Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane 1934 – 2018

 

Livingroom

Dr Philip Tabane hated being labelled. How he’d feel about the all official obituaries that confine him inside the jazz envelope is clear: “ The jazz label – or any other label – has never worked in my case. Once, I went to play at a competition in Durban and in the end I was given a special prize because I could not be categorised. To this day, they still cannot categorise my music.”

indig afrojazz.jpgThat was at my second interview with the artist, in 1997 at the old Kippies jazz club in Newtown. The first had been almost a decade earlier, sitting close to the riverbank outside the Woodpecker club in Gaborone. Clouds of smoke from the log fire he’d made them light kept the mozzies away, and began the slow, careful process of drying out his malombo drums, whose skins, he felt, were a bit damp and stretchy for tonight’s gig. There was other smoke too, grey-green and herbally aromatic.

coldcastleThe rumour was that Tabane was a difficult interviewee. Sometimes he’d refuse to speak at all; often – as was his constitutional right – he refused to speak in English. I never found him anything but gravely courteous, so long as you listened. He tolerated my linguistc inadequacies, called in other band members to help out – but sometimes there was a flow of ideas that simply couldn’t be pinned down in English like a dead butterfly to a display card. Because his music couldn’t easily be be discussed in such a tight-assed, pragmatic language. It was intimately woven into his cosmology and spirituality; he needed to talk about them all together and the English language was too culturally bounded to provide him with the right words. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is currently working to develop a terminology that better captures the spiritual dimensions of African improvisation, and Tabane’s music needs that.

Malombo

So I’m reluctant to attempt any kind of evaluative obituary. You really need to be an insider to do that. But there are two fine pieces of writing that do get there. The first is Lucas Ledwaba’s work-in-progress biography, from which you can read an extract here: https://mukurukurumedia.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/the-world-that-made-philip-tabane/ For my money, Ledwaba touches the soul of malombo music and its origins in a way that few other writers have. The second is Bongani Madondo’s account of his expansive week-long interview for Rolling Stone SA in 2013, reprinted in his book Sigh, the Beloved Country (http://panmacmillan.co.za/catalogue/sigh-the-beloved-country/ )

ke a berekaTabane was born in 1934 (though some biographies give other dates) in rural Ga Ramotshegoa, into a family of guitarists: his elder brother, he told journalists, was “better than Wes Montgomery” and the adulation radio stations gave to American players mystified him. His mother Matjale was a spiritual healer, and from her he absorbed the music of her calling; his father, a devout Christian who fostered hymn-singing at family services. He heard Ndebele and Sepedi traditional tunes from his local village band, and despite being chased away from social functions because he was too young, he did what many young South Africans did: he covertly improvised an instrument from an oilcan and a broomstick, and tried to learn. He also sneaked in to attempt his brother’s guitar while Mmaloki was out. By his teens, his parents had relented and he acquired a real guitar.

early pic.jpg

Uprooted in 1953 by brutal government clearances, the family settled in urban Mamelodi and by 1959, Tabane had formed his first band, the Lullaby-Landers. But as the 1960s progressed, he became more interested in exploring how traditional sounds could be interpreted and extended via a blend of modern and traditional instruments. He formed Malombo, which won first prize at the 1964 Cold Castle Festival.

Malombo went through multiple personnel changes as participants sought other musical directions or chose exile, but retained its percussionist rock: Gabriel “Mabi” Thobejane.

SANGOMA

In the 1970s, Malombo spent time in the US, including an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, of which Jet magazine said: “”One of the most pleasurable finds of the Newport Jazz Festival this year was Malombo from South Africa, Malombo create some weird and haunting music on a variety of African instruments.” The time in America convinced him of the necessity of holding fast to roots inspiration, which he saw as a springboard for limitless imagination and innovation in technique. Tabane worked with players such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, and even in his later days, he relished Miles’ music. But – “he plays to make money, and I play for the spirit,” he often told interviewers. When it was suggested he played “like” Davis, he responded: “No, I don’t play like Miles. Miles plays like me.”

Manphily

He always resisted the hybridizing marketing label “malombo jazz”.

