Mozart, bodies and bows

There’s always been a gentle tug-of-war between the various elements bundled together in the title of the nine-year-old Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF). Initially, as Artistic Director Florian Uhlig recalled on Sunday, a theme of “Music in Exile” made talking heads and debates on musical discourse prominent. Since then, some programmes have foregrounded the ‘Mozart’, or ‘International’, or ‘Johannesburg’ aspects, while others have offered more of an even blend.

This is one of the blender years, and concerned – as Uhlig also noted – to augment occasions for listening with spaces for active engagement with the making of the music and its makers. Sunday’s Re-Mixing Music at the St Francis of Assissi Church in Parkview provided one of those. Through the facilitation of JIMF’s Composer-in-Residence, Neo Muyanga, three other South African composers, Kingsley Buitendag, Prince Bulo and Lungiswa Plaatjies presented and then discussed, original works that considered the interactions between Western and African musical traditions.

It was, as Muyanga noted in the discussion, a time for “getting away from the binaries” and exploring points of contact, echoes, influences, reactions and conversations. And those conversations, musical and verbal, also provided illumination from a different direction for the decolonisation debate.

Often, musical attempts to fuse or blend traditions end up merely ornamenting the dominant discourse of one tradition with some decorative elements from the other. Writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, discussing his own context, put it well: “an Indian classical musician moonlighting with Western players: him soloing, representing some so-called immemorial tradition; them adding colour and representing the modern – neither category in itself static, but becoming static in their meeting.”

Such limitation can be reinforced by commitment to the binaries, such as the assumption that no real meeting is possible because, in one of Muyanga’s examples, “African music is said to be circular or cyclical; Western music to be linear.”

Lungiswa Plaatjies

But the music presented on Sunday subverted that kind of categorisation. Plaatjies’ Vuma–Ekhaya–Ndiyahamba, for example, (the most extended of the three works) managed to be both circular in its use of traditional sound-cycles, but linear too in (as its title describes) its expression of a musical journey. There was equal interplay, without dilution, between the tones and textures of her voice and bow and the tones and textures of the string ensemble.

And the African elements foregrounded for listeners an aspect of embodiment of the music that can be forgotten when considering Western music. Some elements of African traditional music are always silent: they’re the spaces where the feet of the dancer should fall. Both Plaatjies and Bulo, in the discussion, recounted how movement helps players, especially in their role as healers (which is Plaatjies’ lineage), to enter the mental space the music needs. That embodiment goes further too. Plaatjies’ uncle Dizu (of Amampondo fame), a contributor to both performance and debate, explained how bow-gourds need to suit the breast shape of their female players, and how community midwives can use the vibration of the bowstring like an ultrasound.

In response, Uhlig discussed how the intervention of music industry intermediaries over time had erased that personal bodily connection from the Western musical tradition. Mozart’s manuscripts, he explained, contained minimal instructions. When Mozart wrote them, he was going to be the player and did not need to tell himself how to interpret. The instructions were created as the music was disseminated to other contexts – and we do not know what different variations in mood and feel Mozart may have employed on the same piece, because the instructions have made one mood and feel canonical.

Violinist Waldo Alexander picked up the refrain of ‘lost’ interpretation, recalling his work with legendary bow composer Madosini, where the lack of an adequate notation method meant that the musical moments of those performances, if not recorded, were lost forever. But how to notate? Bulo queried whether and how traditional Xhosa terms denoting musical feel should be translated.

It’s a pity the conversation was too short to explore full answers. Because we do not worry that glissando and its ilk are Italian words. A decolonised musical space might equally easily just use those Xhosa terms and add them to our lexicon and classical culture.

Neo Muyanga’s own composition is showcased at the JIMF closing concert on February 5 at 3:00pm in The Edge, St Mary’s School. You can also catch visiting UK pianist Joanna McGregor (a former collaborator of the late Moses Molelekwa) on Saturday 4 February at the Linder Auditorium, and pianist Paul Hanmer with guitarist Louis Mhlanga creating music for the 1916 silent movie Snow White at the Maboneng Bioscope on Thursday Feb 2 at 7:30. The full programme is at 


Politics to take centre stage at Cape Town Jazz Festival

Unlike ‘money’, ‘trend’ and ‘branding’, the word ‘politics’ doesn’t often cohabit with ‘jazz festival’ in South Africa these days.

