A new album from Kyle Shepherd, and a new, Covid-safer kind of Joy of Jazz

It’s seven years since the last Kyle Shepherd album I own: his fifth, the 2014 Dream State. It turns out there was a sixth I missed in 2016: for Naxos, the recording of the SWR New Jazz Meeting 2016: Sound Portraits from Contemporary Africa with, among others, guitarist Lionel Louecke https://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=JAH-468. Catch-up on that is next on my agenda.

Album cover: After the Night the Day Will Surely Come

Now, a seventh Shepherd release has arrived, on the Matsuli Music label: After the Night, the Day Will Surely Come https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/after-the-night-the-day-will-surely-come . The digital version is already available; vinyl drops on 11 October and, as is becoming the norm, there’s nothing for us CD dinosaurs. 

After the Night is a solo outing, something we haven’t heard since the fragile, incandescent Japan-recorded Into Darkness. It was worth the wait.

A solo piano recital by a South African pianist, in the form of a seamless medley of earlier compositions and new improvisations, will inevitably invoke the facile comparisons to Abdullah Ibrahim that have haunted Shepherd’s career.

If you’re going to be compared to anybody, Abdullah Ibrahim is a very distinguished comparison. And there are intersections and commonalities. Shepherd briefly studied under Ibrahim, who has become a reference point for many Cape Town musicians. So, too have an oceanic, rolling left hand and other elements of the shared Cape soundscape, such as the modal patterns of the Islamic call to prayer. And both men do often opt for similar small-group and solo formats.

Kyle Shepherd

But that’s where it stops. After the Night…, like the previous albums, sounds a highly individual voice and vision that isn’t “like” anybody else currently playing. His invention draws on broad references, including other sounds of the Cape, from lyrical ballads and hymns to club music, the cycles of contemporary concert music, and those of traditional Xhosa multivocality. Percy Mabandu’s sleeve notes rightly foreground the awareness  “of a shared musical inheritance.” Shepherd brings these inspirations together in ways that are sharply current (he’s still only 34) and experimental. In live performances he often includes conversations with visual material (he’s a soundtrack composer too). He liberates the string sounds imprisoned under the piano lid. 

The selection here opens with Shepherd’s For Keith, which takes on a particular poignancy after that pianist’s death a year ago left such a gap. There are several other compositions we’ve heard on earlier albums, including Desert Monk, the Sweet Zim Suite (Shepherd also studied with Ngqawana at the Zimology Institute) and Cry of the Lonely.

In this context, though, they are woven together differently and with new ideas to shape the narrative arc made explicit by the title. Recorded in 2020, the recital leads a listener through the emotional night that followed Jarrett’s passing, into the sickness, isolation and sadness of the Covid times that followed – and towards the light.

The second half of the recital, and particularly its culmination in a re-visioning of Dream State’s Zikr (an allusion to Sufism and immersion in the attributes of the divine) – re-heard through parts of the piano as a kora tune – is spellbinding and compelling. And, yes, genuinely does inspire hope.

The Uhadi Quintet: Badenhorst, Faku, Tsoaeli, Mrubata, Hanmer

Part of that hope for music comes from rising vaccination figures, and increasing ingenuity from organisers in creating safe musical spaces. In a month that in normal conditions would have seen the Joy of Jazz festival, the organisers merit congratulations for devising a new kind of event. From September 24-26 they’re offering car owners (maximum four in a car) live jazz concerts on the Sandton open-air roof parking area.

The concerts reflect exactly the kind of South African jazz diversity and quality that Joy of Jazz ought always to showcase.

Gloria Bosman

On Heritage Day, Friday 24, a double-header presents vocalist Ziza Muftic and her ensemble, followed by a tribute to Sibongile Khumalo from Gloria Bosman with the Uhadi Quintet: McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Feya Faku, Herbie Tsoaeli and Justin Badenhorst.

On Saturday 25, veteran guitar maestro Themba Mokoena leads a guitar summit, and saxophonist Steve Dyer presents music from his album Genesis of a Different World with pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti and more. (Dyer has a new album just out, Revision: see this commissioned interview I wrote here https://londonjazznews.com/2021/09/13/steve-dyer-revision/ )

On Saturday September 26, Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Vuma Levin leads a new performance, The Throwing of the Bones, featuring three pianists: Thandi Ntuli, Mark Fransman and Nduduzo Makathini.

With tickets from R200 per car, this offers far more affordable prices than Joy of Jazz normally sets, for music that is among the best they’ve ever assembled. To maintain Covid-compliant numbers, advance booking is mandatory and you can find details here: http://www.tmusicman.co.za/concert

Heritage Month: no tears from DSAC as institutions crumble – and jabs alone won’t fix it.

September is Heritage Month. You’d think that would mean an increased official focus on preserving important cultural institutions. Instead, over the past few weeks, the historic Liliesleaf Farm Museum in Rivonia has closed its doors https://www.702.co.za/articles/426202/i-had-no-choice-but-to-close-liliesleaf-nicholas-wolpe, followed by the South African Book Development Council, responsible for National Book Week and increasing access to books and reading across the nation (see https://www.sabookcouncil.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/SABDC-ClosureStatement27August2021.pdf).

Liliesleaf Farm: closed

The response from the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture – where it has been visible at all – follows the pattern established by its August “public engagement” on artists’ relief: the Department is blameless; it’s the ungrateful victims who are at fault.