But during the 1970s and 1980s, when recordings of Tabane gained overseas status with afficionados as astounding music, it was hardly heard at home. Many Tabane albums were not even available here. It was only after 1994, that the re-releases started happening, and fresh recording and performance opportunities began – too slowly – to emerge.

Tabane was not “like” any other player, and his various honorary doctorates were less than his status as an original creator of unique sounds merited. To hear him live was miraculous. Dressed in a blend of cowboy-guitarist suit and traditional adornments, he’d proceed to travel from delicate, poignant melodies (often recalling his first rural home and its ways of life) to fast, mercurial runs of astounding technical virtuosity and harsh, minatory chords that seemed to rip the guts out of the instrument.Live Mkt His music took you to the spheres and back: he was our Sun Ra, our Ali Farka Toure, and a great deal more.

You’ll still hunt for a complete discography anywhere. Below is my attempt at one. It indicates the rest of his career, but it misses many of the multiple compilations on which his tracks – sometimes stolen or unacknowledged – crop up.

 

Tabane’s death underlines the urgency of getting Ledwaba’s book out. But nothing can make up for his loss. Just listen to the music and you’ll hear why. Hamba Kahle.

unh

 

SELECT DISCOGRAPHY AND LINKS

1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wK-FFe9SyU )

1969 The Indigenous Afro-jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and Malombo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdH-2pOgIpY )

1976 Pele Pele

1976 Malombo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAs4bvnf8T8

1978 Sangoma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCm2Z5H4Neo )

1986 Man Phily (compilation)

1989 Unh! (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTsZGgK85N_Xd8nLAGq3Rzfh4gfXWXIL7 )

1989 Silent Beauty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiMAAgjeGdE

1976 Malombo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX5pJlBMRbo )

1996 Ke a Bereka

1998 Muvhango

2010 Live at The Market Theatre (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjmyPh5TJy4&list=PLV9rfa2PuXiU2lLFV_Om0QHt95LMM8Qbc )

2013 Bajove Dokotela (SABC documentary by Khalo Matabane) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX5pJlBMRbo

 

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All the things we don’t know about South African jazz

Ideas come together in interesting ways. Recent events have combined to raise important questions about the historiography of South African jazz: what is known about our jazz past, how that information is known, and how it is interpreted.

First, back in late April, the Sophiatown In Conversation with Mam’ Dorothy Masuka gave us access to the singer/composer’s sharp, clear-thinking mind and articulate, no-nonsense ideas (and an enduringly knockout stage presence). And her memories challenged us, as co-panellist Dr Lindelwa Dalamba pointed out, to confront a huge gap in our knowledge of the world of the female singers who dominated the early African Jazz scene.

Dot
Dorothy Masuka

It’s become a commonplace in writing about the history of men in jazz that in the Eastern Cape, players who went on to form bands had often bonded during initiation – and if they didn’t play music, they often formed a rugby squad, or some other professional grouping, instead.

We don’t, however, know anything about the solidarities and socialities built among women performers.

Then, as now, the media’s interest focused on rivalries, and on women’s behaviour in relation to men: the jealous mistress dousing her faithless lover in petrol and setting him alight as he slept.

AJV

Masuka told an entirely other story: one of solidarity and protective sisterhood. When she starred in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz & Varieties, Herbert’s mother, Madame Sarah Sylvia, shared her intellectual capital – the songs and their interpretations that had won her own earlier fame on the Yiddish theatre circuit – with Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klassen. On the road, older women singers and dancers clustered protectively around the still-schoolgirl Masuka, giving the evil eye to any would-be Lothario: “You will not touch this child!” Because “of course those things happened,” Masuka reminisced, “just like they do today. But they shielded me from a lot of it because I was so young.”

Those solidarities and connections were underlined by the contribution of another panellist, singer Titi Luzipo, whose own mother had been vocalist with the Soul Jazzmen a decade or so later. Warm greetings were passed between the two backstage – and it emerged that Masuka’s father, a chef originally from Zambia, had stayed for a while mere streets away from the Luzipo household in the Eastern Cape.

