#Feesmustfall – and I’ve experienced why

Not being raised in South Africa has advantages and disadvantages. I am disadvantaged, for example, by not understanding the allure of charred hunks of animal flesh, consumed outdoors amidst clouds of biting flies and too many drunks. But I have experienced genuinely free higher education – and you know what? It is the most liberating experience any human being can have.

As I’ve noted before, all education is a system of filters. What passes through, and what gets held back, depend on the priorities of the society in question. Some of those filters are formal: exams; selection policies; high fees. Others are less formal: social pressures and prejudices; poor resources that fail to support the learning of some; lack of role models – and the indirect costs associated with getting educated.

I grew up poor. My father was a manual worker; my mother worked in a garment factory, as a hairdresser and, after I was born, full-time caring for us and our home. Later, my father was incapacitated by illness and we survived on social grants.

Had health services not been free when I was 5, I’d never even have made it into literacy, being so short-sighted that I once, famously, mistook a toddler in a camel-coloured coat for a Labrador. But I could get prescription specs with NHI frames (ugly round ones with transparent flesh-coloured surrounds) free, with no hassle or condemnation. Once I discovered I could read fine print, there was no holding back. My primary and secondary educations were also free, including subjects like art and music. Uniforms weren’t, so I was that kid with the Michelin Man roll of skirt waistband round my middle, so we did not have to buy a new one as I grew. And one of those who got regular demerit points, because it was purchased from a chain store rather than the preferred overpriced retailer.

Some things were still difficult. All my textbooks were free – but when we had project work, our income couldn’t always make extra research resources happen. A project on the Italian Renaissance nearly scuppered me: the relative who’d promised a trip to the (free) local art gallery let us down. The library was free and nearby. My mother  wept as she helped me razor pictures from a borrowed book to illustrate my project. She was the most honest person I have ever known – but her child was not going to fail. Later, she scraped together cash to pay the fine for the ‘lost’ book and took the blame herself.

But without both loving and supportive parents and free healthcare, education, textbooks and libraries, I would never have made it to final exams and university. It’s called social mobility, and the prospect of that mobility is one key contributor to social cohesion.

And then university was free. Any university I wanted, that would have me. My local authority paid the university fees, and paid me a small but at that time adequate living grant. I got into one of the elite ones. I met and mingled with the children of Cabinet Ministers, captains of industry and kings. Many of them were dickheads, I and my socially mobile working-class peers (there were quite a lot of us in that era) agreed. But people like that were demystified; I got my confidence mojo.

Don’t preach at me that my family should have done all this and that they didn’t make sacrifices. They sacrificed the income they could have had, and desperately needed, if I’d gone out to work at 16. They sacrificed relationships and shared perspectives that were certainly altered by my social mobility. But they did not sacrifice half as much as they would have done if I’d had to spend the first third of my working life paying back a crippling loan too. Student loans to poor families just force them to keep on paying.

I can’t describe the sense of liberation that came from being able to study whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted at 18. Or from being able to pick any career afterwards (I eventually chose education) able to pay my good fortune forward in a relatively poorly remunerated profession without worrying about some damn loan.

But that was then, and this is now. A lot has changed. In the UK, all the things that made me have been commodified. They are no longer free: they are products you must buy – and if you can’t afford them, hard luck. As a result, the children of the rich are back in charge. Social mobility has slowed to a trickle; social cohesion is fragmenting.

With our heavy existing legacy of poverty and division, is that what we want to continue and intensify here? Because that’s what punitively expensive higher education in a high Gini-coefficient country will do.

That makes me want to weep. But even more tragic are the behaviour and utterances of once progressive politicians who’ve bought the gospel of commodified education, not as a right but as a purchase.

Passing the buck to the universities and long-delayed commissions of enquiry is not the answer. The Swartz Commission reported in 2012 that free varsity education for the children of the poor was feasible. It was shelved and never formally released. Government allowances to universities have increased in monetary terms, but fallen dramatically in both real value and student per capita terms (because of inflation, which is a government monetary policy issue, and rising student numbers, which are something government allegedly wants). In these circumstances, it is monstrously unfair to use university authorities as human shields against the full force of student wrath.