On Lilieslieaf, DSAC took a “dim view” of statements from the Trust, declared there was no reason for the museum to close  https://ewn.co.za/2021/09/02/mthethwa-there-s-no-reason-to-close-liliesleaf-farm and that the department remained committed to the preservation of the country’s centres of history, but that Liliesleaf had failed to account for R8.1M allocated to upgrade the facility. Liliesleaf claims it had to spend the money on just keeping the place going.   

Separately, it is a matter of official record that DSAC made full payment to the SABDC for National Book Week 2020. What’s absent from that record is that the budget had been slashed by 50% and that the payment had arrived in April 2021, seven months late. By this time, said the Council “infrastructure was no longer intact and it was too late to save it.”

It may be that there were difficulties and crossed wires in interactions between DSAC and these two institutions: I wasn’t privy to them and I don’t know.  Difficult interactions over funding are pretty well the norm – but with goodwill on both sides they are usually resolvable and that’s rarely the real issue.

The real issues that emerge from these closures are different.

First, where are the official expressions of regret for, or even understanding of the magnitude of these losses from South Africa’s cultural and heritage landscape? Just once, could a DSAC spokesperson please come out and say “We acknowledge that X, Y and Z have been lost and that it matters – and that whatever has gone wrong, we’ll make plans to repair the damage.”

Second, why does the Department still not understand that funding institutions on the basis of projects such as National Book Week, does nothing to keep the institution itself healthy?

Individual cultural workers inhabit a short-term, project-based landscape. For them, swiftly responsive project funding matters. Yet DSAC’s provisions for Covid relief demanded the kind of formal documentation that only institutions and their fulltime employees can provide and that’s one reason why so many creative workers could not qualify.

National Book Week: not happening again

By contrast, cultural institutions are the hubs for such projects. They must meet long-term infrastructural costs outside and between them. Without consistent, sustained support for those – as the demise of the Book Council illustrates – projects like Book Week that could create work for so many creatives will no longer have a home.

This weak understanding was evident again in the speeches delivered last week during an appeal for fans to get vaccinated so stadiums can reopen https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-09-09-vaccinate-in-order-to-return-to-stadiums-nathi-mthethwa-urges-sports-spectators/. Applause from the arts, culture and heritage sector for this vital initiative may be slightly muted because, as is often the case these days, sport not arts led the “Return to Play” story for the DSAC Minister.

It was left to Deputy President David Mabuza to slip in a kind afterthought for the arts: “If we so desire to return to our stadiums, to our theatres, to our concerts, to our fashion shows, it lies with us to go out and mobilise our people, our communities, to vaccinate. A vaccinated nation is what it will take to again open the stadiums for the popular Soweto Derby we know, our Cape Town Jazz Festival, to go back to Macufe, the Joy of Jazz, the Durban July.”

Except, again, that for the arts doubly-jabbed arms is not all it will take. Alongside that, the institutions making cultural events happen must have survived in a sufficiently healthy state to begin organising again.

The artists who perform at them must not have become de-skilled and demoralised because the desperate search to feed their families has shut them off from practice, writing and professional networking. Those artists must not have sold their instruments and equipment to pay school fees. The live music ecology sustaining artists – which is not at all the intermittent, big-name commercial events Mabuza cited, but rather the modest little gigs in pubs, cafes and halls that can happen all year-round – must not have withered. Such venues themselves must have survived and be able to afford the kind of air-conditioning that can stop indoor concerts becoming superspreaders.  All of that needs concrete plans from DSAC. Where are they?

Deputy President David Mabuza at the Return to Play event

Taking responsibility for your own health and the health of those around you by getting vaccinated is a non-negotiable, and it is laudable in whatever context ministers, including the DSAC Minister, say so. But although it’s necessary, it’s absolutely not sufficient.

So where’s the understanding that arts, culture and heritage are about supporting a whole ecology and not just events, and that infrastructural running costs and not only projects need support? And where are the tears from policy-makers for what, in the short first two weeks of Heritage Month (never mind the past 18 months) we have already lost?

Musical stories travelling on their own clock

“[In order for the others to genuinely collaborate] it probably has to feel like something’s missing…and we’re not used to that…” (How to Make Art in a Pandemic Part 2)

When musicians create, they express themselves through sound, right? Well, not always. Musical creation entails listening as well as blowing, and silences as well as notes. And while that’s true of all music, and perhaps most marked and important during collective improvisation, it’s something the Covid era of physically distanced music-making has brought to the fore.

That was true of trumpeter Marcus Wyatt’s experimental Alone/Together project a year ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcqMj63_3ZY , when the trumpeter sent out descriptive sonic briefs to jazz players in South Africa and Europe, and turned the results into compelling short pieces. There, production played a key role in selecting and mixing: nobody playing knew exactly who would end up as part of which piece; they were responding solely to the briefs. Decisions about form and combinations were made at the desk.

It’s true of jazz trio Kinsmen’s Afr(indian) Fiction project https://afrindianfiction.com/  with Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist Othnell Mangoma, which briefly considered and then abandoned the idea of detailed briefs and followed a call and response model, where one musician at each phase sent out an initial thematic idea and the others responded, transforming the call into music with deliberately shared ownership and no decisions on inclusion or exclusion from any kind of “leader”.

It’s equally true of the latest release from Mushroom Half Hour On Our Own Clock https://mushroomhour.bandcamp.com/album/on-our-own-clock, out September 3.

