Who owns the Sandton Convention Centre? Money owns the Sandton Convention Centre

“That last number,” announced bassist William Parker on the final night of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, “was called RDP. They took me somewhere on Thursday and I saw some of those houses…Freedom is one thing, but power – economic power – is still coming. We’re all together in that fight: keep fighting and never get complacent.”

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William Parker

Make that kind of statement from the stage at a community concert and a South African crowd would return it in bushels, particularly from a visitor showing heartfelt solidarity. In the enclosed fortress of the Sandton Convention Centre? Not so much. A smallnyana whoop of encouragement here; some scattered, though decent-sized, pockets of applause there. Mostly silence. The moment was emblematic of the event.

But more about the music later.

Housekeeping first. The organisers seem to have learned at least some of the lessons of JoJ 2014: the first at the Sandton venue. Signage has been vastly improved. Together with slightly more sensible grouping of acts to minimize movement between stages, this reduced the potentially dangerous log-jams around escalators we suffered last year. The dovetailing of development bands and main acts minimized sound leakage – although those bands still had no listing in the programme: continuing disrespect, undeserved by hard-working young musicians.

More could still be done about timetabling: some placements made no sense at all, such as Steve Dyer’s superb Confluence set overlapping with Nduduzo Makhathini, with whom Dyer could well share an audience (likewise Hugh Masekela and Ray Phiri, and Matthew Halsall and Trilok Gurtu). Timekeeping, markedly tight last year, slipped badly on Friday night this year, though less so on Saturday.

Sound quality on the Conga stage was excellent, but patchy elsewhere. There were odd, unfortunate mic failures, and no-one has yet worked out a way to eliminate the harsh, glassy acoustics around the Mbira stage. However, lighting on Conga was unpleasant. Apart from the obligatory, unnecessary, smoke machine, a blinding spotlight was regularly aimed outwards at the crowd: distracting for every watcher, and genuinely hazardous for epileptics. All around me on Saturday, people were wincing and shading their eyes.

The printed programme was free, and that was the right price for it. It was merely a collation of PR puffery first generated months ago, and lacked the most essential information any jazz fan seeks: a correct and updated list of personnel – every player in every ensemble.

As for the music, a multi-stage festival like this offers two alternative listening strategies. You can hop around like a rabbit on speed, grabbing a fragment of melody here and a closing chorus there. One manic bunny on my row proffered her iPhone as excuse: “Sorry, but I’m blogging.”

Jazz performances, however, are not usually discrete collections of fragments. The artists have planned them: they have a rhythm and sequence to their contents, representing something akin to a narrative arc; texture fluctuates; tension builds and is released. What can the blogger report if she didn’t share that experience?

So dinosaurs like me prefer to listen to complete sets, trusting to an accurate timetable to offer the opportunity for speed-dating some other musical flavours in-between. We’re well aware, though, that what an artist has to say isn’t necessarily represented by one sip.

Dwight Trible
Dwight Trible

If anybody was going to sing the prose of Nate Mackay, Dwight Trible would be your man. If Ndikho Xaba was still working, he should have been there, because it was the righteous, radical spirit of the historic Black Arts movement that Trible raised on that stage – and whose spirit of sharing took him on to Matthew Halsall’s stage later for a brief, graceful guest spot. Trible walked onstage wielding an mbira, chanting for peace over arco bass, then seamlessly shifted the trance-like patterns into unapologetic hard swing. Like a sanctified preacher, Trible is a physical vocal presence, crouching, raising his arms in exultation, bending from the waist.

And he has a voice without boundaries. There’s an almost bel canto quality to his falsetto when he sings straight, but he also scats and preaches and isn’t afraid of the occasional primal scream. His tight, empathetic band – they’ve been together for a long time – offered thick processional textures, soaring, meditative flute, inside piano and dazzling African cross-rhythms. It was a performance Papa Legba would have smiled down on, inhabiting as it did the crossroads where Africa meets funk meets faith. Even the (normally cringe-inducing) audience singalong worked: who but the most soul-less listener could grudge invoking the name of John Coltrane?

Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa

It’s harder to describe the Trilok Gurtu/Omar Sosa/Paolo Fresu set. Intense, concentrated collaboration wove ribbons of sound together: shimmering wetted bells and cymbals; more inside piano and Fresu’s trumpet carrying reminders of the electric Miles. Gurtu’s drumming remains astounding: sometimes faster than the eye can follow or the mind count. There’s only one way to listen – feel it. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyJjNiJivIk  ) Among the moments that stand out were a wordless improvised dialogue in konnakol, the language of Indian drumming, between Sosa and Gurtu; and Gurtu beating rhythms on water – visually striking, and symbolic of the simultaneous force and transience of the musical moment.

(From left) Omar Sosa, Paolo Fresu, Trilok Gurtu
(From left) Omar Sosa, Paolo Fresu, Trilok Gurtu

And then came William Parker, leading the Raining on the Moon ensemble with another drummer of character, the magisterial Hamid Drake. It was a set dominated by songs (and some dance) from Leena Conquest; shorter versions of some material, foregrounding the melodies and with perhaps less jagged abstraction and fewer edgy shifts than on the 2002 album of the same name. Nonetheless, the set was both powerful and moving. Strong solos came from reedman Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and tough, thoughtful pianist Eri Yamamoto, but only one really extended solo from Parker himself. The music was clearly about the collective, and had a lot to say. RDP  moved through a space of abstract vocal cries over a spiky horn. Parker had visited eTwatwa the previous Thursday and it had clearly made an impression.  Tutsi Orphans spoke out against inter-communal violence (“We have to cut that mess out,” growled Parker). To close, Conquest performed Land Song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18amw49kpQc ) whose lyrics are savagely satirical, and highly relevant to South Africa: “Who made the land? God made the land…Who owns the land? Mister Johnson owns the land…because Mister Johnson is God…”

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Leena Conquest and William Parker

But, again, much of the audience didn’t seem to appreciate the biting wit. Maybe that wasn’t surprising. Despite definite logistical improvements and extremely interesting programming, Joy of Jazz in Sandton is entrenching itself as a festival firmly aimed at a monied audience. The architecture of the SCC, designed only 15 years ago, still expresses the claustrophobic mind-set of apartheid. The message of the built structure, and the structure of the pricing, are about containing some and keeping others out.

The Sandton Convention Centre
The Sandton Convention Centre

Maybe Parker should have stayed until Wednesday, and played RDP at the Anti-Corruption March. There, he’d have got the solidarity his sentiments deserved.

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Joy of Jazz: Prince Lengoasa – soulful playing that sometimes saves souls

NOTE FROM GWEN: Financial Mail didn’t have room for this. But the interview — and Prince’s reflections on the role of the Salvation Army in South African jazz — offer insights into another hidden aspect of our musical history, so, even after the concert has gone, I reckon it is worth posting.

Personal celebrations and over a century of jazz history were on show when Springs-born trumpeter Prince Lengoasa and the Amaqhawezikazi Big Band played Joy of Jazz on Thursday 24th September.

Prince Lengoasa
Prince Lengoasa

The date was the shared birthday of two celebrated singers: Letta Mbulu and Sibongile Khumalo, and the repertoire reflected their songs, with vocalists including Lindiwe Maxolo, Nomfundo Xaluva and Lengoasa’s own daughter Motheo. The all-woman instrumental ensemble mixed the talents of jazz professionals such as bassist Romy Brauteseth and pianist Thandi Ntuli, with those of other working musicians who have risen through the ranks of Salvation Army music education – a key source of skills for the whole South African music industry since the 1880s.

The words are regularly mis-quoted, but what Salvation Army founder William Booth actually wrote in 1877 was: “I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes…It is like taking the enemy’s guns and turning them against him.” Booth marched his first formally-constituted brass bands through London’s desperate, impoverished East End in 1878. By the Army’s Fourth International Congress in 1914, it boasted 1,674 bands in 56 countries, including South Africa, where a cornet-playing missionary had first established a Cape Town chapter in 1883.

Township conditions were right for the Army to make an impact. “Think of all those little open spaces in the townships,” says Lengoasa. “In the open air, if you have just a trumpet, a tuba and a drum, you can make a lot of noise and draw people to your message. And donated instruments could be lent out to kids who couldn’t afford their own, and who were shut out of music education by apartheid.”

