Looking back; looking forward. Salim Washington’s new album, and Paul Hanmer’s old one, both mine history to re-vision the future.

SLM-sankofa cover-13.jpg
The Sankofa album cover: art by Mzwandile Buthelezi

The sankofa bird, which lends its name to Salim Washington’s current performing ensemble, was named in the Twi language of Ghana: “Go back and fetch it”. Or, to flesh that out into a proverb: “It is not wrong to return for those [important] things you’ve forgotten.” Sankofa is one of multiple adinkra symbols, printed on the traditional cloth of the Akan people as a stylised heart shape, and it’s easy to see the linear echoes there of the bird turning towards the egg it carries on its back. Threading through all that symbolism, the message is clear: don’t forget the things in the past that can help us unfold a better future.

Adinkra sankofa symbol

I’ve often written in this blog about toxic nostalgia and how it infests our cultural landscape. Toxic nostalgia emerges when commentators resist change. You see it when Helen Zille hankers for a mythical, whitewashed, unproblematic past that never existed. You hear it when ruling-party politicians memorialise a Sharpeville without Sobukwe, or when opposition politicians erase Mandela the soldier and the armed struggle. The message of the sankofa bird is the opposite of that. Its beady eye looks back for precious, important things, but without illusions.

salim playing with scarf
Enter a caption

This week also marks the start of the anniversary period for another musical outing carrying a very similar message: it’s 20 years since Paul Hanmer gathered some musical friends together to take a Train to Taung (https://www.amazon.com/Train-Taung-Paul-Hanmer/dp/B0002TB35A ) the birthplace of humankind. Let’s look at how past and future come together in both.

Saxophonist Washington’s Sankofa outing features a quintet of musicians: another reedman in Leon Sharnick; trumpeter Sakhile Simani; pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, bassist Dalisu Ndlazi and drummer Ayanda Sikade (with a guest spot from Tumi Mogorosi). There are multiple generations there already. Though Washington is the elder statesman, let’s not forget that Makhathini and Sikade are not such youngsters either; they speak for the jazz era of Zim Ngqawana. Ndlazi, meanwhile, is very much of today: a member of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band. Then there are the voices – not only young operatic voices, but the fierce poetry of Lesego Rampholokeng, now a veteran of the South African spoken word scene, but in his time a youthful prophet of ‘80s revolt with COSAW and Horns for Hondo. On this album, with Tears for Marikana, Rampholokeng brings righteously angry wordsmithing that would not have been out of place in Staffrider to bear on a too-recent atrocity: “Fire on the mountain no metaphor/But matter for more/Than just thought/Lives sold and bought/for platinum dreams…”

Lesego Rampholokeng

What else does the CD carry from then to now? Well, repertoire, and compositions that are recognizably ‘in the tradition’, for one. Washington and Makhathini originals mix with historic tracks by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk is a good choice. Not only did he write tunes that can give any reedman a joyous stretch-out, but his mission, like Washington’s was to use good music – music for grooving or celebrating – to make people think as well. This, after all, was the bandleader who could kidnap the most banal of lyrics (“I run for the bus, dear/and while running I think of us, dear”), add gunshots, and turn I Say a Little Prayer into a mournful, angry, compelling reflection on the murder of Martin Luther King (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6-yhIUPyGM ).

Sankofa has compelling tunes of its own: the edgy Imlilo; the classic three-quarter-time Uh Oh with its expansive reed solos; Makhathini’s Supreme Light with its evocation of Trane, and more. That last is a live recording, taken from Sankofa’s Orbit session in January 2016, and conveys just how exciting the band is on stage.

But all these implicit acknowledgments of jazz tradition – references in both style and form, as well as the impressively tight yet flexibly empathetic playing – don’t get in the way of innovation. The track Oshun (another nod to that more distant past) uses voices in ways that challenge and stretch the boundaries between jazz, classical, traditional and sanctified vocal expression, creating rich, intriguing textures. Such music, serving for celebration, intellectual inquiry and social critique takes us right back to those court and community griots across Africa; the best of whom were never – ever – merely “praise singers.” And the best of them, like the Sankofa crew, still aren’t.


Asserting that the old could also be startlingly new was equally pianist Paul Hanmer’s mission when, in 1997, he brought together guitarist Louis Mhlanga, drummers Neil Ettridge and the late Jethro Shasha, bassists Dennis Lalouette and Andre Abrahamse, and percussionist Basie Mahlasela for the album they christened Trains to Taung. What Hanmer’s imagination drew from the most distant of pasts was precisely those ‘dreams of forbidden landscapes’ that I wrote about a few weeks past (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/let-us-dream-you-forbidden-landscape-the-storming-project-sings-change/ ).

Paul Hanmer

Taung was both a place where the earliest people came together, and the place from which they dispersed across the world: a place of Africa, not merely of the colonially-boundaried ‘South Africa’. That’s heard in the pan-Africanism of personnel and idioms: Mhlanga’s Zimbabwe-meets West Africa guitar; Mahlasela’s universal percussion; Shasha’s encyclopedia of drum styles and sounds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IpmU5kzd7c ). Women were central to those early societies; their meetings were praised (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CozAQpN3xsE ). And yet that train was also the engine of travel, and change, and in its isitimela incarnation, suffering and separation, in the more modern history of Southern Africa. All those imaginings were on that album, which went on to be one of the longest-lived of the post-liberation jazz releases. It was also possibly the first ‘crossover’ success; not in the sense that it diluted genres, but in the sense that its discourse defied borders, in the very same way those earliest travelling humans did.