Again, the starting point was a planned 2020 session – with players from South Africa, Dakar and the UK, in London – that then couldn’t happen physically because of pandemic travel restrictions. So, as label boss Andrew Curnow describes it: “musicians in Dakar, London and Joburg all [went] into studio on one day in July and [recorded] some mostly improvised tracks … then we swopped the recordings with each other… and the musicians from London and Joburg went into studio again in August and did improvised responses to the tracks from the other countries …. In the end, it was a difficult project to pull off! The post-production required a lot of work as the music from each country was so different to the music from the other countries…”

So the model of On Our Own Clock sits somewhere between the centrality of producer and brief adopted by Alone/Together and the unmediated collective creation of Afr(indian) Fiction. Musicians who knew something about one another’s work and style, contributed initial ideas, listened to and processed what their peers elsewhere had suggested, and then returned with a response, with producers smoothing the joins of integrating the sessions.  Alongside the music there’s a short video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fX2Ka4Alc4, and for vinyl purchasers, a fanzine with words that speak to the music.

The 14 musicians offer a tantalising range of possibilities. From London, there’s reedman Alabaster dePlume, Danalogue, Lex Blondin,Sons of Kemet tuba-player Theon Cross and djembe master Yahael Camara Onon; from Senegal, the kora of Tarang Cissoko; and in Joburg drummer Asher Gamedze, Damola Olowade, Grandmaster CAP, Blk Jks’ guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata, vocalist Nosisi Ngakane, singer/trombonist Siya Makuzeni, bassist AusTebza Sedumedi and, on various keys including Wulitzer, Zoe Molelekwa.

Composite of the players (courtesy Mushroom Half Hour)

The 11 tracks include three, How to Make Art in a Pandemic, that run the artists’ spoken reflections on that very topic over textured sonic landscapes; parallelling the contents of the fanzine and underlining the dialectical relationship between staying optimistic and staying creative. That’s also one theme of the emceed tracks, Be The Light and (Tell the Gods) We Still Building, where Olowade’s flow in particular sounds out an arresting, surrealist poeticism: “Representing Moors/with everything to lose/Herbalise, verbalise the Blues/incorrigibly breaking all the house rules.”

Despite the geographical distances, the music feels like home for everybody. In particular, it’s precisely the right space for Makuzeni and Sedumedi.

The former often occupies that exciting borderland between jazz and the avant-garde and in this company there’s no need to pin one or the other – or any – label on her. She’s responsible for composing the track most likely to speak directly to jazz fans, Dune Dance, adding a very tasty ‘bone solo too. But she’s also co-composer and voice on the ethereally graceful Revelation, alongside Cissoko’s kora, as well as painting with effects on Ngakane’s compelling Ngikhethile.

As for the latter, South Africa has consistently underrated the experienced and insightful Sedumedi, maybe because she earns some of her bread in pop bands. At one Joy of Jazz festival, she was disgracefully programmed on the ‘newcomers’ stage. Here, she displays how her warm tone and flawless, imaginative pulse can enhance all genres, from rap to dream-like exploration and back to jazz. The theme she composed, Cuts and Pieces lays down a melancholy, gospel-flavoured canvas for other players to paint on. When that compelling bass, trombone and Cross’s tuba (offering rhythm and melody) are heard together, the bottom lines of the music become gorgeously grainy and growly, adding a sometimes unexpected richness to the sound.

It’s a pity the fanzine is only available for vinyl buyers: it’s illuminating about where creative musical voices find themselves right now, foregrounding the commonalities of no work and no pay everywhere. Tseliso Monaheng (also a key player in photographic and video images) provides an overview of the project as lyrical as any of the raps. And at the end,Tabara Korka Ndiaye’s short essay This is not an Article about Senegalese Jazz, captures the liminality and syncretism that are text for the outing and make it move.

In the end, neither genre nor the miles of separation matter, because the musicians “have the ability to travel… between spaces and time when we tell stories.” (How to Make Art in a Pandemic Part 3).  

Another story, cut short far too soon, is told this week in the release of a 2017 session from the Andre Petersen Quartet, originally recorded for the Downtown Jazz TV series. https://andrepetersen.bandcamp.com/album/andre-petersen-quartet-downtown-jazz-sessions?fbclid=IwAR1IcrgZynSbb5ZuUjbvF1-JA2vjl_QHUQwOnkCdQ2MuJicxSxyrJmVGOW8. Also featuring Romy Brauteseth, Sisonke Xonti and Ayanda Sikade, the music displays in full the intelligence and invention we lost when Petersen died. It’s a worthy memorial, and all proceeds will go to the pianist’s family. Buy it for everybody you can think of – not just because it’s a good cause, but because it’s superb music, representing a spirit that cannot die. 

RIP Lee Perry 1936-2021: the production genius who lit up the Jamaican music scene

It’s always risky to credit a musician as the “inventor” of a style. Music scenes are communities, where multiple professionals share – and talk about – the same concerns, insights and inspirations. But Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died yesterday aged 85, was the man whose remixes put dub out in the public arena and changed the reggae scene forever. Dub discs had the A-side vocals removed for a ‘B’ side enhanced with instruments and effects to create a democratic space over which any DJ could (and can) toast.

There’s no shortage of full tributes to Perry this morning, with all the details of his life story spelled out, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/aug/29/lee-scratch-perry-visionary-master-of-reggae-dies-aged-85 .