Some form of sliding-scale, means-tested support (such as Minister Nzimande proposed last week) initially looks like a helpful solution. But it’s problematic. If intended as loans, it puts additional, protracted burdens on poor families, as NSFAS loans already do. (The UK didn’t have many extended families. South Africa does, and a student in her first, even lucrative job – if she can find one –may have to support a dozen or more people.) Moreover, when many NSFAS-funded students still starve because their money has not arrived midway through their first term, why should anybody have confidence in the efficiency of means-testing administration?

But loans for commodified education are also not what the ANC fought for. Minister Nzimande’s assertion that richer students should be supporting poorer students was, at this juncture in the national controversy, a transparent tactic to divide the student body. That support should exist – but it should come from a more effective progressive taxation system across the board, not from finger-pointing at individual ‘rich students’. Such a tax system, of course, was another of the goals the ANC ostensibly fought for.

Then there was Gwede Mantashe’s distortion of the Freedom Charter as part of his cry to “close the universities to teach students a lesson”. Mantashe asserted that the Freedom Charter proposed granting access to higher education on merit “And we are not doing that. We have elevated [it] almost to a right.” Actually, the word “grant” means “give”. Higher education was intended as a right, for anyone with the brains to benefit.

The Freedom Charter heads that section “The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!” It continues:

Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.

For all children…Equal…On merit. Read it again, Mr Mantashe. Certainly, the thugs burning libraries are thugs – and clearly not very smart – and need to be called to order (whether they are students or not; that is currently moot, and student movements were ever the haunt of provocateurs). But so do the thugs who make it impossible for libraries to function, by putting the boot in on the real value of state higher education funding .

Maybe we need a bit of neuro-linguistic reprogramming here? Not only is education a right, it is also not an expense, but an investment. It is an investment in social mobility, in social cohesion, in a skilled labour force that can attract more FDI, in innovation, and in democracy and human rights. Last time I looked, those were not only entrenched in the spirit of the Freedom Charter, but allegedly key goals for current policy too.

Fees must fall.






Racism and “heritage” – very uneasy bedfellows

OK, this isn’t about jazz, but rather about culture. No apologies; this needs to be said.

Anybody who receives a weekly Joburg Caxton group knock n’drop newspaper may have noticed this week that pages eight and nine are devoted to a Heritage Day supplement headed South Africa’s multicultural heritage celebrated. The principle is praiseworthy – but did anybody apart from me actually read it?

There are multiple problems associated with the ‘cultural village’ approach to national heritage: here, a double-page patchwork quilt with each section dedicated to a different ‘tribe’.

One is that what apartheid downgraded to ‘tribes’ were previously real kingdoms: active, living polities rather than mere collections of customs. Colonialism and apartheid actively deformed these under invasion, bantustan and re-tribalisation projects, often murdering and replacing genuine national leaders with puppets. The settler regimes actively reinforced those more authoritarian and patriarchal aspects of tradition that better accorded with their preferences, preconceptions and prejudices. So there is an important debate about ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ to be had around  the ‘cultural village’ approach.

Another is that, rather like that old retribalisation policy itself, it’s too easy to turn a celebration of custom into the exoticisation and celebration of unchanging difference – rather than what Heritage Day should be: the celebration of a heritage of growing consciousness (often expressed through culture), change and shared humanity that brought many diverse people together to get rid of apartheid. (And, no, not of the braai, in case certain supermarkets’ advertising in the same newspaper had you fooled too.)

So, we have Ndebele culture and history boiled down to “renowned for its distinctive beadwork,” the AmaSwati , of course, to the reed dance, the BaPedi to “dance and song”…and so on. It’s surely unnecessary, these days, to detail the dangers of such reductive stereotypes. And while Afrikaners are headlined “exceptional farmers”, the Tsonga are merely “cultivators”. That terminology is like the difference between calling something “art” or “craft” – it rests, implicitly, not on what is done, but on who does it.

But what got me so angry that I had to write this was the headline on the little orange patch devoted to the English.