Titi.jpg
Titi Luzipo

These are all corners of a hidden history revealed: hidden, because many researchers don’t seem even to have asked the questions. (One important exception is Lara Allen, whose foreword to A Common Hunger to Sing (https://www.amazon.com/Common-Hunger-Sing-ZB-Molefe/dp/0795700644 ) provides an invaluable map of the rich landscape of female performance, management, journalism and entrepreneurship in early South African vaudeville and jazz.)

When we focus only on studying the stars, we forget the music communities, networks and relationships that shaped them. When we ignore backstage and home lives, we submit to the paradigm of a deeply gendered historiography that backgrounds and diminishes what are seen as female spheres of activity. Yet information about those spheres contributes to a 360-degree understanding of cultural milieus and all their protagonists, female and male; without it, we simply know and understand less. And musicology is the poorer for that.

And the current jazz scene is too. Because such shoddy musicology masks the continuity of strong female participation in jazz throughout South African music history. And that, as the Gender and Jazz Panel at last weekend’s South African Jazz Educators’ Conference made clear, makes it harder for young women to assert their voice, presence and right to be on the bandstand.

Because what we believe about the past often shapes what we do and how we behave in the present. There are few protagonists of colour in much fantasy literature because ignorant white authors believe there were no people of colour around in the West during the vaguely Mediaeval period their stories invoke. In truth, people of colour have been around all over the world ever since humankind could travel. There were black scribes and scientists in Ancient Greece, African Roman soldiers and administrators, black shopkeepers, sailors and craftspeople in Mediaeval London, and more. And, as historians are now beginning to help us discover, women have been making music and art (and, indeed, war: see Kameron Hurley http://podcastle.org/2014/07/15/podcastle-essay-always-fought-challenging-woman-cattle-slaves-narrative/ ) as long as – and as capably as – their male counterparts for a very long time too. There’s just been a social choice not to count them, because maleness has often been naturalised as the default for ‘composer’, ‘painter’ or ‘saxophonist’.

LDBB
The Lady Day Big Band

Before the SAJE gender panel convened, we heard a set from the 20-piece Lady Day Big Band (https://www.facebook.com/theladydaybigband/?fref=mentions ). The programme proudly announced this as an “all female” big band. There was reason for pride in the quality of the playing (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3r3b4UukME ) – but we never refer to the Glenn Miller Band as “all-male”, do we?

Founded by vocalists Lana Crowster and Amanda Tiffin, and trombonist Kelly Bell – all music educators as well as performers – already, LDBB is a tight-knit outfit with impressive soloists. (Since she has no recording out yet, if you’re not a Capetonian Bell may be one of the best trombonists you’ve never heard.)

Kelly
Kelly Bell

But, like many South African big bands, the LDBB’s set was dominated by American standards. Yet there are interesting composers in the band too, as evidenced by drummer Teryll Bell’s composition The Forgotten. Hopefully, they’ll start crafting a repertoire that showcases more works like that. As Crowster and Bell pointed out on the subsequent panel, it’s demeaning to be offered gigs simply because an event “needs more women” – and with the playing already at an impressive level, it’s fresh repertoire that can give the band a musically unique profile.

• Catch the Lady Day Big Band in Cape Town next weekend – their Facebook page above gives details

 

What does the “jazz brand” mean today?

 

Both International Jazz Day and the SAMA nominations should make us think hard about what the label signifies

St P
St Petersburg: site of IJD 2018

Month-end marks UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, when we’re called on to celebrate the role of jazz in uniting people and “promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, and respect for human rights and human dignity.” (This link lists some – but not all – South African IJD events: https://jazzday.com/?event-country=south-africa&event-year=2018 ) The big official international concert happens in St Petersburg , which raises questions on two levels. The choice of Russia as host is clearly a piece of commercial opportunism, preceding as it does the country’s hosting of this year’s football World Cup. Russian jazz players are as good as any in the world – the surviving Soviet legacy of excellent, accessible music education continues to bear rich fruits (see, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRVXQMNKuSc ). Russian players, like players in South Africa, need and deserve to work with their peers and be showcased internationally. But it’s still hard to justify awarding such impressive money-making and profiling opportunities to a nation whose key policies place repressive, patriarchal, narrow, right-wing nationalism front and centre. (Though given the way Forrest Trump and his cronies are heading, it’s getting easier to say that about the US too.)