Trains to Taung gets its first 20th anniversary celebration at the Orbit on Friday July 28th, but there will be more…



“Write our own stories; own our music; be graceful.” Errol Dyers in his own words

This is a little different from the usual formal obituary: Errol Dyers’ life and music are far more poorly documented than his importance and musical skill merit, and that fragmentary story has already appeared in the press. I’m trying to compile a complete discography, but that will take time. For something much better and more personal than what’s in the papers, try to catch up with Gary van Dyk’s radio tribute, broadcast on July 22 on FMR. But in late 1999, one of the interview team for the ABC Ulwazi radio series Ubuyile interviewed Errol Dyers in Cape Town for the programme. The guitarist had a quiet, gentle voice, the tape was made in his living room with the window open to street sounds, and the ensuing tape wasn’t very radio-friendly, so we couldn’t use it on-air. His contribution, however, was precious for the context it provided. So, to add to the memories and the historical record, here, drawn out of the transcript of that tape, is an edited  (it was a long, discursive conversation) excerpt about the story of his life, in his own words:


 “…It’s very important that we write [the history], not let the industry write it for us. We have to write those stories; we have to do that. I’m looking at where I come from, where my grandfathers – both of them – played traditional Cape Town music, from the coons [Cape carnival troupes]. It’s my culture. It’s who I am: that’s making me who people think I am…Without the people, there’s no me. And of course without God there’s no me, because I have to look at the higher powers than me.

“…I can’t remember so far [back] how I got into music. Ever since I was alive, I was into music. My family, we were always into music: both sides. My mother’s father played guitar, he sang, and he played violin. Charles Randall. I never met him – in fact, [the] two of them I never met. My other grandfather, Jim Dyers…er, Christian Dyers. He played a banjo…As far as I can remember, before I went to school, we used to make our own trophies for musicians. Out of silver foil… Before the end-of-year festivities in Cape Town. We were too young to be in the real coons or anything like that yet, so we used to make-believe. We used to save our money also: first prize; second prize; and you’ve got to give the money.

“We used to take a Cobra [shoe polish] tin and knock nails through it… almost the same way that you used to make that tin-can guitar – and you just put a little thing there, and knock it there, and make a sound. And I think ever since that day I thought that I’m a musician.

“I liked the sound. I liked performance. I just liked it, you know, because I belonged. And it’s very important to belong. So I’ve never gone far way from that sound, from who I am, and from who the people are…It’s very important for me to be on the ground with the people, playing the instruments that they did; playing the Khoisan bow and singing.

“…There was a guy who was thrown out of our district and he was, you know, part of the Khoisan language…he used to sit there on the street, and then my mother said to him, come and live in our [backyard]. Pooe was his name. So Pooe came here…and then, three-o-clock at night, he used to have this big tin can, singing to his ancestors. I mean, this is an old guy – and never mind how old he is, his culture is older, brother: we’re talking about 50 000 years with him, or more. The first people: know what I’m talking about? The first people are from here. And we let them die, just like that. I’m part of the first people: part in blood, but mostly in spirit…

“…I’ve been listening to Xhosa music my whole life, because I love the people; love the culture. I mean, I’m just sad that I don’t speak [the language] as I would like to speak it. That’s why I don’t speak it to a Xhosa, to offend him.  But we get on…I couldn’t live in Gugulethu, because I wasn’t ‘black’ enough, but I did go and play there. I played with all those musicians, and went to jail with them…When I was 20 or so I got out and dropped somebody there – Winston, or Blackie, or Ezra or whoever was playing with you at that night. Then the cops get you, and “Kom!” You, just on purpose, they put you into a cell. The next morning they let you [out]. I mean, that is not cool, you know?

Dyers spent much time in the interview considering the exploitative nature of the mainstream music industry, and how, much as he respected the work his label was doing (“I like what it does for the music“), he felt a loss of artistic control and agency when someone else produced his work. 

“…If I could change things, I would not have recorded [Sonesta or Koukouwa]. You have to own your own culture, otherwise you lose it. But [the industry] just hears something and the thing [cash register] goes ching-ching-ching. But it’s not about money: it’s people’s culture. We have to build it up ourselves. And if you’re always going to put money into the equation, we’re also going to lose.

“Because we have to take our time and think. I mean, I look at the old beautiful songs that were recorded and that made no money for the artist: Mackay Davashe, Dudu Pukwana,Spokes Mashiane, the Elite Swingsters, Manhattan Brothers – yoh! I mean, that must show us. That’s before me and I am using that as a yardstick for the younger generation…Don’t just play anything man. Although you can play, it doesn’t make you a musician – where’s your sound, where’s your thing?

“You know, we have something here that we can call our own – and let’s keep it jealously. Even compete with the US, compete with the Europeans. You have to do that: show your passion. Show it in a graceful way. You don’t have to always fight… What I want to work on, without remorse or fighting, is just simply being graceful and do what I do – and if people like it: fine…All we have is music.”

support concert poster June
“All we have is music”: musicians came together to support Dyers last month when his health fell into crisis

Errol Charles Dyers 1952-2017

It was with great sadness that this blog learned of the death of one of the most important custodians of the Cape jazz tradition and most accomplished players of jazz guitar,  composer and teacher Errol Dyers, yesterday. I’ll post a full obituary later this weekend. In the meantime, please feel free to use this space to post your own memories and tributes if you have no other platform.

Our condolences to go out to his family, friends, and musical family. Hamba Kahle.

An Open Letter to the new SABC Board

“You have to invest in that local content. While on the drawing board, the SABC should come up with ways to raise money for the development of the content they want to serve to the public. Otherwise you keep hearing the same thing…For example, in a nation of more than 50 million people, we don’t even have 50 decent theatres or halls for people to go and enjoy music. Where do you go as a South African when you want to watch a live band play? Also, where do you take your visitors from overseas to watch a South African band play indigenous music? We need to be serious about the basics before we implement quotas that are not well researched.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/05/18/ray-phiri-says-motsoaledis-90-local-quota-was-bound-to-fail-h_a_22096907/ )

Dear new SABC Board,

You’ll notice that once more, the late Ray Phiri provides the epigraph to this blog. His recent death reminds us just how woke (before that term was even invented) he was: he understood music, politics – and the way the industry worked. In mid-May this year he told the Huffpost that the 90% local quota had been bound to fail. Unlike many of his peers, he understood precisely why: no planning, no research, no investment in development, no understanding of the music ecosystem.