Having outlined (albeit crudely and reductively) a rich diversity of social capital, creativity, enterprise, and networks of relationships – what many would call aspects of civilisation – in all the other little patches on the page,  what headline did the English get? British colonial officials were among those who began the process of disrupting, dispossessing, distorting and underdeveloping the historic African kingdoms of the southern part of the continent.

So what headline did those activities get? “Brought civilisation.”

I tell you, you couldn’t make it up…

Thank You SABC flops; Joy of Jazz pleases – but, really, what’s the point of mega-concerts?

There was more than a little schadenfreude in how the press reported the ‘Thank You SABC’ mega-concert flop last weekend at Orlando Stadium. After a very late start, a very small crowd enjoyed a bill that fell very far short of what had been advertised. Several artists reported non-payment, and the promoter still sits under an investigative cloud after another monster concert in tribute to Miriam Makeba similarly flopped. Who was responsible? The buck is bouncing around like a springbok after the first rains.

The ‘Thank You SABC’ concert scene at Orlando Stadium

Joy of Jazz, and many Arts Alive concerts – including Jazz on the Lake – have seen somewhat healthier crowds, despite September being a month overcrowded with mega-events. Meanwhile, July’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown reported ticket sales of 220 000-plus across the week, and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival always sells out its available 30 000-plus day and weekend passes well ahead. (In both these latter cases, the figures include corporate and sponsor freebies, sometimes for people who never even turn up.)

Manenberg Stage, Cape Town International Jazz Festival

South Africans seem to like their big festivals.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see why. You get 40+ minutes (if you’re lucky, and scheduling is on-track) of an artist who might play two or even three sets in a club. Apart from a few civilised oases, like the Rosie’s venue in Cape Town, festival sound quality is almost always worse than what you’ll find in a club where, even if engineering and acoustics are dodgy, you can at least get closer to the artists. Comfort levels are always worse. Crowds are often more interested in the noise they can make, the alcohol they can glug, or the selfies they can take, than in listening to the artists. Drinks? Overpriced! Catering? At best, it provides adequate fuel for the waits between acts and the treks between stages or to toilets. For people who are more interested in engaging with challenging music than being noticed, big festivals are often frustrating, not fun – and many jazz fans fall into that category.

There’s a perennial opinion piece that gets written about festivals wearing the label ‘jazz’. “It’s not fair,” the piece whines. “The stages are full of people who are not jazz artists.” We surely don’t need to rehearse that tired argument again. It is obvious that no multi-stage, multi-day festival themed around a single genre of music – except, in this country, possibly gospel – could hope to fill a monster venue, or cover the now punitive costs of international artists’ airfares, through fans of that one genre alone. Especially in South Africa, where our fan niches are much smaller than in a larger-population country, and where many in those fan niches are people who lack the income for bread, never mind tickets.

And let’s remember that same business model is what supports the simultaneous (albeit fleeting) visits of multiple overseas artists – if that’s what we want.

Let’s ask some other questions instead. What should jazz festivals be for? And is it only possible to achieve those aims in a mega-stadium or convention centre?

The best answer I’ve ever read to that first question came from commentator Tony Marcus ( http://www.factmag.com/2012/03/25/whats-the-point-of-festivals/1/ ). I drew on that piece for a 2014 review in TheCon (http://www.theconmag.co.za/2014/09/30/selfies-with-a-sax/ ), and I’ll repeat my summary here:

What festivals are for, might at first glance seem obvious: staging music.

Scratch the skin of that, though, and one layer down are the business models: to make money for promoters and artists (almost always in that order); to provide that chimerical beast, “exposure”; and, in this digital age, to offer a unique experience not accessible via download. Scratch the skin of “experience” and we get to bringing together a like-minded community of artists and listeners around a broadly-defined music genre. Scrape away at “community” and here’s Marcus’s great quote: “The festival has always been a litmus or metaphor for the limits of freedom.”

So, jazz festivals should be places where music fans are free to come together to appreciate jazz – without too many limits set by their lack of cash, or by the pressure to buy a sponsor’s booze, or by the snobbish aura of the venue. They should be places where musicians are free to make the music they choose, unmediated by purely money-making concerns. Big festivals are often the antithesis of freedom: they police jazz sociality to make it fit pre-set commercial parameters.

