“But what about the piano?” The Zille Argument and decolonising the jazz curriculum Part 3


This one’s for Human Rights Day. Every time I write about transforming or decolonising some aspect of the jazz establishment, somebody somewhere feels obliged to inform me either that “Without colonialism nobody would be playing instruments like pianos”, or, rather more inexplicably, that “Actually the first jazz record was made by white men: the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut Livery Stable Blues in 1917.” That second fact is so well known as not to require repetition. Why it is used to refute decolonisation arguments is puzzling, when it might equally well be used to argue that while the creativity of African-Americans developed the art form, it was white Americans who commodified and exploited it.


Damon J Phillips, in his intriguing, rigorous historical study of cultural production in jazz, Shaping Jazz (https://www.amazon.com/Shaping-Jazz-Cities-Labels-Emergence/dp/0691150885 ) , provides ample evidence about the role of dominant financial elites in the music’s early days. Anyway, the real story is actually more complex than that – because the first contract to make a jazz recording was actually offered to trumpeter Freddie Keppard: a man of colour (http://www.nola.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2017/03/first_jazz_record.html ). He turned it down.

Freddie Keppard

The first argument – “What about the piano?” – might now be rechristened the Zille Argument, since it’s essentially the same somewhat off-key melody the DA veteran was singing last week with her talk of piped water and infrastructure as fruits of colonialism, and it’s the updated cover version of an old, hackneyed, deeply colonialist, “ungrateful natives” song.

The title of this blog was borrowed with thanks from the most recent scholar to discredit that distasteful refrain: Shashi Tharoor, whose book Inglorious Empire was published earlier this year (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/india-britain-empire-railways-myths-gifts ). Though he’s writing about India, his points all hit home here too: colonialism distorted the sense of identity, politics, economic development and initiative of colonised nations, systematically stifling or eliminating local enterprise, applying divide-and-rule policies and re-shaping cultures and institutions in the image of patriarchal Britain – and more. Great cities (with piped water – as in Gedi, in what is now Eastern Kenya), trading empires, fearless explorers (think Ibn Battuta) and even factories existed in various parts of the colonised world before the Europeans arrived (as, of course, did a rich, diverse and complex range of musical instruments).

All mod cons including piped water: the ancient African city of Gedi

What happened subsequently has a name – underdevelopment. Wherever the colonisers arrived, indigenous development that was everywhere already in process was forced backwards. The best general introduction to this topic is West Indian scholar Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europe-Underdeveloped-Africa-Walter-Rodney/dp/190638794X ) but that’s the tip of a huge iceberg of distinguished scholarship from writers such as Professor Ann Seidman (institutional underdevelopment and how it can be reclaimed), Dr Joseph Hanlon (Southern African economies), Professor Robert Sutcliffe (Latin America) and many more.


How the Zilles of this world (often ostensibly well educated people) can have remained so ignorant of all this scholarship for so long surprises me.

How they can be so insensitive as to equate water-pipes (often initially installed to stop cholera reaching the rich, white parts of town) with oppression, dispossession and cultural – and literal – genocide is even more astonishing. Dismissing and diminishing the pain of others as either over-emotional or insignificant ‘in the balance of things’ has long been one of the ways colonisers justify colonialism. However, those who suffered it, own it.  As Irish anti-colonialist James Conolly pointed out long ago, there are “none so well equipped [as those who wear them] to decide what is a fetter.”

We’ll be discussing decolonisation in relation to the jazz curriculum next week at the Arts Journalism Public Debate, which every year forms part of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The debate will take place at the Artscape Opera Bar at 13:45 on Wednesday March 29th. Among the panellists will be pianist Kyle Shepherd, and media scholar Asanda Ngoasheng

Asanda Ngoasheng

A former Clive Menell Scholar at Duke University, Ngoasheng currently lectures at the Cape Penininsula University of Technology and is undertaking Doctoral research on Decolonising Pedagogy After Rhodes Must Fall. More names will be announced. Entry to the public debate is free, but the room fills up fast so arrive early.


