Movement in the City and The Drive: SA jazz with soul

South Africa’s soul-jazz movement of the late 1970s and early ‘80s hasn’t been documented as well as it should have been, with far fewer reissues than it merits. So the reappearance of The Drive’s 1975 Can You Feel It? and a track from Movement In the City’s 1981 Black Teardrops (with the whole album very soon) provide a chance to reflect on why the genre mattered and what it meant then – and means now.

The Drive grew from the foundations of the Heshoo Beshoo Band , but in this later formation the taste of the Sithole Brothers (joined for this outing by trumpeter brother David) for impassioned horn sounds gets much fuller rein. Its extended opener, Way Back Fifties, gives us the historic version,  paying homage to how the legendary bandleaders of a quarter-century earlier used brass. You can hear that in the juxtaposition of chorus groove and solos over familiar chords, and in Bheki Mseleku’s foundation keyboard motif. But the content of the solos comes from ears equally attuned to the rude honks and bluesy church wails James Brown was pulling from his backing bands. Meanwhile, the track provides perfect extended support for the kind of bump jive that Soweto Soul outfits like the Movers were dishing for stylish dancers right then, and was wrapped in psychedelic cover art whose pattern might have been lifted straight from one of Brown’s shirts.

In all those assertions and links (local and international) lies the meaning of the music.

Black solidarity couldn’t abide barriers. Civil rights struggles in Atlanta mattered, just like the Angola civil war and the Alexandra bus boycotts of the ‘50s mattered.  As Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse recalls of his work with The Beaters/Harari in the same era: “That political influence was coming too, from America and from what was happening here, along with the music. People were clued up. Martin Luther King was happening, Black Consciousness was beginning to develop, Steve Biko…” The Drive may not have been politicians, but they had pride in their community and identity and the music spoke that loud.

(Where The Beaters/ Harari took that mix will be accessible again early next year in a reissue from Matsuli)

But that was 1975, and in 1976 the police killings and intensifying resistance during and following the Soweto Uprising led many musicians to start ramping up those implicit declarations. 

For keyboardist Ismail ‘Pops’ Mohamed, reedman Basil ‘Mannenberg’ Coetzee and bassist Sipho Gumede, the implicit politics of their heavily soul-inflected jazz were always about rejecting the artificial divisions apartheid tried to sow between Black communities.

“The sound the three of us had developed,” says Mohamed, “was very special. We were bridging between a Joburg and a Cape Town feel – but still keeping the funk alive.” For Mohamed’s Reiger Park community and Coetzee’s in Cape Town’s District Six – places of mixed heritage, both of which apartheid labelled ‘coloured’ –  sweet soul music with space for dancing was particularly admired. Gumede hailed from KZN but now played on Joburg’s ‘serious’ jazz platforms. “But it was always very important for us not to stay inside the classification,” recalled Mohamed of the first outfit that brought the three together, Black Disco

 “The regime divided us – people classified coloured had identity documents; black people had the dompas. We didn’t accept that separation. Sipho …could play any feel. Sometime he’d joke and ask me: ‘Does [my bass line] feel coloured enough?’”

Pops Mohamed

When the three joined up with other musicians including Cape Town drummer Monty Weber to co-found Movement in the City, “the name was code for let’s fight the system.” The outfit released two albums, in 1979, Movement in the City, and in 1981, Black Teardrops.

“It was a very dark time for us, personally and politically, and the two albums, including Black Teardrops (another title the censor didn’t like) came from that emotional place,” recalled Mohamed.

The 1981 release featured Richard Peters as well as Gumede on bass, Roger Harry on drums (with Weber on one track) and Robbie Jansen alongside Coetzee on reeds.  Look on the collectors’ sites today, and you’ll find that latter described as ‘vanishingly rare’, with original pressings commanding eye-watering prices. The re-release puts it within everybody’s reach again.

The full re-release from Sharp Flat Records and drawing on the rich As-Shams label archive, will be in vinyl only; for now, a radio edit of the opener, Lament, is available as an advance purchase.

Basil Manenberg Coetzee

Jansen is a brilliant addition, and Coetzee’s playing is a revelation for anybody who only has memories of Manenberg. On the title track, his characteristic ornamented, heartfelt phrasing gets ample space to stretch out – his music can be nothing else but the expression of those teardrops. On the closer, Camel Walk, we hear him playing flute on a melody referencing Middle Eastern faith roots and so another spiritual dimension of identity. Coetzee’s flute features far less frequently than sax on his recordings; after hearing this superb solo, that’s a real pity. None of it would work without Gumede’s bass lines holding it all together, and the richness of Mohamed’s keyboard textures.

By the early 1980s, South Africa’s soul-jazz was translating the sorrow and fervour of the post ’76 period into passionate music. That’s why it mattered then.  But you could play Black Teardrops for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and its meaning wouldn’t pass a contemporary audience by. Its soul still speaks today.   