Sandton: current location of Joy of Jazz

That’s not an argument for all festivals offering completely free entry. That, as we’ve seen at a plethora of party-political music bashes, makes musicians wholly dependent on certain paymasters, while even fans with money in their pockets are lulled to forget that making music is precious labour deserving recompense.

But it would be nice to see more concessionary entry for people without money – and especially for the young, because they are the paying audiences of the future. Brazil, Italy and a few other countries are now introducing ‘cultural coupons’ for the youth, or for people on low incomes, to be spent on things like going to a gig.

It would also be nice if entry fees could be kept affordable for those on moderate incomes. Two day-passes for this year’s Joy of Jazz cost R1 500 – perhaps not unreasonable in relation to what expenses must be, but more than a week’s earnings for even many working Joburgers.

It would be extra-nice if those notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘community’ facilitated more interactions between South African and visiting artists, more audience Q&As, debates, spontaneous creative projects – not just huge crowds herded into uncomfortable enclosures far from a stage to consume a musical product…

Let’s face it, none of that is going to happen if the organisers must fill a massive stadium or convention centre to pay their bills.

But such festivals do exist. Look, for example, at New York’s Vision Festival (http://www.brooklynvegan.com/nycs-vision-festival-2016-lineup-schedule-tickets/ ), which has now stayed alive into its third decade. It covers experimental music and other arts genres, over a week. It’s had many homes: this year, it was held in a church. Its 2016 jazz voices included the Sun Ra Arkestra, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Grimes, Michelle Rosewoman…the kinds of presences many of us would love to see more prominently at jazz festivals here. Done in South Africa, a Vision-type festival might let us engage with our homegrown jazz intellectuals, rather than merely baying for another encore. And while overseas guests would be fewer – but not impossible; there are support devices such as crowd-funding – perhaps their visits could be more carefully curated, with greater opportunities for creative sharing.

Wadada Leo Smith: the kind of creative import SA jazz fans crave

Rather than whingeing about our existing behemoth bashes, shouldn’t we leave them to be what their business model makes them and start looking at ways to make smaller, better events happen – real festivals, that support jazz community, interaction and creative freedom?

•Come to the Orbit on Sunday September 25th at 6pm, to join a panel of festival fundis, insiders and outsider critics, in discussing this topic – followed by some music that demonstrates alternative possibilities too.

SA Jazz: revolutionary music in a moment of re-making

It was interesting, on Friday, to be part of the Joy of Jazz breakfast colloquium – even if breakfast became brunch in terms of timing. Convenor Percy Mabandu got things off to a great start by reminding us that “the journey to our constitution is littered with great albums.” He went on from there to kick off the debate, by asking two tables full of journalists, music administrators, academics and others, to consider what it is about jazz – and what, specifically, about jazz in South Africa – that made and makes it the archetypal expression of the freedom principle?

My table was co-led by trumpeter, bandleader and composer Mandla Mlangeni; the other conversation was directed by activist and reedman Steve Dyer and vocalist/arranger and highly articulate advocate of musical equality, Spha Mdlalose.

Very early in the conversation, we noticed a distinction between the content of music as a communicator of messages (through titles and lyrics) and the practice of music as enacting certain (again, Mabandu’s phrase) “ways of being in the world.”

Let’s start with that latter. Creating culture always has some relation to the daily lives and struggles of its creators. Even saying your music is not political takes a position with regard to politics. Artists and cultural activist Thami Mnyele put it well in 1984, a year before he was murdered by the SADF: “For me as craftsman, the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture.”

Artist Thami Mnyele

So under apartheid the practice of playing or listening to jazz (because one of the things jazz has inherited from older African musics is that there is no hard barrier between player and audience) related to daily oppression by enacting rebellion in a dozen different ways. It still does that today – but let’s take the history first.

