Singing with words: recalling the late Keorapetse Kgositsile

“Isn’t sound continuity/isn’t sound memory/loving care caress or rage/sticking our shattered and scattered pieces together?”(For Bra’ Ntemi )

In a month that has lost us the work and incandescent spirits of Myesha Jenkins and Achmat Dangor, today, Saturday September 19 we remember the birth, of another departed poet. 81 years ago on this date Keorapetse William Kgositsile (‘Kgosi”; “Bra’ Willie”), South Africa’s first Poet Laureate, revolutionary, feminist, Pan-Africanist, internationalist – and the writer who came closest to invoking the sound of South African jazz in rhyme – was born in Johannesburg. (It’s a birthday he shared, very appropriately, with AACM pianist, composer and teacher Muhal Richard Abrams.)

To recount all his achievements would be impossible. His formal accolades are well documented; perhaps less so the history in whose making he participated. 

I worked with Bra’ Willie in Medu in Botswana (https://mg.co.za/article/2018-01-12-00-beauty-in-struggle/ ) and the predictable thing to say would be that we all sat at his feet in awe. But Medu wasn’t like that and nor was our poet comrade. Praxis ruled. Do the work; engage in more-than-robust debates; do more work; let your words be debated; then do more work on them. Kgositsile was unsparing of himself and of the rest of us: writing and learning about literature and history are grounded in hard, disciplined work; so is waging effective political struggle. He’d have ridiculed the notion of anybody sitting at his feet in awe – the work was something we did together, and something we could all, however distinguished, learn from.

And what were those lessons? First, that any work of cultural creation is unavoidably ‘political’; that refusing to express opinions about how we live together and how we should live also represents a political choice. Second, that speaking out about important truths is a human duty. Third, that it’s equally a duty to do it well, with meticulously craft.

Charles Rowell’s 1973 interview with the poet begins with his reflections on starting childhood in the back rooms of his mother’s white employer: not spending time on the streets, he became a voracious reader and – because of his mother’s sheltering silence – largely un-intimidated by the racism that surrounded him. The most important book he read as a youngster was Richard Wright’s Black Boy, because it “made me realise that I didn’t have to sound like an English Poet…I could tame that English to speak my language.”

When he left white suburbia to attend Madibane High School – where one schoolmate was musician Jonas Gwangwa – he rapidly learned. “[T]ownship streets were full of bullies,” he remembered. “The regular ones and the regime ones under their cloak of being the police. And as far back as I remember I have always been intensely allergic to bullies.” And, for him, that had everything to do with being a poet, because “the production of (…) poetry is, like everything else produced by a people, rooted in and informed by human action and interaction.”

He wrote prose as well as poetry, as a journalist for the (quickly banned) New Age in the 1950s and later, in American exile, for many other publications, including the journal Black Dialogue at Columbia University.  He studied at Columbia University, earning an MFA and later taught at several US institutions, as well as teaching later at universities in Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as at Fort Hare back home.  

And he participated in making history: cultural and political. He was a leading voice in the Harlem Uptown Black Arts Movement and a co-founder with Amiri Baraka of the Black Arts Theatre. The Last Poets were inspired to coin their name by his poem Towards a Walk in the Sun, which foresaw a time of uprising when there would be “no art talk.”

Less-known, perhaps, is that he drafted Miriam Makeba’s 1963 speech to the United Nations, which won international recognition for South Africa’s liberation struggle and the ANC. He was part of delegations at both editions of the historic pan-African cultural festival, Festac: 1966 in Senegal; 1977 in Nigeria. He was a founder-member of the ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture in exile, and continued to work with the department and the movement when he returned home. But that did not stifle his 1992 criticism that his own movement had been “criminally backward when it comes to questions of culture and its place in society or struggle.”

Because although he was entranced by the beauty of music and could write deeply romantic poetry, Kgositsile never romanticised history, struggle or politics. He was dismissive of fantasies of some past African ‘golden age’ of peace, pointing out acerbically that all societies had experienced oppression and resisted their own feudal tyrants, as well as the colonialists. But he never lost his revolutionary optimism about the better future that can be if – again – we work for it. Kgositsile chose what would be three decades of exile, aged only 23, so he could begin that work. He knew it had to be a process, claiming, in Cabral’s words, no easy victories just because the apartheid regime had officially ended. And he knew that exile could be not just of the body from place, but of memories of struggle from a politics that sometimes found it uncomfortable to recall them.

Multiple awards and achievements are listed in various online biographies and book appendices; possibly the best short appreciation of his life and work is that by fellow writer Mandla Langa in the foreword to the comprehensive 2017 compilation of his work Homesoil in My Blood (https://xarrabooks.com/en/product/homesoil-in-my-blood/ ). A longer work by Dr Uhuru Phalaphala is on the way.

But let’s finally get back to the words. “I approach the writing of a poem,” Kgositsile wrote, “the way a musician improvises a solo on the stage…I let my imagination reach into the depth of my feeling to bring out what I am most responsive to at the moment of playing my solo with language…”

Like this:

Soundman/that I have always aspired to be/my ear sees the tentacles/of our fragile voice/breaking through the walls of our exiles/as I remount the curve of evil times/to unearth my anchored memory. (from Renaissance)

Myesha Jenkins: poet of jazz and freedom

Poet, feminist cultural activist and jazzwomxn Myesha Jenkins died yesterday, Saturday September 5. San Francisco-born Myesha had lived in Johannesburg since she moved here from California in 1993. She was not just an observer but an integral part of our jazz scene: her instrument, rather than some machine-made construct of metal, valves and reeds, was the word.

The sounds of playing, the players and the particularity of the South African scene were all magicked into life from type on a flat page through her words, as in this vignette, Jazz Club, of the elders of the genre:

On Sunday afternoons/Old men sit under a tree/ Listening to their music/Laughing loudly/Sipping brandy of coke/Tapping their two-toned shoes/Remembering dreams of/ Red dresses and flying brown legs.