That’s a contrast with the past, when the accomplished assertion of sounds that refused apartheid categories made even attending an event such as the 1962 Cold Castle Festival a political gesture. But the new commodification of jazz becomes very clear when African-American cultural struggle icons such as bassist William Parker or vocalist Dwight Trible appear in South Africa and the history and role of their music is so underplayed as to be rendered invisible.

That won’t happen in Cape Town this year. It’s no understatement to say that the announcement of the second batch of artists for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (March 31-April 1), offers probably the most politically hip musical fare ever seen.

Jonas Gwangwa

The highest-profile politics come from Andra Day, whose song Rise Up provided an anthem for #Black Lives Matter. Day initially intended the song as an expression of personal struggles, but she has embraced its broader adoption, proudly identifying with those causes too.

Digable Planets

For South African veteran, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, growing up under apartheid, the personal was always the political, particularly as his role grew into leading the Amandla Cultural Ensemble which carried the message of our struggle around the world. Gwangwa’s playing, compositions and achievements have sometimes received less profiling than they merit – he’s an Oscar nominee, for example – but this showcase, to be directed by Festival Director Billy Domingo, should correct that.

Kamasi Washington

There’s more. On the home team, the festival offers the deconstruction of gender roles from rapper Dope St Jude, and the long-term project of multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed to recover Khoisan roots and assert the integrity of that belief system. Among visitors, hip-hop radicals Digable Planets were “reading Marx where I’m from” back in the 1990s, and by all accounts their reunion tour retains the righteous message. (Ishmael Butler’s La Femme Fetal will take on new poignancy and power as the Trump regime reinstates the global gag.) Then there’s reedman Kamasi Washington (saxophonist and strings arranger for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly). On his multiple award-winning three-hour release as leader, The Epic, Washington also draws the connections, backwards and forwards between jazz and other strains of black popular music and between jazz and the struggles of the African-American community. The Epic includes a re-landscaping for instruments of Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

For another award-winning visiting reedman Rudresh Mahanthappa, casual neighbourhood racism and stereotyped musical expectations based on his South Asian ancestry drew him towards making music that explored and challenged ideas about identity and immigrant experiences. His most recent album, Bird Calls, takes this exploration of identity in a different direction: it creates a tribute to Charlie Parker that relies neither on covers nor quotes. And it’s that questioning of identity as it relates to genre boxes that also characterises the work of Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore.

Nomfundo Xaluva

That’s a very small sample from a 30-odd act lineup, which also includes highly conscious vocalists of the calibre of Siya Makuzeni, Nomfundo Xaluva, Thandiswa Mazwai and Gretchen Parlato – all of whom write, arrange, lead and refuse to be coralled into the role of compliant “singer with the band. There are also instrumentalists such as Manu Dibangu, Moriera Chonguica, Buddy Wells and Darren English, and ensembles such as Skyjack and Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committtee. My list doesn’t consider African supergroup Jokko, Argentine tango modernisers Escalandrum or the South African/Indian collaboration of Marcus Wyatt, Deepak Pandit and Ranjit Barot…but there’s a wbsite if you want to see the full programme ( ).


The politics of content, however, aren’t the only questions around a major music event. On the progressive side, the numbers of African/South African and foreign artists have always more or less level-pegged at Cape Town, and South Africans have never had to fight for decent profiling on the bill. In addition, the festival’s school and community education programme is long-term (it begins months before the festival), building up to a showcase concert that is an official festival event. Selected youth and development bands get named space in the programme and on stages, not anonymous interval gigs in foyers. There is a free concert in Greenmarket Square and other free events in (this year) Athlone and Langa.

Still, at R1190 for a weekend ticket (plus transport, food and possibly accommodation costs), attendance at the actual festival demands a healthy bank-balance, and some of the most interesting names appear only inside those Cape Town Convention Centre barriers. That’s an issue of inequality and exclusion with no simple solution: with all the good intentions in the world, venues have limited capacity and those who make and service the music need to be paid. And it underlines once more that every mega-event carries its own unavoidable politics of process. We should not depend on the Big Three jazz festivals for too much.  Size isn’t everything, and South Africa still lacks support for sufficient smaller live events to open the doors of culture wider.

