Ndikho Xaba 1934-2019

It’s the late 1990s at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg. I’m with an American-born friend whose jazz tastes were shaped by the Chicago free music scene of the 1970s. On to the stage walks a slight, goateed figure in a blue African shirt, who proceeds to draw astounding music from…a water-cooler. “Damn!” says my friend, “Why didn’t I know this guy before?”


Too many people didn’t know Ndikho Douglas Xaba – multi-instrumentalist, instrument-maker, composer, actor, teacher and revolutionary. Hopefully, it isn’t too late for them to learn about the legacy and contribution of this musician’s musician, who died peacefully on June 11 aged 85.

+ Sun RaXaba’s journey took him from the streets of Pietermaritzburg and the countryside around it to the Little Jazz City of Queenstown, the musical ferment of Johannesburg’s Dorkay House, the Broadway stage, the jazz lofts of San Francisco, Chicago and New York, the training camps of the ANC in exile in Tanzania, the streets of post-liberation Soweto and, finally, back to his home province again. His music spanned a similarly broad canvas, for he drew no artificial boundaries between styles or genres. He was as comfortable imagining fearless cosmic explorations – he  shared a stage with Sun Ra – as with crafting instantly catchy hits such as Emavungweni, first covered by Hugh Masekela on the 1966 album Grrr! (and later on Uptownship, and by Miriam Makeba on Makeba!).You’ll know that tune as soon as you hear it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IHxYhKGND4 . You probably didn’t know it was created by Xaba.

Xaba was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1934, the youngest of the six sons of a Methodist minister, James George Howard Xaba, a covert ANC operative and founder of the Natal African Teachers Union. His schoolteacher mother, Emily Selina Dingaan Xaba was an organist and choir leader.* But his family hoped their son would study towards a profession; they did not encourage him in music, so he picked up a penny-whistle, and often subsequently described himself as “proudly self-taught”.film.jpg

In KZN, and later when his father’s ministry was transferred to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape in 1953, he and at least one brother were active in the ANC – musicians interviewed for Nhlanhla Masondo’s biographical documentary about Xaba, Shwabada,( https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/shwabada-at-last-a-film-about-music-that-talks-about-music/ ) recalled that it was absolutely not cool to ask them what they were doing.

In Queenstown, Xaba joined his first band, Lex Mona’s Tympany Slickers. The Slickers often played for ANC fundraising events and this plus the Xaba brothers’ own activities led to a great deal of ducking and diving, until finally the Special Branch interrogated him. For his family’s sake, it was clear he must move.

And so to Johannesburg and Dorkay House: sporadic work in a range of outfits, shows and recording sessions with, for example, EMI-label band the Globe Trotters.. He commuted to Durban at times, for work and to see his family, and in 1960 was part of the production of Alan Paton’s Umkhumbane, with music by Todd Matshikiza, at the Playhouse Theatre.

Increasingly, not only police-state oppression but also the rigid cultural categories of apartheid and the denial of black originality and excellence became intolerable. When, playing at an SABC Studios recording session, his pianist was told by the producer, “ ‘Look, I don’t want you going anywhere with that tune. Just stay on that thing: ka-ting ka-ting. That’s all I want you to do.’ That’s when I said to myself: enough is enough. I’m not going to be involved in this degenerative artistry.”

His ticket out came with another Alan Paton play, Sponono, with music by Gideon uMgibe Nxumalo and an all-black cast. Xaba played the part of a traditional praise singer. In 1964, the play was invited for a short Broadway run at the Cort Theatre. When the run ended, Xaba stayed. It was the beginning of 34 years of exile.

In America, Xaba hooked up again with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and others. Their musical campaigning, he recalled, had a clear agenda: “One: we are black. Two: we have been colonised. Three: we were enslaved. Four: we were victims of imperialism. We are victims of racism collectively – so how can you divorce yourselves?”