‘Magicked’, though, is the wrong word: like every good writer, Myesha worked damn hard at her craft. Having been writing for years, she found in South Africa the supportive company of other poets. With two others she met at a 2002 Port Elizabeth writers’ workshop,  Napo Masheane and Ntsiki Mazwai, she formed the Feelah Sistah Collective. “Men so dominated that space,” she said, “that when we got home we said: we have to do something about this. We phoned around again and again to get others to join us. Lebo [Mashile] was the one who turned up” and Feelah Sister became a trio, regularly augmented by the most interesting of other poetic guests.

Myesha in Feelah Sistah. Graphic: Judy Seidman

The mission of Feelah Sistah was the same one that Myesha lived on other stages and in other arenas too: “We want to claim a stage where women who are poets can speak to and move other men and women. We’re tired of ‘…and now the ladies are gonna come up’ – as though we are different to other poets,” she said at the time.

Her love of jazz had started early. “I’ve been a lover of jazz for over 50 years,” she wrote in 2017. “it started in college and saw me through my studies, marriage, divorce, travel and relocation halfway around the world. I was a waitress at a jazz club for several years, which gave me repeated exposure to the different varieties of that music as well as the men (mostly) and women who make it. It was urban Black classical music that reflected migration, urbanisation, anger, resistance, freedom. That was jazz to me.”

Resistance to racism, oppression, ageism and misogyny infused Myesha’s texts and the praxis of her life. Sometimes it was a subtle undertext; the freedom of jazz metonymic for greater freedoms; sometimes front and centre, as in In The Night:

Women are out in the night.

They are cleaning streets/some are walking streets/coming home from work/others are working/answering a call/rushing to the hospital/to bail someone out of jail/getting the forgotten loaf of bread/running from here to there/going to hang with the girls/enjoying the freedom of the club/relaxing from a hard day/of taking orders/sunny-side up by tomorrow in stilettos/dressed to kill with glistening lips/looking for kissers.

And some are just alone again in the dark/actually enjoying the moon.

What are you doing out so late, ma?/Being a woman, officer,/being a woman.

Myesha published two collections of her own work, Breaking the Surface in 2005 and Dreams of Flight in 2011, and also featured in various anthologies. In 2017, she united her passion for jazz and writing as shaping spirit behind the collection To Breathe Into Another Voice, https://www.amazon.com/Breathe-into-Another-Voice-Anthology/dp/1928341314 an anthology of South African jazz poetry. In 2013, Myesha was awarded the Mbokodo Award for women in arts/poetry.

At the mike: Out There

She brought poetry to the airwaves between 2011-2016 through the annual SAFM Women’s Month series Poetry in the Air, and more recently, even while struggling with the debilitating effects of cancer treatment, in the Kaya-FM podcast series (https://iono.fm/c/4409 ) Myesha’s Memoirs, Living with Jazz and Poetry. She brought poetry to the live stage through the monthly Out There jazz and poetry sessions she hosted at the Orbit Jazz Club. And she brought poetry into countless classrooms and workshops, including through her work with visual artists on the Arts for Humanity project. Having seen her teach, her ‘playing with words’ teaching approach was unique and uniquely effective, meriting far wider recognition. In just an hour, she got a roomful of hesitant women juggling language with freedom and delight. Again, it was serious magic: she worked hard to make sure her teaching served the collective of learners and worked hard to shape spaces where new poets could speak and create.

When we get back to the jazz clubs again, it will be impossible not to see that empty seat, close to the stage, where Myesha ought to be – listening intently, head tilted, half-smiling, eyes closed; sometimes, when the spirit of the sounds moved her, boubou-clad shoulders dancing.

Flying was a recurring metaphor in Myesha’s poetry: flying in the joy of physical ecstasy; flying on the wings of a transcendent solo; flying in shared freedom: flying always towards something better… It seems fitting to end with her own words, invoking all those kinds of flight, Endless Highway. Hamba Kahle.

Myesha listens. Pastel: Judy Seidman

You can take me for a ride/anytime, day or night/let’s get out of here/ride into the heavens./ We’re bumping across the mountains of the moon/ passing planets where the oxygen is thin/gliding onto Saturn’s rings/listening to the tinkle of twinkling stars./Yeah, take me for a ride/across galaxies/into another universe/discovering a new sky/surrounded by nothing we’ve ever known/clear open road./ Yeah, take me for a ride

100 years of Bird’s song

Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, 2016 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship winner, can still hear the pain and struggle in Charles Parker’s music. “His sound, articulation and ideas on the saxophone emulate the realities of being a black jazz musician in America at the time: [being] a well celebrated artist on stage whilst brutality awaits you on the streets.”  

Sax titan Charles Parker Jr – Bird – was born in Kansas City on 29 August 1920. A hundred years on, his music still lives; inspiring jazz improvisers and listeners across the world. For US-born reedman Salim Washington, Professor of Music in the UKZN School of Performing Arts, Parker’s sound was (and remains) “the most influential since the sound of Johnny Hodges, lead alto for Duke Ellington’s band. Its fullness and clarity are downright haunting.”

South Africans have a tendency to marry his life and contribution with that of Kippie Morolong Moeketsi, a connection explored in my colleague  Percy Mabandu’s March tribute to both: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/2020-03-15-measuring-late-jazz-great-charlie-bird-parkers-legacy-in-sa-and-beyond/. One link that’s often made is, in Mabandu’s words, that both “struggled with rapacious appetites – a hunger for life that  was both the spring of their respective clarity and their undoing.”

That view is pervasive, but highly problematic.

Born into structurally racist societies, both men dealt with the corrosive stress of oppression as best they could – and transcended it in their achievements. Posing as admiration, some outsiders’ exoticising stereotype of Black jazzmen as addicted, untameable musical ‘naturals’ (which reached its nadir for Parker in Ross Russell’s salacious drug-porn biography, Bird Lives) is nothing more than a retread of far older racist tropes of primitivism that should have been thrown off the stage long ago. 