Thandi Klaasen 1930-2017: warrior woman of Sophiatown and song

Yesterday was a sad day for South African jazz. Although Thandi Klaasen had been suffering severe ill-health for some time, her death from complications following a stroke, aged 86, still felt shocking. She had been such an indomitable musician – and human being – and had shown the capacity to bounce back from setbacks throughout her life.thandi-klaasen-438x400

As the tributes were posted, however, something else shocked: how little many of those tribute-writers knew about Klaasen’s musicianship.

Certainly – because they share a musical generation (she was Madiba’s favourite vocalist), and because Klaasen did feature at some high-profile official events – the tributes from ruling-party politicians felt much more personally sincere than they sometimes do. But, outside family and co-performers, few seemed to know about her music beyond the song Sophiatown, and only the ANCWL even mentioned her outspoken, articulate  activism on behalf of women in music (not surprisingly a stock phrase in every tribute that particular organisation publishes).

The young Thandi Mpambane

In fact –emotionally powerful song though it is– the relatively recently-composed Sophiatown ( ) was not Klassen’s “greatest hit”. That happened much earlier, in 1952, when Klaasen’s Quad Sisters stormed the charts with the first African female close-harmony vocal recording: Carolina Wam’.

Thandi Mpambane was born in Sophiatown around 1930 (some accounts give 1931). Her father was a shoemaker and her mother a domestic worker, and they were ambitious for their talented, intelligent daughter, whom they sent to St Cyprian’s Anglican school in the hopes she would qualify as a doctor.

Unfortunately for those hopes, the young Thandi had other ideas: “Ha! Marabi!…our mothers used to have these tents…I didn’t know what is or was jazz then. I could only hear this beautiful sound and listening to a singer like Emily Kwenane, and she would [scat] and I would say to myself Thixo! What is this woman doing with this song? I would run to the Communal Hall to hear this wonderful woman singing and my foot is beating all the time…” Long before the St Cyprian’s Choir, where Klaasen also sang, her musical ambitions were already forming; Kwenane was her neighbour in Sophiatown so an approachable role model. “My father was broadminded enough to see finally that I wanted to be nothing but a singer,” Klaasen told writer ZB Molefe in 1993.

Almost her first performance was as featured vocalist with the Cuban Brothers at the opening of the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre (DOCC) in Soweto in 1947. By the early fifties, Klaasen had formed the Quad Sisters with, among others, beauty queen and later Drum covergirl Hazel Futa.

That biography is relevant only because both women woman found less recognition in their day for their considerable vocal and compositional skills (you can find snippets of some of their early songs on the ILAM site at than for how they looked, something that had serious consequences for Klaasen.

This was the era when the reign of powerful female band singers such as Kwenane was being eclipsed by a shift to male vocal close-harmony groups enthusiastically promoted by the record labels. Klaasen with her formation of the Quad Sisters was among the first to challenge this. “I said to myself: No, man, we have to challenge these men! And I spoke to Dambudzo (Mdlele, of the Manhattan Brothers) and he said: ‘Lord! We’ll each take one side and challenge you!’ Our first challenge to the Manhattan Brothers was at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre and the place was packed.” Asked who won, Klaasen explained “It wasn’t really that kind of competition – but of course, my dear, the women did!”

Competition of a more destructive kind had led to a rival commissioning an acid attack on Klaasen in her late teens which put her into hospital for a year, and forced her to re-learn singing with a set of facial muscles that now functioned differently – as challenging a task for a singer as when a horn-player suffers facial injury and their embouchure changes. Klaasen did it triumphantly.

She had not previously learned to read and write music, although she was already composing. But time at Dorkay House – and particularly the support of Kippie Moeketsi – soon remedied that. Again, Klaasen pulled no punches in describing how gender exploitation sometimes soured such relationships – although not in this case. “Kippie? Die was my bra!…He taught me all the keys…He knew I was a good jazz singer and he’d say to other people ‘Teach Thandi’…And with respect, he was not one of those who’d say: come to me at lunchtime and I will make you a star because they want to have sex with you. There’s some of the white people and some of the brothers who’d want to use you for that. But he was just really concerned for me to do my best.”