But more broadly, are yet more gigantic all-star concerts the only, or best, way to celebrate the jazz legacy?

As jazz scholar and player Mark Laver has pointed out (he’s worth reading: see, for example, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/arts-are-not-distant-public-good-they-are-public-good) participating in jazz involves practising freedom, empathy and listening; Laver calls jazz “a democratising aesthetic force”. Mega-concerts are exclusionary across many dimensions, so let’s look at our own South African jazz landscape and see what kinds of activities might genuinely serve that spirit.

  • Broaden access for learners, players and listeners. Some of the South African activities (including one not listed on the IJD page: the Menlyn Park Jazzathon: contact Nothemba Madumo on Nothemba@4everjazz.com ) try to do this. They take jazz to stages where it plays only infrequently or offer opportunities to aspiring players. The best way to do this is through small local events, not big ones.
  • Uncover and preserve the narratives and discourses of our jazz. Tonight (Friday April 20) at Sophiatown the Mix, I’m chairing a panel to explore and record the history of Mam’ Dorothy Masuka as a composer and performer, in conversation with her, music scholar Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, and musicians Bheki Khoza and Titi Luzipo. While Mam’ Dorothy’s history is impressive, it’s one tiny corner of all the jazz stories we don’t know and – if they remain unrecorded – will never know, as the paucity of information in (equally scarce) obituaries of reedman Lemmy “Special” Mabaso earlier this month revealed.
  • Upgrade jazz education. Restore the disastrous diminution of music teaching and learning inflicted particularly on the most impoverished schools by Schooling 2025. Make it possible for more musicians to participate in jazz higher education, by re-examining job descriptions and hierarchies and dismantling unnecessary barriers .
  • Provide more commissions for jazz composers. This remains a major weakness in South Africa: apart from the National Arts Festival Young Artist for Jazz award, there’s very little support for writing music which – combined with low, unreliable fees for playing  – constantly constrains the growth of innovative repertoire.
  • Foster the economy of the night city to provide more work.

And all of these, of course, need to be happening throughout the year, not just on one commemorative day. A flashy mega-concert unsupported by a living, well-resourced infrastructure performs the politics of tokenism.

Simph.jpg

That a South African jazz infrastructure does survive and create is evidenced by the nominations for the 2018 SAMAs, just announced. These are: The Simphiwe Dana Symphony Experience (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/the-simphiwe-dana-symphony-experience/1266671019 ); Marcus Wyatt’s Blue Note Tribute Orkestra live at the Bird’s Eye (https://bnto.bandcamp.com/releases ); Zoe Modiga’s Yellow: the Novel (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/yellow-the-novel/1219606445 ); the Tune Recreation Committee’s Voices of Our Vision (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/tunerecreationcommittee ); and Nduduzo Makhathini’s Ikhambi (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/ikhambi/1285160305 )(which also scored a nomination for Best Sound Engineering). In addition, Kinsmen’s Window to the Ashram (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/kinsmen ) features in the Best Classical/Instrumental category.Yellow-the-novel-poster-Zoe-Modiga

It’s an interesting selection with, as usual, some infuriating omissions – most notably Keenan Ahrends’ Narrative (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/narrative/1220746628 ): one of the most beautiful guitar releases of any recent year. But however deserving the eventual winner will be, the SAMA categories manage to neatly sideline jazz’s importance by making it impossible for jazz to feature in the so-called “Top Five” categories that will be announced later and will dominate the televised ceremony in May. There, jazz is likely to be near-invisible. If the SAMAs had called them the “Big Five” that might not be problematic: those five categories do, after all, deal with the most mass-marketed music. But “Top” – like it’s better?