He had no illusions about America. Arriving at Kennedy Airport on a snowy day, and forced to pose for photographs in scanty Zulu attire “our African-American brothers who worked in the airport didn’t want anything to do with us. Because to them, here was Tarzan – live! …[but after we had changed into our suits] those same people are like ‘Hey, my brother! How ya doin’ man?” Shortly afterwards, he found what he saw clearly as “apartheid” in a New York Irish bar. “I remember noticing – hey, wait a bit, you don’t have black people coming in here; it’s just us…And the Irish guys were like: who are these guys? But we were just like: Hey, man, gin and tonic and a steiner – this is freedom now, we’re in America!”Sunsets.jpg

Xaba created  a powerful sonic evocation of those days in the track It’s Cold in New York on his Sunsets album https://www.amazon.com/Sunsets-Anthology-Creative-Ndikho-Xaba/dp/B008JEJVS6

But Xaba found a great deal in common with the underground free jazz scene across the United States, and its discourse of post-civil rights African-American liberation. After New York, where he taught himself piano, he worked in San Francisco – where he met his wife, poet and activist Nomusa Xaba while giving Zulu lessons at Malcolm X Unity House – and in Chicago and later Canada, before returning to South Africa in 1994.

albumIn San Fransisco, Xaba immersed himself in music making and cultural education. Those days are described in Nomusa’s memoir It’s Been A Long Time Coming https://www.amazon.com/Been-Long-Time-Coming-Author/dp/B007S6F5WM . She describes him teaching how music had the power “to create powerful, meaningful, lasting change.” The band he formed, Ndikho and the Natives https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/ndikho-xaba-and-the-natives played solidarity concerts and community events, mixing far-out improvisation, re-enactments of anticolonial history, solid, funky groove, spoken word and more in a single performance. Close to two hours of archival footage of those performances was recovered and restored by film-maker Nhlanhla Masondo for the documentary Shwabada https://filmfreeway.com/Shwabada

Xaba’s late ‘60s/early 70s work was part of the countrywide radical cultural and political movement best known through the 1966-founded Art Ensemble of Chicago. Xaba is the only South African exile whose creativity in this context went on record; his music is compelling, surprising and unique. And it was influential. Former Natives’ saxophonist J. “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch attested when the album was reissued: “I create message music, teach in schools, and promote political awareness while entertaining … because of Ndikho Xaba.”

Xaba continued teaching throughout the rest of his life. He established musical instrument-making facilities and created a music curriculum for the ANC’s refugee school in Dakawa, Tanzania; and, on his return from exile, held music and instrument-making classes at his Soweto home, before moving back to Durban. There, UKZN scholar Dr Sazi Dlamini introduced Xaba’s work and ideas to music students, in co-operation with him. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Makanda Project (primarily dedicated to reedman Ken Mackintyre) also performs big-band arrangements of his work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgomqWKjp9E. Xaba himself performed increasingly rarely in South Africa. He had little enthusiasm for an unimaginative and often reactionary commercial music scene, and in his final years Parkinson’s Disease limited his mobility.

So why is Xaba so little known outside musical circles? Film-maker Masondo beleves: ““The reason that Ndikho Xaba is rated an enigma is because he’s way too hip.”

But Xaba’s praxis also retains the power to make a conventional music scene – and society – very uneasy. His music could bowl you over with its inventiveness; and the breadth and erudition of its cultural references; he declared himself a son of Kemet half a century before Shabaka Hutchings. His life enacted the rejection of boundaries, including the bourgeois boundary between aesthetics and politics. He lived and played what he believed, uncompromisingly; and he imagined beyond any category towards a world where all peoples were family, and where oppression could and would be thrown down. Hamba Kahle to a soldier for the beauty of the future.

& Nomusa
Ndikho with Mama Nomusa Xaba at his Durban tribute concert


* (For many factual details I’m indebted to Francis Gooding’s excellent biographical notes on the Matsuli Music Ndikho and The Natives album)


In Memoriam Z B Molefe 1944-2019

There have been three sad deaths of veteran journalists this week: photojournalist Herbert Mabuza, former Rand Daily Mail editor Raymond ‘Oom Ray” Louw and ZB Molefe. Society is very much the poorer for the loss of all three, but this column must pay particular tribute to Molefe.download