Klaasen won a place in the touring cast of the musical King Kong. Once in London, she famously leaped on to the Marquee Club stage during a Johnny Dankworth concert to sing Stormy Weather. “I jumped up, me and Pinocchio (Mokaleng) and we were dancing. I was wearing a skirt to fly out, to show off my panties, and everybody was clapping. And [Dankworth] would call us up on stage to sing with them…”

The Black Mikado cast

The singer was never prepared to stay silent about the abuses of apartheid, and the destruction wrought on her beloved Sophiatown. Whenever she was at home in South Africa – because she had responsibilities to meet there too – she was constantly followed and harassed by the security police, but this did not stop her working. She opened for Percy Sledge on his sanctions-busting 1974 South Africa tour, and drew so much applause that she was warned: “Don’t dominate. Please remember Percy is the star”. She so upstaged the visiting Brook Benton a couple of years later that she had had a number cut from her set. Klaasen also starred in the 1976 Lindbergh production of The Black Mikado with Ben ‘Satch’ Masinga, Duke Makasi and Spirits Rejoice. Her working relationship with Masinga went back a long way: she had co-starred in his production Back in Your Own Back Yard, South Africa’s first Zulu language musical show. Now times and mood were very different. The Black Mikado was staged at the Diepkloof Hall in May 1976, a fortnight before June 16th.2491488_150916114118_the_black_mikado

But the impression her musicianship had made during the international tour of King Kong meant that when she found the pressures of apartheid intolerable and left, she was able to find work. Among many other big international names, she shared the stage with both Roberta Flack and Patti Labelle – so very different from her experience with Percy Sledge.

As apartheid ended – and far too late – South African and international accolades began to mount up. These include South Africa’s Order of the Baobab in Gold (2006) for “excellent achievement in and contribution to the art of Music”, a Standard Bank Lifetime Achievement Award, the Canadian Woman of Distinction Award , and a lifetime achievement award at the 2006South African Music Awards. In 1997 she cut an album, Together as One, with daughter Lorraine (who has a successful singing career in Canada) and fellow veterans including trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

Despite all this, there is a scanty YouTube record beyond Sophiatown, and gendered perceptions persist. E-tv last night shamefully used the term ‘disfigured’ to describe her life following the acid attack.

The word is a lie. There was never anything ‘disfigured’ about the true sources of Klaasen’s beauty: her acute intelligence, her robust and forthright speech, and above all her musical skill, which was, if anything, strengthened by overcoming that particular piece of adversity. Rarely pictured without some modern equivalent of Sophiatown’s traditional Borsalino hat, Klaasen, in her own words, “kept the candlelight burning” for South Africa’s historic jazz singing for as long as her health allowed – and, with style, timing and verve, often gave younger musicians a run for their money. “I was meant to do this,” she told Mzileni: “God gave me this talent.” Hamba Kahle to a giant of music, struggle and feminism.

King Kong and Toxic Nostalgia


There was celebration on the pages of the Daily Maverick a few days back (  over the announcement that Fugard Theatre producer Eric Abraham had secured production rights and “the blessing of those original artists connected with the production  who are still alive” to revisit the iconic musical King Kong (launched in 1959) at the theatre later this year. Abraham has pulled in UK director Jonathan Munby and Cape Town musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder to “restore the authenticity” of a score watered-down for the London tour of the show.

The original King Kong album cover

All very heartwarming. Certainly, some things are unarguable: King Kong was an important event for South African music theatre, and for some musicians and audiences worldwide; and Todd Matshikiza’s original score was superb. YouTube, unfortunately, can’t provide a clip of the musical high-spot: Matshikiza’s Hambani Madoda (In the Queue), but here’s the iconic opener, Sad Times, Bad Times, to give you a flavour. 