His contributions were many. He was a fine performer in his own right. He was also the studio architect of Bob Marley’s roots sound; his Afro-futurist worldview was every bit as self-aware and defiant as Sun Ra’s; his genius with found sounds prefigured the work of younger lions like Scientist and were as intellectually daring as anything on the European avant-garde scene. 

But dub sowed the seeds of so much. It was a beautifully subversive move: freeing the minds and words of a whole generation of inspired strugglers. Dub gave the DJs at the heart of London’s Black house party scene, for example, a sonic pulpit to turn A-side love songs into revolutionary exhortations and spiritual explorations (and vice versa). And despite the more seamless sophistication that more advanced technology brought to his work, the track below reminds us where it all started (and, incidentally, what close brethren the Jamaican jazz and reggae scenes were). Sadly, Django won’t return this time. Walk good, Mr Perry.

“Man! Chapita was alive!” Dick Khoza’s own words finally see the light

Some good news. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly 11 years since Matsuli Music first reissued percussionist and bandleader Dick Khoza’s groundbreaking 1976 Afro-jazz album Chapita. The music was a revelation for a generation of South African jazz lovers too young to know just how innovative the musical tastes of the Soweto Uprising generation had been.

Dick Khoza at the drums (courtesy As-Shams)

Now US label Tooth Factory, re-visiting the As-Shams label’s archive master tapes, is releasing an exclusive vinyl special edition in the States at the end of August (https://www.juno.co.uk/labels/Tooth+Factory+Music/ ), with regular vinyl and digital downloads available from the As-Shams Bandcamp site (https://as-shams.bandcamp.com/ ) from Friday 3 September.

The US edition is ‘special’ in all the usual ways (colour vinyl, special booklet and all that). What makes the whole 2021 project special is the inclusion of the original sleeve notes drafted by Khoza himself.

The anonymous 1976 As-Shams sleeve notes were fairly perfunctory. They lifted a few facts from Khoza’s account, but were mainly written in the vivid, stereotype-reliant, celeb journalism style of the era: “proudly pitch Black, big, barrel-chested and tough-looking…pounding with amazing fierceness anything from congas to bongos”, Khoza is described. Matsuli’s Matt Temple honoured Khoza’s recollections faithfully for his notes on the 2010 reissue, so you won’t find different facts. But for the first time you’ll access Khoza’s own words.

Accounts of Khoza’s influence on the South African jazz scene pop up everywhere: at least half the veterans interviewed for Lars Rassmussen’s 2003 Jazz People of Cape Town (https://www.booktrader.dk/books.html ) for example, allude to him in some capacity. From these accounts we know he was a superb musician, a shrewd organiser and entrepreneur (though some thought him too much of an operator) and a great spotter and encourager of talent in the raw. What we’ve lacked until now is insight into how his musical language and vision were formed.

The notes (you can read them in full at https://as-shams-org.blogspot.com/2021/08/dick-khoza-chapita-expanded-notes.html ) give us that.  

Khoza’s Malawian parents had settled in South Africa when he was very young. In 1944, he quit school: “I told my parents that ..I was going to try my luck somewhere else. Yet, my intention was to go and study music.” For a Black South African without the means for overseas college, that meant studying at the feet of established musicians.  By the ‘50s he was working with the Four Yanks in East London https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxd664n6wWiWsEzhh5U38FA , and then with Christopher ‘Columbus’ Ngcukana in Cape Town. From vocals and percussion, he took 14 months to master the drum-kit, while working with bandleader Lucky Malakana. By 1962, he can be heard as part of Eric Nomvete’s Big Five at the Cold Castle Jazz Festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m6mBUZnlsQ. He had met Nomvete during the reedman’s residency at the East London Bamboo Club.

For a time, Khoza had held a day job back in Durban: he served for three years at Point Military Camp (the Natal Command base). The army paid his wages, “but I decided to sleep during working hours” and he spent his nights at a jazz spot by the tram station called Ematremeni, listening to jazz greats like Dalton Khanyile and Alfred Nokwe with Tom Ndaba’s Swingsters Jazz Band. Of course, he was eventually busted out of the force.

With basist Sipho Gumede, whom he had met while organising young musicians’ workshops at the Durban YMCA, Khoza eventually landed in Joburg and into a job stage managing Lucky Michaels’ newly-opened Pelican Jazz Club in Orlando.

But it was the 1974 death of his father and his subsequent return to Malawi to visit the grave that shaped the sound of Chapita.

“It was while in Malawi during the independence ceremony when I learned new sounds. I found out that these were the sounds which were played by groups like Osibisa. They were not playing the real African sound but something similar. I told myself that this was what I needed to change the music scene back in SA. I came back after touring Zambia and Dar-es-Salaam, bringing this sound back to our black brothers and sisters’ ears as I felt this was the only sound to dig.”

Khoza was known to Rashid Vally of As-Shams through Joburg’s jazz circles and had been part of the label’s release, Tete’s Big Sound. And Vally was convinced by the drummer’s pitch for an album revisiting African musical roots. As-Shams didn’t use Khoza’s full sleeve notes, but they did accept his decision about the album cover image: a migrant worker wearing a blanket. And the title track’s lyrics, in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s national languages, reflect the pain of a migrant assuring his fellow-countryman encountered on the streets of Joburg that he can tell the family back home “everything’s fine” – when he knows in his heart it isn’t.

