People don’t talk – so let’s talk*


Republican presidential candidate Donald J Trump is in trouble for appropriating Queen’s anthem We Are The Champions: the latest in a long succession of pop tunes The Comb-over has employed without permission or payment. Politicians who seek to use music for their own ends – even noble ends, such as building social cohesion – often forget the music carries its own messages. By way of lyrics, mood, staging or even a topically apt title, musicians have things to say. One doubts whether the late Freddie Mercury –migrant, man of colour, born into the Islamic faith in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and gay – would see his song’s natural home as the Republican National Convention.

But the space for cultural discourse where those messages can turn into conversations is shrinking.

The media (with rare, honourable exceptions) have all but given up talking to musicians about anything except clothing, lifestyle, romance, or the latest hit. Yet musicians occupy a remarkable space. They work within an industry that has been one of the most transformed by the disruption of digital technology. In the past decade, their value chain has been turned on its head.

Music is affected by just about every policy and social change you can imagine, not just the obvious things like local content quotas. Raise the tax on luxury imports and musicians pay more for their instruments. Implement punitive zoning restrictions and live venues close. Gentrify a town centre and the vibrancy of a live music hub is frozen under white concrete.

It’s for that reason that I’m working with the Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein (in partnership with the Alliance Francaise and Pro Helvetia) to help create a space for conversations about music-related topics. On the last Sunday of every month, from 5pm, Conversations in Orbit will invite musicians and other music sector role-players to spend time debating an issue that affects them, joined by music fans, music students, music workers and anybody else who cares what happens to our sounds and the people who make them. Followed, of course, by an hour of jazz – because jazz is the quintessential music of ideas.

We start, on July 31st, by asking Whose Music is It Anyway?

The theme picks up on a debate that started burning hotly in Cape Town in 2015, when writer Percy Mabandu introduced his book, Yakhal’Inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic. The late Mankunku’s family were establishing a trust to preserve his legacy, and were distressed to see his music used sometimes in ways they’d had no warning of. This was in contrast to Mabandu’s writing process, where he had tried to work respectfully with the family every step of the way.

Panelist Percy Mabandu

The same debates flared up again this year over tributes to pianist Bheki Mseleku. So, after a musician passes away, who has what kinds of rights over their music and memory?

This is by no means as straightforward as it might first appear. In fact, it’s a situation where there is potential conflict between different kinds of rights – some formally defined, and some less so because they emerge from custom or from the perceptions and emotions of those left behind.

If a musician has registered their music with a rights organisation, that formally and quite tightly defines the rights to royalty payments on the use of that music while the musician still lives. But if it is not specified in a will, how are the claims of family members to those formal rights after the musician’s passing dealt with – particularly where family relationships are complex?

Should a musician’s heirs have the right to determine how that music is subsequently used?

Panelist Nick Matzukis

What about the feelings of the family, their moral rights, and traditions concerning the use of their late family member’s name? How should consultation happen? What happens if some parts of the family say yes and others no?

That’s one aspect of the argument. Another is about the right to freedom of artistic expression. The work of a great musician forms part of a universal heritage that is kept alive by other musicians’ homages and reinterpretations – so long as any relevant rights payments are made, should anybody have to right to silence re-visionings of the legacy?

Panelist Concord Nkabinde

And finally, doesn’t the notion of ‘ownership’ over a creative legacy echo uncomfortably the pervasive, commodifying mindset of neoliberalism, where everything is reduced to an object to be bought and sold – where everything has a price but nothing has value? A society where this principle rules uncontested risks ending up a dystopia, where everything essential to life – from the exchange of ideas to breathable air – has to be purchased, and where trust and the acknowledgement of shared responsibilities is replaced by ‘no pay; no say’.

