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



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