Arthur Zuluboy ‘ZB’ Molefe had a distinguished career in newsrooms as writer, editor and mentor that stretched back to Drum magazine, and more recently included City Press. He was a two-time winner of the Book Journalist of the Year award (1994; 1996), contributing editor at the Know Africa encyclopedia, a published poet, and a Poynter, Harvard and Niemann Journalism Fellow. But the obituaries have rightly focused on his publication in 1997 of A Common Hunger To Sing https://www.amazon.com/Common-Hunger-Sing-Tribute-1950-1990/dp/0795700644, where – accompanied by striking portraits from photojournalist Mike Mzileni – he interviewed 50 South African women musicians whose careers spanned the period 1950-1990. At a time when South Africa’s popular news media often treated women in music as mere decorative add-ons, Molefe created space where they could talk seriously about their music and their lives. A Common Hunger isn’t just a book, it is priceless archive enshrining the voices of both the famous (Dolly Rathebe, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sibongile Khumalo) and many other key figures (Snowy Radebe, Marjorie Pretorius, Mary Thobei) who are less well known. Without Molefe’s pioneer and accessible work, my own and that of many other music writers would have been incomplete and wholly unbalanced, lacking information about the vital role women played in shaping South African jazz. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. May his spirit rest in peace; hamba kahle.


Ziza Muftic’s Shining Hour: singing in tongues

Shining hour cover 2019 for social media.jpgMost of the lyrics on vocalist/composer Ziza Muftic’s second album, Shining Hour (http://www.zizamuftic.com/albums) are in English. But English isn’t her first – or by any means her only – language, and the sound as well as the meaning of words is a key aspect of how she conceives songs.

“When you write a song it’s all about texture and sound,” she reflects. “When I started in jazz, there was a period when I was singing Brazilian standards. For a while I sang them in English – but no, the sound is just too hard. Brazilian Portuguese has a certain softness that’s important to the songs and it was getting lost. So I tried to pick it up phonetically, used online language lessons, and it just fits the music, and you fly!”

That self-taught Portuguese joined many other languages she can call on. Her parents arrived in South Africa in 1992 from Croatia, so she’s familiar with the closely-related Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian language family. You can add to that the French, German and Italian lyrical understanding required for her classical singing studies at Wits – and the isiZulu spoken by many of her fellow-students and the other African languages she heard around town.

“I always knew that opera wasn’t for me. My ears kept leading me to some other musics. I used to watch the SABC traditional music shows, and isiZulu somehow felt warm, round and deep – a bit like Italian: it’s again about textures. My former husband and his father were Zulu-speakers too – all that together made me feel like I must just learn it.”

English is, says Muftic “my first language of expression,” but she has written and continues to write lyrics in both Bosnian and IsiZulu. And now – when she not only teaches, but has embarked on further studies of her own, this time in piano – the idiomatic ‘languages’ of musical instruments also contribute to what she writes. Her track Blue, for example, acknowledges inspiration from the flow and phrasing of the guitar.

The 9 tracks of Shining Hour comprise three Ziza originals, one by saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, and the rest arrangements, from sources as diverse as Bheki Mseleku, the Beatles, Bryan Ferry and Antonio Carlos Jobim. After listening, her descriptions of these as mere “arrangements” feels a bit too self-effacing. While Mseleku’s Homeboyz (see the original at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1blnL-lWG2M ) merely gets lyrics and the spaces to express them, Lennon & McCartney’s Norwegian Wood, for example, is transformed by new left-hand ostinato rhythms – “I was looking to improve my left hand freedom…the new rhythm gave the phrasing a very different feel [so] I also changed the harmony to complement this dreamy mood.” Muftic’s blend of the Jobim Chega de Saudade and Chick Corea’s Got a Match?, where the songs, in her words, “swim out of one another”, produces something completely new.

Bassist Peter Sklair

Shining Hour is very much a family affair. The personnel – saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, pianist Roland Moses, bassist Peter Sklair and drummer Peter Auret – are Muftic’s regular gigging band, with whom she plays at the Ascot Hotel among other venues. Her piano teacher, Theodora Drummond – “She’s given me lots of wonderful ‘Aha!’ moments” – produced, and Muftic’s student, Aveshan Govender, took the atmospheric cover photo.

