Heartfelt condolences to the Masekela family on the death of South Africa’s best-known jazz trumpeter, who took the message of this country’s music — and experiences — to the entire world, constantly visioning it afresh. For a full appreciation, and an inspiring playlist, see
…but even ‘benevolent’ stereotypes need questioning
Compliments of 2018 to everybody – a year which started on a sad cultural note, with the death of Poet Laureate Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile. But it also started on a dumb one, with a collective outbreak of the stupids around a green H&M hoodie: something that should sound a loud alert about the perils of all stereotyping – negative and ostensibly positive.
After H&M posted a catalogue image of a young black child in a green hoodie bearing the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”, the stupids came thick and fast.
Multiple social media posts appeared from (mostly) white people, pointing out that they’d been called ‘monkeys’ when they were young and, ergo, the H&M advertising was not racist. False logic. I, too –being white and growing up in Lancashire – was called a ‘cheeky little monkey’ more times than I can count. That does not give me any right to whitesplain other people’s hurts. The words ‘monkey’ and ‘jungle’ carry particular freight now: the freight of racist chants from Roma, Spartak Moscow, Millwall and more against black players at football matches; the freight of ‘the Jungle’ – the racist label applied by white Frenchmen to the Calais informal settlement of desperate, mainly African, refugees. Dammit, H&M and their marketing folk are based in Europe; they should be aware of and sensitive to all this.
Further, the green hoodie was not the only one on offer to be modelled at that shoot. There was also an orange one, bearing the slogan ‘Survival expert’. And the shoot director chose to allocate that one to…the white kid. Perhaps not enough comment has considered the breathtakingly colonialist assumptions of that other choice?
If the hoodies and models had been switched, no racism would have been expressed. Come to think of it, H&M also have a rather nice turquoise ‘Time to Change the World’ hoodie. Why not ask the young black child to model that? There are always choices. H&M made the racist ones.
So the EFF was absolutely right to call H&M out on it all. Unfortunately, because no publicity is bad publicity (ask the man with nuclear button envy currently Tweeting from the White House toilet), the form of their action may have actually attracted sympathy for the retailer. Along the way, the EFF succeeded in terrorising a highly vulnerable economic group: young women of colour working in a service industry. A silent but beefy picket line outside H&M shops would have drawn more focused attention to the issue, without that hurt. Many of us would certainly have respected that picket line, and not crossed it to spend our money there.
And shop assistants don’t have much say in their bosses’ policies. Giving H&M employees as much assistance as possible – covert, if necessary – to organise, unionise and build links with their international counterparts, might be one way to shift that imbalance of power.
But it requires little effort to agree that racist stereotypes are bad. Far more challenging is how we deal with stereotypes that might appear benevolent.
One such is the stereotype of African culture as ‘ancient’ or ‘timeless’. Certainly, that can be a true acknowledgment of sophisticated cultures ignored by colonial versions of history. But it can also be used – and has been used – to relegate Africa to the past and abstract it from history, and hence from the right to change. Apartheid ideologues used it to deny the African kingdoms they reduced to ‘tribes’ access to modern levers of power. SAMRO under apartheid (not today) used it to deny royalties to African composers working in traditional genres, on the grounds that no origination could be involved in their work.
The image appeals, though, to a certain kind of romantic-hippie music-buyer. Much has been written about the search for, and romanticization of, difference in the commercial ‘World Music’ industry (see, for example, https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00571846/document ).
That romanticisation is a lie. No African composers working in the modern era are mere carriers of “ancient, timeless tradition”. They are applying fresh creative intelligences to what they have inherited, what their communities have done and experienced right up to today, and everything to which their contemporary lives have exposed them.
For a wonderful example of this, listen to the new double album release from percussionists Ronan Skillen and James van Minnen, and singer iNdwe – The Cave Project: Meditations and Lullabies (Rootspring http://rootspring.co.za/the-cave-project-lullabies-meditations/ ). It has everything the romantic-hippie music buyer might be drawn to: stark rhythms and bow songs recorded in the historic Steenbokfontein Caves. The music is compelling: the acoustic qualities of the caves make it possible to distinguish all the nuances of textural difference and expressive language between frame drums, didgeridoo, cajon and more. iNdwe’s songs with uhadi deal with contemporary as well as traditional themes. The whole project was workshopped between the three and, as Skillen says, it was not the ancient-ness of the caves but the novelty of setting and collaboration that served as “a completely new territory of music … and certainly an eye opener regarding how to perceive and relate to African (traditional) rhythm patterns.” Certainly it is music that could be used for meditation – on the website, the inspiration for that is explained – but it also unfolds a novel, beautiful, and exciting (there are grooves galore) soundscape that invites active listening.