Mandla album cover

The Modiga and TRC albums share a great deal of personnel – that probably tells us a lot about Cape Town’s  tight-knit cadre of extremely talented young musicians, and may also be some kind of belated acknowledgment that great CT releases have been ignored in some past SAMA listings. But it narrows the pool of people who stand to bathe in the starlight of the awards. Then there’s the inclusion of the Simphiwe Dana album. Dana is both an engaging singer, and a fiercely talented and original songwriter. She doesn’t need to occupy the jazz category to be worth multiple awards. The album delivers some gorgeous tracks (check out Volver Volver, featuring Mallorcan – with parents from Equatorial Guinea – singer Concha Buika and Derek Gripper). It’s well resourced and beautifully produced. It just doesn’t – as Dana’s albums often don’t – feature too much of the improvisation process: the thing that jazz audiences relish.

kinsmenCDcover

However, there’s a certain cachet in the jazz genre label that has nothing to do with the music (of that, irrespective of genre, there are only two kinds, observed Miles: the good stuff and the rest) and everything to do with business. As the Nielsen marketing organisation has observed, “jazz” branding – whatever it’s attached to – can deliver “a desirable audience of high-end consumers.” In a wry and witty blog, Joyce Kwon explores why so many marketers love the label: (http://www.tronviggroup.com/jazz-in-marketing/ ). So it’s not surprising if sometimes labels will spare no effort to get their artists featured in a “jazz” category.

Whether we’re talking world commemorative days or awards, let’s employ the term jazz with discrimination. It’s about processes – improvising, listening, empathising– not products – mega-gigs, awards – and those processes need to be respected and supported every day of the year.

 

SAFM music – after the quota, now what’s SABC playing at?

Over the weekend, SAFM issued a press statement ( http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/sabc-announces-talent-lineup-changes-safm/ ) formalising what had been known and rumoured about the broadcaster’s plans for some time. The shuffling of the deckchairs among existing presenters, and the arrival of EWN’s Stephen Grootes belong in another debate. Urgent to consider here is the near-disappearance of jazz and African music.

Ike
Ike Phaahla

By a monstrous irony, Ike Phaahla’s jazz show had its final outing while most of his listeners were in live concerts at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Phaala’s presentation style was old-school: the most you’d get in the way of commentary from him was a staid read-through of the liner notes. But his knowledge of the field was encyclopedic, and the respect he gave to, and received from, the SA jazz community was enormous. I cannot count the number of people I know who’ve told me their first introduction to certain artists or albums – and, this is important, particularly South African products – came via his magical late-night hours: “Did you hear that amazing album Ike played over the weekend?”

Richard+Nwamba
Richard Nwamba

Richard Nwamba – also absent from the new line-up – by contrast, had an effervescent presentation style, alongside an equally encyclopedic knowledge of the continent’s multiple genres. If some obscure but brilliant Congolese chanteur happened to be in town, Nwamba would tap his grapevine, track him down, and drag him into the studio. Former dedicated disciples of Brenda, or John Coltrane, or Durban house, all got their schooling in the music of the wider continent from Nwamba. And he had listeners, lots of them: you heard his show belting from all kinds of unlikely radios in taxis, barbershops and restaurants.

What these two did was unique, and what other DJs may do – easy-listening meister Ernest Pillay, for example, now has a generous slot – however professional, does not replace either. Huge thanks to both of you – you will be missed.

Many of us predicted that when the pendulum swung away from Hlaudi’s dictatorial and poorly thought-out 90% quota, the reaction would be even more disastrous. It’s starting to look as if we were right. So we have to ask: what on earth does the SABC think it’s doing to our music?

The SABC is our national broadcaster. It thus has a mandate and responsibility to offer listeners a wider palette of cultural choices than the purely commercial, even in financially straitened times. It further has a responsibility to maintain and enrich the sonic archive documenting our  creativity. But, more than this, eliminating jazz and African music from SAFM (concert music has disappeared too, at the very time when composers of colour are on the rise) represents the erasure of important areas of discourse from the channel where discourse is supposed to rule.