Khoza took what the 1976 liners describe as “the Pelican house band” (which he christened The African Peddlars) into the studio for the session. That’s only broadly true. The Pelican house band was always a core of Orlando-based musicians, augmented by whoever else was in town right then. For this session, it also encompassed Cape Town musicians touring with Richard Jon Smith, including old friends like tenor-man Ezra Ngcukana.

Khoza’s notes, in the Courier font of their original typing, tell us so much. Their chronology jumps around. Temple’s 2010 research, realigning them with the confirmed dates of other gigs and sessions, creates more of a temporal straight line. The originals use the memory-links of community and friendship to create a different pattern: an intricate, rich musical network – a much more densely populated scene than we might imagine under apartheid oppression. Who, outside their home towns, knows about the Ematremeni spot and the Bamboo Club today?

Above all, Chapita in Khoza’s account underlines the pan-Africanism of progressive politics in the struggle era, when a song about migrants, led by a South African of migrant heritage, spoken in his own language, could make a hit. Xenophobes, take note: you are not our history.

And by the way, as I said when it reappeared in 2010, it’s pretty powerful music too.

Let’s hear it for the composers!

When we talk about the devastation wrought on the music industry by Covid, we think mainly of the loss of live performances, artists and venues. We barely mention composers and songwriters.

 But if work isn’t performed, composers suffer too: they don’t earn royalties. The impact is more delayed, because reporting and payout through collection societies take time. That’s made it even harder for songwriters and composers to demonstrate they fit the ridiculously narrow criteria for Covid relief set by DSAC. There’s been no provision for their needs in any funding round, and their organisations have not been included in discussions.

South African composer Michael Blake (l) and Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza

Chair of the Music Publishers Association of South Africa (MPASA), David Alexander, has described to me his organisation’s attempts to engage: a letter to DSAC in 2020 which received only a formal acknowledgment; then two email and one in-person follow-ups, which received no response at all. None of that is surprising in our context, but no less depressing for that. MPASA is sending a further letter.

Additionally, the International Confederation of Music Publishers has issued a worldwide appeal to governments, pointing out “the wave of the commercial crisis caused by COVID-19 is only beginning to crash on our sector now… it means the effects will last long into 2022 – late next year will be the (non)payment period for the impossibility of business activity early this year…the music sector is the first hit and will be last to recover from this crisis. Left unsupported in the coming months, the sector faces nothing short of catastrophic harm to jobs, prosperity, trade and culture.”

Getting public sympathy behind the composers’ cause might be harder than for performing artists. In South Africa, we don’t even know who most of our composers are. Even original South African popular music is covered in the media too little; other varieties are covered hardly at all.

But it should be. The landscape is rich and diverse. If you want to know just how rich, try visiting The South African Composer Archive https://soundcloud.com/user-368144305 . In this podcast archive, you’ll find all kinds of music creators discussing and demonstrating their music in conversation with composer and violinist Matthijs van Dijk. It includes several of the names I mentioned last week (about whom I’ve had lots of inquiries), and ranges across genres from contemporary concert music to jazz, including Lungiswa Plaatjies and Reza Khota.

Flautist Esther-Marie Pauw

For concert music, keep an eye, too, on the AOI Edition label, the imprint of the Africa Open Institute based at Stellenbosch University. That has just released its second CD, Too Late for the Prayers: two works by Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza and two by South African Michael Blake, played by flautist Marietjie Pauw and the vibraphone/marimba Duo Infinite of Cherilee Adams and Dylan Tabisher. The title derives from what Tamusuza said as the recording wrapped up – it reflects a sentiment universal among musicians from every genre about the finality of that last studio take.

South Africans have known composer Blake as the founder of New Music South Africa and the helmsman of multiple composing and performance initiatives at the then-Grahamtown/now Makhanda National Arts Festival and since, including The Bow Project (https://www.cdroots.com/tutl-044.html ). They might know Tamusuza, who teaches at Makerere University, from his composition Ekitundu Ekisooka , released in 1992 on the Kronos Quartet’s internationally successful but not uncontroversial Pieces of Africa (https://music.apple.com/us/album/pieces-of-africa/322027808 ).

Too Late for the Prayers, though, is a very different kind of project. It’s the culmination of working encounters and a relationship developed over a long period of time between the two composers, with Blake’s 2015 solo flute piece Umngogqolo inspired by and responding to Tamusuza’s 1995 Okwanjula Kw’endere (Introduction of the flute): the latter inspired by Kiganda idioms and ceremony; the former by the bow and overtone music of the Eastern Cape.

You can find the two composers discussing their work and collaboration here: http://www.thejournalist.org.za/art/musical-masters-fuse-western-and-traditional-music/. Their album refuses classification. Gorgeously played – Pauw’s flute technique is astounding – it’s certainly not ‘fusion’ in any crude sense of elements from different traditions superimposed on one another or awkwardly glued together. But it does represent composers taking ownership of materials from multiple sources to create something new: “I make Western instruments speak my language,“ Tamusuza says. Blake’s Shoowa Panel translates visual and intellectual inspiration from Congolese raffia weaving, with its subversion of repeated patterns, into sound. Tamusuza’s Naakutendaga Emirembe Gyonna (I will Praise You God Forever) is a celebratory hymn evoking the communal joy of worship.

Duo Infinite

Genre labels really don’t matter. Miles Davis once said (or maybe some other player; quotes like these are hard to track back) “There are only two kinds of music: good – and the other kind…” Too Late for the Prayers is definitely the former.