Now you have gone back to the drawing board. You’ve said you plan to revisit the process by which the revised 2016 ICASA editorial policies were drawn up, after complaints and a finding that there was inadequate advance public participation.

There’s a massive irony in all this. One of the 2016 ICASA findings was that there needed to be a significant increase in local content on the public broadcaster. As I noted during the earlier Hlaudi-led controversy:

Motsoeneng: the song is ended but the legacy lingers on

“… in the current ICASA local content review document, published in March this year (http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/39844_gon345.pdf ), the SABC is quoted as supporting an upgrade to a 35% quota for commercial radio and objecting to a 70% quota for public radio, proposing 60% and recommending ‘that this quota be implemented in stages as this will ensure that the audiences do not experience a sudden change in their experience of the radio station. SABC is of the view that increases of the local music quota should be based on music research with the public thereby ensuring that radio stations respond to listener needs. The SABC was of the view that 70% is high and will lead to loss of audiences. This proposed quota will hinder the growth of the public broadcaster.’” (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/ninety-percent-local-music-on-sabc-too-little-context-too-big-a-number/ )

So, even without additional public consultation, everybody was aware that local content needed to grow but that it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s a pity the debate didn’t remain about the process and the figure; unfortunately, it was pre-empted by an act of ill-considered, dictatorial, political grandstanding.

I spoke at one point to somebody involved with musicians’ lobbying of SABC. Yes, he conceded, their initial demand had been for 90%: “But that was a negotiating position. We didn’t realise we were negotiating with idiots.”

It would be truly tragic if the new consultation process derails or moves backwards from that terrain of 60%-70% local content. There is easily enough fresh, original SA music around to more than meet that figure, and still leave room to contextualise it with what’s happening in the rest of the music world. Because exposing and discussing music from elsewhere forms part of your mandate to inform and educate, too.

All those arguments have been dealt with in detail in my earlier blogs on the subject (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/why-south-african-musicians-wont-be-better-off-under-motsoenengs-sabc/ ; https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/sabc-90-quota-curioser-and-curioser/ ; https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/nationality-is-just-a-piece-of-paper-its-90-local-time-again/ ). Let’s now change focus to consider those music-industry ecosystem issues so intelligently raised by the late Ray Phiri.

First, development. Most broadcasters run some kind of talent contest, and hold this up as a development activity. It isn’t. At best, it provides a showcase opportunity, and some artists have leveraged this to significant career advantage. But development is a process, not a series of events, however glitzy. It demands investment in the continuity of music education at every level, in every genre, and at every point on the music value-chain.

Some of this requires considered partnerships between a public broadcaster serious about local music development, and policy-makers in DBE, DHE and DAC. You cannot do it alone, and your relationship with government should mean more than simply asking for money.

But it also includes SABC’s in-house development of DJs and producers, so that it’s not only a few, dedicated experts who know what good new music already exists. One of the most shameful aspects of 90% implementation was the continual, shoddy, re-treading of old (and often bad) music. And music broadcasting does not only involve playing tracks. How about more new music documentaries too? All this means more investment in staff consultation (to tap the experts you already have) and training (to grow more).

Second, the relationship with live music. It is unarguable that a live circuit, with opportunities for performers to grow from small to larger stages, is an essential element of music development. Creating live venues is not your responsibility at SABC. That rests with local government, as discussed in the recent ConcertsSA report (http://www.concertssa.co.za/event/launch-new-research-report-it-starts-with-a-heartbeat/). But, again, local music broadcasting is not merely about playing tracks. News features could discuss related issues and events – they are no less ‘newsy’ than any other economics and business topics. Note also the words ‘features’ and ‘discuss’. Your heavy reliance under Hlaudi on talking-head apparatchik commentators and media releases, rather than exploratory news features, has to end in the area of cultural coverage as in every other area. Why did I need to watch AlJazeera last week to see a news report (not just a performance in a pop show) on the phenomenon of gqom (http://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/07/south-africas-electronic-gqom-music-global-170716120321942.html )? Why has the your SABC not told me about the current achievements of vocalist Vuyo Sotashe who, after his 2011 SAMRO Scholarship, went on to be second runner-up in the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, and has just wowed London audiences in This Joint is Jumpin’?

Vuyo Sotashe (2nd left) in This Joint is Jumpin’

Yes, more knowledgeable reporting costs more money. Fewer, smaller, pay rises at the very top, and better accountability over how money is spent might make more available, while more attractive programming might draw some of your fleeing advertisers and their revenue back.

Third, the meaning of ‘local’. Another shameful aspect of 90% implementation was the near-disappearance of African-continental music from general music shows. That must end. Not only is it bad politics, but it reduces the prospects of cross-continental music collaborations which can grow the industry and employment. Additionally, ‘local’ is not only a label for popular, traditional and jazz musics: as one example, the massive prestige that Paul Hanmer is accumulating as a classical composer in Europe has received no attention from your SABC; South African New Music is rarely broadcast or covered in features.

The myth on which Hlaudi’s 90% local fiat was founded is that broadcasters are gatekeepers, who can control what an audience thinks by limiting what they can see, hear and learn. The digital world means this is no longer so (and it never fully worked: even in Cold War Eastern Europe people took huge risks with clandestine radios to listen to the US jazz played by Willis Conover). The latest figures suggest that 1 in every 2 South Africans can now access the digital realm. They don’t have to watch or listen to your music choices. So what you need to do, in terms of music programming, is to entice more people to want to listen.