Panelist Tu Nokwe

We hope our panel – musicians Tu Nokwe and Concord Nkabinde, music industry educator Nick Matzukis, and Mabandu – will create space for reflection and discussion on how things currently work, and what is legislated, but also on how  the perceived mis-use of a creative legacy feels to those affected. What ought to happen to minimise abuse and hurt while protecting both legal rights and creative freedoms? There will be 90 minutes for the debate, followed by music from guitarist Mageshen Naidoo and friends. Come along and join us…

*With acknowledgment to Ray Chikapa Phiri & Stimela

Orbit Corrected OK sunday 31july

Of payments, patriarchy and fair labour practices

You may not yet have read Miles Keylock’s musings on the issues of payments to musicians ( ) If you haven’t, you should: it’s a fine piece of writing. But its content – Keylock’s assertion that young musicians are cash-obsessed and egotistical – as well as the way he frames the debate, have stirred up significant controversy.

Keylock conflates a number of different arguments, and it’s worth picking them apart. But, for me, his framing is also important. It adopts a writer’s voice that has become almost a tradition in much white, male jazz writing but which is not unproblematic. So let’s look at that, too.

A common misconception is that patriarchy relates only to relationships between men and women. As Mandla Langa illustrates wonderfully in his novel The Texture of Shadows ( ) it is also very much about the relationships between men and men, which often overdetermine other gender relationships. Langa’s concern is with political and military ‘chefs’ and their subordinates and acolytes – but you could also extend the paradigm to old-style bandleaders and their sidemen.Texture_300dpi-web

But let’s get the straight labour issues out of the way before we go further with that. Keylock’s blog starts with a young musician grumbling about a wage split. He’s going to take home R500. The essay ends with the bandleader gratefully (yes, gratefully) being enlightened by the promoter – the promoter, nogal! – that he should do what the ‘old cats’ did : “[They] didn’t pay their players a salary, brother. They paid…what they’re worth…You’re the leader, right, so lead.”

Leaving the faux-familiarity and faux-hipness of that conversation for later, let’s discuss what a fair labour practice would look like in that situation. First, we all agree there should be more money available to pay good musicians. That there isn’t may be the fault of the promoter, or the weather, or perhaps more broadly of a cultural industry whose political patrons speak tearfully at funerals about how musicians ‘died penniless’ but neglect policy steps including venue subsidies that might just stop it happening.

Whatever the reason, the promoter is the employer, and the bandleader is put, usually unwillingly, in the position of a labour broker. A fair labour practice would involve transparent negotiation at both those levels before the gig happens, enshrined in a written contract that everybody agrees to. Anything else is bound to lead to tears. It’s at that stage that the leader’s share should be agreed – based on multiple possible factors.

Bandleaders may be bigger drawcards than their collaborators – or they may not. They may have put more into pre-organisation and promotion, arranged transport, done all the compositions and arrangements, etc – or they may not. They may be better players – or they may not. Sometimes they’re the one who, in Keylock’s charming and (perhaps unwittingly) deeply gendered phrase “plays like a poes”. In any case, jazz is a collective effort and even a brilliant improvising leader only shines on the stand because, in trombonist George Lewis’s phrase “the rest of the band has got their back.” How those issues should be dealt with in terms of respective payments – there’s nothing automatic about it – needs to be discussed transparently, agreed democratically and ideally signed to. That’s real professionalism.

Many bands I know already work like that. (Bheki Mseleku – cited erroneously by Keylock as an old-style leader – regularly gave up his share so bands he led could eat; I saw it myself in Botswana.) Those bands that don’t, need to get with the programme fast.

Bheki Mseleku

The circumstances in which labour should gratefully accept advice from an employer about payment practices as Keylock describes are few. Often, it’s a divide-and-rule negotiation tactic, and that is exactly what has happened here, with Keylock’s prose setting some selective quotes from “older” musicians against his characterisation of “younger” ones. In the face of philistinism, limited resources and low pay, jazz workers needs to be united.

Yes, some of those old bandleaders did – and some still do – bully and punch out their younger sidemen. They sent the youngsters out to buy bottles and drugs and procure sex for them; or they sexually harrassed them; or they turfed the youngsters out of their rooms to accommodate binges and orgies. But first we should remember that what becomes legend is the unusual, not the usual. “OK the bandleader booked us into a hotel. He organised food for us, we all had a good night’s sleep, and then we left ridiculously early to get on the road” does not make a very exciting story.