Hilton Schilder In New York: keys, bows and surprises

Look at multi-instrumentalist Hilton Schilder on the cover of his 2003 album No Turning Back, and you see a cool guy in a sharp black overcoat, cherubic with a hint of gangsta (the gold chain, and that gilt blade with which he’s seeing to his nails). That was then; this is now. On his current release Hilton Schilder in New York ( ) there’s a wholly different kind of cool going on. Over the past 16 years, Schilder has matured into an avuncular elder in shades, sporting a beard of positively Tolkien proportions, perched on a bronze mushroom (part of de Creeft’s Central Park Alice in Wonderland statue) and playing a mouth-bow.

Apply your ears to the two albums and not so much has changed. Everything Schilder was doing then – the idiomatic rolling, oceanic left hand that belongs to the Cape; the intricately overlapping threads of sound; the catchy tunes segueing into adventurous abstraction and back; even the sound of the bow – are all still there. But in the 16 years between, they’ve become so much…more.

In New York was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, during a weekend devoted to South African sounds late last year: Schilder’s first visit to America.  He’s in the company of bassist Jimmy Mngwandi, Will Calhoun, a distinguished US drummer who’s played with everybody from Pharoah Sanders and BB King to Living Colour, and vocalist Siya Makuzeni.

Schilder was born into music, as a son of the late pianist Tony Schilder. His father was one of five terrifyingly talented brothers (pianists Anthony, Chris and Richard, drummer Jackie and bassist Phillip) and the young Hilton grew up immersed in music – by legend, he was sneaking time on drummer Monty Weber’s kit at the age of three. His initial instrument was percussion; he was both drawn to and apprehensive of keyboards because of his relatives’ stellar achievements.

That was then…2003

The list of Hilton’s early bands in Cape Town runs the gamut of the city’s genres and scenes: the klopse troupes; Airforce; Soft Landing; Love Supreme; Big Daddy (where he finally began playing piano); African Dream; as co-founder of The Genuines with Mac McKenzie; in Sons of Table Mountain with Robbie Jansen ; in the Goema Captains; in Rock Art and the SA/Swiss Iconoclast with Alex van Heerden; in many, many of his own small groups – and by now, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting breathless just listing them.

Along the way there have been around a dozen albums, including the intensely spiritual Rebirth,  which reflected on his 2010 encounter with cancer.

Schilder plays every kind of keyboard and has been developing his skills on the bow for 35 years, part of his exploration of multiple heritages including the San, the first citizens of the Cape.

The bow is where In New York opens, with the two-minute Alien of Extraordinary Ability (a USimmigration category)demonstrating the delicate nuances of sound and texture the instrument can produce.

After that, the subsequent eight tracks travel through solo piano to trio work to a central set of songs where Makuzeni proves the perfect vocal partner, equally capable of those shifts from melodic to outer space, particularly on the Hermeto Pascual tribute The Art of Flying. Mngwandi and Calhoun provide empathetic support – and much more: check Calhoun’s impressive solo on Tesna 10 and Mngwandi’s work on Birsigstrasse 90.

The Cape Town jazz scene has never been snobbish about genre, never despised hummable tunes and rhythms that dancers can jazz to, never disparaged sentiment as a musical spice. Schilder’s life in music has given him an archive of all that, to weave in and out of compositions where the rhythms can also get more jagged, and the harmonies more risky, like glittering threads in a tapestry. For a predominantly American audience who may have heard less Cape Jazz than we have or may expect it all to sound like Abdullah Ibrahim, alongside skill and technical mastery the evening must have been one of constant, mercurial surprise. From the applause, they loved it.

(And of course you can hear that Schilder comes from the same musical place as Ibrahim – but his journeys and those of his family have been different, and when you run your fingers across his tapestry, it doesn’t feel the same.)

There’s always something special about a live recording. It isn’t just four players on a stage; it’s an audience musicking along and a vibe too. In New York provides all that alongside superb musicianship and Schilder’s distinctive personal vision. It’s also a piece of history, from the time just before audiences became risky and musical narratives had to be constructed for a screen.  It reminds us what we’re missing, and what, hopefully, a vaccine and sensible social behaviour will help us towards winning back. But even when we do, there won’t ever be a night exactly like this one again, because you can’t push a repeat button on great improvisation.

• A single is available of The Art of Flying , and you can watch the live show at But I preferred the recording; the imaginary pictures are better. It’s that kind of music – thanks, Hilton.

Sisonke Xonti’s uGaba – migrating to new dreams

Reedman Sisonke Xonti

What does it mean to play ‘in the tradition’? Does it imply an obligation to ‘sound like’ specified previous musicians? Does it forbid innovation?

When we’re thinking about jazz, we can find both restrictive and much more open meanings.

