Decolonising the jazz curriculum – and clearing the broken glass

Outside the Orbit: clearing the shattered glass

The Orbit had its front window smashed on Friday night. Whether by protestors with a defined purpose (though it’s hard to fathom what), opportunistic demagogues and provocateurs, or a bunch of drunken thugs joining what they perceived to be the “fun”, it’s hard to know. All the vandalism has achieved is to rob musicians and service workers of a few days’ decent gigging, and a struggling club of resources.

During the mayhem, the Orbit still willingly sheltered students injured by or terrified of police weapons; it cares about its community. The attack has silenced for a while one of Joburg’s “small pockets of cool” (the phrase is tenorist Shabaka Hutchings’) – a place where the cultural discourse regularly runs counter to the prevailing smug complacency and abdication of responsibility.

The view from inside the Orbit as an SABC van burns outside

Not, I’d say, a victory for anybody except those in power who prefer such silence.

But the apparent lack of tactical savvy by protestors at this point doesn’t devalue their cause. Fees still have to fall, sooner or – if we want yet more of these divisive expressions of mindless gatvol-ness – later. Listening to various vice-chancellors sounding like speak-your-weight machines as they try to damp desperation with bureaucratese, it becomes clear they too have lost the plot. University authorities need to start explicitly refusing the role of buffers imposed on them by government, and instead step around the cops to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the students. The vice-chancellors need to disavow their previous years of complaisance in the face of dysfunctional government university funding, and demand reprioritised budgets and an end to the looting of state funds. Only then can education – and not only higher education – get what it desperately needs.

It’s not just about access..

In the midst of all this, though, it’s easy to forget that money isn’t all education needs. Transformation is about far more than access, even if access is a powerful place to start.

In a thoughtful Daily Maverick op-ed ( ), Wahbie Long, discussing the decolonisation of psychology, notes how:

“The prefix ‘de’ suggests the removal of some germ, irritant or pollutant – as in ‘deflea,’ ‘deworm’ and ‘detoxification.’ It strikes me as simplistic to think of higher education in South Africa as a colonial era brew comprising several ingredients, one (or several) of which needs only to be extricated to ensure the general well-being of our students.”

And that is as true when we discuss the teaching of jazz as of psychology – or any other discipline.

It’s easier, and far less challenging to those in authority, to discuss ‘what?’, than to engage with ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, speaking at a Keleketla debate a week ago ( ), reminded us that discussing education merely as a tool for individual advancement perpetuates the very commodification whose acceptance makes our society and its education system so barbaric in the first place.

Following the leader enshrines patriarchy

It’s easier to adopt follow-the-leader slogans and behaviour, whether in the classroom (or Parliament) or on streets lit by burning cars, than to hammer out through debate the role of leadership, what its mandate should be, and under what circumstances that mandate should be withdrawn. Yet as Kehinde Andrews points out in the UK Guardian, in reference to the Black Panthers, solid strategy, genuine alliances in, and real support for, your host community trump slogans every time ( )

“Follow-the-leader” may well be ruling street actions like the one that saw the Orbit window smashed. You see it in crowds obeying loud-voiced louts who could as easily be state agents as students. You see it in the silencing of queer and feminist students, now increasingly excluded from patriarchal political decision-making ( ). And you see it too in security guards and cops unquestioningly obeying officers’ orders to fire rubber-coated steel bullets (let’s not forget the steel) at unarmed protestors. Marikana, after all, was not so long ago…

How do these questions of authoritarian process manifest in the jazz classroom? They don’t always, because we do have music teachers and scholars who give ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ equal status with ‘what?’ in their teaching. But then again, we also have others who don’t…


Decolonising the jazz curriculum 1 – there’s more than one great music

The reification of Western Art music as the ‘highest achievement’ in terms of aesthetics and skills, persists even in music curricula directed towards jazz degrees. There’s certainly wonderful music to be found chez Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Like all music, it is well worth listening to, to find out what it has to say, and well worth playing too. (When Wynton Marsalis mastered classical playing, he discovered “when I got to the top of that particular mountain, I found it was just another music.”) It’s that mythical first place on some nonexistent scale that’s the problem. At its most unreflective, the superlative expresses a tribal preference, reflecting socialisation in a particular community. That top place and that scale, though, were both invented at precisely the time Europe began underdeveloping Africa; the assertion of cultural supremacy was necessary to the West’s project of colonising the Other.

So, when we teach Western Art Music, we could at least contextualise rather than reifying it. We should remember that composers of colour wrote it too; and that in jazz as well as other musics, what comes from South Africa is a lot more than mimicry of what came from elsewhere. The curriculum should not be so crammed with one genre of music from one part of the world that there is no room for any others.


Decolonising the jazz curriculum 2 – there’s more than one style of pedagogy

Tied to that content comes a teaching method owing much to the Western conservatoires. Too often, knowledge is still seen as owned, and transmitted in one direction, by ‘masters’ and teachers to students. There’s little acknowledgment that is only one possible process model of learning, and the one that most vividly embodies the power relations of entrenched establishments. That point was made last year by Prof Achille Mbembe, in papers presented at Stellenbosch( ). In jazz, it often looks like the ‘teaching’ fictionally depicted in the movie Whiplash: a demeaning, relentlessly authoritarian discourse with experimentation permitted (if at all) only when the teacher decides the student is ‘ready’. Yet there are other possible pedagogies, where those who know some things and those who know others work as co-creators and co-discoverers in the knowledge project. When Paolo Freire asked his literacy students to bring him words from their lives that they wanted to read, they learned the letters – but he learned the truths of their existence ( ). The traditions of Black music historically emphasise sitting side-by-side to learn.

Internationally, those debates have been explored extensively by Deborah Bradley ( ); for South Africa, a good place to start is with Mareli Stolp’s short, informative blogpost ( )


Decolonising the jazz curriculum 3 – opening the debate

lindelwaIt’s for all these reasons, at this crucial time, that the next Conversation in Orbit on Sunday October 30th at 6pm, will focus on the ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ of the jazz curriculum.

Does what happens in schools and higher a-2349870-1352639896-6229education currently serve both learners and our own jazz tradition?

What could – or should, or must – be changed?

Our panel will comprise Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, Kevin Davidson, Ceri ceriMoelwyn-Hughes and Andre Petersen: scholars, teachers and players all.bio_ten

There will be a concluding set from another music scholar, pianist Yonela Mnana and trio.


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