Because music isn’t just sounds, it’s discourse too. It carries discourse in its notes: a language of sound that can enhance emotions and convey information and meaning. When Feya Faku plays a solo, he is telling us about our history and asking questions about our future. The indigenous jazz now being made is more creative and challenging than ever. Music also carries discourse in what it connotes: Nwamba’s show, for example, enacted in its very existence a powerful counterblast to anti-African racism and xenophobia and the dehumanisation of our neighbours – if any programme could be said to be building social cohesion and offering a damn good time on the way, it was his. Finally, music is, in Val Wilmer’ words “as serious as your life”: it merits being discussed as well as played, and the station for that kind of discussion is SAFM.

Knowledgeable SAFM presenters who remain, such as Michelle Constant and Shado Twala will no doubt do their best to keep the discourse alive – but the formats of their programmes demand diverse coverage of multiple genres and topics, with only small inserts on each. The formidable Nothemba Madumo on Metro, KG Moeketsi on Radio 2000 (and the brilliant Brenda Sisane and Nikki Blumenfeld on Kaya: outside the SABC stable) all still earn respect for treating Jazz and African music with the intelligence and focus both merit.

But the SAFM music offering – on the national station with the widest reach – has been shamefully impoverished by these changes. The future sound archive and thus what will be available to researchers will be equally diminished.  The new SABC Board no doubt has paying the bills at the forefront of its mind – but maybe we should be reminding Board members that programming priorities and the non-commodifiable values of broadcasting matter too, and that what has just happened needs a long, hard re-think?

Cecil Taylor: 1929-2018

 

Quite rightly, the passing of Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela drove news of other deaths last week off the front pages. But it’s unlikely in any case that most of the South African media would have noted the death of keyboard revolutionary Cecil Taylor. As with Mam’ Winnie, the word “uncompromising” featured strongly in his obituaries – and, as with her, it should be a term of praise. Read The UK Guardian’s John Fordham’s appreciation (with an excellent playlist) here:
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/cecil-taylor-visionary-pianist-jazz

And hear the man himself – graceful, witty, articulate and, yes, uncompromising, here:
http://snapshotsfoundation.com/index.php/articles/140-cecil-taylor-interview

Hamba kahle.

 

Cape Town Jazz Festival 2018: the good, the bad and the ugly

In music, this year gave us more of the first than ever – but some snags persist and there was one truly philistine moment

Lib proj
Aus Tebza Sedumedi and Hotstix Mabuse of the Liberation Project

Plus ça change, plus ce’st la même chose. Or, as Dexter Gordon playing Dale Turner put it in Round Midnight: “Same old shit.” Just like 2017, CTIJF 2018 continues to surpass itself in terms of the range and quality of the jazz on offer.

Yes, jazz. The Twittersphere this year was infested with the usual whines about “not enough jazz” – but with Nicholas Payton, Vijay Iyer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Shane Cooper, Feya Faku, Nicky Schrire, Siya Makuzeni, Themba Mokoena – and more, and more – it’s hard to understand just what the hell they were talking about. And, just like 2017, the media failed to tell readers about almost any of it, focusing instead (where it gave any coverage at all) on Afro-pop and hip hop acts. Perhaps the latter might explain the former..?

Also just like 2017, there are so many choices for a listener to make that the only festival I can tell you about is mine, and yours might have sounded quite different. (One act – Vijay Iyer – had two shows, and doing that next year for just a couple more might, without compromising range and diversity, make the choosing less frustrating. Lots of people told me Trombone Shorty totally rocked, but I had three other acts to hear at the same time.)

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Mulatu Astatke

The good first (more of this than I could count or cover)

It would be patronising to the artists concerned and to your ears to simply list names and say how well they played. That, at this festival, is a given.

But the festival isn’t just about the concerts, and I can rarely remember a year when the daytime musicians’ master classes were as consistently useful and informative as this year. Mulatu Astatke’s band provided illuminating illustrations of the modes and scales that makes Ethiopian music sound so distinctive: the workshop opened up the engine of the beautiful flying machine that soared on Saturday night. Nicholas Payton – whose blogging sometimes suggests a prickly personality – was honest, self-effacing and witty about his music and his life. Miles Mosley held even non-bass-players fascinated by the story of how he changed up his axe, and revolutionised the sound of his music. “I didn’t realise technical stuff could be so interesting,” said one attendee afterwards. Perhaps if more media had attended these master classes, they’d have had real stories to write.

