Born to Be Black showcased history and unique conversations

A friend remarked there was something that felt “historic” about the Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s Born to Be Black concerts last Thursday and Friday at the Orbit.

Louis Moholo-Moholo

Partly, history was carried in the multi-generational (and multinational) nature of the line-up. Musicians ranged from veteran drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, born in 1940, through pianist Andile Yenana, born in 1968, to Mlangeni and his peers, all in their 20s and 30s. A majority South African ensemble also included Argentina-born bassist Ariel Zamonsky and Memphis-born reedman Salim Washington.

History was also in the vast range of South African – and international – references the music contained. No collection of standards, this (although some of Mlangeni’s melodies, such as the ballad Bhekisizwe, are set fair to attain that status). Rather, the history emerged from a feel here, an allusion there, or a cleverly-woven quote somewhere else amid a dazzling tapestry of free improvisation. That was an indication of how knowledgeable even the youngest players on that stage were about the multiple traditions they inhabit and enrich.

oscar & Mandla
Mandla Mlangeni (r) and Oscar Rachabane

Some musicians are born to be bandleaders; others are not, and Mlangeni clearly belongs to the former group. He has the compositional ability to craft unique repertoire, and the energy to make gigs happen. Both those qualities have been apparent for a while. What was more strongly showcased in the Born to Be Black ensemble was another vital bandleader’s quality: the ability to curate enembles.

Tumi Mogorosi

With a master drummer like Moholo-Moholo on stage, it might have seemed superfluous to add yet more drums. Yet the multiple pulses of Moholo-Moholo, Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene not only built the required intricate polyrhythms, but also offered a set of distinct rhythmic exchanges within the larger discourse of the band. That happened all over the stage: reedman Oscar Rachabane’s unique edginess debated with Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s romanticism; Yenana and Zamonsky shared quiet, contemplative ideas even as the horns flew free, dissonant and loud.

Andile Yenana

It all fitted together; it all worked, and it allowed audience ears to shift between the big, rich aural canvas of the whole band and the smaller conversations and individual explorations happening simultaneously onstage. Another South African-led band, the Brotherhood of Breath, shared that gift for offering a layered set of musical discoveries within the same performance – and that was another slice of the historic feeling that suffused Born to Be Black. (And if you want to know why multidimensional ensemble experiences are more important than the bravura of a grandstanding solo, see this excellent NY Times article  )


Maria Schneider

We saw a fine collection of jazz Grammy winners last night, and a benchmark of South Africa’s contemporary awareness is that several have recently played on SA stages, including singer Cecile McLorin Salvant (at Joy of Jazz), bandleader and composer Maria Schneider (at Grahamstown), and genre-busting contemporary outfit Snarky Puppy (at Cape Town). Congratulations to all of them. Here’s hoping that another multiple winner, hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar – and the jazzman responsible for the intriguing, intelligent sonic textures of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi Washington – make it to these shores soon.

Blurred lines: five reasons why arts journalists are not arts publicists



In the arts world, some aspects of shrinking South African newsroom budgets are painfully obvious. The page-space devoted to arts coverage is shrinking as those budgets shrink. Lifestyle stories – often sponsored – about holidays and hemlines dominate. Online arts coverage in the mainstream media is regularly just a poorly curated cull from the celebrity gossip other sites carry.

Less obvious, but more insidious, is what editors are resorting to to fill the gaps. New types of sponsored content are now joining the old ones. Not only do travel companies fly journalists to far locales to write puff-pieces; art galleries and similar now do it too. The journalists concerned usually strive to maintain balance and do an honest job, but over time a creeping sense of relationship, obligation and expectation can all too easily develop. (Not to mention the general public cynicism such practices would arouse if they were widely known.)

Press release material is more and more used instead of editorial copy – the consonance between jacket blurbs and book reviews these days is often remarkable. Major international touring acts offer lavish press kits and very little live access (always tightly supervised) to the artist, and the media obediently recycle the press kits. Bloggers get promoted to columnists if they can add piquant novelty for a low enough fee (which is sometimes no fee at all), without the title feeling any obligation to quality-check or invest in the new writer’s training. Occasionally, a publicist’s name appears as an author’s, above a piece about a person or product they – paid or unpaid – represent.

Several of these symptoms showed in some entries for last November’s National Arts Journalism Awards. None of the entries that bore them came anywhere near a shortlist, but it is depressing that writers or nominating editors would think them even worth entering.

But worse, for me, is the way this commodification of arts writing is poisoning the relationship between writers and artists.

In South Africa, the distribution system for independent releases is random and shambolic, and most interesting jazz is released independently. So I welcome, as I always have, news from artists about their new music. Without it, I would not be able to keep my readers informed. A few sample sound-files are useful, particularly if planned distribution is small, or only in another city, or not due for another few months. A free album is not demanded, so long as you can tell me where I can buy it – and if I can’t buy it easily, I’m not going to waste my readers’ time sending them on an impossible search either.

What I welcome less is the kind of covering letter that stridently demands coverage and casts my potential contribution in terms of ‘publicity’. Such letters are becoming far more common than they used to be, and I think that’s because of those blurred lines above. So, let’s make the distinction clear and re-draw the lines.


ONE: Arts publicists can be paid as such, or simply be helpful friends, comrades or lovers with a desire to showcase an artist. They work for and in the interests of the artist. Their job is to create a positive buzz around artists and their work.

Arts journalists can be paid as such, or simply be enthusiasts for a field or genre. They work for and in the interests of their audience. Their job is to explore the interesting, complex, nuanced (and sometimes negative) truths around something or someone.

There is a clear conflict of interest when a publicist pretends to be a journalist.

TWO: Arts publicists are obliged to draw attention to what the artist produces.

Arts journalists are under no obligation to write about every creative work they encounter or are sent.

THREE: Arts publicists deflect complex and potentially awkward questions.

Arts journalists are supposed to ask them, and pursue the answers to the bitter end.

FOUR: Arts publicists seek out audiences for what they have to sell

Arts journalists often work for specific audiences on specific platforms, and even if something has undeniable quality, it may not be appropriate for that audience or platform.

FIVE: Artists can specify to their publicists what they want written and how (although they might be well advised to leave it to the specialists)

Neither artists nor publicists have any right to dictate to journalists what should be written or how – at least not in South Africa, where we have Bill of Rights guarantees of media freedom.

All arts journalists can ever promise is to give new work a fair viewing or hearing and, if they think it might intrigue or entertain an audience, write honestly about it and try to find that writing a platform. That is their job and if they demand gifts, favours or payment for doing it, they are corrupt. But if you proffer gifts or payments, or try to exert pressure on them, then you are the corrupt one.