Narrative matters for Muftic’s songs and that comes out most clearly in her original The Colour of My Heart. “What is the colour of my heart, dear? /You said you’d like to know/ Yet to know is not the same as to grow/And understand all the colours that we are/The beautiful the sad/at times mad/easy, hard, even bad…” It’s a classic torch song: a term first used in the 1930s for a singer alone under a spotlight singing love and loss and reminding us that those individual sorrows reflect shared lives.

Because just as listening to such songs is a communal experience, so is playing them. Muftic values and builds on the closeness of her quintet. “Roland and Peter [Sklair] have great synergy, and Sydney and Roland discuss harmonies all the time – and of course I‘m around those conversations.” The singer interprets Mnisi’s composition Kwela/Gontsana (written for the late guitarist and drummer) and adds with her lyrics another layer of homage perfectly in the same mood: homage to the evocative scenery of Vranduk in Bosnia and the heroic and tragic community histories it embodies.

Saxophonist Sydney Mnisi

That empathy emerges in every arrangement: the solos from Mnisi and Moses and the sensitivity of Auret’s drumming and Sklair’s bass. If there’s such a thing as a torch saxophonist, it’s probably Mnisi: in conversation, he’s an understated, sensible chap; under the spotlight, so much emotion pours out that an audience must be moved. And it’s a tribute to Sklair that his bass-lines never intrude – though he does take a tasty solo on Blue – but you’re always conscious of that strong, flexible thread holding the music together.

As I noted when I reviewed Muftic’s debut (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/community-of-song-tutu-puoane-nicky-schrire-and-ziza-muftic-are-all-crafting-a-contemporary-idiom-for-the-sa-jazz-song/), she’s a storyteller /chanteuse rather than a predictable, by-the-numbers “jazz” singer. When she employs a jazz technique, such as the scatting on Love is the Drug, it’s done deliberately and judiciously, to complement what she calls Ferry’s “cheeky” lyrics, rather than as a default device. Shining Hour takes that character forward with repertoire that’s both diverse and accessible – and an increasingly distinctive approach as both composer and arranger.


The Mill: When The Wind Blows is too short a storm

albumI almost wish I’d listened to the new CD from South African/Swiss outfit The Mill, When The Wind Blows (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/themill ), before I heard them live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March. Either that, or this ought to be a double album.

Though the band’s core – trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni and Swiss bassist Marco Muller – remain the same, the Mill’s touring personnel differed from that on the recording. The CD’s Swiss reedmen Mathias Wenger and Benedikt Reising were replaced by their countrymen Florian Egli, Fabian Willman and Matthias Tschopp; guitarist Théo Douboule by South African Vuma Levin; and drummer Christoph Steiner by South African Kesivan Naidoo. The solos on stage obviously reflected different characters and visions, and the interplay of three, rather than two, reeds plus trumpet and trombone provided the opportunity for some witty, self-aware riffing on big-band idioms.

in CT
The Mill onstage at CTIJF 2019

The original personnel, as heard on the album, embodies the story of how the musicians came together: though journeys, meetings, residencies and collaborations over time facilitated by Swiss Arts Council offshoot Pro Helvetia. Mlangeni and Mnana are the principal composers on the dozen tracks, with one each from Wenger and Reising and collaboration on another two from Makuzeni. And how the music sounds, tells the story of a much longer set of exposures to one another’s music between South Africa and Switzerland.

The original Blue Notes with (among others) saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and pianist Chris McGregor, for example, played in Zurich and Geneva (http://electricjive.blogspot.com/2012/11/chris-mcgregor-quintet-live-in-geneva.html ) in late 1964 and early 1965, shortly after their debut at the Antibes Jazz Festival. Former Jazz Epistles drummer Makhaya Ntshoko had an early and long-lived residency at the Birds Eye Club in Basel. Bassist Johnny Dyani played Switzerland regularly, with too many different ensembles to count. Abdullah Ibrahim remains a regular visitor – and that’s before we get to more recent generations of South African players such as McCoy Mrubata and Feya Faku, slightly pre-dating Mlangeni, Makuzeni and Naidoo. So, as with British jazz players from the 1960s onwards, the South African sound is known and has woven its way into how mainland Europe plays.