As jazz scholar Ingrid Monson observes: “The fact that Charlie Parker was known among his peers as an avid reader who liked to talk about politics and philosophy was less interesting to the press and his imitators than his drug abuse, time spent in a state mental hospital in Camarillo, California, sexual excesses, and apparently magical, unmediated ability to coax entrancing sounds out of an alto saxophone.”

But listen to Parker’s radio conversation with MJQ saxophonist Paul Desmond, who raises the dead duck of magical ‘natural’ talent. Desmond tries hard not to sound surprised when Parker describes the 11-15 hours of practice daily he put into mastering his instrument, and stresses the importance of reading books https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvsqYo9r_dE

Yes, Parker used heroin and it contributed to his death aged only 34. What’s less often discussed is the car accident while touring that broke ribs and fractured his spine when he was only 16, leaving him with chronic pain for the rest of his life. (All saxophonists know how tough extended performances can be on even an undamaged back.) Add the loss of his cabaret card (license to perform, see https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/866933897/the-law-police-used-to-discriminate-against-musicians-of-color), frustrating his creativity, and depriving him and his family of livelihood. Top that with the pervasive racism of American society – for example, watch this 1951 TV clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJYO6_t4d08 where the host, excusing his speech as “informal”, asks Bird and Dizzy Gillespie: “You boys got anything more to say..?” But please don’t romanticise medicating away those pains as some larger-than-life appetite that inspired creativity.  Neither Parker nor Kippie ever did.

Sikhakhane hears clearly how Parker’s hard work and intellect transcended his pain to leave a precious legacy: “Parker documented an important songbook that serves as an important code for every jazz musician and appreciator of this art form.  One gets a strong sense of urgency, the transmission of experience through the horn in real-time when listening to Bird. It’s clear that he had put in so much time in preparation for the bandstand.”

For McCoy Mrubata, “Parker helped to take jazz to greater heights. After the great jazz saxophonists like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, who were his idols, he changed the sound of the saxophone and introduced a new approach that still exists to this day: a new kind of swing with great approach notes and fast but tasteful triplets. His sound was solid and clear and his phrasing was phenomenal. ” Mrubata points out that Parker’s influence was pervasive in South Africa: not only Moeketsi and, through him the Jazz Epistles, but, “Barney Rachabane, Dudu Pukwana and many more.”

However, even today, you’ll still find a few genre fans who regret the way bebop – or ‘modern music’, as its practitioners preferred to call it back then – made jazz ‘too difficult’. That resurrects another essentially racist trope: ‘authentic’ jazz as just simple good-time music with ‘natural rhythm’.

Saxophonist Steve Dyer hears both intellectualism and accessibility singing together. For him, Parker “represents the benchmark of bebop as an uncontestably sophisticated art form. But another benchmark is the ability of his music to ‘cross the genre’: many people who are not ‘jazzophiles’ can identify with Parker’s music and improvising through its sheer artistry and melodic invention. [You can hear] African-American ‘street-schooled’ collectivism, metaphysicality – is there such word? – perseverance, dedication, spontaneity… The music stands its ground without any need to analyse or interpret – although doing so solidifies his brilliance.”

Being accessible mattered to Parker. From his youth, he played the gamut of venues, from concert halls to rent parties, and told Desmond that he always tried to play “to the people: something they could understand; something that was beautiful.”

The early days in Kansas City

“Parker raised the bar,” says Dyer, “by taking existing chord changes through melodic twists and turns that were both very sound harmonically, and breathtaking in their unusual interval jumps and rhythmic placement. His nickname was justified – his music flies.”

 “Added to this,” concurs Washington, “are the velocity of his thinking and the perfection of his execution. There are some players who can play very fast –even a few who can match Bird’s velocity – but the number of musicians who can think at that speed are few and far between. And then there is the perfection of his solos, all of which stand the test of time as if they were meticulously sculpted. Indeed, we must conclude that they were, even if often they were in excess of 300 beats per minute!

“But it’s the astonishing originality of his voice and conception, even more than his technique, that makes him so important,” Washington concludes. “He’s not the only progenitor of modern music from the middle of the 20th century. Even in the company of fellow geniuses like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the like, Parker’s melodicism and coherence stand out. He may not have been the most popular improviser during his lifetime, but history shows that he was the most influential by far.”

African-American poet Lorenzo Thomas wrote possibly the most beautiful literary tribute to Parker: Historiography. Its verses juxtapose the constant harping in jazz histories on the ‘Bird was a junkie’ trope with the beauty of the reedman’s work and the possibilities his sound breathed into life. Here are just two stanzas:

“…There was beauty and longing. And Love run down/Down like the cooling waters from heaven/ And sweat off the shining Black brow. Bird/ Was thinking and singing. His only thought

Was a song. He saw the truth. And shout the Truth/ Where Indiana was more than the dim streets of Gary/ A hothouse of allegedly fruitful plain America/ Some will never forgive the brother for that. Bird/ Was a junkie…”

A CHARLES PARKER PLAYLIST – the musicians’ picks

Linda Sikhakhane:Loverman is my go-to track in the songbook” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plHYNe5eV2I

Steve Dyer:Confirmation is the track I’d go with. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXK0pZx92MU It has a chord sequence that has been used or derived from many times, including Bheki Mseleku’s Nants’nkululeko.”