More modern African composition can be accessed at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, which runs from next Saturday January 20 to Sunday February 4 (full details at http://www.join-mozart-festival.org/home/ ). On Saturday January 27, three new composers – Cara Stacey, Arthur Feder and Nomapostile Nyiki – present their work at the Goethe Institute at 3pm. On Wednesday January 31, pianist Paul Hanmer premieres his Mass for the First Peoples at the St Francis of Assisi Church in Parkview at 7:30pm. By attending, publicising and discussing such recordings and events, we can move away from a pattern of simply reacting to the latest piece of crassness from international capital – given their oppressive class role, why are we even surprised by it? – to proactively asserting Africa’s rich contemporary creativity.
We are all devastated by the loss of Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile. I’m currently working on an obituary for next week’s Mail & Guardian Friday, which hopes to devote extensive coverage to his life and work. I’ll post the link as soon as it is available.
Hamba Kahle to a great revolutionary poet and a poetic militant for the revolution.
It’s always risky to attempt an annual round-up. Omit a new release, and you’re assumed to be criticizing the work. Fail to acknowledge a death, and that’s disrespect. If you notice any such omissions below, I apologise in advance. But given the complete failure this year of most South African media to deal adequately with jazz – at home or abroad – it’s becoming harder to log every event. If you think there’s something – news, a controversy, a release, a death – this column should record and reflect on, please write and tell me; I’ll try to do better next year. And my thanks to all those members of the SA jazz community whose communications have helped me work out “where one is” this year.
Here’s a list of all the new South African jazz and improvised releases that I’ve managed to hear this year, in alphabetical order by artist’s surname. They are all worth hearing; buy the ones you love:
Keenan Ahrends Narrative
Amandla Freedom Ensemble Born to be Black
Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra Live
Claude Cozens Trio Live at SBJF
Kinsmen Window to the Ashram
Vuma Levin Life & Death on the Otherside of the Dream
M&M (Manu Dibangu and Moreira Chonguica)
Nduduzo Makhathini Ikhambi
Zoe Modiga Yellow: the Novel
Pops Mohamed & Dave Reynolds Live at Grahamstown
(Expanded reissue) Moses Molelekwa Genes & Spirits
Billy Monama Rebounce
Jeff Siegel/ Feya Faku King of Xhosa
Ronan Skillen/James van Minnen/iNdwe The Cave Project
Tune Recreation Committee Voices of our Vision
Etuk Ubong Tales of Life
Salim Washington Sankofa
Sibusile Xaba Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah
Sisonke Xonti Iyonde
Two jazz-related books are also worth mentioning in this context: David Coplan’s Last Night at the Bassline and Lesego Rampholokeng’s Bird Monk Seding.
Now playing the music of the spheres
Some true South African musical giants died this year: singer Thandi Klaasen, guitarist Errol Dyers, trumpeter Dr John Mekoa and singer-guitarist Ray Phiri; all have been acknowledged at length in previous columns .
However, the jazz world does not deal in borders and boundaries, and we are equally saddened and impoverished by the passing of these international artists. Guitarist John Abercrombie; pianist, composer and teacher Geri Allen; composer, pianist and social activist Richard Muhal Abrams, one of the fathers of the AACM. Saxophonist Arthur Blythe and blues and rock guitarist Chuck Berry. Godfather of fusion, guitarist Larry Coryell. Rock pioneer Fats Domino. Singer Al Jarreau, whose Would You Believe? became a liberation anthem in SA, especially in the Western Cape. Adventurous, inventive free jazz sticks-man Sunny Murray, and the first of the current new generation of male jazz singers, Kevin Mahogany. Jazz and gospel singer Della Rees. James Brown’s magical drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Flautist Dave Valentin.
We must not forget those who devoted precious skill to documenting jazz: in South Africa, photographers Ranjith Kally – who created the only extant visual archive of historic KZN jazz – and Peter McKenzie, and in America, trenchant social commentator and wise music writer Nat Hentoff, and former Columbia and Warner label and freelance producer George Avakian.
May all these great spirits rest in peace: hambani kahle!
Jazz & politics
Most distasteful decision of 2017 was probably UNESCO’s to award International Jazz Day 2018 to St Petersburg (alongside Sydney). Yes, Joburg applied – but that’s not why the decision is a bad one. Historically, jazz has always stood for various varieties of freedom. At present, Russia is dominated by extreme right-wing nationalism, encourages homophobia and discrimination, suppresses demonstrations of political dissent, and censors critical media. Those who flock to Russian stadia for the football World Cup 2018 may be shielded from much of this draconian rule. The presence of the World Cup – and the commercial opportunities it presents – is undoubtedly one reason for this award. But jazz should not be used to prettify Putin’s pharisees.