You can hear that in, for example, how everybody picks up on Mnana’s Abdullah-ish opening chords on the first track, Wenger’s Cheers for the Night and in Muller’s committed bass-line attack on Mlangeni/Mnana’s modern-jazz mbaqanga Hop n’ Skop, and more.

The album splits neatly around track six, shifting from predominantly instrumental to more strongly vocal textures – although we don’t hear quite as much of Makuzeni the vocalist on the album as we did on stage. (We do, however, hear a great deal of her as a highly capable trombonist.) Her vocal work on her two co-compositions, Let Me Walk in the Light and (especially) Msotra’s Forgotten Dues leaves your ears hungry for more.

Yonela Mnana

As on stage, Mnana’s presence is key to the outfit’s character. He is already established as a remarkable pianist: unmistakably South African, but nevertheless transforming all the familiar historical roots and reference-points (Ibrahim, McGregor and so on, classical music, traditional and church music) into a highly personal series of keyboard explorations. What we learned in Cape Town and on this album is that the same is true of his singing.

The most extended track is the Mlangeni/Mnana Inkululeko : eight-plus minutes with a shorter radio mix at the end. It’s a track whose rhythm patterns acknowledge the broader African continent, but crafted across some tricky segues and mood-changes. The tune is irresistibly reminiscent of how Pukwana melded danceable grooves with sophisticated ideas and hospitable space for tough solos. It reinforces the musical identity that Mlangeni is establishing: extending and re-dreaming that particular part of the South African modern jazz heritage. It’s what makes Moholo-Moholo such a perfect collaborator for him in the project Born To Be Black, and Mnana so much the right co-composer and pianist here.

Mandla Mlangeni

There’s a reason why the music value-chain has transformed in the digital era, with live music now the highest-value product at the end and recordings now sitting at the start as promotional devices. A live performance always has more space than a recording for stretching out; in Cape Town, half a dozen rather than a dozen numbers, but each of them much longer. And what I miss now when I listen to the album is not the alternative instrumentalists I heard there – because this album’s soloists are just as robust and creative; and the contrasts make listening more interesting – but simply the space the live stage provided for growing some of the album’s two-minute cues into joyous, vibrant, extended conversations. When the Wind Blows is both inspiring and exhilarating, but even at 40-odd minutes it stops too soon.

taking a bow in Maputo.jpg
The Mill take a bow in Maputo

Joy of Jazz in Makhanda and Sandton – but how much joy, really?

Shannon Mowday: back in Makhanda with a Norwegian/South African youth ensemble

The lineups are out for the next Big Two South African jazz festivals: Standard Bank’s Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (27 June- 7 July http://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za) and Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg (26-28 September http://www.joyofjazz.co.za ).

I’ve noted before the economically exclusionary nature of big-ticket national music events. Both festivals offer concessions for students and others, but attending all three nights in Sandton will set you back at least R2 100. The Makhanda jazz concerts are individually ticketed, so you can cap your own budget – but what you can’t afford, you won’t see. At both festivals, transport, accommodation and meals add to the costs. Both also run classes and some lower-cost events designed to broaden access, offering a very limited selection from the main bill.

There are other considerations too. While festivals certainly bring some revenue to the areas where they take place, in Johannesburg that’s the epicentre of conspicuous consumption, Sandton – presumably on the prosperity gospel principle of “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given.”

Makhanda is in the midst of a crippling drought. The National Arts Festival has instituted the laudable Amanzi Yimpilo project to support basic water for schoolchildren, and additional boreholes are being sunk (but see https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2019-05-16-companies-paid-for-work-done-by-gift-of-the-givers/ ). However, each festival-goer will be drawing extra water – that might otherwise be used elsewhere – from an already water-starved area.

Policed audience; commodified experience

Those hard impacts matter. Equally significant is the commoditised and tightly-policed discourse big-ticket music festivals establish around making and enjoying music. Go to a festival, and your identity is prescribed and inscribed on your wrist. As a writer in The Jacobin (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/music-festival-coachella-bonnaroo-musicians-union ) puts it: “You can be a member of the creative elite; an owner of capital; hired staff; or a member of the policed, regulated audience. The fences, hierarchy of privileges and security guards are a live theatre version of our cultural life’s stratification.”