McCoy Mrubata: “Confirmation for me…”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXK0pZx92MU

Salim Washington: “Thinking of most important recordings two come to mind…First there is his ‘bebop manifesto’, Koko ,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okrNwE6GI70 . Recorded at the beginning of his mature artistry, we can hear all the hallmarks that made this musical movement so compelling. The intro alone is worth its weight in gold. Ironically, I think another must-listen is his Just Friends, recorded with strings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmRkZeGFONg. On top of a saccharine orchestral arrangement, Parker lifts the recording into one of his master statements. His ability to play in repose and in response to the arrangement stands as a model of how to make his complex and sometimes complicated ideas palatable to the relatively uninitiated. “

And a few more:

Aged only 22, with a pedestrian rhythm section, recorded in his hometown Kansas City, this version of Cherokee  (another of Dyer’s picks) shows how far those 15-hour practice days and all that reading had already taken the young Parker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3vACbUETa0 Five years later, and here’s Donna Lee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02apSoxB7B4 . And as we reach 1950, Au Privave gives the lie to that ‘difficult bebop’ tag. The intelligence of the composition and the fluid mastery of the playing vanquish ‘difficulty’. For the ears, it’s just beautiful.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC-vpctYbtI

Don’t miss this SA jazz documentary

On Tuesday August 25 at 6pm, Glenn Ujebe Masokoane’s documentary on Gideon Nxumalo, Listen to My Song, premieres at the virtual Durban Encounter Film Festival. Not enough is known about composer, pianist, broadcaster and all-round cultural figure Nxumalo, composer of the music for Jazz Fantasia, Early Mart, and, if you check the records, multiple other works, spiritual and secular. Hopefully, Masokoane’s film will begin to fill in the gaps, and the director will be in conversation with Kaya FM’s Brenda Sisane at 19:25, after the screening ends. Access the festival website here: https://encounters.co.za/film/listen-to-my-song/

Zulu Bidi: looking for lost history

Bassist and visual artist Zulu Bidi: a still from the BBC film Life and Death in Soweto

Whenever we question the current and still too Eurocentric school curriculum, one response from our harassed education departments is that “the materials just aren’t there”; that while ‘standard’ textbooks are easily and economically sourced, it would require massive investment to create alternative texts. And, of course, that the departments are committed to investing in this project as resources allow.

That process is a painfully slow one, and as it crawls along, snail-like, the history is simply being lost. The myth that all knowledge is to be found online these days particularly disadvantages Africa – where the legacy of colonisation and the hegemony of neocolonialism and globalisation make very certain it isn’t.

In South Africa the devastating ‘clearances’ of apartheid destroyed families and their memorabilia alongside killing – quickly with bullets and nooses, or slowly with impoverishment and damaged health – far too many custodians of memory. In some areas – music is one –  what we don’t know may outweigh what we do know, and some of the gaps in history are already too big to completely fill.

In this context, I regularly get queries out of the blue about a music ‘name’ that someone has encountered and needs to situate. Often, I can’t help as much as I’d like. This week, it was from a gallerist who’d received a collector’s bequest including two album cover original paintings by bassist and artist Zulu Bidi. “If we ever exhibit them,” the caller said, “it’s important we get the life that produced them right.”

Bidi is probably best known since its 2011 reissue as the bassist (and cover artist) for popular Soweto band Batsumi. https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/batsumi . But his bass-playing stretched across genres, and also included work on Tete Mbambisa’s audaciously modernist Did You Tell Your Mother https://as-shams.bandcamp.com/album/did-you-tell-your-mother  and a whole range of other music born mainly in and around Orlando, Soweto. 

His life and work featured in a BBC-TV-commissioned documentary, Life and Death in Soweto. I can’t find that anywhere online, but I’m grateful to Matt Temple of Matsuli Music for sharing a short clip from it with me, from which some of the information below comes.

Bidi was born on 13 March 1945. He did not finish formal schooling: with two younger sisters to put through school, he became breadwinner, earning their school fees through informal trading. He fell in love with music early, singing with the close-harmony Jazz Voices.  His first instrument was a piano he brought home on a horse and cart.

Later, after he settled on bass as his instrument, he was a regular stage guest at Lucky Michaels’ Pelican Club in its heyday, and a regular playing partner in serious jazz contexts of guitarist Themba Mokoena, trumpeter Dennis Mpale and reedman Dennis Nene.  He also taught himself to design and hand-craft footwear.

About his prolific art career we know far less. We see it in a multiplicity of album covers that have survived – some of which illustrate this column. But we know that there was more, in diverse creative contexts, and that in 1977 he was a co-founder, with David Koloane and Hugh Notshulungu, of The Gallery, Johannesburg’s first black-owned art gallery. Bidi died in 2001.

A richly creative life such as his merits far more than these fragments I’ve just been able to gather together. It is precisely such stories that could give us the textbooks we lack, and the next generation a better understanding of what the heritage of township life under apartheid – so often stereotyped in negative or pathetic terms – was really like.

I interviewed musician Thandi Ntuli in preparation for the forthcoming reissue of music by the Beaters and Harari, which her uncle Selby Ntuli led until his death. One of her observations pinpointed why that legacy needs to be correctly remembered as a foundation of today’s creative landscape:  “There’s an assumption those amazing people who played classical music, painted, wrote poetry, played rock guitar, sang in choirs, all in the same life, were outliers – but that’s the culture of Soweto!”

So this column is an appeal to you, readers and jazz fans out there, for information and memories. If those works by Zulu Bidi are to be displayed any time, they must be properly contextualised. And if DBE and DHET are short of material to build a curriculum that doesn’t centre mainly on culture from elsewhere, let’s create some. Bidi and that remarkable creative milieu must be part of the picture.  

UPDATE AUGUST 17  Ask and ye shall be answered!

I am grateful to album archivist and visual artist Siemon Allen (www.flatinternational.org) for providing this initial discography of album artwork painted by Zulu Bidi. Does any SA music collector out there know of any more?

1974 Batsumi – Batsumi – R&T – RTL 4041
1975 Reggae Man – Reggae Man – It’s Reggae Label – GL 1818
1976 Sipho (Bengu) & His Jets – Goods Train – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 65
1976 Abacothozi – Night in Pelican – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 66
1976 Makgona Zonke Band – The Webb – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 73
1976 Teaspoon Ndelu – Magic Man – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 74
1976 Mpharanyana & the Cannibals – Zion Soul – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 78
1976 Beam Brothers – Hambani Magoduka – Motella – BL 83
1976 Johannes Mohlala & his Harp – BL 84

1976 Dark City Sisters – Puthatswana – Gumba Gumba – BL 87
1977 Ensemble of Rhythm and Art – Funny Thing – Soul Jazz Pop – BL 110
1977 Uxulu / Richard Jon Smith – African Warrior – Warner – WBH 7709
1983 Starlight – Starlight – Heads – HEDL 5620

Music streaming: spot(ify) the issues for African artists

UPDATE AUGUST 23 2020 See this article from NPR for a very different streaming philosophy from Bandcamp:https://www.npr.org/2020/08/19/903547253/a-tale-of-two-ecosystems-on-bandcamp-spotify-and-the-wide-open-future

If you missed last week’s interview with Spotify CEO Daniel Ek (https://musically.com/2020/07/30/spotify-ceo-talks-covid-19-artist-incomes-and-podcasting-interview/ ) you need to read it. Particularly if you’re concerned about the globalised commodification of culture, and the intensifying plight of African musicians.

