete were crafting in the 1970s, underpinned by those characteristic ‘Xhosa chords’ evoking overtone music – but it also recalls Mrubata’s own music history in his dialogue with Hanmer, as well as the compositions of Zim Ngqawana in the same vein.

Reaching back even further is ¾: a tribute to Kimberley-born pianist and composer Roger Khoza, who arrived in Cape Town in the early 1960s and became a fixture on the modern jazz scene, working with the Soul Jazzmen, Mankunku, the Ngcukana family and more. By the time a much younger Mrubata encountered him “I was hearing him with bands like Skyf [with reedman Robert Sithole, a young Spencer Mbadu and more]. What impressed me was that he always brought good material. I was Robert Sithole’s roadie at that time, and making my musical transition from pennywhistle to flute. And Bra’ Roger was playing a big role in shaping the sounds that were around.” Sadly, Khoza, who had guested with the band while some of this material was being developed, suffered a stroke just before the track was cut and was unable to play. “But we have his voice, talking about the tune and how it was composed. That’s important. People don’t know that history.”

McCoy Mrubata

Mrubata’s compositions have always carried messages – Wanna Talk About It ( ) on his 2002 Face the Music album was early in raising the issue of gender-based violence – and Brasskap 3 is no exception. He’s wary of using the restrictive term ‘politics,’ “because people sometimes get the wrong impression from the word, but I’ve always written about what is going on in society. The song Ziphi? is directly addressing things around us that worry me, like initiation deaths and schoolteachers who abuse young girls: Ziph’Inkode zakwantu mawethu/Nezibonda zelali/Ziph’Ikokhel’ ezi krelekrele/Ilizwe liyonakala.” (Where are the elders…my people /Where the village chiefs/Where are the wise leaders/Things are falling apart in our land)

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One Ma Sophie: Sophia Williams-de Bruyn (extreme r.) at the Women’s March 1956

You’ll often find a big, lush ballad somewhere on a Mrubata album, and in this case it’s another tribute, political and personal: Two Ma Sophies . The first Ma Sophie is the late Sophie Mngcina: actress, cultural organiser, educator and singer. “I worked with her at the Market Theatre, on the SA Love Project with Barney Rachabane. I learned so much from her, especially about dealing with close harmony voices: she was so generous with information. She was knowledgeable – and she was tough: the best kind of teacher.” The second is Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, whom Mrubata met as the landlady in Berea of the first family-sized home he was able to rent. “We fell in love with the place, and it became a mini music hub – Miriam Makeba, Bra’ Jonas Gwangwa, other bands came and worked there. And she and her husband were so patient about rent, with a musician whose family was growing and who couldn’t always pay on time.” Mrubata had initially been unaware of de Bruyn’s other identity, as a Fedsaw leader at the forefront of the 1956 Women’s March against Pass Laws. “Then one day on TV I saw a film about the Women’s March – and there was Mam’ Sophie. I was knocked out. She’s truly a hero.”

Visual artist Tyrone Appolis with another music-themed artwork

The last bit of personal history on Brasskap 3 is the cover, contributed by another longtime friend from Mrubata’s pennywhistling days: artist Tyrone Appolis. It’s a joyous, vibrant mash-up of instruments and people moving together, with reeds front and centre. “I’ve known Tyrone since 1976,” Mrubata says. “We started playing pennywhistles at UDF meetings together. He learned isiXhosa and used to come and eat with my family. We were both interested in drawing and painting in those days too. I still am – but music has kinda taken over and my older daughter’s the designer in my family now. But I have wanted some art from Tyrone for an album for ages, and this was the album for it.”

We’re due for two more releases from Mrubata soon. Finally, he plans to mix and put out the music he created in 2001 when he was working on a John Coltrane project in Norway. “I couldn’t find a record company who understood that project at the time, which is why it has sat on the shelf for so long. But now, it will come out.” And then there’s another outing in same spirit as Brasskap, Mrubata’s Strings Attached project, which draws young township string players together with more experienced musicians. (You can see a short video on how the music in that project grew here:

As our interview ends, I ask Mrubata why he didn’t include the infectious dance tune  Power to the People among the ‘political’ tracks he discussed. “Actually, I was thinking about the other kind of power. I was sitting in a long, cold queue at City Power – I’d gone to complain about the hassles they were giving my tenants. I didn’t have a book; my mind was kind of empty – and then the idea for the tune just came.” The reedman pauses and thinks for a moment. “But of course,” he adds, “that slogan has a twofold meaning.” Especially, as it happens, this load-shed week.

Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye: painting a decade of changes

Jazz isn’t a scene, it’s an ecology: its parts relate to and impact on one another. We’ve felt that hard this year with the closure of the Orbit, the consequently fewer venues where new work can be developed and trialled (and artists can earn to support their recording projects) – and the very much smaller number of local jazz releases in 2019 than in 2018.

It’s been noted many times that the Orbit wasn’t perfect – and any ticketed venue is going to be exclusionary, given current levels of inequality. But it had some strengths other spaces didn’t and still don’t offer: a tuned, playable piano on-site; a Green Room for musicians; room for the new; and an audience gradually cohering into a community – a knowledgeable and respectful sounding-board for artistry.

The Birds Eye stage

You can find other stages like that, and in an increasingly globalised jazz community some South Africans have even been able to access them overseas. One example is the Birds Eye Club in Basel, Switzerland. Founded by bassist Stephan Kurmann in 1994, the club has hosted and networked a remarkable number of international artists, many South Africans among them. It’s a tribute to the jazz acuity of the Swiss cultural organisation here, Pro Helvetia, how many have made that journey: Herbie Tsoaeli, Mandla Mlangeni, Hilton Schilder, McCoy Mrubata, more. There’s even a volume dedicated to South African guests on the club’s own CD label (Vol 13: see!/pages_e/cd-club )

Now bassist Carlo Mombelli has used his various sets at the Birds Eye to document his own musical history over the past decade, with Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye 2009-2018 ( )

Appearances at the Birds Eye are not Mombelli’s only links with Switzerland. He has also guest-lectured regularly on Jazzcampus Basel (at the Northwestern Switzerland university) where, this year, trombonist and educator Adrian Mears created big-band arrangements of the bassist’s works for students (an extract here: . Mears, vibraphonist Jorge Rossy, trombonist Andreas Tschopp and drummer Jonno Sweetman comprise Mombelli’s ensemble for the last three of the CD’s six tracks.csm_Carlo_Mombelli_live_at_the_birdseye_b818d6d985.jpg

Others include a 2009 version of Zambesi (recorded on the 1990 Happy/Sad with Charlie Mariano) featuring Marcus Wyatt, Siya Makuzeni and Justin Badenhorst; Song for Sandra and Motian the Explorer from 2013 with Mbuso Khoza; and the 2018 versions of Road.., Athens and The Spiral Staircase.

Mombelli remains a firm believer in the album format, despite the industry switch to disaggregation and streaming. He’s not a fan of that. As well as the high dollar cost and minimal cent returns of publishing on streaming services, “When I put an album together, it’s conceptual – there’s a movement of ideas from how it opens to how the finale must be,” he says.

In the same way, this collection tells the story of the movements, musical and conceptual, in Mombelli’s music over the period. Apart from Zambesi (which was the only track retrievable from that particular session) that’s how he made the selection – to travel towards what he calls the “gentleness” of his current voice.

“With Prisoners of Strange I used a lot more sound designs that were maybe more quirky, for example the bird loops that I created on Zambesi, or the music I composed for toys – which I never recorded.” Because of the music’s intricacy, Prisoners, he says, demanded “a lot more rehearsal time.

“My music since 2011 has been a lot freer in approach but I still try to keep a strong sense of melody.” By composing more on bass than piano recently, “I feel I have developed a more personal sound in my composing and playing than ever before.”

(That was also my assessment. When I reviewed Mombelli’s Angels and Demons last year I called it “his most personal album to date.” )

There are other elements to think about on this retrospective too. Mombelli’s plangent, sonorous bass voice is gorgeous. But I find I still also hanker for human voices in his work – it just feels made for singers. Earlier tracks remind us of the fearlessness of Makuzeni’s contributions, and the imaginative richness of Khoza’s.

Carlo Mombelli

And while, for example, Athens on Angels and Demons was a fiercely personal interpretation (it was the city where he re-met his father after so long), this arrangement offers a focus on chords and harmonies as well as emotions: how the musical elements fit together. The two trombones are the almost-human voices – it’s tempting to call them a Greek chorus – first responding to the bass, and then conversing with Rossy’s delicate vibe sounds.