Oh, and by the way, to avoid disappointing – again – all those still-impoverished South African musicians who believed 90% local meant their royalties income would rise, you really need to ensure the efficiency of those administrative systems by which airplay is recorded and reported, and the speed of those systems by which artists are paid. For all his hot air, Hlaudi did neither.

But Hlaudi and his minions are gone. You do have the chance to make changes. And literally millions of us who believe in a national (not State) broadcaster living up to its mandate to inform, educate and entertain, will back you wholeheartedly if you do.



Send your views to the SABC by 31 August 2017. Current SABC editorial policies can be reviewed at http://www.sabc.co.za/wps/portal/SABC/SABCDOCUMENTPOLICY. Written submissions can be emailed to editorial@sabc.co.za.or posted to SABC Private Bag X1, Aucklandpark, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2006; or call 011 714 9111 or 011 7149797, or fax 011 714 4508.

“Let us dream you, forbidden landscape”: the Storming project sings change

“We cannot keep digressing and hiding behind the truth, saying ‘It’ll work someday’. There’s no such thing. If we have to change things, let’s change them radically now.” – Ray Phiri 

You can’t relegate the activism of the late Ray Chikapa Phiri to the past; as the quote above (taken from an interview on 30 May this year, only six weeks before his death) illustrates, he never stopped urging the necessity for change. But it’s sometimes tempting to ask where his successors in that respect are, because we rarely hear or read about them.

That’s the point: much as the present proliferation of media creates the illusion we can access everything in the world, it can obscure as much as it reveals. Today’s South African political music is rarely written about: even when its practitioners are profiled, they are often presented as ‘personalities’, evading the content of their work. If a project has no big commercial impetus behind it, it may not be covered at all. (Those of us schooled with a different view of journalism quaintly believe our task is to inform readers of things they might not otherwise know.)

The music of past protests is often co-opted to shore up and sanitise those in power (Awuleth’uMshini Wam’ anybody?). Employed to comment on current causes (Dubul’ iBhunu), it is prosecuted and proscribed. South African news reporters – who really should know better – write crudely of ‘chanting mobs’. New songs, such as the woke anthem, ( https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2017-06-28-tracing-the-roots-of-the-decolonised-anthem/) receive minimal coverage. But new music demanding change is being written and sung, on the streets and on stages.

The Stroming Cover

One recent example of the latter can be found on the CD Insurrections III: The Storming (http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/insurrections-storming ). The Insurrections project began in 2011, the brainchild of South African poet Ari Sitas, musicians Sazi Dlamini and Neo Muyanga, and Indian scholar and vocal artist Sumangala Damarodan (http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/singing-an-archive/article7205671.ece ), to explore the intersections of Indian and South African music and writing. Two CDs followed: Insurrections (http://www.sahistory.org.za/collection/28511 ) and Insurrections II, The Gathering (https://shop.sahistory.org.za/product/cd/insurrections-ii-gathering ).

Ari Sitas

Now a third has appeared. Among its 14 participants, Sitas, Dlamini and Damarodan, New Music composer Jurgen Brauninger, singer Tina Schouw and bassist Bryden Bolton remain, joined for this outing by guitarist Reza Khota, poets Vivek Narayanan, Malika Ndlovu, Sabitha T.P. and more

The Storming is a loose, imaginative re-visioning of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Aimé Césaire’s 1969 Une Tempête (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Une_Tempête) for the age of neocolonialism. As well as being a startling piece of magical (sur)realism, The Tempest is a classic drama of colonialism, centred on the struggle between the colonising wizard, Duke Prospero, and the indigenous rebel, Caliban. Shakespeare was writing for an audience of colonisers in the age of colonisation; on his stage, Caliban was a monster spawned by the New World. Césaire, by contrast, aimed to interrogate and change both colonisers and colonised. His was the era of anticolonial struggle and his Caliban was a Caribbean hero: “Call me X. That would be best; like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen.”

Sumangala Damarodan

And now here we are in the postcolonial/neocolonial era. In the Storming playbook, Caliban is now Calibana (and the patriarchal nature of colonialism runs through the text). The dawn of liberation brings a glittering consumerist culture for a few and the task of reconstructing shattered souls and societies for the rest, who still live in want. Calibana continues to urge: “Let us dream of you, forbidden landscape…bring on the storm.”

The Storming, just out, is presented as an audio CD (a recording of the 2015 performance at the District Six Homecoming Centre) set in what’s described as a hardback ‘catalogue’ containing credits, text, and, where relevant, translations (some song texts are in Malayalam) interleaved with artwork from Stephane Conradie.

Artwork by Stephane Conradie

It’s a visually beautiful presentation, but it does not make for the easiest listen. At least on first hearing, it’s useful to follow the sound by reading the text, requiring free hands and a formal sit-down – not the way most people approach music on CD. It forces the kind of attention we apply in the theatre, and that’s no bad thing: Sitas and the others are all powerful poets, and the text alone merits attention for that. But, against those virtues, we are forced to become lone listeners and lose the communal experience of being in an audience and the interplay between the text and its embodied expressions on stage: the changing moods of lighting; movement; and expression. Budget is always a constraint in publishing projects like these, but a DVD could have preserved some of that.

If that is lost, however, multiple, rich layers of interaction remain. In the book, text plays off against Conradie’s often intensely detailed images. The two experiences of colonial theft differ in detail – teak and rubber in one place; mining and minerals in the other – but speak powerfully to one another through their shared human impact.

And, of course, words interact with music, and musics born in different genres or geographies communicate and mutate. There’s a magic moment on Insurrections’ previous album, The Gathering, where the track Migrant’s Lament presents as a song of global migration: Alfred Qabula’s lyric, sung in an isiZulu vocal idiom, simultaneously asserting its own identity and flowing seamlessly along a raga pattern. On Storming, where the music is called on to underpin, underline (and subvert) a play-text, those kinds of mutations and conversations abound, but in more fragmented forms as the drama demands.