So with those tuneful marimbas ringing in our ears, let’s hear it for the composers. Without them, performers who don’t write would have nothing to play or sing. And judging from the stony silence MPASA has so far had from government, somebody has to start making noise about their plight.

Radio stations matter: the musical massacre at ClassicFM

The late Sibongile Khumalo: South African classical musician

This isn’t always a blog about jazz. This week it’s about classical music, and in particular the blow to cultural diversity dealt by the format massacre at ClassicFM https://themediaonline.co.za/2021/06/classic-1027-to-change-format-embracing-old-skook-and-rb/ .

From July 1, Icasa granted the 1997-founded, genre-specific station permission to change its designation to “old skool and R&B”, flighting classical sounds only in the graveyard radio shift between 7pm and 5am as a selector playlist.

The broadcaster, as violinist Waldo Alexander quite correctly observed to MusicinAfrica https://www.musicinafrica.net/magazine/not-so-hot-classical-music-sa-suffers-another-blow-classic-fm-revamp, was never what it should have been. “They, already from an early stage, opted not to provide a platform for most of what South Africa has to offer, particularly in terms of the enormous amount of culturally diverse contemporary classical music that has been produced over the last century.” 

Instead, the station offered a profoundly reactionary, Eurocentric, vision, with “the world’s most beautiful music” (a slogan borrowed from the equivalent UK station) narrowed for most of the time to the products of a few northern European countries during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

In those early days, it was a joy to occasionally  – very occasionally – catch a track by Mokale Koapeng, Michael Blake, Kevin Volans or Paul Hanmer. But mostly it was two B’s and an M (Bach, Beethoven and Mozart) on repeat, sometimes played by South African performers and leavened with “light classical” or film score trivia.

Andile Khumalo South African classical composer

Even from Europe, early music and the concert music of the contemporary era got short shrift. Forget any acknowledgment that the rest of Africa (e.g. the court musics of Uganda; the griot music of the West, the oud music of the Arabic-speaking North) and the world (e.g. the Mughal courts) might have nurtured equally beautiful classical traditions.

Over the years, the station didn’t improve, as resource constraints shrank the number of presenters and therefore the taste palettes reflected. So why worry about what feels like an inevitable end?

First, for precisely those reasons. It didn’t have to happen. Instead of sticking to an already tired British formula, a niche music station leveraging the potential of worldwide digital listenership for a distinctive playlist heavy on original African composed content (and certainly with space for African interpretations of the European repertoire) might have stood a chance. You could have called it – oh, I don’t know… how about Fine Music Radio? What? That name’s been taken? Well, how about Something New Out of Africa?

(More conservatively, ClassicFM could have become a choral station for 2/3 of the day. That’s the biggest audience in the country and a demographic that research tells us definitely still listens to the radio. If you did it well – not a buried choral hour once a week, but featuring knowledgeable Black choral stars as presenters, new choral compositions and insider insights  – and gave it inspired marketing, you could have scooped the pool without offending your classical listeners’ ears quite so profoundly. But maybe advertisers demanded a format they believe appeals to a more monied demographic?)

Second, because unlike some other places in the world, not everybody here can turn to the web for the classical music they might want (or need – for example for music exams) to hear. Depending on whose statistics you look at, just under or just over half of all South Africans can’t rely on, before we even discuss afford, easy digital access.

Emily Motsieloa (l): legendary classical music teacher

Third, because of the nature of the formatting change. The station’s Lance Rothschild said the decision was based, among other factors, on “looking at where audiences were under-served.” And they came up with Old Skool and R&B? Surely nobody can possibly argue that Gauteng needs yet another variety of Dad Radio? Flip the tuner right now, mid-Sunday morning, and you’ll find it’s almost impossible to escape the kind of music the older members of your family think is still cool. (Thank goodness for Brenda Sisane!)

But finally, because Icasa’s decision about ClassicFM has profoundly betrayed its mandate. Go to the relevant web-page (https://www.icasa.org.za/pages/vision-mission-and-values#:~:text=To%20ensure%20that%20all%20South,communication%20services%20at%20affordable%20prices). Mostly, the page is crammed with management jargon so generic as to be totally devoid of any concrete meaning: “viable”, “stakeholder-centric” “eradicate silos”, “proactive manner”. It’ll send your crapometer off the scale.

But one central idea has survived: the mission to “ensure that all South Africans have access to a wide range of high-quality communication services at affordable prices.” Yet the ClassicFM decision has a) reduced the range of available content; b) cut off from certain content South Africans on the wrong side of the digital divide; and c) erased a potential, even if unrealised space for high-quality content for the sake of more boring, middle-of-the-road, largely American, pop commodities. As well as cutting off royalty revenue for performers, composers and music publishers at a time when the industry is bleeding, and eliminating the serendipity possible when some kid, somewhere, just happens to get their ears caught by something different on the radio that they like.

Clare Loveday South African classical composer

An affection for European classical music was part of township life long before Buskaid, despite what many media stories imply. It lived and thrived alongside all the other musics there and created astounding, edgy cross-fertilizations: listen to Für Elise sneaking into this 1974 Batsumi track if you doubt me https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/itumeleng. Don Mattera enjoyed opera while he was still a Sophiatown skollie https://www.africanbookscollective.com/books/memory-is-the-weapon … Michael Moerane, Mzilikazi Khumalo, Khabi Mngoma, Sibongile Khumalo, Kolwane Mantu, the Khemese Brothers, Volans, Jill Richards, Hanmer, Clare Loveday, Blake, Phillip Miller, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Neo Muyanga, Koapeng, Cara Stacey, Phelelani Mnomiya, Andile Khumalo… I could fill books with composers and performers past and present-day: more than enough to start programming a unique music platform even before we bring jazz into the mix…(which, of course, I hope we would) And Icasa’s just rubbed out that radio space. Thanks.