Every Christmas shopper, even today, has heard the bright, brassy sound of the Salvation Army bands playing carols in shopping malls. “All that practice,” remembers Legoasa, “playing sometimes right through December. I tell you – by January, my jazz chops were so hot!” He says that distinctive sound has certainly influenced his approach to arrangements, and particularly the way he writes for horns – “but those textures won’t be the only ones coming through at Joy of Jazz. I’ve commissioned arrangements from others too, including Kaya Mahlangu, Africa Mkhize and Denzil Weale. So familiar songs such as Music In The Air, Mountain Shade and Not Yet Uhuru are getting a whole range of fresh treatments.”

The music of Mbulu and Khumalo, the trumpeter says, was a strong influence on his musical growth. This concert let him bring together his extensive career in jazz and popular music and his direction and teaching work for the Salvation Army. He was born into the Army, travelling the country with parents who served as officers, and gaining some of his own musical education in the ranks. He is currently lay Bandmaster for the 125-year-old Johannesburg City Corps band. But Lengoasa has also spent 11 years in jazz outfit McCoy and Friends, teaches, has scored theatrical productions, and worked with Umbongo, Caiphus Semenya, the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra and currently the Victor Ntoni tribute band, the Mzansi Ensemble.

Rather than simply evoking any “Salvation Army Sound”, Lengoasa wanted the performance to demonstrate that “ people who’ve learned in the Salvation Army tradition can come together in harmony with people from jazz and really make something happen.”

The gender dimension is significant too: “We have just come out of Women’s Month, and we can show powerful women players in the army and police bands as well as in jazz.” He cites, among many, trombonist Zanele Madondo, a police band player and teacher. From the early years of the 20th Century, photographs survive of fearless, long-skirted female Salvation Army musicians playing every possible instrument. For women, this particular path into music offered an escape from the stereotypes of singer or parlour piano-player.

Sanctified strings: Salvation Army musical soldiers in the Nineteenth Century
Sanctified strings: American Salvation Army ensemble, early C20

In South Africa, the training provided another rare, important opportunity: to learn staff notation, rather than the sol-fa scale that was the norm in African choral teaching, which handicapped choristers in growing wider music careers. “That’s why,” says Lengoasa, “so many players progressed from the Salvation Army into jazz, or municipal, or military bands. They already had the right skills. I could sight-read at six.”

He lists classical composer Mzilikazi Khumalo – a former Salvation Army euphonium player – the late drummer Lulu Gontsana – who started in the Army on trumpet –, saxophonist Mahlangu and trumpeter Sydney Mavundla. There have been many more.

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Lengoasa wants to keep the Amaqhawezikazi project alive after Joy of Jazz. It’s another item on his to-do list, along with academic studies, a long-postponed album project as leader, continuing work with the Mzansi Ensemble – and, still, his work with the Salvation Army: “We need to be reviving that open-air concert thing. The needs haven’t gone away, and music can offer healing on so many levels.”

Joy of Jazz runs from September 24 – 26 at the Sandton Convention Centre. A full programme is available at http://www.joyofjazz.co.za/downloads/JOJ2015Program.pdf and tickets can be booked through Computicket.

Joy of Jazz 2015: as mega jazz festivals rise, maybe small is beautiful again

The final mega-festival of the jazz year, the Johannesburg Standard Bank Joy of Jazz (JoJ), opens on Thursday (24th Sept 2015) (http://www.joyofjazz.co.za/lineup.php ).

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In programming terms, JoJ finally seems to be learning how to balance the tastes of those wanting a good-time jol and familiar tunes, with those of the seekers after fresh and thought-provoking music. Let’s hope the event also sustains last year’s decent timekeeping, and adds rather more respect for conditions of reception – by, for example, eliminating those intrusive in-hall bars, and requesting audiences to turn off phones and postpone noisy conversations until the playing concludes. (Rather than during a contemplative bass solo, as seems to be the South African norm.)

The jazz festival scene in South Africa is clearly maturing: each of the Big Three – Cape Town, Grahamstown and Johannesburg – now attracts a comfortable audience and each is developing a distinctive character. That maturation ought to start us thinking about alternatives – because while there is much that a mega-festival can do; there is more that it cannot.