  • Jazz was urban and syncretic where apartheid laws classified people in narrow separate, often rural-by-definition categories: race-groups; ‘tribes’, and so on.
  • It was sophisticated and cosmopolitan, where Africans were constantly told they were simple and instinctive. In its performance, it was ordered, organized and professional, at a time when people of colour were restricted by law to lower grades of labour because of their perceived inability to handle detail and precision. It freed its players and listeners by confirming their powers and bolstering self-knowledge and self-confidence.
  • In its conditions of production and reception it was nocturnal, when people of colour were only legally permitted daytime space in elite parts of the city on sufferance to do the white man’s work. Being out in the city at night – even if confined in a hall until dawn – asserted freedom.
  • As a musical practice it embodies both freedom and collectivity: individuals improvise while the group, in Columbia University’s Professor George Lewis’s lovely phrase, “has got their back” so the philosophy of the jazz process chimed with very important elements in the urge towards liberation. Different times have given different emphases to these elements. Right-wing Americans portray jazz as the music of supreme individualism, led by heroic (and invariably male) soloists. That discourse erases traditions of black community, communalism and solidarity, which helped to fiercely nurture the music. Yet we heard from one White South African about having his home-brewed Dixieland school band turned into a cadet marching band to crush individualism. Asserting it in that context would have pushed freedom forward.
  • Jazz was never a segregated music – it mixes things up both in the kinds of human, social spaces where it is made, and in the way it facilitates dynamic interaction between, and collageing of, musical elements from formerly separated music genres, dance, and sometimes visual art too.

    Thami Mnyele 1984 Graphic
  • It’s about experimentation: experimental aesthetics; innovative combos (for example, no rhythm section; unexpected instruments; quotes from across the genres, like the classical piano fragment in the middle of Batsumi’s first album; ensembles that straddle generations. All these are political, not just aesthetic choices. The kind of work you create comes out of the same politics as the way you work with people, a point that came across strongly in the documentary Shwabada about Ndikho Xaba.
  • So in jazz there’s no polar opposition between structure/figuration and freedom/abstraction: they can exist together harmoniously in a creative work. Even the sounds we hear in jazz don’t pay too much heed to Western, conservatoire notion of musical ‘dissonance’. Jazz takes sounds and interactions outside the filters of established discourses, and thus frees people to see and experience them differently.
  • Jazz is literally and metaphorically dialogic: literally in its use of African musical devices such as call and response; metaphorically in that what the musicians ‘say’ relates (for example, in conventions such as quoting) to previous utterances, and to an expected response from fellow players and from an audience who may call out, dance – or simply supply conceptual meanings to a wordless tune. The best example of that last is probably Winston Mankunku’s Yakhal’inkomo, something Mabandu’s monograph on the work can tell you much more about.
  • And among what Mabandu called “the surviving Africanisms of jazz” is the very African technique of signification. Jazz not only rehearses and takes ownership of elements from elsewhere and puts them into unexpected company, but by so doing adds fresh meanings and layers of meaning to them, often in highly subversive ways. A work of art isn’t a thing or an event – for as long as it’s around its meaning and impact can change and gain new layers and colours as people see it, interact with it and create their own understandings around it.
  • The language of jazz expresses a relationship to both its local community and the global. It can be, but does not have to be, collectively composed – it’s not necessarily communal art-making (though that is possible). Rather, community is what creates the nurturing context for creativity. That lone tortured man so-called jazz novels and movies obsess about is actually quite a rare bird.

For all these reasons, and despite its magnificent legacy from the past, jazz is always about the future. Sure, it has been and can be a very powerful music of protest. But it’s not about protest, it’s about dealing with problems. Sometimes through negotiated solutions, but never through the wishy-washy recourse of a lowest common denominator. Sometimes the solutions jazz proposes entail overturning, overthrowing and discarding things that are simply not working – or simply not right – and replacing them with new patterns and conversations.

Thami Mnyele gig poster

Mlangeni pointed out that there was always a tension within ensembles between this enactment of freedom, and the power (sometimes abused) of the bandleader, or the need for musical structure and form. In the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, he had attempted to answer the closed process of the TRC through assembling a group from diverse backgrounds, and with diverse world-views, to reconnect with ‘truth’ through creating a space for multiple personal truths.