Yet you never lose the thread of experience inspiring each number, because narrative always matters in Mombelli’s music. There are two sets of stories here: the individual tales inspiring each track, and the arc of the composer’s past decade in music. In depicting both, “I use my bass as the paintbrush,” Mombelli says.


* The album isn’t the only thing Mombelli has published recently. He also has a new music book out. See



Grammys 2020: jazz as you (mostly) expect it to sound

Grammy.jpgThe Grammies are rarely the most innovative of music awards. Often, they reflect an industry congratulating itself on reading the market right, or – particularly in relation to jazz – noticing artists that fans have respected for years. The 2020 nominations (awards will be announced on 26/27 January our time) reflect both these features. But here’s a quick round-up of the more interesting jazz nominations, with some links to give you a flavour of the music.

The five Best Jazz Instrumental Albums are from players who are definitely the usual suspects: Joey deFrancesco In the Key of the Universe, the Branford Marsalis Quartet The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Brad Mehldau Finding Gabriel and Joshua Redman. They’re all worthy nominees, and all accomplished albums – for my money, though, Redman’s Come What May is the most interesting release. The reedman has an instantly recognisable thoughtful, wistful voice. Reunited after 20 years with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, you can hear both how much he’s grown, and how much he’s still his own distinctive man.

Melissa Aldana

Marsalis and McBride also feature in the Best Improvised Jazz Solo category, alongside Randy Brecker. But the two most interesting names in this category are guitarist Julian Lage and Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana from her album Visions, inspired by themes from the life of painter Frida Kahlo.

Anat Cohen

The more diverse Large Jazz Ensemble category presents outfits that most South Africans won’t previously have encountered: Miyo Hazama, Mike Holober’s Gotham Jazz Orchestra, the Brian Lynch Big Band, and the crowd-funded Teraza Big Band. It’s the one we do know here, past Joy of Jazz visitor Anat Cohen with her Tentet , however, who produces the most intriguing music, on Triple Helix Cohen’s sound certainly pushes the Grammy’s conservative ‘jazz’ envelope, rich with ideas from contemporary concert music.

The Grammy selectors apparently believe that only women can sing. Nominees in the jazz vocal category are Sara Gazarek’s Thirsty Ghost, Jazzmeia Horn’s Love& Liberation, Catherine Russell’s Alone Together, Tierney Sutton’s bigband Screenplay , and Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells

Jazzmeia Horn A jazz listener time-travelling from the past would find nothing perturbing about the formats of any of these albums – even, for once, Spalding’s. The musicianship is uniformly superb, and I’ve a weakness for Russell’s masterful command of a lyric, but there’s a shortage of risk-taking – the closest we get is in Horn’s socially aware lyrics.

ZenonAs is often the case, the Latin Jazz category contains many of the most intriguing sounds. David Sanchez’s Carib project blends Haitian sounds with Panama, and veteran Panamanian vocal maestro Ruben Blades, with Wynton Marsalis, presents a classical vision of the genre  (I’m betting he’ll win). But the two most intriguing listens are (of course) Chick Corea on Antidote with the Spanish Heart Band, and Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon’s tribute to folk hero Ismael Rivera: Sonero Zenon’s inspired revisionings of traditional song viewed through what’s often a bebop lens evoke how South African jazz players sometimes treat our indigenous sounds: it’s inspired and inspiring.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Ancestral Recall

There is, of course, no ‘African Jazz’ Grammy. (Many would consider the adjective superfluous, given the relationship of all jazz to African roots.) Perhaps that’s why trumpeter Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah’s superb Ancestral Recall finds its nomination in the Best Contemporary Album category. Adjuah has often pointed out that just because his vision of ‘Stretch Music’ seeks to transcend the constraining baggage of the ‘jazz’ label, that doesn’t imply a rejection of the spirit or technique of jazz. The man’s from New Orleans, for heaven’s sake. But Ancestral Recall embodies a lot of what many of us would like to hear in a Grammy jazz winner: openness, freedom, a sackful of intelligent playing ideas, intricate conversations with rhythm and a searching exploration of Africa-in-America. Pitchfork invokes Bill Laswell in its review, but despite his brilliant production skills, Laswell’s excursions into African music sometimes sounded like the souvenirs of a day-tripper: decorations, not integral elements. Adjuah’s work (he now creates his own horns to express the textures he needs) never does.