The Insurrections ensemble

It’s not the kind of recording where songs and solos demand attention for themselves, but there are multiple powerful moments that may make you stop reading to simply listen, such as Damarodan’s song as Ariela Whilst You Were Sleeping, with – I’m guessing, as solos are not credited – Khota on guitar. And although the vision of the drama is bleak and dystopian, it is never hopeless. There’s a triumphant conclusion in Calibana’s militant demand to “dream of forbidden landscapes… (we thought we’d almost known you once)” – surging forward over maskandi guitars; enacting collective protest past, present and to come…

“I’m inspired: I cannot understand hate”: Ray Chikapa Phiri 1947-2017

“Songs as truthful as a dream/flow as steady as a stream/A stream of knowledge and of pain…”

Ray oldIf any words summed up the work of Raymond Chikapa Enoch Phiri, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday, aged 70, in his birthplace, Nelspruit, it was those. They come from the 1986 song he co-wrote with the Ashley Subel: Whispers in the Deep (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9QPjUkvvM) – a song that became one of the decade’s anthems of liberation, and lives still.

Phiri’s Malawi-born father, “Just Now” Phiri, was a guitarist, and that family history gives the lie to all the xenophobic myths that cringe before colonialist borders. Migrant workers just like ‘Just Now’ built the economy, and fattened capitalist profits with their sweat. But they also built South African culture and music through the sharing, swapping and inventing of ideas that took place in hostels, shebeens and backyards. The king of instruments for translating and re-visioning music, because of its idiomatic flexibility, was the guitar.

“Just Now” Phiri was more than a miner who player guitar, however. He staged touring puppet shows, and the young Raymond started dancing and playing guitar in that setting. His first guitar, as for many young South Africans in the 1950s, was an oilcan with wire strings stretched up a wooden handle. He got his first break on a bigger stage in 1962, aged 15, as a dancer for the legendary Dark City Sisters when they toured Mpumalanga. That and similar subsequent jobs earned him enough for a ticket to Joburg, to try his luck forming a band.

He arrived at the start of the era of the Soweto Soul movement, when dozens of young musical hopefuls were starting to don flares, platforms and shades to mix the feel of the American Motown and Stax labels with the roots idioms of South Africa in bands such as the In-Laws, the Beaters (later to become Harari), the Emeralds, the Flaming Souls and more. Phiri put together a particularly potent combination with Isaac Mtshali, son of a traditional healer, on drums: the Cannibals. The group soon won popularity and served as the rhythm section for recording stars such as the Mahotella Queens. However, in 1975 they were joined by perhaps the movement’s most compelling vocalist, Jacob Mpharanyana Radebe, whose passionate delivery stirred audiences all over the country (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoH8eD2m6FM ). Songs like My Maria and Highland Drifter (top of the Zimbabwe hit parade for 18 weeks but banned in South Africa) won them fans across southern Africa.

Mpharanyana worked with the Cannibals for nearly four years, until his death. According to music historian Steve Kwena Mokoena, the band “played a critical role in nurturing a spirit of self-pride and defiance.”

Meanwhile, in the band’s engine room, Phiri was developing a less flamboyant, more introspective and complex style, and thinking a lot about what music could do, and where it should go. He found the narrow language boxes of Radio Bantu and apartheid’s retribalisation policy irksome and oppressive. “They were censoring me,” he recalled, “not to write in a much larger medium where I could reach [all] communities.”

In 1980, the Cannibals toured the then Eastern Transvaal with the Movers (including bassist Jabu Sibumbe and keyboard player Lloyd Lelosa) and Stimela – although they didn’t settle on the name until much later, after several other unsuccessful labels, including Splash – was born. The name Stimela came from the train that took the band back to South Africa after a disastrous Mozambican tour that saw them stranded in Maputo for three months and selling almost everything – including a few instruments – to raise the fare home.

Stimela 1988
Stimela in 1988

New artists (including Motijoane, organist Charlie Ndlovu and keyboardist Thapelo Kgomo) joined over time. Singles and albums, each more successful than the last, followed: the 1983 hit single I Hate Telling a Lie; Fire Passion and Ecstacy; Shadows Fear and Pain – and then Look, Listen and Decide in 1986, from which came that epoch-defining song: Whispers In The Deep (Phinda Mzala), as well as other powerful songs such as Sishovingolovane and Who’s Fooling Who? Despite the censors and the SABC regulations, Stimela continued to record defiantly in English and other languages, including Malawian Chichewa. “Most of us were ready to call a spade a spade, “ Phiri told the First World Congress on Music and Censorship in 1998.

He told the congress of one concert where Stimela had agreed not to sing Whisper in the Deep’s ‘inflammatory’ chorus, Phinda Mzala (Listen, cousin…). “I didn’t use it…the audience did. So I thought, if they sing, then they have to arrest everyone…Everybody sang along and that was the end of the show. They started shooting tear gas…We asked the people not to panic; not to throw any stones or things of that kind. The power of the music prevailed because they listened…They all walked out of the stadium and the police got mad because the people didn’t retaliate. The police started shooting innocent people with tear gas…but on that day, music won.”

Ray Phiri with accordionist Tony Cedras on the Graceland tour

Alongside this domestic career, Phiri toured to considerable critical acclaim with Paul Simon in both Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and collaborated with American singer/songwriter Laurie Anderson on the album Strange Angels. Stimela recorded, in all, a score of albums and EPs, most recently the 2011 Turn on the Sun with guest Thandiswa Mazwai (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4iK0GVfFrs ).

For his services to South African music, Ray Phiri was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver. In later years, he toured South Africa and overseas as a solo artist and was given his own stage at jazz festivals to showcase an original instrumental vision that stretched from folk roots to out-there improvisation. He also founded the Ray Phiri Artists’ Institute, based at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamazane in Mpumalanga, to identify and mentor young talent.