In the years following 1990, a South African jazz now opened to the cultural dumping of the Western record industry had often compromised, paralleling how liberation politics, once in government, had accommodated Western imperialism in other ways. Jazz today often appears as a lifestyle choice in the way it is marketed. The Joy of Jazz itself, high-priced and set within the consumerist enclave of Sandton, was described by one breakfast participant as embodying “the BEE imagination”.

And yet, because of its dialogic nature, a music that has always felt the pressures of co-option from the establishment, has also always had the capacity to re-make itself in iconoclastic ways.

In that, it was and remains a revolutionary music.

Mabandu suggested that one of the challenges the music faced was one of identity. Certain choices might take the music towards essentialist nationalism and the exclusion of foreign sounds and influences. More challenging, but more in line with how jazz had dealt with authenticity in the past , would be not excluding but “taking ownership of today’s modernities” and revisioning them in our own ways.

Jazz in a moment of re-making: artist Judy Seidman hears Salim Washington’s band live, playing a dedication to #feesmustfall 

We felt, at the breakfast, that South African jazz was in a moment of re-making again, with both its content and practice challenging well-fed complacency. Music was alluding to Marikana, expressing solidarity with #feesmustfall and, as well, exploring piquant new combinations of sounds, instruments and genres. Mnyele presciently told us what nourishment that would provide for the work, as well as for society: “ We must partake actively in the struggle to [work] sincerely…[then] …the songs will come by themselves.”

Thami Mnyele: graphic featuring Hugh Masekela, “Kingforce” Silgee and others for the 1984 Culture and Resistance conference in Gaborone



The hidden histories of SA album art

E of R & A Funny Thing
Zulu Bidi’s Cover for The Ensemble of Rhythm and Art 1977

As the age of disaggregated, cloud-stored music flowered, the album cover almost died. For a while back there in the 2000-odds, it seemed as if the sad future of music was going to be tinny little MP3 tracks downloaded from the Web. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. For a range of reasons, including the rise of memorabilia as an earner in the music industry value-chain, and the DJ- hipster- and geek-led return of vinyl (sales up 32% in 2015), albums are a thing again.That’s good – and not only because an album curates and presents a musician’s vision far better than any single track can. Album art is important too. It tells us not only about the music (indeed, sometimes almost nothing about the music), but about the society it came from, sometimes revealing unexpected stories of people, art-forms and struggles.

Forces fav
Forces Favourite: sexist relic of the border war

In an article that ought to be more widely read, US writer Lara Pellegrinelli  explored the lives and careers of the models who decorated jazz LP covers when she was growing up; a time when, as she says: “As I remember her, Erroll Garner was attractive and self-confident. Waves of reddish-brown hair swung skyward behind her left ear. Narrowed blue eyes peered from under thin, arched brows. Perhaps she wore too much lipstick, but the red oval circling neat white teeth almost matched the enhanced curve of her lashes. The record jacket squarely framed the slender face with a teasing hint of bare shoulders below. The album’s upbeat title? The Most Happy Piano.” Pelegrinelli uncovered a fascinating narrative of an era when “if Erroll Garner really had been a gorgeous redhead, the cover would have been as far as she’d got.” (http://jazztimes.com/articles/20072-the-women-jacketed-by-records )

That same tantalising sense of a history largely hidden permeates the Alliance Francaise September Jive Musical Graphics exhibition, on show for the whole of this month at the organisation’s Zoo Lake premises (http://www.alliance.org.za/events/johannesburg/september-jive ). 150 covers have been assembled, marking points in South African music history from 1957 to the present. Apart from provoking a serious case of platter envy in any  collector – Dudu Pukwana’s debut with ‘The Spears’ in 1969, anybody? – you can shuffle these 12-inch cards in a range of ways, to unfold multiple contrasting narratives. That point had already been made by collector Siemon Allen’s magical 2013 Recording History installation at the Iziko Slave Lodge (http://flatint.blogspot.co.za/2013/01/siemon-allens-labels-curtain-at-slave.html ), a work that sadly never found gallery space in Johannesburg.