Traditions that stifle

In the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘Trad’  (traditional) jazz attempted to replicate some particular aspects of the historic New Orleans sound – which its predominantly white British players also called ‘Dixieland’.  We rightly find that problematic today. It raises issues of appropriation, invokes undeserved nostalgia for the trappings of the racist American Old South – and, in many cases, the claimed ‘authenticity’ of sound and instrumentation isn’t authentic at all. For a knowledgeable deconstruction see this article .  In its heyday it became a stifling fashion. The revolutionary arrival of Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and the rest of the Blue Notes in London was a massive breath of fresh air.

In South Africa under apartheid, the music ‘traditions’ approved by the censors were those defined as tribally ‘pure’ by white ethnologists at right-wing universities. There was very little room for jazz, because it didn’t fit those narrow boxes.

Traditions that nurture growth

But while the ideologues of apartheid were building prisons of tradition, other, far more open traditions were developing in the Black townships. Jazz players were drawing inspiration from the diverse voices of roots music urban and rural, the classical music of parlours, school halls and churches, and the newest ideas off the record-store shelves. In the Cape, those sounds became an isiXhosa-inflected strand of modern South African jazz: the lingua franca of Eric Nomvete, Pukwana, the Ngcukana family, Tete Mbambisa and many more, including Winston Mankunku.

Christopher Columbus Ngcukana

That was never a limiting tradition: the patriarch baritone player Christopher Columbus Ngcukana, who played over four to the floor on Tem Hawker’s bandstand, was the same man who encouraged the innovative “fowl run” squawks and honks of fearless free jazz before almost anybody else in the country.

Sisonke Xonti in the tradition…

Winston Mankunku Ngozi

When we describe reedman Sisonke Xonti as playing ‘in the tradition’, that’s the one we mean. Growing up in Khayelisha, Xonti heard those historic sounds and loved them, especially the sounds of Mankunku. Now, on his second album, uGaba: the Migration, formally launching today November 13, we hear the new territory he’s taking it to.

uGaba is Xonti’s clan name, and the album cover riffs on the historic theme of cattle ( remember Yakhal’inkomo?), depicting a herdsman’s hand grasping his stick as the herd looks on impassively behind him.

…and moving forward from it

The nine tracks centre on the four-movement Migration Suite, inevitably invoking Zim Ngqawana’s three-part Migrant Workers Suite on the album San. Xonti’s migration, however, very explicitly operates on different levels. Partly – signposted by Tebo Moleko’s accompanying poem – it is about the migration-dominated story of South Africa. Overlaid on that, though, is the theme of Xonti’s migration through human experience from his somewhat sheltered younger years to today’s confident awareness of who he is, and how he relates to the world and people around him.

Some of those people are his co-musicians, with whom he’s shared parts of that journey. He roomed with vocalist, pianist and co-producer Yonela Mnana for a time “and he got to know how I think and how I want a tune to sound; Yonela was the first name I thought of to co-produce.”  Bassist Benjamin Jephta, “I’ve worked with him since my first gig at Mojos in Obs. I didn’t have my sound concept yet and he helped: that was ten years ago – a very special moment. The bass is so important.” Trumpeter Sakhile Simani has been a companion “since high school in Makhanda”; guest trumpet Lwanda Gogwana “was at university when I joined the Little Giants and worked with us; he was the one who introduced me to John Coltrane – he’s like my big brother.” The ensemble also includes drummer Siphelelo Mazibuko, veteran percussionist Tlale Makhene  – “It’s an honour  to feature him” –and guest singer Keorapetse Koloane.

If you enjoyed Xonti’s debut, Iyonde, you’ll find much of the same quietly lyrical composition here. Always, though, it’s firmly in that Eastern Cape tradition, shifting fluidly from those contemplative melodies to spiky improvised fowl run, and back to the rolling rhythms of home. Minneapolis is deep blue: a moving slow lament for George Floyd. Nomalungelo  recalls the classic township tunes the Little Giants taught him, with Mnana’s vocals taking us back to the Jazz Ministers era and Gogwana contributing trumpet notes that would have gladdened the late Johnny Mekoa’s heart.

The Call is the track that’s likely to get the Kaya-FM replays: a five-minute song of positivity and new beginnings in nature and life, with allusions to club lounge sounds, but far more musical depth.  

It’s the most explicitly iconoclastic track, Sinivile, though, that’s also the most characteristic of the tradition Xonti is taking forward. The lyric talks, through call and response, about the sometimes fraught relationship between musical mentors and their upcoming successors: “Teachers – let us make our own mistakes.” Xonti’s soprano weaves around the solidly traditional rhythm patterns, emerging into the kind of freshly painted abstraction that we recognise is his alone.

“I composed the melody in Zim’s style,” explains Xonti. “But then the bridge explores my narrative of sounds. So the music illustrates what the lyric is about: we thank you, this is what you have given us – now, this is what I want to do.”