Second, what was and is, is not necessarily a model for what should be.

Then there’s the false counterposition of “cash” and “creativity”, as though the two cannot coexist. The privileged often romanticise the poverty of others – you know: “Edith Piaf was so great because she grew up in the gutter.” No, Piaf and many like her might had been even greater if they had grown up more softly, and not been driven to drink and drugs to dull the pains of want and exploitation.

And that takes us on to the framing of the story. The larger-than-life old jazzman, with gargantuan appetites and sordid bad habits shaped in the (profoundly stereotyped) “ghetto”, caring nothing about other people, who makes jazz great because he (it’s always he) is such a towering heroic soloist, is the stuff of white critical myth-making about black jazz. If you want to read the whole story of that, there’s no better book than John Gennari’s Blowin’ Hot & Cool ( )

That older generation of largely American and British critics shaped a voice and outlook that many of their successors, including brilliant writers such as Geoff Dyer, have subsequently adopted. It became in many contexts the voice of the genre. And it’s problematic:

Dyer calls Jones ‘Elvin’, calls Coltrane ‘Trane’; this sense of false intimacy is significant. Dyer is the author of But Beautiful, from 1991, a fictional gaze at classic-era jazz greats, in which he writes about ‘Lester’, ‘Bud’, ‘Chet’, ‘Ben’, and, for that matter, ‘Hawk’ and ‘Trane’. He writes like a club patron who insinuates himself into the company of the musicians between sets, extracts their confidences, observes scenes of intimate horror, and then passes them along—using first names and nicknames—as if to flaunt his faux-insider status. But, when the musicians are back on the bandstand, he never lets them forget that they’re there to entertain him.” That’s Richard Brody in the New Yorker ( ) commenting on Dyer’s New York Review of Books trashing of Coltrane’s album Offering: Live at Temple University. ( ) Dyer is a magnificent writer. But he’s chosen to put himself in that place: the anorak-wearing fanboy worshipping dark, exoticised myths he himself has created, and becoming tetchy when the real human beings on whom they are based don’t perform to order.

Like, for example, stepping out of myth-land to care about whether they can feed their kids.

Dudu Pukwana

Let’s end with stories of an old-style South African bandleader, reedman Dudu Pukwana. He did sometimes get angry with his sidemen and chase them off his stage. I remember those evenings, at a little theatre in South London: I was there. By the interval, Pukwana would have hugged everybbody and reconciled. Exile was a fucker; he was under stress, and shit sometimes happened. But the saxophonist had politics. He always tried to pay his musicians fairly, and I’ve sat beside bar-table discussions where he debated with the band how the split should go.

Let me tell you about a college gig where Pukwana was a sideman, with another old-style South African leading. Pukwana found out the other guy had lied about the fee. “Show us the cash,” he demanded. “Just show us the cash.” When the rest of the band joined in, the lying leader eventually complied. Pukwana shook out the bag (it was a door take) and ostentatiously counted, first the band members and then the notes. He created five equal albeit pathetically small piles, took his own, and stood. “To me,” he said, “that seems fair. And as for you, you lying mofo, I will never, ever work with you again – not because the money is small, but because you weren’t straight with us.”



Why South African musicians won’t be better off under Motsoeneng’s SABC


Some things are more important than music. Our Constitution is one of them.

So it was distressing the other day to hear musicians praise-singing SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and attacking journalists for putting their “narrow interests” (that is, Constitutional rights to freedom of expression and information) before musicians’ interests.

Let’s not talk, here, about those musicians affiliated to political party organisations such as the ANC Youth League. Their motivations and loyalties are rather more complex, and another Constitutional protection we all enjoy is the right to speak out in defence of party policies we support.

But other musicians have also joined the chorus of “Hlaudi must stay: he will ensure we are better off.”

The problem is, it is not necessarily true.

