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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (http://www.capetownjazzfest.com ).
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.