Turn On
Absolutely, definitely not about sex n’drugs

The Alliance Francaise collection is based on a different premise: it reflects both interesting artwork and the picks of people in and around the music industry, whose portraits form a parallel display. There are at least three ‘white’ histories on display: religious, military and oppositional. The oppositional work ranges from the bitter, overtly political riffing on themes such as Forces Favourites by Johannes Kerkorrel and his peers, to a rather comical apeing of the Swinging Sixties by aspiring white bohemians. Hennie Bekker’s 1971 Turn On, for example, shows a torrent of psychedelic images pouring from a crudely superimposed galvanised tap. The military history is the most distasteful: deeply racist, sexist and cisgendered; simultaneously titillating and coy about both female bodies and guns. Historian Michael Drewett has for a long time been documenting the censored and manipulated album imagery that wrapped music intended to comfort and distract ‘our boys on the border’.

Batsumi album cover by Zulu Bidi 1974

On Wednesday this week (September 7) at 6:30, Drewett will be discussing that visual landscape, with even more examples of issues such as the epidemic disappearance of white female nipples during the 1960s and 1970s.

But the history that most intrigued me was the history of the growth of a common visual language around jazz in the 70s. The language was created by Black artists: some famous, some barely known outside collectors’ circles. Just as our choral history has erased the tradition of workers’ choirs from its syllabus, so our art history seems to have no place for these painters, preferring to discuss the jazziness of Matisse over the jazziness of Dumile Feni or Lefifi Tladi. Work by two less well known participants in this artistic milieu is on display among these covers: Hargreaves Ntukwana and Zulu Bidi. Both were musicians: Ntukwana had played in the pit band of the musical King Kong; Bidi the bassist with Batsumi and sideman for countless other bands.

Gideon Nxumalo album cover by Hargreaves Ntukwana 1968

Ntukwana was a graduate of the Polly Street Art Centre run by Cecil Skotness. Establishments such as Polly Street built on an urban Black visual arts tradition that can be traced back at least to John Koenakeefe Mohl’s ‘White Studio’ in Sophiatown in the 1940s. (http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/polly-street-era) Both those establishments permitted walk-in students, and we can learn from the memoirs of township artists and musicians about the rich cross-fertilisation among practitioners of different genres even after apartheid removed and separated artistic communities (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/thamsanqa-thami-mnyele ). Those who studied shared skills with those who were not formal students; as in every roots creative community, the pedagogical method prevailed.

Night in Pelican
Abacothozi album cover by Zulu Bidi 1976

Some members of those circles travelled, studied and exhibited abroad, and gained fame: Feni, Tladi, Ernst Mancoba and more. Ntukwana eventually made it to Toledo. Others stayed home, putting art or music on the back-burner to earn for their families. The occasional album cover commission must have provided a welcome opportunity to reawaken that side of their creativity. Those covers should be looked on as a legitimate part of the opus of artists for whom creative opportunities under apartheid were limited, stereotyped and censored.

But still, the historical record of this art is incomplete. We can only speculate about motives and inspirations. We have no complete catalogues of works, and only the most skeletal of biographies. And that matters for several reasons, not only for the sake of historical completeness.

Dollar Brand album cover by Hargreaves Ntukwana 1974

Without such information, this work and the artists who made it cannot go into the curriculum. But also without it, the history itself  cannot be complete – neither the history of jazz nor the history of art. There was a distinctive visual language about South African music being shaped by these artists and their peers: a particular way of engaging with the music in images, analogous to the way that the jazz appreciation societies developed a kinetic language for engaging with the music through steps. We cannot accurately trace the development of that language with such lacunae in the record. All these artists, major and minor, provide steps on the road that has brought us to today’s way of talking about jazz music in images; expressed in the album cover art of, for example, Mzwandile Buthelezi. Mzwandile is his own man, but he did not emerge, fully formed, from nowhere. Isn’t there an art postgraduate somewhere out there looking for a dissertation topic who has the passion and determination to fill the gaps, and make Ntukwana, Bidi – and the unknown others – more than just signatures on the corners of an album cover?

And today – Mzwandile Buthelezi’s cover for Thandi Ntuli: The Offering