‘Bone raises the bones at Sterkfontein

There’s a lot of rhetoric about celebrating South Africa – but rhetoric is no substitute for real information about real achievements. Yesterday, close to the Cradle of Humankind, the Sterkfontein Composers’ Meeting helmed by Michael Blake held its closing concert, presenting new work created or refined after a month of intensive workshopping involving a dozen new music composers and players from South Africa. The Netherlands and Uganda. The composers included Andile Khumalo, Clare Loveday, Lloyd Prince, Samora Ntsebeza and more.

Andile Khumalo

Only a few years old, the Composers’ Meeting has already spread the international word about new South African composition. 2015 guests, Swedish percussionist Johnny Axelsson and trombonist Ivo Nilsson – who returned this year – took the works created then back to Stockholm and Visby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hBY3gDFjLo ), and no doubt the process will be repeated this year.

Indeed, if you’re in Cape Town, you can catch a repeat of the concert tomorrow, March 3, as part of the Purpur Festival of Transgressive Arts at the Youngblood Gallery on Bree St.

As the event’s board representative, Paul Hanmer, phrased it in his closing remarks: “Just as small bands of those earliest people set out from this place to the world, so this small gathering – you don’t need massive stadiums and thousands of people! – will spread this music…”

Paul Hanmer

(Yes, that same Paul Hanmer, who now composes across genres, for orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as for the jazz combos from which you may know him…)

The dozen works presented varied widely in mood, texture and compositional approach. One uniting factor was the skill of the Swedish instrumental visitors. Axelsson coaxes surprising sounds from familiar instruments, bowing the keys of a marimba, or stroking a drumskin to mirror the tones of a trombone. Nilsson makes his ‘bone speak in multiple tongues, employing more kinds of mute than I could count. Both opened our ears to sonic possibilities soaring far beyond the idiomatic.

Johnny Axelsson & Ivo Nilsson

It was a short concert of startlingly new material, and I suspect I’m not the only listener who would have welcomed the opportunity to hear and reflect on all the pieces again. On only a single hearing, three lodged themselves most firmly in my memory.

Two works by Ugandan composers were revelatory. Milton Wabonya’s Empango , based on the court trumpet music of the Bunyara Kitara Kingdom provided a confident, infectiously swinging, fanfare to open the concert – a reminder that African kingdoms (and not only North European ones) had classical court music traditions too. Charles Lwanga’s One Buzzy Evening appealed to the ears of anybody who, like me, is more accustomed to listening to jazz, as it riffed on the possibilities offered by the Baganda pitch spectrum. It’s reductive to discuss African music in terms only of shared features across the continent. These two pieces reminded us that much as we may acknowledge African music generically, there remain distinctive sound-worlds in the countries around us that we have yet to learn about.

Charles Lwanga

Lloyd Prince’s Bones! Rise! Speak offered a narrative reflecting on the workshop’s location: the excavation of Mrs Ples’s bones and the story they (and she) have to tell. Axelsson’s wood-blocks invoked not only a scene of patient archaelogists’ hammers on rocks, but multiple other musical echoes, such as the fossils dancing to a xylophone in Carnival of the Animals. The ensuing lyrical narrative took us from images to emotions, and the magic of being there, at the dawn of human life.

But if you weren’t there, and you didn’t hear it, you’d never know about any of this: not the workshop, not the South African achievement, nor the pan-African and international collaboration – nor even the fact that we have respected and accomplished African new music composers. We barely heard, outside the enclave of Classic–FM, that Neo Muyanga was composer-in residence at this year’s International Mozart Festival. When writing this piece, I could find almost nothing, not even a picture, on the web for many of the composers at Sterkfontein.

The near-extermination of serious local arts coverage in most of our newspapers (and it’s happened mainly over the past two years) means there is increasingly no record of what our artists do: their processes, their motivations, or their works. Under apartheid, when the academy stereotyped or ignored black composers, the informal musicologists of the media, such as Todd Matshikiza at Drum, provided valuable reportage to plug those gaps. Today, we don’t even have that. We know less about Lloyd Prince than Matshikiza told us about Ntebejane back then.

For the researchers of the future, this is a potential data disaster. For the musicians of the present, it’s a barrier to audiences, professional development and earnings. For the public, it actively builds ignorance about who we are as a creative people, directing interest instead towards the disposable music commodities of America. The next time somebody tells you they’re fighting foreign monopoly capital, ask them what they’re doing about this.