Amapiano: people power plus WhatsApp breaking the legacy music value chain

A friend of mine – admittedly not a dance fan – was once invited to watch the video of Riverdance. After 20 minutes of Michael Flatley doing his interminable heel-toe-begorrah thing, she horrified her hosts by piping up “When does it actually start?”

Bandwagon-jumping – and will album covers ever stop using anonymous women as decoration?

Too much bandwagon-hopping amapiano music – currently hitting the airwaves in anticipation of the Desemba party season – sounds like that. It’s a backing track: a slice of rhythm waiting for a soloist to do something interesting over the top. Not all of it, however, as the links in Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi’s interesting analysis in New Frame make clear – we should not, by now, even need to argue that a really good DJ is as much of a creative improviser as any horn player. If you want to know how the best of the genre sounds, Mohlomi’s your man.

Where he’s dancing on shakier ground, however, is in his argument about what it needs right now, which his headline-writer summarised as “monetising in the marketplace.” (That headline – thank goodness – has now been changed. The drift of the story has not.)

That’s the last thing it needs. If it happens, amapiano as a fresh musical force will die. Rather, the future lies in the kind of grassroots anti-commercial infrastructures that musicians in other countries, such as (pre-Bolsonaro) Brazil, have built to break free of Big Music.

Broken value chain

We’ve known for 20+ years worldwide that digital has broken and upended the music industry value chain. It used to be that musicians bust their guts earning peanuts working crummy stages for half their lives to score a recording deal. No longer. Now, as increasingly anybody with a smart device can put sounds together, the ‘recording’ becomes a promo tactic to draw people to your shows. Live performance and all the things you can leverage off it (T-shirts; CDs and DVDs of that set, as it happened – because it’ll never be precisely the same again – more) are now the top prizes on the value-chain. There’s a library full of industry studies discussing that.

Big Music strikes back

That unsettled a lot of people – but it unsettled Big Music most of all. Ever since then, the legacy capitalist music companies have been brewing up tactics to restore their position as prime surplus-value extractors from working musicians. They have, to some extent, succeeded. The mission of A&R at the labels is now to seduce artists who have already built their own followings via social media – so they can skim a percentage off work they didn’t do, for as long as the artist stays in ‘fashion’. For many musicians, paying to keep an album on a streaming or digital sales platform costs more (in dollars) than the cents they receive from it. If musicians earned peanuts before, that’s diminished to pine nuts today. Pulverised.

What’s most exciting about amapiano is that it’s the first of our home-brewed, syncretic, groove-driven sounds for dancing to take really full advantage of the people’s internet – WhatsApp – for distribution.images.jpg

What was most depressing about Mohlomi’s article was the number of his music-maker sources clamouring to hand over the autonomy won from that in exchange for the “expertise” of the labels. Sure, Big Music has expertise – in making profits. Making interesting music comes way down the list of priorities, and spending money on an artist – once you’ve stopped being flavour of the month – even lower.

Collective people-power

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Baile funk in Recife, Brazil

But there is another way. It’s a way pioneered in Brazil about a decade ago, by people who didn’t aim to be commoditised “brands”, but rather to keep their low-income communities dancing, creating, thinking and eating. Nevertheless, it engendered a national, high-earning, off-axis circuit, and was one of the foundations of the Brazilian funk movement, which has today seen baile funk – a form analogous to our various incarnations of SA house and which started at favela (township) house and street parties (baile) – heading to be named a national cultural treasure. (At least, pre-Bolsonaro, because the music and even more its grassroots organisation pose implicit challenges to the current rightwing regime. Even before his ascension, conservative senators were calling for it to be banned.) The musicians did it not by entering “the marketplace”, but by coming together to start their own, autonomous, collective-based industry model. This article from Open Democracy describes the roots of the movement. This one talks organisational logistics

Kiss of death

Pop music is by its nature ephemeral. Nothing wrong with that – it’s the seed-bed for all kinds of edgy new ideas. Signing a hot trend to a major label, however, is the kiss of death. The trend becomes a brand: novelty frozen into provenly marketable formulae; risk-taking and experiment stifled. Remember Nkalakatha? Next thing you know, amapiano will start being danced to by bankers at Northcliffe braais, and discussed by middle-aged 702 presenters with cut-glass accents. Which latter…er… actually happened  a couple of weeks back.