So uGaba gives us a third level of migration too: a sonic journey.  Every track pays a little of that kind of homage to Xonti’s musical foundations, but every track travels into the future too, showing where the music can go. “I hope,” he says, “that people listening will take away that sense of journey, and reflect on who they are, what they’ve been through – and where they want to go!”            

2020: a Coltrane kind of year

If there’s one thing we need this year, it’s healing.So it’s maybe not surprising that 2020 has been a year for renewed focus on the music of John and Alice Coltrane (born in 1926 and 1937 respectively) in jazz internationally and in South Africa, and through new releases and reissues from Lakecia Benjamin, Winston Mankunku and Sisonke Xonti and a boundary-breaking Wits collaboration with Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Nii Noi Nortey.

We need physical healing, of course, for a virus that’s now killed one-and-a quarter million people worldwide, and creeping closer to 20 000 in this country alone. Economic healing too, for the poverty and inequality the virus has exacerbated. (Please don’t respond that lockdowns have been, in that context, ‘worse than the disease’, forgetting all those possibly preventable deaths of breadwinners). And spiritual healing for isolation, fear, misogyny, racism and rightwing power-grabs.

Lakecia Benjamin

Lakecia Benjamin

It started in March this year with the release of Lakecia Benjamin’s Pursuance: the Coltranes an album dedicated to the music of both Coltranes, with seven tunes by John and six by Alice. For Benjamin “as musicians our job is to heal and spread joy throughout the planet,” ( ) and the two musicians represented “the perfect dynamic of what a complete musicians should be…technically proficient, spiritually proficient, good human beings.”

The spiritual, intellectual and musical links between the Tranes and Africa aren’t hidden. They are there in track sounds and titles (Africa/Brass ; Blue Nile ) and in the close personal friendships the two formed with, for example, West African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.  John Coltrane wrote about his own spiritual awakening in the liner notes to A Love Supreme: “… in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

Winston Mankunku

And that spiritual link to Africa was heard by Africans on the continent. This has been a Trane year for us partly because of two re-releases featuring the saxophonist Winston ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi, who felt John Coltrane as a spiritual presence in his own creativity. The Toronto-based wearebusybodies label has just re-released Yakhal’Inkomo; on December 7 Matsuli Music will reissue the Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (Chris Schilder) Quartet’s 1968 Spring, which was for Mankunku an explicit homage to Trane. “[Spring] was more in the mood of Trane,” the reedman told me. “Even today, when I want to play, I take him and put him inside of me. Inside [my head and heart].”

Nii Noi Nortey

But that wasn’t just happening for South Africans. Another reason this has been a Trane year is the Wits University School of the Arts project Cosmology: a mini-festival that ran in the final week of October, collaborating with and building on the foundations laid by Ghanaian reedman and multi-instrumentalist Nii Noi Nortey and his Anyaa Arts Quartet. Nortey had gone to London in 1972 to study economics, but rapidly moved towards music, inspired by Coltrane and disciples such as Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler.

Nii Noi Nortey plays an Afrifon

“The cultural outlook of this new music was also an African one, and African traditional musical instruments featured prominently (…) The music of Coltrane and especially A Love Supreme was essentially a call for freedom,” Nortey told me by email from Accra. Amid the Western power manipulations of the Cold War era, Nortey says, Coltrane’s music became “a healing force [for]…the spiritual needs of the African revolutionary struggles”.

Nortey’s past and current work takes the concept of Africa brass literally; he has developed his own ‘Afrifons’. These are African wind instruments re-visioned through “the use of different saxophone mouthpieces and different lengths of bells on different lengths of pipes to produce new sound possibilities,” he says, and were initially inspired by the ways free music allowed saxophones to “squeal, scream, screech and speak”. 

Afrifonic sculpture at the Anyaa Arts Centre in Accra

The Wits Cosmology project – which, pre-Covid, had hoped to invite Nortey to Johannesburg – was in long-distance conversation with him and inspired by his work on Coltrane’s music as the programme was developed. The guiding idea, as for Nortey, was the way African jazz can break free of all kinds of boundaries. Its musical director, bassist Chantal Willie-Petersen, takes us back to Lakecia Benjamin in her repertoire choices: she included compositions by both Coltranes: Giant Steps and Blue Nile.

Sisonke Xonti

Standard Bank 2020 Young Artist in jazz Sisonke Xonti

The final link in this 2020 Col-chain is saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, whose own second album uGaba – the Migration  (no web sales yet; it should be online by then) launches in Cape Town next week. At his Johannesburg virtual launch, in conversation with DJ Kenzhero, he was asked the impossible question “Mankunku or Trane?” To which he, of course, responded, “Both, man! They’re my gods!” uGaba includes material premiered at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda back in July. One composition, Sinivile, addresses “our teachers [in music]… we hear you,” Xonti explained, “but please give us the room to make our mistakes.” He expressed the desire for many more open, cross-generational South African jazz collaborations.