So even for those in a financial position to attend, big-ticket festivals pose ethical questions. But if they didn’t exist, there would be one less opportunity for musicians to eat. So who’ll be on those stages?

Makhanda offers one of its most interesting programmes for years. It’s headlined by Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and the ensemble Born to be Black, which includes drum titan Louis Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Salim Washington and pianist Andile Yenana. Washington also leads his own challenging ensemble, Sankofa, (with whom he will also appear in Sandton). Finally, we get to hear live the gorgeous collaboration between trumpeter Feya Faku and US drummer Jeff ‘Siege” Siegel, King of Xhosa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEDJ3FnLbr8. From a big bill, the other don’t-miss South African performances include bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt with the Sama-winning ZAR Orchestra (they’ll be in Sandton too), vocalist/hornman Mandisi Dyantyis, guitarist Billy Monama and Norway-based reed player Shannon Mowday leading a South African/Norwegian youth band.

That last is one of the array of youth music projects that always makes Makhanda the place to spot South Africa’s next original jazz voices.

The Nairobi Horns

The visitors offer a diverse and intriguing range of musical approaches. The Brazilian Instituto Anielo ensemble offers close to a quarter of a century’s experience of democratising music through its jazz education work, initially in the low-income suburbs of Sao Paolo. Nils Landgren, a regular visitor to South Africa, brings the latest incarnation of his favoured funk big-band format. And the Nairobi Horns are rapidly growing a following for their distinctive urban Kenyan jazz sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR5TkWOlwHQ ).

Re-dreaming the past in jazz

Coco Zhao

Most intriguing is the visit of Chinese composer/vocalist Coco Zhao and pianist Huang Juanji with their Dream Situation project (http://www.pianojazz.com/coco/Full%20Moon,%20Blooming%20Flowers.mp3 ) Shanghai-born Zhao is the child of traditional Chinese opera musicians and initially followed the conventional route as a highly-rated conservatoire player. But “there were such limitations [in classical music]” (https://www.criticalimprov.com/index.php/csieci/article/view/962). In Dream Situation he explores and re-visions the music of the Shanghai bands of the 1920s and 1930s, when the cosmopolitan port created space for musicians to riff on American jazz styles and create original dance and cabaret music.

No more war

Nothing quite so intriguing in its freshness is promised yet for Johannesburg in September. There’s certainly some very good music, including, on the opening night, something described as a “Battle of the Bands” between the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Wyat’s ZAR outfit. That tired trope – please retire it now! – is, of course, nonsense. Notions of ‘battling’ and ‘winning’ are wholly inappropriate for both the collaborative enterprise of jazz and the experience of hearing two world-class bands on the same night. Just enjoy.

Fans will also enjoy a return visit from dazzlingly creative Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (who was at Cape Town in 2012 and 2016), and hear original rhythm master Manu Katche, US clarinet legend Ken Peplowski, and Dutch reed veteran Alexander Beets. In addition, Sandton will have many great voices, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Soil, Nomfundo, Nokukhanya, and Siphokazi among them.


Out of Africa something new

Joburg Joy of Jazz always features a strong Africa-continental presence, which this year includes Mozambican saxophonist Moreira Chonguica and Nigerian trumpeter Etuk Obong, both of whom already familiar to South African audiences. Unfamiliar and thought-provoking, however, may be Sor Kyekyeku and the Ghanalogue Highlife band (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvi9SWjB9SI). Like Zhao in Makhanda with historic Chinese jazz, guitarist Kyekyeku is drawing on a contemporary sensibility to get us listening afresh to Ghana’s historic urban sounds of the same period (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZVxpzJvkhI).

That’s something we’ve never heard before, and that’s the promise festivals always hold out. It’ll be audible in all the improvisation, and in one new combination: Zachusa, with the restlessly innovative South African drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff and US bassist Reggie Washington. A few more like that on the Sandton bill wouldn’t go amiss.

Kes & Malcolm.jpg
Kesivan Naidoo (r) and Malcolm Braff

Cape Town Conversations 2: still decolonising after all these years

Why are students’ personal experiences so often marginalised?