Fortunately, grassroots musicians keep on inventing – so what’s next?

Why Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist award matters

In terms of sound, music and hard work, there’s no doubt that Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist 2020 award for jazz is more than richly deserved. Listen, for example, to this live set from the Downtown Jazz series   But it’s also a significant choice in terms of Xonti’s career trajectory and what it means for the Awards going forward.

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This year’s SBYA winners; Xonti second-left

For a long time, the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards have been playing catch-up: awarding ‘young’ artists who are already well advanced in their careers by the time they are noticed. Pianist Afrika Mikhize, for example, had already toured the world with Miriam Makeba more than once before his arrived in 2012. Last year’s winner, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, already had an armful of albums out as leader, with multiple different outfits.

But Xonti is, genuinely, a young artist in terms of where his career is. (That’s true of the rest of this year’s cohort of winners too.) He graduated only in 2012, and so far has just one album to his name as leader, the luminous, thoughtful, 2017 Iyonde ( ). That means he’s far better known by many jazz listeners as an ensemble player rather than a leader (and in a dazzlingly diverse range of contexts – but we’ll get to that later).

That bodes well for the future of the awards. The only possible criticism of Xonti’s win might be that the SB accolade has gone to a male player. Again. (Shockingly, we’ve seen only five female jazz winners in the entire history of the category.) One response is often that because of entrenched music industry sexism, there just aren’t that many women instrumentalists around yet with multiple albums and a substantial record as ensemble leaders. Xonti’s award, going exactly where it should – to a player beginning to establish an exciting career – should remind the judges that more women players are now reaching a similar career point. So it shouldn’t be too hard for the Awards to identify more women winners. Soon.

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate Xonti’s win. The Khayelisha-born tenor saxophonist started on recorder at 10, hankered after a trombone (but his school didn’t have any going spare) so moved on to clarinet and then sax by the time he was in his early teens. When his school band played before Nelson Mandela “and there was he, doing his Madiba Jive – that was the first time I really felt like an artist.”

He was scouted by the late Ezra Ngcukana for the Little Giants band, and then successfully auditioned for the Standard Bank Schools Big Band in Grahamstown.

But his passion for jazz, he has told SAFM “came and went.” At UCT in 2007, he enrolled for law, but had also begun composing. In 2008, he jammed at the Winston Mankunku Memorial, where he was heard by Jimmy Dludlu. An invitation to tour internationally with the guitarist followed. “It was important for me to travel,” he has commented. “It let me hear things I’d never heard – for example, in a jazz club in Kenya I’d hear those musicians bringing their traditional sounds to jazz.”playing.jpg

That exposure – in person, and through the crowded musical supermarket of the web – means that although Sisonke’s sound has been compared to that of the late Mankunku, it draws colours from a very different palette of influences. (Listen to his highly personal take on the classic Yakhal’Inkomo, for example ).

And Sisonke’s big, warm reed sound is everywhere. As well as Dludlu’s outfit he’s worked with pop outfit Freshlyground, with reggae artists Bunny Wailer and local outfit Azania, with South African masters such as Abdullah Ibrahim and the Hugh Masekela, as co-founder of experimental outfit Deluge with pianist Thandi Ntuli, in the Siya Makuzeni Sextet, and with all the Cape Town modern jazz usual suspects (of whom he is certainly one) in bands such as Shane Cooper’s Mabuta , and with Kyle Shepherd. That’s not a comprehensive list of credits by any means.

album.jpgWhen he graduated with a law degree in late 2012 (he also has a classical saxophone qualification) “I didn’t want to work in an office.” That’s the point at which jazz became not only a passion but a career choice. Carrying demanding law studies alongside sometimes punishing playing and touring schedules prepared him well for the hard slog of running a music career in the current impoverished work context of South African jazz. A combination of hard work and versatility, has supported Xonti in putting together a career that has given him both exposure and some really interesting playing opportunities. And all these fed into the compositions comprising Iyonde, which I reviewed when it appeared .

The award will likely offer the opportunity for a second album – something everybody who heard the first is looking forward to. What Xonti has inherited from the masters like Mankunku, Ngcukana, Duke Makasi and more – and carries forward in his own way – is a warmth, passion and attack in his sound. That’s something he deliberately cultivates. His compositions, he says, are “mostly inspired by emotions…I try and take [those feelings] out and onto the instrument.” In that context, real success lies not in the external accolades, welcome though they are, but in “achieving the sound that was in my head.”