Ek didn’t pull his punches as he dissed the “narrative fallacy” that artists are poorly paid by the streaming services. He drew a dystopian vision of the music industry as a relentless, profit-driven production line.  “Some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape,” he declared, “where you can’t record once every 3 to 4 years and think that’s going to be enough…The ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly the people who want to release music the way it used to be released.”

Daniel Ek(Photo by Jason DeCrow/Spotify)

The way we were

The secret for artists, instructs Ek, is about “putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.” The way music used to be released, that activity was called ‘marketing’ and it was done by record companies acknowledged as their investment in maximising their own profits. Now Ek outsources that responsibility for building his profits to artists, alongside continuously churning out the music from which Spotify’s 30% cut comes. Sweet deal, neh?

Spotify’s stock value last year was $50Billion. When the company launched it declared – well, it would, wouldn’t it? – that its mission was “to enable more artists to live off their art.” And Ek confided last week, that artists were telling him “many times in private” how happy they were with its largesse. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t name them.

In 2019, Spotify paid artists an average of $0.0032 per stream, a bit below the industry average of $0.005-something. (When it found itself faced by demands to pay songwriters a slightly larger cut, it suggested reducing that amount further to “re-balance” payments.) As an example, successful classical violinist Tasmin Little earned around $15.50 (R273) for six months during which she had just over 3.5Million streams (https://pitchfork.com/features/article/how-musicians-are-fighting-for-streaming-pay-during-the-pandemic/).

Who, where and when

There’s no doubt that the arrival of streaming did revive the recorded music industry (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/streaming-platforms-keeping-more-money-from-artists-than-ever-817925/) and the payments model is significantly more complex than this. For a detailed explanation, see https://soundcharts.com/blog/music-streaming-rates-payouts. But essentially what an artist receives is strongly dependent on by whom, where in the world and how often their music is streamed – in a world where, as Spotify’s Q2 earnings announcement declared “Gone are the days of the Top 40 – now, it’s the top 43 000.” After Spotify and where relevant the label takes their cut, the remainder goes into a pool which is then distributed by aggregate play counts across the platform. As one journalist explains https://www.theringer.com/tech/2019/1/16/18184314/spotify-music-streaming-service-royalty-payout-model : “The better your colleagues and competitors do, the less money you make.” All 42 999 of them.

The electric Africa

All of this means the streaming model isn’t built to help artists out during periods of earnings devastation like SARS-CoV-2. And if it’s bad for musicians all around the world, it’s worse in Africa.

Ek evidently didn’t talk “in private” to a lot of artists – for example Jay-Z who pulled most of his content from the platform in 2017 (only to become another streaming mogul himself, with Tide). Another is the UK’s Tom Gray, co-founder of the Broken Record pressure group https://musically.com/2020/05/18/brokenrecord-its-about-saying-we-all-recognise-that-this-is-problematic/ working to improve streaming payments.  “Streaming,” Gray says, “has been built by corporations for profit margins. It hasn’t been built with any sustainable cultural remit in mind. One, your money doesn’t go to the music. And two, if your music is in any way off the beaten track, it has been severely de-funded by streaming.”

And as usual, Africa finds itself off the globalised “beaten track”. The IFPI Music Listening Report for 2019https://www.ifpi.org/ifpi-global-music-report-2019/, which surveyed streaming listening mentioned only South Africa in its findings. Even South Africa doesn’t feature in comparative surveys of regional per stream payouts – the lowest listed is India – but we do know that most regional payouts are lower than those published for the US. In 2018, the year Spotify launched here, Business Insider reckoned a South African Spotify stream would earn roughly R0.05 ($0.0028) https://www.businessinsider.co.za/south-african-bands-only-make-r50000-per-million-plays-from-spotify-and-apple-music-heres-how-they-make-ends-meet-2018-12.

Spotify’s South Africa launch 2018

Although huge numbers of African users access the internet every day, “data from the Alliance for Affordable Internet shows that 1 GB of data costs 8% of income on average across the continent, compared to 2.7% in the Americas and 1.5% in Asia. The organisation defines affordability as when 1 GB of mobile data is priced at no more than 2% of average monthly income. Expensive, data-heavy music and video streaming remains a luxury for many, especially in countries with sluggish economic growth.” (https://africanbusinessmagazine.com/uncategorised/continental/africa-dances-to-streaming-revolution/)

Chidi Okeke

New interest; new models?

What’s more, the nuance and dazzling diversity of African music is exactly the kind of niching that is disadvantaged by the global streaming model. As Nigerian Chidi Okeke, founder of the national streaming service udu-X, pointed out: “We know what people in Lagos are bopping to, but in the north and east it can be completely different. Our playlists will be tailored to all the particular regions. Nobody should be able to better curate African music than us.”

It’s possible that homegrown streamers might also consider more equitable payout models. In Kenya, for example, Mdundo claims to pay out 50% of turnover to participating artists –that is still probably 0.00-something cents.

Joox, part of the Chinese Tencent/South African Naspers empire decided that the neglect of the African music scene by other international streamers, and the popularity and diversity of products available presents an enticing business opportunity. In the context of Covid lockdowns, it also promised artists who could create half-hour programmes on the app that it would pay R1 500 for those it streamed ( https://www.news24.com/channel/music/news/joox-is-paying-each-artist-r1-500-per-a-half-hour-performance-20200420 ). The most recent report I could find for Tencent gave their international pay-per-stream amount as $0.00040 (R0.0071). Lower than most of the other big players, that’s still not going to pay much of the rent.