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A mega-festival is about entertainment, audience passivity, and music as commodity. Rarely has a setting been more appropriate than the Sandton Convention Centre hosting JoJ. It is sealed within a glittering fortress of consumerism where fools pay absurd prices for imported luxuries under the wary eye of uniformed flunkies. JoJ patrons must spend R500 (for the Thursday gala); R750 (for one day) or R1250 (for two days), plus whatever they have left for food, drink and memorabilia. If you don’t drive – and I don’t – the Convention Centre can be accessed on foot from the Gautrain, provided you can reach a station and afford a ticket. Leaving after midnight is much harder: the Gautrain has stopped running, and even Uber drivers in fancy cars may have problems running the gauntlet of access barriers. These may seem small irritations but they represent significant added costs. The message is clear: jazz is a brand for the affluent only – those equipped to purchase all the other brands that use the music for piggy-back marketing.

Newtown, the festival’s old home, was never an ideal venue in terms of size, sound or distance between stages. But it was a significantly more egalitarian setting in terms of transport access. Even the lousy, leaking sound contributed, allowing those who could not afford tickets to loiter at the edges and hear something. And by its presence, Joy of Jazz affirmed the inner city and the people who live in it.

All that is old history. Jazz can, like any other art-form, be appropriated easily by the smug and comfortable. That does not negate the music’s power in other settings, and with other audiences. It’s time to consider starting some alternative celebrations.

Smaller events earn smaller revenue – but they also require fewer resources. Take over a club for a couple of days – as the Johannesburg International Comedy Festival will do with the Orbit Jazz Club in November – and you need to attract an audience of 400 each night, as opposed to 40 000. Because you are serving a niche, rather than Brand Generic Jazz, you don’t need “stars” – local or overseas – whose relationship to improvised creativity is tenuous or nonexistent. (But there’s always the option of crowd-funding for a relevant airfare or two.) Contexts can be created where South African players – and perhaps visual artists and dancers too – come together in new combinations, and devise new experiences, live, for an audience. Make some spaces where people can talk about what they’re doing and why – because too often we criticize or interpret without listening to the creators themselves. Teach. Take the whole thing to some location where the dinosaur festivals never venture.

Genre labels are always a burden, even when they serve as convenient shorthand. An “improvised music festival”, for example, might run the gamut from baroque concerti with the cadenzas restored to electronica – but it would certainly have plenty of space for the music many listeners call jazz.

None of these is a new idea – it is, for heavens’ sake, where JoJ was born, in the living rooms of the Mamelodi jazz appreciators. That festival and others like it have, as the businessmen say, now “gone to scale”. Big ticket prices and big marketing underline their commodification; the money-men are risk-averse, and those who can afford to attend and enjoy don’t worry much about those who can’t.

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Those who can’t, meanwhile, are the majority of the population: the communities that historically nurtured the music’s best players and were its most astute listeners. School education is still not spreading access to good music teaching fairly; affordability still keeps many young people out of colleges, while we’ve all but lost the universities of the streets. Important spaces are empty at the small-event end of the spectrum, where creativity should be getting its first chances to flower and take risks.

POSTSCRIPT: By a sweet piece of serendipity, this description by reedman Ernest Dawkins of how he initiated a smaller, community-based jazz festival appeared last week. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/ernest-dawkins-aacm-englewood-jazz-festival-new-horizons-ensemble/Content?oid=19116479

Maybe we can ask Dawkins for some pointers when he plays the Orbit on October 16th?

RIP Rico Rodriguez, master trombonist – so much more than the sideman on Ghost Town

Rico

Trombonist Emmanuel Rodriguez – “Rico” or “El Reco” – died on Sept 4 aged 80. The death of any great musician is a sad occasion. Even sadder in this case is the way the international press marked this passing. Without exception, the headline was “Specials’ trombonist Rico dies”.

Rico certainly did work with Coventry-based UK band The Specials between 1979 and 1984. His is the sinister ‘bone sound infusing Ghost Town, a 1981 anti-austerity (the Thatcher version) anthem that spent three weeks at the top of the UK Top 10 and ten weeks in the top 40.

But that is only a fraction of the career of a magnificent player, with more than a little jazz in his sound, which stretched from the 1950s to his final gig, only three years ago in 2012 and generated hundreds of recordings. It wasn’t just for Ghost Town that he was awarded an MBE and a Jamaican Musgrave medal. And while their era introduced him to more white listeners, The Specials did not make Rico’s career; he lent his skill and distinction to their sound.

Rico was born in Cuba in October 1934, but his family moved to Jamaica when he was still very young. He attended the Alpha Boys School: a historic religious foundation for ‘wayward boys’. He told Belgian website rebelbase that he had been “a little wily wily” as a child, and was placed there by an anxious mother.