A mesmerising guitarist, thoughtful songwriter and articulate commentator on life, music and justice, Phiri leaves an unfillable gap in the South African music landscape. But it’s for that song, above all, that he is remembered: “Don’t be afraid/don’t whisper in the deep/speak out your mind.”

He always did, and perhaps the best way to honour his memory amid today’s silencings is to keep on doing it.

Hamba Kahle.

Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde and the death of the South African music press

Stats for this blog tell me that far fewer of you read the album reviews than anything else I write. So why do I keep on reviewing? Because there has to be a record…

Single narratives are dangerous. If standing over the stinking Bell Pottinger sinkhole observing the pathetic parade of ostensibly smart people snorting their poison has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that.

So the Gadarene rush of the South African press towards one narrative about music shouldn’t just depress us, as it has been doing for a while. It should seriously worry us. The Saturday Star 48 Hours finally jumped over that cliff last weekend, with a brash, shallow ‘lifestyle’ supplement replacing an already diminished, one-size-fits-all, syndicated copy-dominated, insert. M&G Friday and City Press #Trending survive. Both are now significantly smaller than they used to be, with many potential stories and some whole arts genres losing out every week, and consumer information fighting discourse and debate for space and often winning. Some dauntless radio DJs struggle on.

But the implicit narrative that’s coming to dominate is that music is a disposable fashion commodity (just like the couch on the decorator pages) with no ideas behind it, that players and composers have nothing to tell us (as they do not, when hurriedly interviewed by overworked, non-specialist reporters), and that South African jazz is virtually extinct. All this at a time when there have rarely been so many young, creative players generating riveting music.

The glib answer is that the other stuff happens online these days. The truth is, it doesn’t.

sisonk portrait
Sisonke Xonti

If you’re already a fan of, say, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, you’ll know there’s an Iyonde album out, and follow it on Sisonke’s FB page. You’ll find more gig information than ideas and analysis; if we still had a music press, Sisonke would be posting links to interviews and reviews. We don’t, so he can’t do much of that. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t live in Joburg or Cape Town, aren’t on a club mailer, don’t use your data budget for random browsing, don’t even have a data budget – you’ll never know him.

Google can be unhelpful if you’re not a good searcher – and, even if you are, for much information about African and South African culture, history and people that simply never gets into the aether. Your arena of knowledge and choice is narrowed to what you already know. The voices of artists with something to say are silenced for your ears.

In a thoughtful reflection published earlier this year (http://www.news24.com/Opinions/when-jazz-made-us-believe-that-black-was-beautiful-20170108 ), Oyama Mabandla reminded us that, even without words, music talks politics: it urges us towards humanity and ethics, hope, and the potential of people working together to create beauty. And that, too, in these days of betrayal, is why I continue to review.

Let’s start with Iyonde (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV2SvmHmFJY ), since it has already been invoked. Xonti’s parents apparently hoped he’d be a lawyer, but the music bug that had bitten him long before his teens (he started on recorder) wouldn’t let go. Starting out with Ezra Ngcukana and George Werner’s youth project, the Little Giants, and the Standard Bank youth jazz big-band, he qualified in classical saxophone through UNISA. His touring apprenticeship came with the Jimmy Dludlu band. Those names – the late Ngcukana, Werner and Dludlu – get far too little credit for the multiple jazz careers they got started. Now 28, with five years’ professional playing – with everybody from Lira and Hugh Masekela to Siya Makuzeni, as well as his own formations – he launched the Iyonde recording in April of this year.

The ten-track, all-original album features the usual suspects of the young Cape Town jazz scene: pianist Bokani Dyer; guitarist Keenan Ahrends; bassist Shane Cooper; drummer Marlon Witbooi, poet Dumza Maswana and vocalist Spha Mdlalose. In that city, there’s been a great deal of recent interest in the compositional approach of Bheki Mseleku, both scholarly and performance. The language of this album, with arrangements that spiral and soar outwards from initially simple motifs, and voice layered as an instrumental texture, will be both accessible and attractive for anyone who enjoyed, for example, Celebration. Both Xonti and Dyer, however, remain very much their own players.

Spha Mdlalose

Xonti has a full, rounded sound on saxophone – think a texture not unlike Duke Makasi – that manages to stay warm even on the spikiest solo. He’s never quite as spiky here, however, as he can sound with, for example, Makuzeni. Instead, we get a collection dominated by the kind of thoughtful lyricism that also suits the solo styles of Ahrends and Cooper. What shapes the Iyonde sound are the wonderfully seamless handovers between instruments, which render differences in texture and idiom between, say, bass and guitar (on Short-Lived Pt 1) or voice and reed (on Is this Goodbye?) irrelevant and create a feel wholly different from that old, head-solo-solo, formulaic ‘jazz’ process. Tightly empathetic headspace between the players speaks not just of work together, but also of a shared vision. That’s beautifully apparent, too, on Introspection – which, despite its title, is a sprightly piece of South African hard-bop modernism, with much harder-edged soloing. Perhaps the ‘catchiest’ number – and that should not be the only criterion, but it does help listeners remember an album – is Mdlalose’s song Is This Goodbye?( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSfnDlgJtLQ ) – certainly a track that merits airplay beyond the jazz slots, and one that displays the singer’s intelligent approach to lyrics as well as notes. Given the drought in media space for artists’ ideas, the album needs stronger sleeve-notes to introduce the tracks (at present, there are only thanks and credits), but that’s a minor carp. Overall, it’s an impressive and engaging recorded debut that more people should know about.

In coming weeks, alongside the usual reflections on current jazz news, there will be long-overdue reviews for Mandla Mlangeni’s TRC; guitarist Sibusile Xaba; the Keenan Ahrends Trio; Salim Washington’s Sankofa; Zoe Modiga; UK-based pianist Renee Reznek; the Indian-South African Insurrections project and anything else new I can lay my hands on. Because there has to be a record.