Mind you, South Africa faces some similar risks. Support for a state media tribunal raised its ugly head again at NASREC 2017. There’s a great deal wrong with the South African media. But encouraging the state or a ruling party – any ruling party – to take a hand in fixing matters is no solution, merely the first step back down the road to apartheid-style censorship, and will have a chilling effect on free expression not only in the press but in all creative cultural endeavours including music.
And, of course, we still don’t have a finalised Arts & Culture White Paper (the M&G quoted the relevant portfolio committee chairperson as predicting it will not be completed by 2019, among multiple other DAC shortfalls http://cabinet.mg.co.za/2017/nathi-mthethwa ). No innovative proposals for improving people’s access to consuming or creating culture emerged from NASREC either.
Highlights, hopes and resolutions
This last set of reflections is purely personal. For me, the international highlight of the year remains saxophonist Rudresh Mahathappa in Cape Town (that just reflects my taste, not whether Mahanthappa was ‘better’ in any sense than multiple other brilliant performers there). A single South African highlight is harder to select, because there has been so much live music this year that has completely blown me away. When I look back, much of that has included pianist Andile Yenana: from Born to be Black to his own project Umngqungqo Wabantu. Another highlight was the panel discussion at Sophiatown The Mix, on the anniversary of Paul Hanmer’s Trains to Taung,after which he presented a short recital on what had been Todd Matshikiza’s piano (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y4-fS0tgSc ). That was history being archived and made…
One hope for 2018 is for another album led by Yenana – it’s long overdue. Another is to see more national and local government support for live music and the night-time cultural economies of our cities. It may not seem like a priority given many other pressing social problems – but well-run night cities can create jobs and enhance real, rather than sloganised, social cohesion, as well as generally building happiness and destroying fear. Those would not be insignificant gains.
As for resolutions, they’re the same as last year: see and write about more South African live jazz. We are currently in the middle of a quite remarkably creative period in the genre; every new work missed is a tragedy.
Finally, thanks to all readers (and especially those who send comments) for being part of this blog community in 2017. Wishing you a music-filled year-end break, and an even more melodious and creative 2018! Back in mid-January.
The first batch of artists for the 2018 Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) was announced on Tuesday, and, even on this showing, it’s clear the event will offer a festival recognisable as ‘jazz’ even by the most hardcore purist.
It’s misleading to look at the bill of fare for all five stages and whinge about the “lack of jazz”. Good music of all genres – with a few tempting morsels of jazz – happens everywhere, but the jazz festival mainly happens upstairs, on the Rosies and Molelekwa stages. That is made possible in business terms by the massive footfall those other multi-genre offerings attract to the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and plenty of audience members these days prefer to listen across the boxes.
Sometimes there’s an aberration: a jazz name predicted to attract a big audience will be placed on the Kippies stage with its difficult, cotton-wool acoustics, leaky sound from outside and grubby, grungy, noisy ambience. Maybe they’ll get that stage right in 2018 too..? We can hope.
It’s never just about the visitors in Cape Town. The South African names are equally important and it’s an assertion of the depth and uniqueness of South Africa’s jazz tradition that our own musicians, as much as the Americans, can draw on elements from both history and tomorrow to craft distinctive – and instantly recognisable – South African stories. This year’s first crop of named artists are no exception, ranging from the measured, thoughtful, lyric beauty of veteran trumpeter Feya Faku (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhdna8sjL9o ) to the “doorway between the waking and dream worlds” opened by bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaQN-ks8Jyk ).
Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde bring a full, rounded saxophone sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuD8bYD23Q ) and intriguingly diverse compositions. Nicky Schrire offers a jazz voice with superb narrative skill – however brief the songs, the storytelling never fails to move (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhdna8sjL9o ). Guitarist Keenan Ahrends conveys in his music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc6qpMJQzos )what I’ve previously called “an almost magical sense of landscape, space and movement.” Another guitarist, Billy Monama, brings his Grazroots Project, which unites veteran guitar maestro Themba Mokoena with multigenerational partners including Lwanda Gogwana and McCoy Mrubata for a fresh take on historic South African sounds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jYLioF-Waw ). Pianist (and now an increasingly interesting scholar too) Nduduzo Makathini is so prolific a composer that he’s certain to offer a few surprises from his IsiZulu-inspired yet still many-voiced keyboard.
And yet, despite all these riches, pride of place must belong to the man the UK Guardian has hailed as a “drum colossus”: Louis Moholo-Moholo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVw2XMOOdFo ). Long a hero of the European free music scene, the 77-year-young Moholo still too rarely gets the big stages at home that his musical intellect and achievement merit. In Cape Town, with pianist Kye Shepherd, bassist Bryden Bolton, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, soulful reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Abraham Mennen, he could well give us the set of the festival.