Munby definitely gets what was wrong with the London production. “The West End show (…) feels like just another West End production. All authenticity and originality is lost in an attempt to create a quintessential Broadway sound. There is, in many ways, a cheapening of it all. It is loud, it is bombastic and blown through the roof in terms of scale. It was Westernised in a way now that feels offensive,” he told Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm.

                  “Now” feels offensive? It was offensive to all the musicians back in the 1960s. When I interviewed him for my book Soweto Blues in 2000, trombonist and King Kong cast member Jonas Gwangwa detailed those criticisms and more: “But of course Jack Hylton got one of his arrangers to come in and say: ‘It’s not quite English; there are some things we have to put in.’ Which I objected to but well, who was I? But I said: ‘You’re spoiling the music.’ [They changed] some orchestrations where we had the trombones going high, as in Kwela Kong, and they always wanted to have the ends of the songs going higher and much louder than we had them…”

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005
A young Jonas Gwangwa on the London King Kong tour

                  But there was more that was offensive, and that’s where the warm wave of nostalgia about the King Kong re-visioning begins to raise more questions than its spokespeople have so far answered. Though the King Kong cast members I interviewed all spoke warmly about some of their white collaborators, and particularly Spike (now Sir Stanley) Glasser,  most felt that the entire process of creating the musical had carried elements of patronisation and appropriation, long before the show ever got to London.

                  Said Gwangwa: “…it was well done. The problems that arose were…you cannot really tell the truth, you know? It was alleged that [King Kong: boxer Ezekiel Dlamini] committed suicide, but we believed that he was killed in prison and thrown into a dam which was being built. That was one of the bigger problems. And there were some people who were political activists here at home, like Dan Poho who belonged to the garment workers’ union, a devout ANC activist at the time, who they refused a passport. Gideon Nxumalo…couldn’t go abroad. (…) But the main thing was the real story of Dlamini…That was, you know, the whole apartheid South Africa …that couldn’t allow people to tell the real story.”

Boxer Ezekiel Dlamini: the real King Kong

                  Composer Todd Matshikiza was scathing about the process in his autobiography, Chocolates for my Wife ( ) he describes a bitter sense of appropriation:

“I think King Kong will make a marvellous excuse for a theatrical production. Your people are so much alive, especially for this sort of thing…I will put some of the language down as spoken in the township, can you give me a few phrases…what is the lingo?…Let’s get to Rupert’s place and put down as much African lingo as we can…Every night I dreamed I was surrounded by pale-skinned, blue-veined peoplewho changed at random from humans to gargoyles. I dreamed I lay at the bottom of a bottomless pit. They stood above me, all around, with long sharpened steel straws that they put to your head and the brain matter seeped up the straws like lemonade up a playful child’s thirsty picnic straw…I have been listening to my music and watch it go from black to white and now purple.”

Todd Matshikiza

                  And while there was genuine collaboration too, the title page of the London programme preferred to describe the manful struggle of white directors to ‘tame’ black musicians:

“Because Arnold Dover had worked with Africans before on the choreography of a film, he was prepared for the essentially extempore way in which the artists were used to working, and he patiently sought to develop co-ordination and a standard performance every time. Another of Arnold’s problems was to harness movements which came naturally and make them theatrically effective.”

Page one of the London theatre programme

                  Nostalgia around South Africa’s musical past can be toxic as often as it is creative. It can take a reductive stance that demands contemporary black musicians play township stereotypes. From what Munby has said, that’s hopefully not the trap he will fall into. But it can also become so overwhelmed by the creativity of the original sound that it fails to interrogate or include in the discourse the exploitative processes around the music’s making.

                  It’s a little disappointing that so far the team talking about the production to the press includes nobody involved with the original music, and nobody from the relevant community of colour, although these are early days yet. King Kong did have an essentially Black Joburg vibe, even after it was mutilated by Hylton’s arranger, with some of the leading avant-gardists of the day such as reedman Kippie Moeketsi. It drew deep from the vibe of Drum, Dorkay House, the Odeon Cinema, and Orlando…

On the other hand, a production that interrogated the making of King Kong – not necessarily this one, but some production, somewhere – could still give us that glorious music, and also explore tensions and debates that would speak way more powerfully to today’s decolonisation discourses.








/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;