Dr Ramakgobotla John Mekoa 1945-2017

It’s 2010, in a bare college hall in Daveyton. Joy of Jazz stars saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer EJ Strickland are on their way in to conduct a workshop, chatting easily to one another. Suddenly, they both stop, transfixed and surprised by what’s coming from the stage, from young reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Oscar Rachabane. “No, but listen,” drawls Strickland, “these cats are really playing.”

The late Dr Johnny Mekoa takes a solo with the Music Academy of Gauteng

Sad news of the death of the man who made that possible, Dr Ramakgobotla John (“Bra Johnny”) Mekoa, arrived yesterday. It didn’t come from a media obsessed with commodified showbiz trivia, but via the network of friends, fundis and admirers still keeping culture alive. And few musicians had more friends and admirers than the 72-year-old trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, leader and educator.

Etwatwa-born Mekoa is best known today for his work with the Music Academy of Gauteng, which he founded in Daveyton in 1994. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1lIqb36Fpk ) He was fired by a determination that untapped young black talent should no longer meet the neglect and rejection he had encountered under apartheid. Mekoa relentlessly lobbied until donors coughed up to support a music school that ended up winning the International Jazz Education Network Award for five years running; produced a succession of highly-acclaimed young originals (trombonist/pianist Malcolm Jiyane and reedman Mthunzi Mvubu are only another two of many); and effectively nurtured instrumental skills among his community’s most deprived youngsters. “There’s talent like diamonds in the townships. You spot a rough diamond, you don’t have to cut it up; all you do is clean it up,” he once declared.

Mekoa held a B. Mus. from UKZN, and, as a Fullbright Scholar, an M.Mus from Indiana University . He had also received honorary doctorates from UNISA and the University of Pretoria, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Swedish Jazz Federation, multiple mayoral awards, the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy and the national Order of Ikhamanga Silver. He was a founder of the South African Jazz Educators’ Network, helped lay the foundations of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and served on both the SAMRO and Unisa Music Examination Boards.

All those accolades arrived late, after liberation, and shine the spotlight on Mekoa the music advocate, organiser and educator. All were richly deserved. But they shouldn’t draw attention away from the place where it all started: his fierce and formidable talent as a horn player.

It was in 1964 that Mekoa first applied to study music formally. He came from a musical family and his brother Fred “Mbuzi” Mekoa was already a talented player. He’d already been jamming regularly with the many bands in the East Rand area: his first outing had been with Shadow Raphiri’s No-Name Swingsters. Like all jazz fundis, he listened to whatever he could find, inspired by spiritual messages as well as new musical ideas: “We had our own traditions too,” he told the Mail & Guardian, “but walk down the street in the township during the struggle and you’d hear [John Coltrane’s] Naima. That music sustained us.” A neighbour, Caiphus Semenya, introduced him to the music learning opportunities at Johannesburg’s Dorkay House in 1962.

But the rules of apartheid barred Mekoa from admission to a ‘white’ higher education course.Nomvula

It didn’t stop him learning, at Dorkay and whenever Mbuzi could spare time for an informal lesson, and it didn’t stop him playing: with Early Mabuza’s Big Five and more, in gigs increasingly constrained by the segregation of places of entertainment.

Frustrated by the narrowing space for music, Mekoa (with reedmen Aubrey Simani, Furnace Goduka and Duncan Madondo, pianist Boy Ngwenya, bassist Fana Sehlohlo and drummer Shepstone Sethoane) founded the Jazz Ministers in 1967, “ ’cos you couldn’t stop playing the music – it was one’s life; it was one’s journey,” he told me. Ngwenya had worked with the Woody Woodpeckers and another musician from that outfit, composer and singer Victor Ndlazilwane, joined as musical director. His additional skills, Mekoa told scholar Chats Devroop, gave the outfit “a very strong and positive direction.” Later, the band also acquired Ndlazilwane’s preternaturally talented young piano-playing daughter, Nomvula. Two albums from that period can still be found: Nomvula’s Jazz Dance from 1972, and Zandile (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2011/09/jazz-ministers-zandile.html ) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cqFSSkxL6I ), from 1975.

Three times – in 1973, 1974 and 1975 – the Ministers were invited to the New York Jazz Festival. Three times, Mekoa was refused a passport. In 1976, the band recorded tracks on the live album of the Michaelangelo and Woolmark National Jazz Festival. Finally, in that same year – and after a convoluted and still today argued set of circumstances also involving PE’s Soul Jazzmen – Mekoa got a three-month exit visa, the band played Newport and some other events, and a performance album ensued (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2012/11/jazz-ministers-live-at-newport-1976.html ).

jazz mins newport back.jpg

All this time, Mekoa had also been also working full-time as an optician (he had qualified in 1967). “It was very difficult,” he recalled. “…but because the music was strong, we held on.”

The New York trip made life even tougher when Mekoa returned home. Invited to play on a South African warship, the Paul Kruger, visiting for the Bicentennial, the Ministers refused. Almost as soon as they stepped of the plane in Johannesburg, Mekoa and the others were detained and interrogated.


Despite official scrutiny, Mekoa continued playing: the Ministers recorded another album, Ndize Bonono Na? in 1984. He was also teaching local youngsters. In 1986, the pull of music became too strong. He resigned from his day job, briefly became part of the faculty at Fuba, and then enrolled in Darius Brubeck’s pioneering jazz studies programme at UKZN, where his fellow students included Zim Ngqawana. A recording with the Jazzanians, We have Waited Too Long, (http://afrosynth.blogspot.co.za/2012/01/jazzanians-we-have-waited-too-long-1988.html ), and a US tour followed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V6B8XvxX_c ) Then another tour and a recording with Abdullah Ibrahim (Mantra Mode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dd-WgaZ3mM ). Then, in 1991, at the dawn of liberation, that Fullbright. The rest, as they say, is history, and magnificent history at that.