If one strand unites the 2018 visiting artists, it’s a kind of historical eclecticism: drawing on recognisable jazz traditions (and there will be a lot of New Orleans around) but in energetic dialogue with elements from across the genre board. Trombone Shorty’s Parking Lot Symphony (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3a3RxVTuNc )debut for Blue Note shares objectives with Monama’s Graz Roots – and, indeed, it would be wonderful to hear the two in dialogue about foregrounding historic music as fresh and relevant. Trumpeter Nicolas Payton is these days gathering as much attention for his challenging writing (https://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/ ) as for his playing, but his latest double, Afro Caribbean Mixtape (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-g5oNRIgIeU )makes it clear that the horn still rules – this time, in some less usual company including DJ Lady Fingaz.
Kamasi Washington’s bassist, Miles Mosley (Abraham), will be touring material from his own album Uprising: a release infused with the spirit of jazz-funk, with the groove carrying not a few unsuspecting good-time listeners into some tough, imaginative modern jazz territory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AyP6RVikCc ). That’s just one example of the way the juxtaposition of those elements can act as – to use Shane Cooper’s word – “doorways” into new musical experiences.
That approach is currently so pervasive – and so effective – that it serves as its own refutation of pianist Robert Glasper’s truly dumb-ass, sexist statement earlier this year that “women don’t love a lot of soloing [so you have to search for the] musical clitoris to give them entrance to jazz…otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.” Groove bunnies are everywhere, and of all genders – and, to be fair, Glasper did apologise subsequently.
But if you want to call him out on it all again, he’ll be in Cape Town too, in an outfit that brings together many of our favourite visitors from past years in a new combination: R+R=Now. His co-conspirators comprise trumpeter Christian Scott, reedman Terrace Martin, bassist Derrick Hodge, keys and beats master Taylor McFerrin and drummer Justin Tyson. With so many creative imaginations striking sparks off one another, R+R=Now is likely to be another gig of the festival – although, being female, I guess I’ll be expected to leave during the solos…
Two names remain that should have headed Cape Town bills years ago. The first is a veteran of equal stature to Moholo: the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke. The 76-year-old vibraphone, congas and keyboard player gave a too-brief gig at Wits in 2010 with sidemen including Sydney Mnisi, Herbie Tsoaeli and Ayanda Sikade. He’s lectured extensively across the US and worked with international outfits including London experimentalists the Heliocentrics. His early recordings gave Ethiopia its overseas jazz profile. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am_VFEjkzHk ) But he has also singlehandedly pioneered a modern musical vision based on East African traditions through recordings and scholarly work, and challenged the crude dichotomy which gives Africa credit for rhythm and Europe the prizes for everything else. When I spoke to him in 2010, he asserted (https://mg.co.za/article/2010-09-10-bringing-jazz-home-to-africa ): “My aim is for Africa not only to be portrayed as contributing rhythm, but also contributing to the science of music.” Citing the Ethiopian Gamvo tribe, which has classified seven different voices, and the Derashis with their 12-tone music played on bamboo pipes, he said: “They’re the scientists of our music, living in the middle of five-tone territory. At Berklee we were told how Charlie Parker used 12 tones and diminished scales to develop bebop. But was it Parker or was it Africa?”
An equally iconoclastic campaigner is long-demanded pianist (and more), multiple music award-winner, scholar and Harvard professor, Vijay Iyer. Iyer’s childhood musical education was on violin, and his first university studies in physics and mathematics; he is largely self-taught on piano. His musical collaborations have stretched from AACM veterans such as Roscoe Mitchell to hip-hop artists, through jazz, contemporary classical and mixed-media performances. Many have had an explicit as well as an implicit political discourse. Iyer’s most recent outing, for ECM, is Far From Over, with a sextet including saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, cornettist Graham Haynes, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcmMrLUTUxM ). If, like me, you relish subtle soloing that takes constant sideswipes at your expectations, this has to be another top pick.
Iyer probably merits the last words, reminding us about why even a commercial jazz festival can embody more than the priced consumption of performance. For him, jazz is “the history of a people, and the history of ideas, a history of defiance, a history of unity, a history of joy and transcendence — and also a history of responding to conditions of oppression and terror. So I always think about my relationship to that history as a South Asian-American, and I try to honour that history while still being myself.” (https://www.npr.org/2017/08/26/545890108/vijay-iyer-on-jazz-s-history-of-defiance-his-influences-and-playing-in-a-sextet )…“You know, when I talk to my students about it, I kind of frame it as a history of community organizing. Because it was about people coming together in pretty dire circumstances, and – sort of against all odds – creating beauty and changing the world. You know? That’s really what it was. So, when understood in that way, there’s a lot to learn about what we must do today.”
Wonderful news in CTIJF first announcement! Finally, Vijay Iyer is coming. Plus starring spots for the great Louis Moholo-Moholo and the father of Ethio-jazz Mulatu Astatke — and an on-the-pulse selection of other South Africans. More on the Festival website and a fuller preview in this blog soon