Essentialism, identity and Lwanda Gogwana’s Uhadi Synth

 

“There IS an electric Africa.” – Manu Dibangu

 

I cite that epigraph a lot. In the face of various pathological right-wing nostalgias – and there have been a lot this year, not all of them issuing from the mouths of white racists – it seems important to assert that Africa has never merely engaged with imported modernity and change. Rather, from long before the time the first bricklayer started building the walls of sophisticated Edo City (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/18/story-of-cities-5-benin-city-edo-nigeria-mighty-medieval-capital-lost-without-trace ), African creators were making their own modernity and change. They still are.

lwanda-album

Those nasty nostalgias emerge from reactionary forms of identity politics. And in South Africa, apartheid has given us ample instances of both the progressive and reactionary uses of “identity”. While the colonialists and the apartheid regime were viciously erasing the identity of historic African polities – reducing autonomous kingdoms to ‘tribes’ and ‘groups’, and denying independent Black intellectual discourse – they were also busily constructing other, ersatz identities through policies eventually christened retribalisation.

Under retribalisation, apartheid’s white cultural experts determined what was authentic, and what not, enthroning white hegemony via various bizarre social and cultural constructs founded on the servile patriarchy of approved tribal leaders. (The process is still nowhere better dissected than by the late Govan Mbeki: https://www.amazon.com/South-Africa-Peasants-Govan-Mbeki/dp/B000UZV6MG ) Chiefs who resisted were usually exiled, imprisoned or killed.

It’s true in music too. What commentators sometimes essentialise as the ‘authentic’ rural roots of South African modern music are a product of the tensions inherent in those oppressions and fight-backs, not phenomena that predate them or offer unsullied access to some earlier, ‘pure’, tradition. Nowhere is this truer than in the history of South African jazz, which is tightly interwoven with both the history of urbanisation and the vibe of urbanism.

toby-st-1950
The vibe of urbanism: Toby St in Sophiatown, one birthplace of jazz, around 1950

The early suppression of jazz under apartheid as a degenerate urban music alien to the essentially rural, tribal nature of ‘the African’ was founded on willful historical ignorance. Cities aren’t a new thing for Africa. They’ve been around a while, enacting their own definitions of modernity, and they’ve always – albeit mediated by the transport technologies of their times – had global as well as local faces (see e.g. the work of AbdouMaliq Simone). Long, long before Cape Town and Johannesburg there flourished the Kushite capital of Meroe, Memphis, Great Zimbabwe, Edo City, Mbanza Kongo and way too many others to list.

In the yards of urban South Africa, where jazz was first made, people of colour struggled to own their self-defined identities in the face of oppressive erasure. Those identities encompassed city residence often dating back as far as a grandparent (or earlier) alongside tight links to rural relatives. And rather than holding any of that heritage static, people simultaneously struggled for the right to own and shape its change.

lady-frere
Lady Frere: home of the late NoFinishi Dywili

 

All that history and its creative possibilities can be read in the second album from trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana. Urban and rural, traditional and modern, international and local, are all present in a cover proudly declaring Xhosa identity in the blanket Gogwana wears over the shoulder of his sharp grey suit, in dedications to the doyenne of Xhosa music, the late NoFinishi Dywili of Lady Frere as well as to Zim Ngqawana, and in the deliberate conceptual juxtaposition of the title: Uhadi Synth ( http://www.oneworld.co.za/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&cPath=1_17&products_id=10741 ) . They are present, too, in the origins and influences of the diverse and talented crew Gogwana works with: reedman Sisonke Xonti; pianist Kyle Shepherd; bassist Amaeshi Ikechi; drummer Lungile Kunene and vocalist Sakhile Moleshe – Cape Town, Alice, Lagos, Mdantsane, Johannesburg, New York and counting.

“Xhosa people,” musicologist David Dargie has quoted singer Amelia No-Silence Matiso as saying, “like to put salt in their songs” (http://journal.ru.ac.za/index.php/africanmusic/article/viewFile/1757/862 ) There’s plenty of that salt in Gogwana’s album: overlapping parts; interlocking rhythms; harmonies that allude to overtone chords and layered calls and responses.

 

nofinishi
NoFinishi Dywili

But it’s an album that mines more recent musical tropes too. On Umculo, Shepherd’s piano sketches an odyssey from the Kensington church halls of Abdullah Ibrahim’s youth to the I:IV:V chords of classic African Jazz in Langa, to the complex, free sounds of Brotherhood of Breath in Europe and – via synthesized squeeze-box – back to the Eastern Cape mountains and the homesick songs of a gaunt, blanket-draped migrant miner.

Moleshe’s voice invokes the lounge-lizard swing of the late Victor Ntoni and the earlier, more urgent Hamba-style spoken exhortations of his namesake Ndlazilwana. Xonti manages the remarkable feat of not sounding like Ngqawana even on Qula Kwedini, by often harking back to the big, bluesy sounds of players like Eric Nomvete, though with a much more contemporary edge. It’s not the only time the avuncular ghosts of the Eastern Cape’s historic big-bands hover over the music: both Maqundeni (traditional) and the closer Ngiyagoduka (penned by Gogwana) nod to the technique of those arrangements and the spirit of those defiant community halls.

As for Gogwana himself, his trumpet often nods to other Eastern Cape speed-merchants such as Dennis Mpale and Mongezi Feza, with the synth sometimes coming very close to Feza’s stuttering, angry hornet, pocket-trumpet tone. But Gogwana’s homage to Feza’s Ucing’uyandazi (You think You Know Me…But You’ll Never Know Me) chooses not to go there. Rather, he crafts a meditation that traces the harmonic lineage shared between that song and Qula Kwedini, with the synthesiser echoing back in time to the sonic place from which both songs came.

Despite these multiple, identifiable influences, Uhadi Synth is never merely a collage. It works so well because it presents a transformed landscape of musical echoes, neither reticent about where the sounds came from, nor shy to take them everywhere else.

Jazz essentialism can become an exclusionary prison. It did so in America in the 1990s and early 2000s. There, the commodification of a highly conservative definition of jazz around the Lincoln Centre defined out of the genre – and almost out of their own race – creative musicians of colour such as Don Byron and Mark Turner who imagined beyond blues and swing. But identity doesn’t have to constrain. As Gogwana demonstrates in Uhadi Synth, it can also be a launching pad to the future. You should take the flight.