And that connects with Benjamin’s work too. Unusually, in her earlier jazz studies, the saxophonist encountered Alice Coltrane first, and was instantly drawn to a musical concept that was “really powerful…really spiritual…straight to the heart”. When Benjamin then heard John Coltrane, it was with ears that heard him as “like a different side of the same person”. When she was courageously cold-calling various other jazz artists for her album project, she also sought those open, cross-generational collaborations as part of it. Among those who agreed to be part of Pursuance were bassists Ron Carter and and Reggie Workman. And their participation mattered, she reflects, because they had been part of the original healing mission: “They knew why John Coltrane made A Love Supreme.”  

Heshoo Beshoo: back in full force across Armitage Road

Some albums become legends almost as soon as they appear. One such was Armitage Road from the Heshoo Beshoo Group, initially released in 1970 on the EMI Starline label. Now, in its half-century year, Armitage Road has received a respectful re-release from the Canada-based wearebusybodies label, in digital, vinyl and CD formats

If you’ve never heard it, you no longer have an excuse.

Why the legendary status? In part, it’s because of that initial, quite small, distribution, so that many more people heard of the music’s reputation than could actually buy the album – something that also happened to another famed LP, the Soul Jazzmen’s Inhlupeko.

Partly, it’s also because of what happened subsequently. The Heshoo Beshoo reedmen, brothers Henry Sithole on alto and Stanley on tenor, and drummer Nelson Magwaza, joined up with guitarist Bunny Luthuli, a very young  keyboard player called Bheki Mseleku and others, to form another legendary outfit, the Drive (Way Back ‘50s). Then, in 1977, the brothers died tragically young in a Tzaneen car crash, devastating South Africa’s soul jazz scene.

But most of all, it’s legendary because of the music, and, in particular, the compositions and guitar playing of Cyril Magubane.

The Sithole brothers were both distinctive, robust players who, like many saxophonists of that era, got their schooling through early careers playing penny-whistle. Henry featured in Almon Memela’s Jazz 8 and Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers and played in the pit band for Gibson Kente’s musical drama Sikalo. It was Henry’s alto playing that most excited the writer of the original liner notes, Al Lewis: he described it as the album’s “most avant-garde influence (…) he plays in a way that shows he’s keeping up with developments in the States while still retaining his African roots.”

That makes me wonder how many South African altoists (er… Kippie Moeketsi?) Lewis had really listened to. Certainly, Sithole has a warm, personal voice and good ideas. But he isn’t – and this is absolutely not a criticism – ‘avant-garde’. He isn’t aiming for the edgy, challenging modernism of, say, Batsumi: he plays like his musical heart is in a different place, and later characterisations of The Drive as ‘soul-jazz’ capture that direction well.

It’s interesting that the Sitholes, Magwaza and Magubane were all born and started their musical lives in Durban. Only the bassist, Ernest Mothle, originated in Gauteng, in the cradle of modern jazz: Mamelodi.  That they all ended up in Orlando says a lot about the jazz university the streets of that particular Joburg township were. Two years after Armitage Road, Lucky Michaels would establish The Pelican as a pioneering Black modern jazz venue there. But the place’s jazz inheritance extends a long time before that. Orlando was the home of early bandleaders Wilson ‘Kingforce’ Silgee and Solomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele, of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and more. Sophiatown, as Orlando jazz fundis will always tell you, was never the whole of Joburg jazz.

Armitage Road in Orlando was where Cyril Magubane lived in 1970 and the album cover, which shows the band trucking across it, is clearly a riff  (and a subtly subversive riff at that) on the iconography of the Beatles Abbey Road. Magubane in his wheelchair appears a small, frail figure, the slenderness of his limbs emphasised by the chair’s cumbersome wheels.

There was nothing small about his musical ability or intellect.

Magubane had contracted polio when he was three, and had needed a wheelchair since then. When he cut Armitage Road, he was 24. Think about that: he was of an age when, today, he might barely have graduated from a university music course. Yet he composed four of the five tracks on the album (Henry Sithole wrote the other). Each melody is distinctive; all are memorable and spacious vehicles for imaginative improvisation, from the stomping rhythmic base of Amabutho to the stretched-out contemplation of Lazy Bones.  Magubane was doing the most avant-garde thing of all, seeking to sound like himself, and, at 24, he was already a composer with voice and range.

However, it’s easy to forget about the compositional intelligence when you hear the playing. Professor Mageshen Naidoo has done extensive scholarly work on Magubane’s music, and performed his own arrangements of it; he remains blown away by the fluency and imagination of the original playing. Listen carefully to how each solo begins, unfolds, travels and comes back home, listen to the dazzling execution, and you’ll be left in breathless awe every time. As guitar historian and player Billy Monama points out, of course Magubane was building on the foundations of earlier South African guitar masters, whose names we might not even know, so incompletely documented is our jazz history. But, oh, what Magubane did with that!