DSAC’s same-old, same-old and New Horizons new edition

It’s Women’s Day today. As usual, reactions to the event are split. One the one hand there’s gushing sentimentality made even more distasteful by commercial pink-washing. On the other, critical voices rightly point out that the day does absolutely nothing to change the real situation of women living under patriarchy.

The Women’s March: behind the names we do know, all hail the thousands we don’t!

But while the latter view is more accurate, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the day. We celebrate it to mark the heroism of the women who marched to Pretoria to challenge the structurally gendered apartheid regime. The day has nothing to do with pink roses, perfume, motherhood or apple pie. Its message is about the necessity for continued struggle, carrying forward the efforts of the marching women whose names we know – and the thousands whose names we don’t. So: Women’s Day – a luta continua!

Patriarchy, though, isn’t just about men oppressing women. It’s also about men commanding power over other men, and the deference sycophantically offered to a ‘chief’ – in families, organisations, communities and political structures.

Such as, for example, government departments.

Last week, the Department of Sport, Art and Culture went on the offensive, presenting  a #FortheRecord virtual “public engagement” in which DSAC Minister Nathi Mthethwa defended https://www.news24.com/citypress/voices/opinion-accounting-for-care-and-support-given-to-creatives-20210806 the department’s record over assistance to the arts and culture community during the pandemic. A slick graphic displayed monies disbursed, accompanied by an attack on those peddling what the minister called a “fictional tale” that the Department has been uncaring and unresponsive.

There’s absolutely no reason to suggest the minister is reluctant to assist his own sector, and I’ll leave it to others to unpick any problems there might be with the figures presented. (see, for example, here: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-08-10-an-artists-response-to-nathi-mthethwas-alternative-facts/ )But the “engagement” was a classic smokescreen: a tactic to divert attention from the things it didn’t discuss.

First, for years – long before Covid – the department has operated on a mistaken business model biased towards formal structures and “jobs”, when the reality of the creative industries landscape is about short-term, project-based “work”. That made it difficult for many – perhaps the majority – of cultural workers to assemble the documentation necessary to even apply for Covid relief. Second, there is much credible testimony from cultural workers that they did experience uncaring and unresponsive treatment from representatives of arts and culture structures when seeking relief. (Didn’t somebody, for example, dismiss the nadir of Covid impact with a statement that SA theatre was “alive and well”?)  And, of course, third, there was absolutely no explanation of the inexplicably confused, incompetent, questionable — and according to the courts, probably illegal – PESP disbursement farce at the National Arts Council.

To add insult to injury, the “engagement” prefaced this more than usually flimsy diversion tactic with an accusation that cultural workers are ungrateful: “[I was told]  that support provided by the minister and department (…) is warmly embraced. But even so, it should be expected that even by the next day, if not sooner, the same beneficiaries could publicly proclaim victimhood and go on an onslaught against the department and its political heads. At the time, this counsel felt like an unlikely possibility. But as they say, time is a teacher of note.”

So, same old, same old from DSAC, this time with added victim-blaming.

Still, on a day celebrating courage in struggle, we can’t end on such a cynical note. While patriarchal bureaucrats continue to deny everything, those ungrateful cultural workers continue to create exciting, moving, beautiful music.

It’s almost a year since the first volume of DJ Okapi’s Afrosynth label New Horizons SA jazz compilation https://afrosynth.bandcamp.com/album/new-horizons appeared. Now, Volume 2 is on the horizon, scheduled for release on September 15 with orders already open https://afrosynth.bandcamp.com/album/v-a-new-horizons-vol-2. If you collect vinyl, grab that record, because it’ll go fast.

New Horizons 1 might have been a hard act to follow – if the South African jazz scene hadn’t been so rich and creative despite its struggles even to survive. As it is, the compilation has managed to bring together some music that is already known, plus tasters of other work that you might have missed. Some albums were simply pressed in short runs when they first appeared; others, released in 2020, suffered from lockdown and thelack of live launches.

Examples of the better-known include tracks from Sisonke Xonti’s uGaba, the ZAR Jazz Orchestra’s Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi and Afrika Mkhize’s 2015 Rain Dancer. The chosen tracks are all worth hearing again and – as I noted when I reviewed Volume 1 https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/10/06/new-horizons-a-starry-compilation/ – hearing them juxtaposed with new company (one of the strengths of Okapi’s ears as producer) makes you listen to them in a new way.

So, hearing Xonti’s track in the company of music from Muhammad Dawjee, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Mthunzi Mvubu and Linda Sikhakhane makes you realise that there is a fresh sax voice emerging in South Africa. It owes a lot to the giants like Mankunku,  Khaya Mahlangu, Rachabane and more, and the idiomatic South African reed attack is still audible – but it’s also paying dues to a bigger worldwide tradition, with the modal journey as important as finding the way “home”. You can join similar dots thinking about piano styles, vocal approaches and trumpets (though it’s a pity we don’t hear Ndabo Zulu’s horn, just his composition).