An Alpha education was often synonymous with the uncovering of musical talent. Several leading producers, vocalists, and countless singers and instrumentalists including the four founding members of the Skatalites honed their skills behind its walls. For Rico – who started in the school band on cornet – it was older schoolmate Don Drummond who united him with his instrument. Rico said he found the initial experience of learning from Drummond terrifying “I wondered if I could ever reach up to his level.”

Drummond (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yENv58B02w) went on to be rated by pianist George Shearing as among the top five trombonists of his generation worldwide, but suffered severe psychological problems intensified by political persecution for his radical Rastafarianism. After killing his partner, he died in a psychiatric hospital, possibly from maltreatment.

Rico was drawn to political Rasta too, and adopted the faith in his mid-teens. Increasingly he spent his time up in the Wareika Hills with Drummond, legendary producer Count Ossie and the mix of devout Rastas, radicals, artists and students who dropped in and out of the day-long music sessions that were part-jam and part devotion. The Nyabinghi drumming that underpinned that music became a characteristic feature of his own later compositions.

Those contacts, and the constant challenge of extended practice honed Rico’s skill, making him one of the most in-demand studio trombonists of the booming Jamaican ska scene. He worked with everybody: Count Ossie and other production dons like Vincent Chin, Duke Reid and Lord Coxsone, performers such as Prince Buster, Toots Hibbert and, of course, the Skatalites. No discographer claims a complete account of the tracks he wrote or featured on, but in the press this morning/sell tonight climate of Kingston studios and the emerging sound systems, it is likely to have approached triple figures even before Rico left for London in 1961.

If life in Jamaica, with the constant threat of police raids on Rastafarian gatherings, had been hard, London with its pervasive racism was equally tough. “It was hard to get work if you weren’t European or Caucasian, “ Rico remembered. He talks about the prejudices of those early days on www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_YrKAvwsZA .His first gig outside the Jamaican community was with singer Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames – but word of his skill spread, and over his career he worked outside Jamaican music with artists as varied as John Martyn, Ian Drury, Jools Holland, Ray Davies, Paul Young and many more.

Meanwhile, he was leading his own outfits, including Rico and the Rudies, with whom he recorded in 1969 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5iW69KssvQ) . It was work for the Trojan label playing what came to be known as ‘skinhead reggae” (espoused by anti-racists among white working-class youth – and, more covertly, by not a few racists too) that blossomed into the “two-tone” movement and the teamwork with The Specials.

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But Rico was also working on his own music too. In 1977, he brought out what he considered his finest album, Man From Wareika. He loved it best because he felt it caught the mood and musical textures of those early days jamming in the Wareika Hills. Other albums followed, too numerous to list in full, but including the 1981 That Man is Forward and – for those who like their ska with more space for improvisation and (old-school) rhythm n’blues swing, the 1982 Jama Rico, whose Destroy Them features haunting Nyabinghi drums.

Rico also worked with performance poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and the tragic, powerful Michael Smith on his album Mi Cyaan’ Believe It, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGUh2KSrgpE ) in partnership with another studio legend, Dennis Bovell. He was a regular at anti-racism rallies and anti-apartheid gigs: self-effacing; never with much to say, except through his horn.

In his later years, the recognition and touring opportunities did come, but usually confined within a ‘reggae’ or ‘ska’ box, and often as the guest of young white revivalist bands. Yet as superbly as Rico spoke in the voice of that genre, he was also an improvising musician who, on stages such as that of London’s 100 Club in its heyday, was equally masterful and at ease in the company of jazz players. Listen to him with the Rudies on the 1969 Mighty Dan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wyw9xa3wVE ) skillfully weaving quotes into a rock steady rhythm matrix. Listen to the power and precision of his improvisation on Java from Jama Rico.

And even when he was playing a straight, tuneful little ska melody, Rico was a superb player who could hit his notes perfectly straight and sweet – which is hard on a slide trombone – or play around with them, daring as you like. It wasn’t accidental that one of his younger-generation collaborators was that edgiest of producers, Mad Professor: “Rico is [an absolute legend]. We toured together, worked, lived together: a nice guy.”

Rico was so much more than the “Specials’ trombonist”. He was a master musician who enriched the sound of his on-stage collaborators, and provided food for the souls, brains and feet of those of us who merely listened. May his soul rest in peace, while his memory and music live for a long, long time.