Those original 1970 liner notes, though well-meant, are clearly products of their time. Lewis ends his track-by-track commentary with: “Emakhaya means ‘back home in the bush’, and it’s obviously where Cyril feels most at ease.” We wouldn’t make those reductive assumptions today. ‘Home’ can be geographical, spiritual or even metaphorical. The apartheid regime permitted Black citizens to feel at home only in ‘the bush’ (and after the 1913 Land Act, not even in most of that), but the cosmopolitan sounds that Heshoo Beshoo create proudly assert how at home they also were in the city, and in the world. And in their music.

Black Wednesday: don’t leave arts writers out

Yesterday, October 19, marked the anniversary of Black Wednesday: the day in 1977 when the apartheid regime attempted to stifle independent Black media in South Africa with closures, bans, arrests and imprisonment and arrested multiple Black Consciousness activists. It was an acknowledgment of how well the newspapers had been doing their job. In the year since the state-sanctioned murders on and after 16 June 1976, they had – not alone, but significantly – ensured that the growing, national and proactive, resistance movement, and the powerfully inspiring messages of the Black Consciousness Movement, were known and understood by their readers. Black Wednesday was not solely an attack on the erstwhile freer segments of the press.

Black Wednesday poster – Judy Seidman

 Rather, it was aimed at the events, movements and people covered by those press stories, and on the human right to know and discuss the momentous events undeniably happening in the country.

So yesterday saw many excellent, thoughtful discussions, speeches and other events recalling 19 October 1977, and providing timely reminders of the necessity of a free press and accurate news reporting for democracy to work. With – unless I have missed something – one omission.

Nobody brought the role of free, effective cultural journalism into the picture.

In case anybody thinks I’ve got my priorities skewed, let’s remember how important cultural formations were in inspiring the activism of that era and how prominently culture featured in the thinking, speech and activity of Steve Biko and his peers. The apartheid state understood that well: all those ostensibly ‘small’ township drama groups, writers’ circles and art classes that formed such powerful hubs for change were also stifled wherever the police state could identify them. One of those gagged on Black Wednesday was one of our finest poets, Don Mattera.

But how free is cultural journalism today?

In the mainstream media, as I’ve often noted, not so much. There is a place for a limited amount of serious cultural coverage of the South African arts scene – but that’s ‘premium content’ so it goes behind a paywall where only those with resources can access it.  It’s never part of the public archive where our history ought to be documented. That’s the most basic kind of ‘not free’.

Those kinds of searching stories remain a minority in a sea of lifestyle and showbiz nonsense. Media houses today are far more nakedly investment vehicles for their shareholders than before  (though they always were that). The tyranny of analytics logging story clicks means journalists who want to keep their gigs face pressure to churn out mostly what “everybody” is interested in. When most readers have no other kinds of stories to select – or even imagine – that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And editors who want to resist those pressures are far more likely to choose battles on the ‘hard’ terrain of news than on what it perceived as the ‘soft’ territory of the arts. On that level, writers are rather less free than you might imagine too.

Percy Qoboza, editor of The World (second left) , is arrested on the first Black Wednesday

As Anton Harber has noted  it’s sometimes only with philanthropic support that media today can effectively support readers’ right to know what’s going on in the world (including what’s going on in the arts, though Harber doesn’t say so). So long, that is, as your donor stays strictly hands-off, without implicit or explicit strings about content or line. Some do; some don’t.

I once challenged an editor about the dodgy ethics of a conflicted arts story from a writer who was also considered a hotshot news reporter. “Oh, that’s only a ‘soft’ story,” I was told. “It doesn’t really matter. Their news stories are fine.”  As it later turned out, they weren’t. But that’s another reason why excluding cultural journalism from these debates is a grave error. Everything that matters about press coverage in general, matters about every single area of that coverage – including the arts.

Finally, arts journalism matters just as much for democracy as any other kind of journalism because it’s the space where we talk most about who we are and who we could be. And if those spaces are diminished…

So please don’t leave us out of these vital debates. Don’t minimise the role of our kinds of stories. From Malombo, the Dashiki Poets, Mdali Arts, the Malopoets, the Mhloti Theatre Group and so many more formations of the mid-1970s through to today, the arts, and those who document their work in the media, have been an integral part of the struggle for democracy. We still have a role. And our freedom still matters.  

Opening up for music needs savvy, sense – and sunshine

The tiny room is stuffy and packed. You’re shoulder-to shoulder, but you still have to shout over the amplified sound. You’re so close to the stage you can see the drops of sweat on the saxophonist’s forehead, and almost feel the hot notes blasting out of the horn. Ah, jazz clubs…those were the days.