It’s not just Xonti, though. Cape Town continues to host exciting players. My listen of the week this week is this incandescent musical conversation  between drummer (and prolific, engaged writer) Asher Gamedze and Chicago free-jazz clarinettist, vocalist and composer Angel Bat Dawid, recorded in the Mother City for Bat Dawid’s debut album, The Oracle,  making significant international waves right now. Check it out.


Decadence: when bankers select our best artists

When did we decide that ‘decadent’ was a word of praise?

It started, predictably if not innocuously, with the advertising industry back in the 1970s hawking desserts, (Magnum, for example, describes itself as coming “in 11 decadent flavours” and even its vegan version in “two decadent flavours”).

Eleven decadent flavours

The Collins dictionary defines decadent as “characterized by decay or decline, as in being self-indulgent or morally corrupt… synonyms: degenerate, abandoned, corrupt, degraded, immoral, depraved, debased, debauched, dissolute, self-indulgent.” The marketing shills are playing on that last, minor, connotation. And even then, it’s a bloody pejorative!

The use of decadent as a praise-word reflects the schizophrenic relationship of late-stage capitalism with food – excess is good/ certain foods are “bad” – by recalling the elite banquets held during the decline of the Roman Empire. Banqueters gobbled as many

Roman banquet: “Pass the sick-bag, Atticus”

jellied larks’ tongues and dormice stewed in honey as they could before bolting to a dark corner to shove their fingers down their throats, hurled the semi-digested muck up for a slave to clean, and tripped over their togas racing back to their couches to start stuffing all over again. Hold that image in your mind as you ponder choosing between those “decadent” flavours of ice-cream.

Philosopher Seneca noted: “They vomit so they may eat and eat so they may vomit”: eating disorder as political metaphor.

Today, the word “decadent” is employed to describe everything from paint colours to music. A month ago I received an invitation to “a decadent experience for your musical palette (sic).” I won’t name the poor jazzman concerned; suffice to say his music is thoughtful, thought-provoking and fresh – the complete opposite of what decadent means.

This weekend, I received another invitation, to the announcement of the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards.

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Fur chairs and fine cognac

The event is being held at Alice & Fifth, a supper-club in Sandton. One review describes it as follows: “it oozes decadence…a bottle of Louis XIII cognac is displayed in a cabinet…the bottle is valued at R240 000 and a shot costs R8 000…real fur from Iceland covers various chairs…the menu is meat-heavy, clearly catering to male patrons…There’s a members-only section and to play in this part of the club it will set you back R50,000 worth of alcohol for the year. Some of this – with your name engraved on it – will be kept in a beautiful cabinet.”

No doubt (er…male) members of our elites, eager to sit on dead, previously tortured animals with an absurdly high carbon cost, slurping R8K brandy shots, are queuing up to pay. Invitees to the Awards won’t have to. This once.

But, guys, these are the Young Artist Awards! One key aim is certainly not decadent; to give exposure and creative financial support to deserving artists. The awards have helped jazz players find time to compose and assemble major original music projects. Associated music education initiatives have genuinely improved access for multiple young jazz learners. None of that is decadent.

(Other aims perhaps merit closer scrutiny – for example, associating a finance brand with ‘culture’, thus wokewashing its image to make it more attractive to upwardly mobile customers and investors; and contributing to the commodification of cultural creations as lucrative investment objects for gallerists and collectors. And all major banks, not just this one, do things of this sort.)

The patronage system behind such initiatives is decadent, though: it’s as old and regressive as the Roman Empire itself, however benign its current administrators are. Artists should be able to survive decently in society and create without waiting for an accolade from a finance house. That was one plank of the struggle and the Freedom Charter: decent survival for all who live here. Handing the arts to the marketplace as official policy did here in the early 1990s, was literally decadent: a clear decline from the people-directed cultural initiatives with access for all of the struggle era –”The doors of culture shall be opened!”

So maybe siting the awards at Alice&Fifth tells us more than it intends to? “Opening the doors of culture? That’ll be R50 000 membership and R8 000 for your first shot, sir. Oh, and do try not to get paint on our Icelandic fur chairs.”