Making music is not a production line. Nor, although artists need to eat, is it intended for enriching globalised corporations and their shareholders. Artists make music because of their talent, vision and need to say something that matters; Ek seems to see them merely as Spotify’s serfs.

But perhaps change is coming. Among the artists that Ek doesn’t talk to privately, multiple campaigns against exploitative streaming models are gathering force. It’s probably time for one in South Africa too. Because, as Broken Record’s Gray warns: “This is Covid. [All kinds of other incomes are drying] up. Whatever anger you think there is in the industry now towards streaming, imagine that in 6 months time.”

Covid corruption? Musos suffer too

Scoring huge sums of money for something you can’t and don’t intend to deliver? Musicians, reading current reports of millions lost to Covid-related graft probably uttered weary but unsurprised sighs of recognition. It’s been happening to them for years.

Think, for example, of the SABC, whose state support theoretically mandates ethical business practice, but which still has not fully repaid historic royalties owed on broadcast music. https://www.golegal.co.za/royalties-music-performance-rights/.

Think of the National Lotteries Commission, the court-enforced opening of whose books has revealed millions disbursed to mythical “provincial flagship” music festivals from ephemeral companies with no music track record except flimsy Facebook pages (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-07-29-millions-of-rand-in-lottery-funding-for-mysterious-music-festival/)

Is live-streaming a new opportunity for Covid crooks?

Now it seems that Covid is adding a new kind of fraud. There are reports that  the eThekwini Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture allocated R8million for online concerts between April and June, without transparently opening the opportunities to musicians, or so far paying for the services of several who did perform (https://www.iol.co.za/sunday-tribune/news/artists-not-paid-for-ethekwini-municipalitys-online-gigs-77cf2b41-1077-4efa-b3d3-354e5a79db97 ). One concert certainly happened: you can see it here: https://www.facebook.com/ethekwiniprc/videos/durban-music-day-presented-by-prc-tv-live-covid-19-day-3/1323494667846256/

It should be said the report is weakened by the reporting. The Tribune hasn’t managed to find a single performer or agent prepared to go on the record with the allegation. Then again, similar past incidents tell us that speaking out might mean the artist never gets a provincial gig again…

But this certainly isn’t the only story of its kind doing the rounds, where an artist has been tempted to record recently “for live-streaming” without contract terms in place, or has a contract but has never seen a promised cent.

So why does this stuff keep on happening – and how might it be stopped?

Artists live to create and communicate with an audience. They need to survive and live decent lives, but that’s not why they make music. So musicians can sometimes be naïvely eager for any chance of a platform. That’s exacerbated by the lack of a unified, effective and authentic artists’ union here, which could educate about contracts and live-streaming realities, lobby for more transparent, ethical business practice and negotiate payment standards. A government sweetheart such as CCIFSA, however well-intentioned, can’t fully play this role, because government  (as the eThekwini story above well illustrates) is one of the employers.

But let’s not blame the victims here. Not paying on a signed contract is corrupt, finish and klaar.

The early promise of music live-streaming as an immediate income earner is not yet being realised, and it may never be the bonanza some advocates hoped. In South Africa’s unequal data-world, it shuts out many artists and even more potential audience members. However, it does seem live-streaming is opening up a whole new territory for the kind of crooked promoters who simply used to skip with the takings tin before musicians came off stage.

The hyenas who scavenge off lifesaving medical gear must be top of the Hawks’ hit-list, of course. But that’s not the only kind of Covid-related crookery going on right now. Artists have a right to the protection of the law in these devastating times too.    

Music from Somi’s world – if you don’t know, ask!

Fans of Rwandan/Ugandan singer Somi’s Facebook page will already know about the New York Times’s error in labelling her song Ankara Sundays from The Lagos Music Salon, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cgfk6UzzOxE as being about Turkey and migration. Somi posted very clearly about what the problem was – you can read the rest of her post here https://www.facebook.com/somimusic/. She also skewers her publicist’s reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ by demanding a retraction of the error:

When I read the song review… I noted that the writer misunderstood the song entirely. The woman I’m singing about in ‘Ankara Sundays’ is not Turkish or an immigrant – she’s a Nigerian in Lagos. And the song is not a 21-beat rhythm – it’s in 12/8. When I told my publicist to inform the critic of the errors, the publicist shared a response from the writer that said: “I misinterpreted the meaning in a way that probably can’t be corrected.  It’s my bad, I clearly just don’t know that culture. I saw: ‘name of city + day of week’ and thought…typical song name construction.”

ANY CRITIC TASKED WITH REVIEWING A PIECE OF ART FROM A CULTURAL CONTEXT THAT THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND MUST DO THE NECESSARY & RIGOROUS WORK IN ORDER TO PRECISELY AND ACCURATELY CRITIQUE THAT ART. HIS RESPONSE SEEMS LAZY & DISMISSIVE.” (Somi’s caps)

The critic in question, Giovanni Russonello, is one of a limited number of US writers in mainstream media who cover and have a genuine interest in music from Africa; he’s written extensively and sympathetically about South African jazz too.

The error, however, tells us a lot about how mainstream media – and not just in America – handle coverage of most musics these days. The initial error was Russonello’s, without question. It’s compounded by the location giveaway of the album’s title (and a fair number of blogs: see for example https://blog.ted.com/somi-unveils-an-odyssey-of-song-and-soul-in-the-lagos-music-salon/) as well as the fact that the issue of what “ankara” signifies in this song was cleared up eight months ago in comments about the track on YouTube. There – and it doesn’t even need much scrolling – you’ll find:

Ankara? İsnt that the capital of tr?

REPLY: Fe Oleku 8 months ago Ankara is a name for the colorful fabric worn. It is usually also used for festive occasions, like going to church/meetings on Sunday which is a colorful time in Lagos, Nigeria.

But there’s supposed to be a whole system of checks and balances beyond a journalist’s initial draft.