They were also the most conducive conditions possible for the spread of Covid-19. And now is not the time to bring them back.

South Africa hasn’t had an ‘easy’ Covid epidemic, unless you’re comparing it to the incompetent nincompoopery and evil, capital-driven indifference of some other places. Nearly 18 000 of us have died, and that’s not counting the tens of thousands of  ‘excess deaths’ apparent from national statistics (more than would have been expected for this period of an average year). Some of those at least relate to Covid. Tell those bereaved families we’ve had it easy.

We’re averaging around 1 000 new cases daily. Ignoring the daily zigs up and zags down (which tell you absolutely nothing), the overall trend has – if you look at the recent tiny uptick optimistically – now stayed there for a while. It’s better than it was and medical management of the illness has improved, but it absolutely hasn’t gone away.

SARS CoV-2: A new, unwelcome & still only partially understood virus.

And yet, musicians desperately need work and we all crave live music – so what can we do?

The first thing to acknowledge is that the SARS Cov-2 virus that causes Covid is new. Every day, scientists are learning more about it but we still don’t know everything. 

Not just ‘a little flu’

It doesn’t behave like flu. One sufferer seems able to infect more people, and a higher proportion get sicker and die, though the majority do recover. Some infected people have symptoms that aren’t typical, have few symptoms, or even no symptoms. But they can still pass the illness on. Children and young people can catch it. Most of them don’t get very sick, but some do, and some die. Some people who had mild symptoms initially then get long-run health complications that constrain any kind of active life and in some cases end up killing them. We don’t know whether having had Covid-19 once gives you immunity or, even if it does, how long that immunity lasts.

But we do now know that the most important route of infection is through droplets (bigger) and aerosols (miniscule): the invisible particles that enter the air from infected people’s noses and mouths when they breathe and speak. People emit more of these when they shout or sing. It’s very likely the same is true when they blow air forcefully from their lungs through a musical instrument to produce a note ( ).

The Covid virions that get into the air in these ways can stay alive for a long time, particularly in humid conditions, and can travel quite long distances before settling on surfaces (or you and me – yeucch!).   So being crushed together in sweaty, poorly ventilated indoor spaces for extended periods of time is a recipe for infection. Outdoor crowds carry some risk, but less when distanced and masks are worn.

Wear a mask!

All masks, worn properly (over both nose and mouth; not as a necklace or headband) work to protect you; how well depends on what mask. If you can see sunlight through it, it’s probably not much use. Dalek-type face shields alone are fairly useless: air gets in and out all around the shield. Wearing an effective mask properly gives good protection to everybody around you by keeping any Covid bugs you may have, in; it also gives you some protection against their bugs. So if everybody wore their mask properly at all relevant times, we’d be doing a lot to frustrate SARS CoV-2 – and to show that we cared about other people and valued their lives.

Given this knowledge, how – and how fast – can we restore the joyous public life that thrived around jazz clubs?

Covid “checks” at the door alone won’t work. Thermal scans that merely spot a raised temperature might tell you about a dozen other conditions that aren’t Covid, but would miss asymptomatic or atypical Covid. Many fast tests (including antibody tests) currently have quite high false result rates (in some studies, as high as 1 in 5) – they’ll get more accurate as the science grows, but they’re nothing like error-proof yet. Waiting for ‘herd immunity’ means waiting until more than 60% of the entire population has been infected, and has either died or can be reliably guaranteed to have longish-term immunity. We don’t have that knowledge yet. Such immunity looks unlikely on current evidence. All the inevitable deaths and chronic illnesses the ‘herd immunity’ strategy accepts will be even more cruel and pointless if we confirm Covid immunity is only short.  The best and only real ‘herd immunity’ will come from an effective vaccine, accessible to all South Africans, and mass, free, vaccinations as regularly as necessary. Getting there safely will take as long as it takes.

One side of safe reopening depends on government, not on musicians and venues. First, the public health messaging about masks, ventilation and distancing needs to be stepped up consistently and clearly in all languages (and enforced). It’s got a bit lost in all the jubilation about relaxing lockdown levels.

Nirox: one place for a gig but expensive and not so accessible

Second, South Africa does have world-class knowledge about testing and contact-tracing, gained in the struggles against TB and HIV. In some of those campaigns –  for example, the DOTS TB initiative – community structures and organisations were empowered. That’s something that’s been far less evident in tackling Covid-19: a tragic missed opportunity. Even though fewer people are asking for tests, strategic, proactive testing and tracing must continue, with the insights and power of grassroots communities playing a leading role.

And in that safer general environment, the live music industry needs to build on our great advantages: our outdoors and – even in Winter – our weather. That doesn’t just mean music in parks, or game parks, sculpture parks or golf courses (now there’s a thought…). Sure, those are part of it. But they’re inaccessible to most people, and even city green spaces are scarce outside the rich suburbs: a recent study mapped inequalities in Joburg park access that precisely follow the oppressive lines of apartheid

Maponya Mall: another place for a gig?