The selection of freshly discovered, or rediscovered tracks is a delight. Drummer Ayanda Sikade’s album as leader, Movements, became scarce as hen’s teeth almost as soon as it arrived in 2019, so did Sikhakhane’s 2017 Two Sides One Mirror. Pianist/vocalist Siphelelo Ndlovu’s Afrikanization suffered from a 2020 lockdown launch, but his magnificent set at Makhanda underlined the quality of his music. Muhammad Dawjee’s Otherness only made it out as single in 2019, but we definitely need to hear the rest of the album soon.

It’s clear from the innovation, originality and lyricism on New Horizons 2 that, if anything, gratitude is owed in the reverse direction. Wouldn’t it be nice if – while they were still alive – the department dropped its passive-aggressive posturing and just said to artists: thank you for the music?

Blue Stompin’ and Kippie Moeketsi’s two fingers to oppression

Ninety-six years ago last week (the biographies disagree on whether July 25 or July 27), saxophonist Jeremiah Morolong “Kippie” Moeketsi was born. To mark the occasion, Canadian label Wearebusybodies reissued the long out of print 1977 As-Shams album Blue Stompin’ https://wearebusybodies.bandcamp.com/track/blue-stompin.

Not surprisingly, vinyl has already sold out, though the digital reissue remains available.

The headliners play together – recorded as part of a 1974 US State Department-sponsored jazz tour – only on the first, title, track, supported by Singer’s American rhythm section, Gus Nemeth on bass, Alain Jean-Marie on piano and Oliver Johnson on drums.

The remaining three tracks are a showcase, in various combinations, for As-Shams’ stellar South African jazz stable: Barney Rachabane and Duku Makasi on reeds, Pat Matshikiza and Jabu Nkosi on keys, Sipho Gumede on bass and Gilbert Matthews on drums.

Liner notes were by Drum magazine’s then jazz editor Joe Tholoe; the cover photograph of a pensive Moeketsi cradling his horn inspired artist Thami Mnyele’s later graphic representation of the musician.   

This has been the cue for some overseas reviewers to rehash all the tired Moeketsi mythology (see, eg, the London Financial Times at https://www.ft.com/content/03c8a833-ccb9-46f5-b749-ed692e984030 ) about the reedman’s drunken belligerence and years spent in an “alcoholic haze”.

Myths are based on real events. Nobody denies that Moeketsi drank too much. Few of the re-hashers, though, tell the other parts of the story. Moeketsi’s proud and articulate nationalism, his refusal to stay silent about exploitative working conditions, and the fact that the electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), administered as “treatment” when he was with King Kong in London, seriously messed with his mind for years after. (Even with today’s far more sophisticated applications, MIND, the UK mental health charity reports “loss of creativity…difficulty concentrating” as possible long term ECT side effects https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/electroconvulsive-therapy-ect/side-effects-of-ect/

The story of that ECT, in Kippie’s own words (Staffrider, November 1981 https://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/pdf_files/stv4n381.pdf ), and an English doctor’s philistine diagnosis of the stresses felt by a creative Black South African surviving under apartheid, is so heartbreaking it’s hard even to read.

“One day, the doctors took me to a concert…They suspected that I thought too much musically…that my liking of music could have been one of the causes of my sudden illness that made me to be not quite normal” When Kippie was driven, cheering, to his feet by the quality of the playing – no surprise: it was the Oscar Peterson Quartet with Ella Fitzgerald – “The doctor said ‘No, Kippie, I think you’re still not awright’… I was discharged having been given treatment – like electric shock – three times. That thing can make you stupid, man. It makes you become forgetful. Even now, I’m like that, forgetful …But the doctor said it would do me good…I would eventually become insane if I kept on thinking too much about music.”

Kippie Moeketsi (centre) reimagined by MEDU artist Thami Mnyele

Those were among the demons Moeketsi spent subsequent years battling. As Tholoe wrote in the original liner notes:

“[I]nto this story some will read a curve: from Kippie teaching himself music by imitation, to a climax of artistic achievement and renown in this country, and then the decline… Others will read a lifetime of involvement, in spite of personal problems. Count me among the latter. A life-time of involvement: Kippie was among the few who understood bebop while the rest of us were still doing the jitterbug to the sounds of swing. In his way he made us see what it was all about. He has seen a generation of colleagues go to join the Orchestra Up Yonder, or merely leave their horns to spiders and their webs while they got on the straight and narrow path of grandfather-hood and six to six jobs at factories. Kippie continues on the wide, wide – often unappreciated – road, creating music.

The rest of Blue Stompin’ is a lovely album that adds lustre to the reputations of all the South Africans who contributed. Moeketsi alongside Singer in the ensemble plays sweet, bluesy, but fairly restrained. He had those old-school bandstand manners, those who remember him told me: if you’re welcoming a horn guest to South Africa, you give his music the space.

But the first one minute 20 seconds are like nothing you’ll ever hear again.

They are filled by an unaccompanied fanfare from Moeketsi’s horn. Anguished and impassioned, it tells his story and the stories of all our jazz heroes who resisted oppression. This is who I am, it sings. Listen and you’ll hear it all: apartheid’s attempts to crush the creative Black spirit, the levels of musical attainment he nevertheless achieved, and that British mental hospital’s attempt to torture the music – often the only thing that kept Black artists anywhere near sane under such ugly conditions – out of him. For that gigantic, intelligent, beautiful and moving fuck-you alone, you must hear this album.