Not from Turkey: Ankara fabric

There used to be eagle-eyed copy editors (we call them sub-editors in South Africa) and fact-checkers who’d parse your every word and yell about the tiniest uncertainty. The time to do that in every newsroom has now been reduced by a relentless, digitally-driven copy roll. The staff to do it has been slashed to the bone by cost-cutting. What remains certainly doesn’t prioritise arts copy, particularly not music from Africa.

Somi is correct. But nobody gets “tasked with” writing about anything except the most high-profile commercial pop music likely to attract linked advertising these days. As I noted in my review of Cara Stacey’s work https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/07/11/stacey-juritz-ravens-keller-sounds-of-drought-and-water/, we arts writers more often than not need to convince overworked, non-specialist editors of the importance of anything we want to cover. Regularly, we fail. Something important stays un-profiled, and more arts journalists switch to doing something else. News organisations run by money-men as investment vehicles and driven by cuts and lowest-common-denominator analytics are killing what good journalism should be.

That’s one aspect of the problem. Another is certainly race and narrow nationalism. If the arts and music writing now have low status in mainstream newsrooms, music from Africa is often the most cursorily covered online, outside specialist sites (for example, Africa is A Country https://africasacountry.com/) and a few publications on the continent itself. If a music writer of Nigerian heritage had done the writing, we’d have seen far more insight. I’m fortunate that the editors I work with most often (at the M&G and www.newframe.com) care about how music is covered, but even in South Africa that’s the exception, not the rule.

It’s also linked, though, to the perceived role of “critics”. Somi thinks they should do their work better. I’m not sure that particular function should still exist.

The “critic”, in a tradition shaped by elites in western countries a few centuries ago, is actually supposed to stand aloof from what he – and it was usually he – judges. There are still a few of them around; I’ve met them. They fastidiously avoid interacting with any creators or performers, lest it contaminate their god-like evaluations. But in the online age, everybody’s a critic. What we need more of are music writers with the skills to let artists speak to readers. Russonello often does interview musicians. This time, he didn’t.

Finally, in this era of fast-food journalism, there are some basic reporting 101 principles that seem to have been widely forgotten, and certainly were in this case. They should be painfully branded onto the forehead of every journalist, in every area of coverage.  The first is:  “If you don’t know, ask!” The second, clearly illustrated here, is: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.”

Apology missing in action

African music deserves more respect from the media than this sorry story reflects. The NYT has erased the “Turkey” reference, but as of three days ago had not removed the description of the song’s beat as “21”. And Somi ought to have been given not only a much more explicit apology, but a correction printed prominently on the page – just as the NYT would do if they misrepresented, say, the President of all Comb-overs.

SAMAS 26: every one’s a winner

So, it’s SAMA time again: edition 26. For many occasions, under lockdown we’ve mourned the absence of the sociable crowds that normally accompany them. The embarrassing SAMA glitz, schmooze and conspicuous consumption fest is not one of those.

That lets us focus, instead, on the music. And, like last year, the jazz nominations are a universally worthy crop, illustrating once more how good music is never a zero-sum game, and how silly, ultimately, this notion of one ‘best jazz album’ is.

Where it’s not silly, of course, is in terms of artist branding and music marketing. In a world where everything is commodified, the SAMA may make selling the music subsequently easier.

I’ve already written about Steve Dyer’s Genesis of a Different World https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/07/23/genesis-of-a-different-world-steve-dyers-sonic-lexicon-of-change/, an album I really liked for both its messages and its approach to composition and arrangement. Dyer’s gift has always been creating incredibly catchy melodies, but here the way the music processes around those were extended gave space for wonderful invention and some intriguing sonic risks.

Spha Mdlalose has been a notable voice for a few years now, and Indlel’elekhaya https://www.amazon.com/Indleleyekhaya-Spha-Mdlalose/dp/B07VL68G6N does more than justice to her considered approach to a song, in both composing and interpreting. Her recent live performance of some of that material at Makhanda https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/06/28/makhanda-jazz-the-story-so-far/ underlined her mature approach to song and stage, and the way music can challenge and ask questions while remaining accessible listening. Mdlalose is also nominated for best female artist. 

Viwe Mkhizwana’s Tributes does exactly what its title says. Its original compositions pay tribute to the vibe of classic South African jazz, with a beautifully-managed 14-piece ensemble. More ambitious than the bassist’s debut, African Skies, it offers deep insight into his vision as a composer. The album is almost invisible online, though, so Mkhizwana could certainly use the sharper profile a SAMA would draw.

Most ambitious of the nominations compositionally is trumpeter Ndabo Zulu’s Queen Nandi: the African Symphony https://www.amazon.co.uk/Queen-Nandi-Ndabo-Umgidi-Ensemble/dp/B08CS4MQ43 . With musical direction from Nduduzo Makhathini, Queen Nandi seeks to escape the prison Zulu sees in the definition of African Jazz through its I:IV:V chord structure. There’s a big ensemble, including two kit drummers (Ayanda Sikade and Siphelelo Mazibuko), two percussionists (El Hadj Ngari Ngong and Njabulo Shabalala)  and two pianists (Makhathini and Afrika Mkhize). But it’s the voices (Mbuso Khoza and Zoe Modiga) and drums in interplay that most precisely speak of what Zulu is trying to do – although I’d have liked to hear more of his trumpet too.

Based far from the City of Gold, in Durban, pianist and music scholar Sibu ‘Mash’ Mashiloane (also nominated for best male artist) must count as one of the hardest-working artists on the scene. Geographical distance from most media hubs, however, mean he is not as well known as he should be, despite three earlier albums and a bunch of local and African (Mzansi, Afrima) awards. His fourth album, Amanzi Nemfula https://soundcloud.com/sibusisomashmashiloane/mash-trio-acoustic-amanzi-nemifula is an acoustic outing that satisfies what earlier releases sometimes didn’t: the need to hear his always-intriguing compositions really stretched out. In a season when we have a big crop of brilliant pianists working, Mashiloane has one of the most personal, instantly recognisable voices.

