I ended my obituary of Lucky Ranku last time with the Malian proverb that when a musician dies, a library burns. But some things I’ve been involved in over the time since then are rather sharply telling me that it doesn’t take death to create yawning chasms in our cultural history. It just takes bad media arts policy.
In an article I’m working on for a music journal, I argue that the racist blinkers historically imposed by apartheid gave a special role to our music journalists. These “unofficial musicologists” mapped territory that apartheid ethnomusicology often erased or distorted – particularly for the world of South African jazz, where the narrative of non-tribal black urban sociality and sophisticated attainment found a very poor fit amidst demeaning stereotypes and the ideological drive towards retribalisation.
But I’ve also been judging the National Arts Journalism Awards (no spoilers, but we have an intriguing crop of winners – wait for Nov 28) and doing another writing task that’s involved researching the biographies of some current South African musicians.
And what I’m finding – apart from the few truly wonderful writers and titles – is a wasteland.
We currently have what’s probably the largest, most inspiring crop of innovative young jazz players we’ve heard for a very long time. Not only is technical proficiency sterling, but the ideas and sounds are fresh and widely diverse. Even on the same instruments, you can’t put, say, pianists Bokani Dyer. Kyle Shepherd and Thandi Ntuli, or bassists Romy Brauteseth, Dalisu Ndlazi, Amaeshi Ikechi and Benjamin Jephta in the same box. Siya Makuzeni’s voice chills your spine in an entirely different way from that of Gabisile Motuba.
But most newspapers have dropped specialist arts columns, reduced their use of external specialist writers or economised via one-size-fits-all ‘national’ supplements that ignore the rich nuance of local creative scenes. Even where space for arts coverage exists, it’s small. Stories have to compete for those limited page-slots, and either non-specialist reporters have to create the content, or one hardworking arts writer has to demonstrate equal expertise across every genre – briefed, too often, by editors with apparently equally stretched insight into the field. So there’s showbiz aggregation (mostly skandaal from foreign sources), or reviews that are simply accounts of the contents of something, or interviews where it feels like the recorder has just been left running, and then transcribed and chopped to fit. No context, no analysis, no insight, no sense of what’s happening now. And very little jazz. I can find out more about Boity Thulo’s latest pair of heels than about the processes and motivations of half a dozen important jazz players.
Last I checked, only one South African national newspaper, the Daily Sun, had the respect to mark in a timely fashion the deaths of international giants Pinise Saul and Lucky Ranku. Seek an online biography for the late Peter Nthwane, and you can’t find one. Shameful.
There are, of course, exceptions: you’ll encounter some of them at the awards. There are bloggers and online sites presenting good, fresh content, and the few remaining radio jazz presenters do a great job. But it’s not enough. And the presence of exceptions does not compensate for the overwhelming bleakness future researchers will encounter when they try and find out about the discourse of jazz in South Africa in the early and mid-2000s.
Because jazz isn’t just a sound; it is a discourse too. When Todd Matshikiza documented how jazz came to Joburg for Drum, his writing didn’t just tell you about the sounds, but about lives, experiences, the texture of social life and the weight of politics (albeit that latter often obliquely, because of censorship). It’s ironic how little space our ‘liberated’ media devote to doing that.
Now, we worry, too, about the future of one of the spaces where the discourse of jazz was not only discussed but enacted. Founding partner Aymeric Peguillan is leaving his role at the club at the end of November, following financial hard times and divergent opinions about future programme policy. Without the Orbit as it has functioned since its foundation (and its circuit brethren, Nikki’s and the African Freedom Station), we wouldn’t know about all the richness of our young jazz scene; would not have been able to buy the albums at launch, and would not have been able to listen to the music in an atmosphere that offered respect to its creators’ intentions. Often, the Orbit programme biographies gave us the only information available anywhere about some musicians’ lives. Certainly, the Orbit was unique in offering musicians a decent, private green room and a beautifully maintained, top of the line, piano.
We’ve no evidence, yet, about what may change – but some things clearly will. We can hope that the managers taking over understand what has made the Orbit such a special place – developmentally, and for Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban musicians as well as Joburg players – and keep at least some of that in place. But, whatever, Aymeric, thank you – you’ll be missed!