At the airport and on the plane, ungodly early the morning after, I heard more people talking about Astatke and his Ethio-jazz ensemble than any other act. That was a result both of superb musicianship and surprise – the festival had undersold, and the media completely ignored, the importance and creative power of this veteran and learned African jazzman. He’s a formidable instrumentalist; his ensemble – including onetime Taiwa Molelekwa collaborator, trumpeter Byron Wallen – equally so, and the music combines danceable groove, highly intelligent solos and a heterophony of rhythms, as well as stuff that makes you think. If you’re listening through Western ears, the music goes nowhere you’d expect. But because it’s jazz, it offers an equally fresh take on the Ethiopian modes: its business is busting envelopes. Wallen, reedman James Arben and the astounding arco cello of Shanti Jayasinha added highly distinctive voices. If Black Panther wanted a unique African soundtrack, rather than pop music, they should have looked here.

There were powerful storytellers everywhere, with and without words. Vocalist Nicky Schrire’s narrative power played off reedman Chris Engel’s eloquent lines in an intelligently curated programme that ranged from the singer’s own works to Beatenberg and Busi Mhlongo. Schrire might not, at first glance, seem to have much in common with Sibongile Khumalo, but like Khumalo she’s doing important work growing an authentic indigenous vocal repertoire that talks about us – and then singing it shrewdly and sweetly.

Guitarist Keenan Ahrends is unashamedly a storyteller – he called his album Narrative – and the gentle mutuality of his ensemble told the story he needed: “Music has colours and textures, and those have emotions attached…our improvisations allow us to play those emotions.”

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Feya Faku

A Feya Faku gig always has stories: his power as both composer and player lies not only in mastery of his instrument but in offering balm for the soul: not from a place of easy comfort, but from a place of history and hope shared with his listeners. This time there were many new tales – Faku seems to be composing a lot these days – including the moving ballad Gratitude for the late Hugh Masekela, who gave him a horn when his own two were stolen.

Stories of our history came, too, from both the Liberation Project and Louis Moholo-Moholo. The former united Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Dan Chiorboli, Roger Lucey, Tebza Sedumedi, Tony Cedras and more, to revisit and revision songs of solidarity and struggle from around the world: the South African acoustic edition of a larger international ensemble whose album will drop in mid-May. The music was stirring – lovely to hear Cedras playing trumpet again, and Mabuse’s flute-playing is better than ever – but we’ll need to wait for the album to hear its full character. “It’s the intention of the music-makers,” asserted Mabuse, “that gives this music the power to question and challenge.”

Louis_Moholo_1
Louis Moholo-Moholo

Moholo-Moholo’s 5 Blokes 1 Doll (which was actually seven musicians, gender irrelevant, including two powerful bass-players) gave us a masterclass in deconstructing our standards. There was hot, fierce joy in the set: Makuzeni growling, bellowing, roaring and scatting on voice and ‘bone, Nhlanhla Mahlangu pouring out incandescent soul and Kyle Shepherd’s piano as percussive as Moholo-Moholo’s drums (with his solo on Yakhal’Inkomo honouring the spirit of Lionel Pillay, but offering a radically new vision). It was like being in London’s 100 Club circa 1980 – but not. Because the music was home and this was all fresh – personnel, arrangements, and the master-drummer’s own sound – and because, well, “you think you know me…but you’re never gonna know me”.

Nduduzo Makhathini and Inner Dimensions brought together Swiss, Austrian and South African musicians, and reintroduced reedman Linda Sikhakhane, who’s been away studying. Makhathini’s voice concepts – call and response; church-style antiphonal shouts; dark chanson from Anna Widauer – are becoming more intriguing on every outing. The pianist showed how, for him, the stage was “a place where a new language can be constructed.”