Tall and broad, with a loud, infectious laugh, Mekoa was always a physically imposing presence in the room. But it was his achievements, and what he gave to following generations of young musicians, that made him a real giant. Hamba Kahle.

SEE ALSO: http://www.gov.za/speeches/mec-mazibuko-pays-tribute-legendary-music-educator-dr-johnny-mekoa-4-jul-2017-0000

Surrealism lives – and it is black, female and revolutionary


Robin D G Kelley

Word got round quite slowly about the presence of distinguished jazz scholar and UCLA professor Robin DG Kelley in Johannesburg last week. That’s a pity, because as well as being the author of a mammoth biography of Thelonious Monk (and more), Kelley has a strong interest in the relationship of jazz in Africa and jazz in America, not only as a line of descent, but also in its more contemporary manifestations of cultural circulation and solidarity, discussed in his most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers: modern jazz in revolutionary times (https://www.amazon.com/Africa-Speaks-America-Answers-Revolutionary/dp/0674046242 ).

Kelley book

By the time he spoke at the Afrikan Freedom Station on June 29, however, it was clear that news was finally spreading; the room was packed for his conversation with Unisa’s Tendayi Sithole on Surrealism/Thelonious Monk and the Psychic (spiritual) Debt to Black Genius.

Surrealism is often discussed as a European phenomenon. However, Kelley was clear that the roots of the movement were assertively African, revolutionary and anti-colonialist. (For more on this, see the volume he co-edited with Franklin Rosemont: Black Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora https://www.amazon.com/Black-Brown-Beige-Surrealist-Revolution/dp/0292725817). As French Surrealists declared in their 1932 manifesto, Murderous Humanitarianism: “We surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”

Monk was a hero to many surrealists in Europe (poet Claude Tarnaud imagined him jamming with Rimbaud) but, like many African-American writers and artists, his surrealism related not only to a cultural heritage that was wider, deeper and more playful than narrow puritan positivism, but also to a lived experience as a person of colour in racist America that was regularly, literally, surreal. Responding to audience questions, Kelley noted that overturning the rigid, inhumane and commoditised circumstances of modern capitalism – anywhere – demanded hard, collective work. Just as one message of Monk’s jazz was the need to be constantly “ready for the marvellous,” so another was that “ensemble work is always collective work.”

Suzanne Cesaire

Conventional views of surrealism have often been reductive. Its playfulness is reduced to kookiness, its interest in unpredictability to the random insights of the idiot savant. Monk suffered from both these in the commentaries of philistine and sometimes racist critics. Certain US acolytes, such as white beat poet Jack Kerouac, also reduced the movement to something exclusively and toxically masculine. (There were precedents. Andre Breton was a notoriously vicious homophobe.) That, too, was never the case: black women such as Suzanne Cesaire – from whom Kelley quoted extensively – and Simone Yoyotte, as well as other women including Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun were prominent among its early shapers and voices. They were not – horrible term! – ‘muses’, but makers. And to their ranks may be added the musician Alice Coltrane, the writers Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and many more.

N.K. Jemison
NK Jemisin

Another reductive trope about surrealism holds that its observations of the bizarre and the grotesque are ‘fantasy’. But for the peoples of Africa, America and Asia, alien invasion, subjugation, kidnap and experimentation are realities of history (they are called colonialism). If you want to know where that intellectual thread of black female surrealism is today, don’t tarry too long at the pop Afrofuturism of Janelle Monae (her sartorial style is not new, as any account of the Harlem Renaissance makes clear). The visual art of Kara Walker in America and Mary Sibanda here are already gathering attention. On the bookshelves labelled ‘fantasy and science fiction’ you’ll find genuinely radical imaginations at work; after Butler, award-winning writers Nnedi Okorafor and N.K Jemisin are very good places to start. Surrealism lives.


Geri Allen
Geri Allen

In jazz, there are too many radical imaginations to list, but tragically one is no longer with us. Pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and scholar Geri Allen died on June 27 following complications of cancer. She was 0nly 60. At the time of her death, Allen was Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and, with drummer Terri-Lynne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray, was part of the MAC Power Trio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XltrW7tGNVk ), which had been scheduled to play the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival in September. Detroit native Allen grew up with jazz through her father’s extensive record collection and began music lessons aged 7. Like many Detroit players, she was a mentee of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. You can hear her discussing her life in music in a 2008 interview here: http://jazzmuseuminharlem.org/remembering-geri-allen/ . Her first degree, in jazz studies, came from Howard University, and she later completed a Masters in ethnomusicology at Pittsburgh. Her distinguished stage and scholarly career included more than two dozen recordings as both accompanist and leader – including the highly-praised 1992 Maroons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieyBjoVd70w ),

and the 2010 solo outing Flying Towards the Sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4LHMeXwA1U ), as well as work with Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Ornette Coleman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG2FeoqQtdk ), and McCoy Tyner. Allen’s style was often labelled ‘avant-garde’, but she resisted that and other labels, preferring that listeners should relate to her music as they heard it, without preconceptions. Indeed, she often stressed the historic roots of her adventurous style, and its relation to African-American dance, as on the 2010 Timeline project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnO8pUKhooM ) with tap percussionist Maurice Chestnut. She was co-producer of the re-mastered Erroll Garner Complete Concert By The Sea, for which she earned a Grammy nomination. A Guggenheim Fellow, Allen was the first recipient of the Lady of Soul Award for jazz, and the youngest-ever recipient of the Danish JazzPar Award. Allen also participated in and pioneered projects asserting the role and right to performance space of female musicians (as in Carrington’s Mosaic project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKQRms3bUS0 ), including time as programme director for the NJPAC’s all-female jazz residency scheme. She will be buried on July 8 in Bethany, New Jersey. Hamba Kahle.