Decolonising the jazz curriculum re-emerged as a topic at the March Cape Town jazz festival press conferences, perhaps because the September UCT Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) report opened some specific jazz conversations that still go on. (The report at https://www.news.uct.ac.za/images/userfiles/downloads/media/UCT-Curriculum-Change-Framework.pdf and some critical comments at


http://www.news.uct.ac.za/images/userfiles/downloads/media/2018-07-31_CurriculumChangeFramework_SACM.pdf ). Musicians who are also university jazz teachers, including Nicole Mitchell, Mike Rossi and John Fedchock, all faced questions about jazz curriculum and learning processes. The issues emerged in a slightly different form at the Mistra Arts and Development imbizo in Johannesburg* in April. How students encounter learning should be central to these debates; often it is pushed to the margins.

Conservatoire questions

Where it all started: fallist protests

CCWG reflected many black students’ experience that the primacy of the conservatoire model of teaching, plus foregrounding a deficit approach (focusing on “what students lack” rather than “what students bring”) and the genres and narratives of the global North, made the South African College of Music (SACM: for fuller commentary see https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/07/16/race-and-south-african-jazz-teaching-two-years-later/ ) feel exclusionary. Some senior faculty have questioned the process shaping the report – see the references above – but have not so far discussed the wider questions students raised, such as:

  • Is it possible to teach South African music formally given that it is primarily produced in informal sites?
  • What space does the music curriculum allow for spirituality as a musical practice?
  • Why do we study music and what do we hope to do with our music?

Those issues continued to lurk in the background when, at the CTIJF presscons, Rossi and Fedchock were asked about incorporating the South African jazz canon into the UCT curriculum. “Every one of our courses has some South African jazz in it,” replied Rossi. He described individual points in the current curriculum where South African jazz is added, and how students are encouraged to seek out and study South African works for themselves outside class. Both men also described the constraints they saw: the need to focus first on developing basic instrumental technique, the numbers of students who must be accommodated, and, said Fedchock, “there’s so much information now you have to get across to students…you have to get through that whole timeline.”

Teaching to deficits: a discredited approach

That’s presumably the US jazz history timeline; the UCT programme does not begin with Khoisan music, which has been foundational and inspirational for many of the city’s leading jazz players and composers including the late Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder. And technique matters, but music is more than technique. It embodies lived experiences (including spirituality and community) that can’t be fully explained by a taught unit. Further, universities often undervalue teaching skills for faculty (under-monitor and under-support). More than half a century of educational research demonstrates how employing the deficit teaching model at best fails to build on students’ lived experiences and at worst (often) marginalises them to the point of failure. The first key question still largely unanswered is how the teaching should be done. (For one alternative curriculum approach, see https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/claude-cozens-improvisation-in-the-key-of-freedom/ )

Nicole Mitchell was eloquent about the mismatch between jazz and the conservatoire paradigm with its “culture of the winner” and erosion of student confidence: “You’re automatically closing access to those who’ve mastered other musics in other ways”. That’s not a comment on the efforts of any individual instructor; it’s inherent in the model. A respondent referenced above says the CCWG report “demotivates” staff – but it’s not about you, people! It’s about how the process hurts learning. However well intentioned and diligent you are, that won’t change unless the process changes.


The movie Whiplash:  culture of the winner

Don’t just add topics – cut some

The second key issue is that curriculum reform can’t just be a matter of accretive change, as it largely has been. Rossi and Fedchock are right: it is impossible to keep cramming extra bits of South African content into an already overstuffed ‘core’ curriculum. So why not interrogate every curriculum element, including those unquestioningly defined as ‘core’, and actually remove some to make room for others that might be more appropriate for South Africa today? That has always happened in university curricula: we no longer teach that the earth is flat. Why is it suddenly so impossible when the currently privileged elements are in a jazz curriculum? (It was, after all, decolonisation that shaped modern jazz, as Robin D G Kelley discusses at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQlx2m4bsFk – so why not its teaching?)