Enhanced local content has the potential to enrich musicians and other cultural creators. That is unarguable. Like those musicians, there’s nothing I’d like to see more than an intelligently implemented high local quota (I support ICASA’s 70%) on a well-managed national broadcaster that builds audiences and attracts new advertisers because of its strong reputation for ethics and quality. I’d like to see the immediate payment to musicians of all historically owed needletime payments, and the full, accurate, prompt payment of all future dues. I’d like to see smart, generous, unbiased local commissioning policies for musical content, documentaries and dramas.

But, as we’ve seen over the past 20-odd years, excellent policies, based on impeccably solid theoretical foundations, can often fall at the hurdle of  implementation. Here are half a dozen reasons why this policy is already stumbling.

ONE: Monitoring, record-keeping, reporting and the speed of needletime payouts has not been reformed. Without these basic, practical steps, musicians may be theoretically richer, but will not actually see any more cash.

TWO: There’s no business plan to keep listeners, viewers and advertisers loyal to dramatically changed formats. Force the Indian community to listen to Afrikans pop, and listeners will flee. Wrap advertisers’ paid slots in a different programme format and advertisers will flee. Use your ears and eyes, and note the increasing numbers of house ads on all SABC channels. That is ad space the broadcaster cannot sell. That’s disastrous for business, and in the long run threatens the survival of the broadcaster and its ability to pay anybody anything.

THREE: There’s no apparent concern for quality. We hear more South African music, but it’s from a very limited playlist, with a great deal of old music on it. And that’s not ‘old’ as ‘in great heritage music’ – when did we last hear a track by Basil Manenberg Coetzee or The Harlem Swingsters? – that’s ‘old’ as in ‘pop ephemera well past its sell-by date’. There’s no support for DJs trying to expand what they know, and no support (though lots of exhortations to ‘send us your music’) for innovative independent music-makers. It’s a scenario almost inviting  payola, a demon the SABC had earlier made good strides towards slaying. Yesterday’s debut of the unwatchable Divas of Jozi demonstrates how far commissioning editors’ heads are up their own studios. Newsflash: recreating a lowest-common-denominator American schlock-TV concept and placing it in primetime does not assert quality local values; it merely encourages even more audience and advertiser flight

FOUR: Nobody’s noticed we live in a global world. No state broadcaster can dictate everything people see and hear, because we can access multiple alternative sources. Even the poorest communities have members with feature phones who can reach the web. South Africans love and take pride in national culture, but have always had an intelligent interest in the rest of the world too. Genres like jazz, hip-hop, classical music and, yes, African music too, have global as well as local identities, and South African music fans know that, and want (and deserve) to be informed, whether they can afford DSTV or not. They already pay a license fee. Do we really want to return to the era of Radio Bantu, when certain local content was rejected by listeners because it was seen as symbolising the narrow world-view of the state? Not good for business – for either the broadcaster, or musicians…

FIVE: Bad management intensifies business decline, potentially robbing musicians of an important platform for their music. So far, we have seen rule by irrational fiat, complete absence of consultation, contradictory positions, broken promises, and appointment, promotion and bonus policies that have been slammed by the Public Protector and rejected by the law courts. We’ve also seen employees disciplined for asserting national Constitutional values, and a leader allegedly stalking the Auckland Park corridors muttering ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ (which comes pretty close to blasphemy too).

SIX: Censorship serves nobody, least of all creative people like musicians. Being ‘better-off’ is in the end about more than money – although it is not hard to see why some musicians, reflecting on their previous shameful mistreatment by the SABC (in different ways, both during and after apartheid) aren’t currently focused on that. Innovative creativity (read: good music) flourishes best in a free climate. What happens when a musician decides to craft lyrics critical of the powers that be, backed by a video of unhappy, violent demonstrators? However brilliant, under the current policies it won’t get aired. We have already seen the Emmy-winning South African Marikana documentary Miners Shot Down excluded from the SABC airwaves. Under a management regime characterised by gagging, “supporting local content” actually only goes so far…