But we have city squares, and fountain-cooled outdoor Mall plazas; football pitches and basketball courts – and especially, we have streets and pavements. If city authorities unwound the red tape and the licensing rules and cut costs; if class-prejudiced plaza landlords snipped the human barbed wire of their security guards; if we made space for distanced crowds by excluding some of the polluting cars that have made our lungs more vulnerable to Covid anyway…That’s what some other cities are doing:

And, yes, if that ever happens, maybe that’ll be me you see, a few feet away in the sunshine, happily hollering for the sax solo – inside my mask…

New Horizons: a truly starry compilation

Not all compilations are necessary..

Does anybody really need compilation albums any more? After all, any idiot with a Spotify account can now whip up the digital equivalent of a mixtape in ten minutes. And some commercial compilations –  like the inexorable Now That’s What I Call Music juggernaut, now on incarnation…is it 107? – don’t exactly add lustre to the concept.

With jazz, it’s an even more contentious business. Every jazz album tells a complete story. Ripping one track out of that narrative and shoving it into bed with others similarly decontextualised, without the buffer of any spoken link, risks creating uneasy sonic bedfellows.

The people who know how to do it properly, of course, are deejays, for whom every session is an exercise in live compilation. So when a jazz compilation jointly curated by a DJ and a jazz musician – DJ Okapi (Afrosynth boss Dave Durbach) and bassist Shane Cooper – comes along, it’s probably worth a respectful listen. And Afrosynth’s New Horizons (Young stars of South African jazz) not only rewards that listen, but very effectively reasserts the merits of the compilation as a recorded music format, even in these digital days.

New Horizons is a 12-track double album, currently available as a hard copy on vinyl only via collaboration with Amsterdam’s Rush Hour Records. It’s also on Bandcamp at with availability promised on additional platforms.

The release draws on music from 2014 to this year, from musicians including Cooper himself ( with Mabuta on Slipstream)  to Yonela Mnana, Lwanda Gogwana, Zoe Modiga, Bokani Dyer – but I’m not going to fill the page with all 12 names.

One thing an album can’t do but a compilation can is to situate one musician’s output in the context of their peers. So, for example, Lwanda Gogwana’s Maqubeni with its implicit uhadi line finds companionship in the “Xhosa chords” of Dyer’s Feya Faku tribute Fezile and Mandisi Dyantyis’ Kuse Kude.  Such networks of parallel inspirations mirror the networks of shared education and working collaborations mapped by Sam Mathe’s highly informative liner notes.

Because the major labels are often inhospitable homes for innovative jazz, another service a compilation like this can offer is to provide access to performances previously reliant on a musician’s constrained self-distribution resources. That’s the case, for example, with the Siya Makuzeni Sextet’s Out of This World, an album never promoted as widely as its quality deserved. (However, the fact that so many South African artists now self-produce does reduce the bureaucracy and expense that made compilations requiring cross-licensing between big labels so difficult.)

And of course the flip side of decontextualising tracks is that you’re forced to listen to them with fresh ears. Vuma Levin’s Hashtag is one of the shorter tracks on his Life and Death on the Other Side of the Dream, an album offering a lot of multi-textured, complex music. Heard alone, it strikes you just how damn neat and perfectly formed the composition is.

Putting a compilation together is, of course, an act of curation. It demands not just knowledgeable selection, but skill in framing and juxtaposing items. It’s in those choices that we hear the producers’ voices most clearly.  Play the discs as albums (not, as a deejay might, picking one track at a time) and the experience manages to be seamless but not soporific. There are no uneasy leaps from texture to texture to jar your ears, but there is a careful unfolding of change and variety. It’s like the space-travel that the symbolism of the title and the iconography of the cover art suggest: everything you pass on the journey is a star, but each has its own distinctive beauty.  

Finally, of course, a good compilation can be an archive of its theme: in this case, the new South African jazz of the past several years. Since the demise of the Sheer Sound label, a gaping chasm has formed in the SA jazz archive. Great music has been released, but unless you listen to the right radio shows, or follow the right Facebook pages, you might never know until after a limited pressing has been exhausted – try, for example, finding Levin’s debut album now. Without claiming to be complete and comprehensive ( it would take a dozen such releases to do that, and you’d probably still miss something) New Horizons nevertheless provides a representative sample of the sounds that could have been heard live over the period that makes fascinating and rewarding listening. Theorising about compilations aside, this is lovely music.

For that reason, it’s a pity the hard copy is a vinyl-only release. Not every collector who wants a physical copy of this archive in their files owns the right equipment to play it. But if there are more like this to come, it would certainly be worth investing in a turntable or two….