 So who’s my pick? I won’t be making one. These are all “the best” musicians in terms of their own distinctive visions. Zulu’s kind of alternative opera has never been done before – but nobody else sounds quite like any of the others; they’re all unique in that sense. Mdlalose is the only musician who’s primarily a singer – that’s not superior or inferior to a horn, reed, bass or keyboard, just different. Everybody this year composes and arranges rather than simply interpreting – but if there were a great interpreter of others’ compositions on the list, that wouldn’t make them better or worse than the rest; they’ve simply chosen a different craft. There’s no point of comparison between succulent roast lamb and a glorious starry sky. Don’t have illusions: each judge is going to pick simply what speaks best to him or her. And since good jazz has to touch the heart, maybe – if you must have prizes and winners at all – that’s the only way.

Stacey/Juritz/Ravens/Keller: sounds of drought and water

Talk about ‘contemporary improvised music’ to your average South African editor and you’re likely to get, at best: “so…er..like jazz you mean?’ If you then say: ‘Not quite…” and go on to explain that it’s music that can also be heard in recital rooms, that players of what are assumed to be ‘classical’ instruments may be involved, as well as electronics, that it’s often experimental and that – heaven forbid! – it may not feature catchy pop tunes, eyes will likely glaze over. Said editor will be remembering how today’s newsfeed algorithms hate the unfamiliar and the new, before regretfully saying “Sorry…our readers won’t be interested in that…”

Of course there are exceptions. But the old mission of arts pages, to bring to readers’ attention delightful things they might not already know, has been stomped at most titles by the iron heel of analytics favouring repeats of lowest-common-denominator clickbait formulae . (That’s why, of course, we have self-reinforcing online news hate-bubbles too.) The result is that showbiz gossip, lifestyle consumerism and personality profiles reign supreme.

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Cara Stacey understands that. She just thinks it’s ironic in a country that was “the place of the Blue Notes, the subsequent extensive work of Louis Moholo-Moholo, Garth Erasmus, Mpho Molikeng, Thokozani Mhlambi, Meryl van Noie, Nkosenathi Koena…” To which you could add fearless sonic explorers from other scenes, including Tumi Mogorosi, Gabisile Motuba, Malcolm Jiyane, TBMO, more… They all sound very different from one another; they all share an interest in the possibilities of sound outside conventional envelopes. 

Stacey’s discussing her latest album release, Like the Grass https://kitrecs.bandcamp.com/album/like-the-grass, a collaboration with harpist Antonia Ravens, violinist Galina Juritz, and composer/guitarist Beat Keller, as well as producers Tom Skinner (Hello Skinny, Sons of Kemet) and Michael Marshall (Object Agency).

At the core of Like the Grass is a 23+-minute live performance of the title track, plus various edits and remixes, both for radio, and reflecting the ears of those producers. The experience of listening is very much like watching a film, and then zooming in on stills and clips that arrest you towards unexpected aspects of the original.

Stacey did the work in Basel, where she had spent two months as a composer on a Pro Helvetia Studio Residency. She was also exploring the city’s improvised music scene, playing with a large ensemble at Jazzcampus Basel, working with Keller, encountering Ravens and reuniting with longtime collaborator Juritz.

The graphic score Stacey created had its genesis in Southern Africa, where the grass is often pretty dry. She grew up in eSwatini, and before Basel had been based in Cape Town. “We had been experiencing the worst of the drought there,” she says. “as I drove to the airport, the police and army were rehearsing security drills [for managing water collection points]. As I landed in Switzerland, the sound of running water followed me through every city I visited. I was nostalgic for home, but also thinking about themes of inequality, climate variation and destruction.”

Stripsody: a graphic score by composer Cathy Berberian

Stacey was using her residency to explore the possibilities of graphic scoring as a technique. A graphic score may completely ignore the language of staff notation in favour of images and other visual elements, or may blend the two: the musicians use what they see on the music sheet to structure and inspire the direction of their playing. Graphic scoring was first developed in the 1950s and was employed by modernists such as the American John Cage. As in improvised jazz, no two performances will sound the same. But every performance will be inspired by the same visual starting-points.  There’s a neat guide here: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/latest/graphic-scores-art-music-pictures/bergstrom-nielsen-towards-unbearable-lightnes/

The umsinsi tree

Every composer’s imagery reflects what they know and have seen, and Stacey’s score “was also a way for me to play with poetic ideas around rivers, birdcall, the bright umsinsi  (‘lucky bean’) tree that signals the dryness of my childhood winters in eSwatini.” The four players came together for her final concert in Basel, on a warm Swiss night, she says “improvising freely together.” Juritz and Stacey then worked on the shorter edits needed for radio play. But they also “loved the idea of having structured and free improvisation (from the graphic score and live set) …coupled with a flip side: where producers have sat with the material for months, mulled it over, let it marinate, and then assembled it whichever way appealed to them.” The album brings both together.

(l-r) Galina Juritz, Antonia Ravens, Cara Stacey, Beat Keller

The live performance alludes to the sounds of birdsong, cicada-strings and bubbling water – but it’s not programme music where each passage is chained forever to the thing it connotes.

Just as the graphic score expresses Stacey’s ideas and memories, so the sounds open further sensoria of memories for the listener: I remembered Botswana’s dryness, not eSwatini’s, through the vividly evoked sense of place.  The sounds themselves – pipes, thumb-pianos, guitar, harp and violin – offer textures you can almost feel with your fingertips. (How images sound and how sound looks is something Stacey is exploring further on another platform, with guitarist Keenan Ahrends and artist Mazwandile Buthelezi, in The Texture of Silence, first presented at the Makhanda National Arts Festival.) The patterning of sound that defines music is rich in Like the Grass: in pulse, shape and sonic colour. 

Stacey hopes the work of the producers – I particularly loved Skinner’s edgy contrasts – will serve as a route to “crossing genres and scenes”, where listeners to both improvised concert-hall music and electronic mixes can meet “with open ears.” The lockdown virtual concert hall is precisely the kind of place where such serendipitous meetings happen…Now I just have to get a few arts editors to listen. It’s a pity algorithms don’t have ears.