At the Mistra imbizo, Wits lecturer Rangoato Hlasane gave an example: the CAPS (secondary school) curriculum for dance demands learning on a sprung floor. “But Pantsula choreography,” he said, “demands dust.” Just adding a token South African dance style to an existing core curriculum is inadequate; a new learning process and new conditions of performance and reception – insight into another lived experience – must be part of the package.

“Pantsula choreography demands dust”

Experience speaks; privilege answers 

What spoke most strongly at the imbizo to the issue of decolonisation were the experiences of black students and teachers. For one researcher, the enforced use of English constructs and categories distorted her findings about African subjects. To decolonise, scholarly spaces must exist for the African languages that offer more precise terminology and contextual understanding. (Think about it: universities allow the sciences their own precise terminological spaces, but elsewhere privilege the approximation — however inexact — of African social, spiritual and cultural constructs into English.)

For a former Rhodes university student, studying in Makhanda (a.k.a Grahamstown) was an experience of “continuing colonialism” As a young black man, he encountered constant challenges to his presence. While the majority of the population struggled with poverty and drought, the city proudly brandished its history as a seat of colonial military oppression and seemed to see its raisons d’etre as primarily the annual National Arts Festival and the university. The first proposal for siting a drought-relieving borehole was outside the Settlers’ Monument, which is festival HQ. That experiential account provoked ire from one audience member who also lived in the city and chided: “Your assertions are strong, but your facts are weak.”

Continuing colonialism: how Makhanda (Grahamstown) sells itself to the world

But that misses the point. Experience is factual: an account of life in a body with a certain race, class or gender. If yours is different, you’re accessing things you might never otherwise learn. How students experience an institution impacts powerfully on their progress. When other human beings narrate their realities, it’s not about you – except that your open ears might help.

(*For a fuller account of discussion at the Mistra arts imbizo, see https://www.newframe.com/making-arts-policy-talk-arts-practice )

Beth Carvalho 1946-2019

Before Beyonce and other individual stars today wielding their financial success and popularity to construct narratives of experience, there’s a long tradition of women musicians who simply sang experience to a working class audience that shared it. One of those was Brazil’s ‘Godmother of Samba’, Beth Carvalho, a singer, composer and guitarist who died yesterday in Rio de Janiero aged 72. For those of us who saw Carvalho at the Joburg Arts Alive Festival in 2000 it was an experience still vibrant in our memories.

carnival 2016
Carvalho at the Rio Carnival 2016

Carvalho was taken by her lawyer father to watch Rio’s samba schools rehearsing from an early age, and fell in love with the sound. She won a national TV talent contest with a song influenced by the radical bossa nova movement, but her musical life from that point was dedicated to samba, and particularly identified with the Manguiera school.

The shapers of samba cited outside Brazil are often predominantly male, with women mentioned only as ‘singers’ – but Carvalho was a sambista of massive distinction who won  the Latin Grammy in 2009. She defined the sound, drawing music from the finest composers, wrote songs herself, brought rising stars (such as the group Fundo do Quintal) on to her stages so that they benefited from her success, and was always at the leading edge of the modernisation movements within the genre.

Her work with Grupo Fundo do Quintal ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cRe4YSdFQY ) for example, helped foreground the pagode (backyard) movement: get-togethers of favela (shack settlement) musicians and lyricists that were essentially communal and community-based. Their work provided a powerful counterpoint to the middle and upper class patronage and gentrification of samba, which was also under way at the time. The discourse of the  pagode insistently reminded listeners of the 1930s roots of the music in impoverished communities uprooted to the favelas on the outskirts by capitalist city development. Samba pagode was not a tourist-friendly, appropriated ‘national’ music, but a specific and proud assertion of Brazil’s African communities; their heritage and history.

Carvalho had more than 30 albums to her name, possibly the most substantial opus of any woman sambista. Her 1979 song Coisinha do Pai


was one of the ‘Earth songs’ carried into space on the Mars Pathfinder mission, while many of her lyrics echoed the struggles of Brazil’s working class communities and indigenous peoples.  A lifetime socialist, her latter years saw her appearing at many events in solidarity with ousted and imprisoned former president Lula da Silva, even though she was in crippling pain from a spine disorder. Descansem em paz.