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Vijay Iyer with Wadada Leo Smith

Already fluent in their  language – born of years of intense collaboration – the Vijay Iyer Sextet offered interplay and vision that was powerful, absorbing and – in every sense – moving. The music of Far from Over (as in “the struggle is…”) is to hold your breath for, and to help you breathe freer. Tensions were built and resolved; questions asked but not always answered; pulses speeded and slowed. The sounds were dense with ideas and beauty, but because drummer Marcus Gilmore is a master of cerebral groove, we didn’t freeze in our seats either. How Iyer’s second set had to end (see below) was tragic.

Freshness came to the fore when some players – Ahrends, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti, bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Kevin Gibson – appeared in more than one ensemble: sometimes as leader and then sideman. Just because you’d heard them once never meant you could predict what they’d do the next time out, except that it would be equally apt, accomplished, and compelling. And there was freshness too in the people we’d never heard before and want to hear again: the transnational collaboration of The Surge where trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni found some very different musical conversations to have – with fiery guitarist Jan Kruzliak, for example, lyrical kumous (Kyrghiz fretless lute) player Aissana Omorova and the guembri (Gnawa plucked lute) groove of El Mehdi Qamoum.

The bad (mostly mundane and predictable)

More sad than bad were the perennially empty seats in Rosie’s and Molelekwa reserved for sponsors, gaping like a gangster’s grin. If press barons and policy-makers can’t be bothered listening to superb local jazz talent, should we be surprised when they don’t effectively support it either?

There were a few time slippages (especially on the Molelekwa stage: 25 minutes for the Liberation Project) that made the neat dovetailing the programme promises impossible. The sound in the woolly, cavernous Kippie’s venue has certainly been improved, but it’s still not good enough. For a large ensemble like Astatke’s, the listening experience was much better than for Kamasi Washington in 2017 – but why did the players (especially the percussionist) need to keep demanding improvements in stage mic’ing and monitor sound, and why couldn’t we hear the leader’s vibes for the first bars of his opening solo? For Payton’s Afro-Caribbean Mixtape set, the sound snookered much of the intention. That’s an album with discourse: the digital slices of recorded words matter to the politics of the concept. Cottonwool mush ensured we couldn’t hear them. So what we got was a masterful, pan-diasporic dance set and astounding instrumental virtuosity (trumpet plus piano! Those claves!) – but with the discourse filleted out: a different album. Even on the normally excellent Rosie’s stage there were initial sound problems with the subtle, delicate and spellbinding sounds of Shane Cooper’s Mabuta.

The free concert in Greenmarket Square that precedes the main event is starting to feel tired. Back when CTIJF started, a few of the really big names were hosted early, so that those without cash for tickets got a genuine taste of all genres at the festival. The square rocked. These days, it’s filled with cover bands. It’s time for festival organisers to return to that early practice, and re-democratise what started out as an innovative, inspired expansion of access.

The ugly. Only one moment – but there had to be a better way

Iyer’s mid-evening set on the second night overran. Such was the absorbing intensity of the music – different from the first night; different again from the album – that the players lost awareness of limits. (That’s what good jazz does.) The music was cooking and the audience loudly yelling for more. The set did need to wind down – but the insensitivity with which normally considerate MC Eric Alan closed it made the whole Rosie’s audience shudder. His voice cut into the sound. His presence invaded Iyer’s space while the musician still had his hands on the keys. “Is this democracy? Will you let me say something?” asked Iyer. Alan equivocated. But all the pianist said was: “We had a lot more to say, but we don’t want to be unfair to our fellow musicians.” Then he acknowledged, as he must, his co-players, whose praxis had made that magic.

Did nobody backstage understand that these were highly experienced professionals, well capable of crafting a neat encore that would have allowed the set to end on good vibes and dignity? Instead, what happened was about as sensitive as breaking into somebody’s bedroom and dousing them with iced water while they’re having sex.

Faku’s Spirit Unit, following, launched into their own impressively tight, fast encore just as Alan and the stage staff were creeping forward, giving nobody the chance to stop them. I like to think that one was for Iyer.