Born to Be Black live: ten out of ten

“Good jazz is when the leader jumps on the piano, waves his arms, and yells,” observed Charles Mingus. “Fine jazz is when a tenorman lifts his foot in the air. Great jazz is when he heaves a piercing note for 32 bars and collapses on his hands and knees. A pure genius of jazz is manifested when he and the rest of the orchestra run around the room while the rhythm section … dances around their instruments.”


Mingus often talked to journalists with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But his satirical humour still captures something important. At its best, music is not only an aural experience and not only a spiritual one, but a kinetic one too. The air dances. The musicians dance. Your heart dances.

album cover

Unleash trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni in front of a new, ten-piece, Amandla Freedom Ensemble to launch the Born To Be Black album ( ) at the Orbit last weekend and that’s exactly what you get.

Mandla Mlangeni


The album and the performance share the same principals: trumpeter Mlangeni, pianists Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana, drummer Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo and reedmen Salim Washington, Oscar Rachabane and Nhlanhla Mahlangu. On the album, they’re joined by tenorman Shabaka Hutchings, vocalist Zoe Modiga, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Ariel Zamonsky and guitarist Keenan Ahrends. On stage, the horns were Washington, Rachabane and Mahlangu, plus veteran Kaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata on bari, and Siya Makuzeni on trombone and voice, plus bassist Bryden Bolton and drummer/percussionist Thebe Lipere. In South African jazz terms it was a much more cross-generational experience that resounded in everything we heard.

Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo


Mlangeni dancing as he directs and plays…Makuzeni taking a magnificent extended scat on Sdwedwe Rag starting where Ella started (“stealing from the horns”, Ella called it) and spiralling out to a place that has half the horn-line and Moholo-Moholo as well as the crowd yelling encouragement…Mnana forensically dissecting the innards of the piano on a re-christened Uthando Lwako to take the tune into territory Ornette and Dudu would both have relished…Rachabane and Mlangeni duetting on Mama Ngibongakonke in the very personal music-space they share, but inviting the rest of us in, not shutting us out…Moholo-Moholo just inhabiting those tunes, picking us up and carrying us along twisty, challenging, joyous paths (nothing ‘effortless’ here: close to seven decades of hard physical and intellectual engagement with sticks and skins talking)…and the cry of Moholo-Moholo and Yenana’s When Spirits Rejoiced, invoking gospel and the experimental SA jazz of the 1970s, but wrapped in an ancestral consciousness much older than that, and a creativity fresh as tomorrow.

Andile Yenana


Born to be Black is the AFE’s second recorded outing, and the album comprises a dozen tracks not recorded before. From the stage, we heard a generous sample of those, plus a moving, rousing finale with Mlangeni favourites Bhekisizwe and Woza Mama. In the reed line-up, Mlangeni must have assembled a crew of the most emotionally intelligent sax players around ( the elder Mahlangu, remember, brought us the tears of Isililo way back, and still commands that power) and that was important because this is music that is meant to wake listeners to what’s going on, and to the revolutionary power of authentic, collectively shared, emotion.


The album isn’t the stage performance, and never could be. “When you hear music,” Eric Dolphy said, “it’s gone: in the air. You can never capture it again.” A different combination of players means different opportunities for serendipitous interplay (on the album, one different delight is the conversations between Ahrends’ guitar and the rhythm; another, the crisp strings of the Resonance String Quartet) and a stage show offers twice the space for solos to stretch out. So you won’t hear what we heard. But you will hear those melodies and others – muscular enough to support multiple diverse imaginations, and catchy enough to stay in your ears a long time. It’s not cosy music: the arrangements take a ton of creative risks in their juxtapositions of texture and their dislocations of rhythm. But it’s kept wholly accessible by its lexicon: magically transformed root references to mbaqanga, bop and the blues.

Oscar Rachabane

South African music: time for our very own Weinstein moment?

A young Thandi Klaasen

“[Kippie Moeketsi] was not one of those who would 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 here – who’d want to use you for that.” (The late Thandi Klaaasen, discussing the 1950s, in Soweto Blues (Continuum 2001): p.122)

Mercy Pakela in the 1980s

“The producers are men…record companies are run by men who want you to open your legs for them to get somewhere…And they tell you that we have been waiting for you to grow and now you are grown you should be able to open your legs for them. Some of these people I thought they were my mentors but they only [saw] me as a sex object…even the editors want you to open your legs…” (Former 1980s teenage bubblegum star Mercy Pakela in The Shopsteward Vol 19 No 4 Aug/Sept 2010: p50)


Musician Jennifer Ferguson’s brave statement describing her experience of rape last week ( ) must have prompted a weary sigh of recognition from many other women working in music.

Not shock. Not even surprise. Just weary recognition. Because like every other sector of every other society deeply infused with patriarchy, the South African music industry is long overdue for its Weinstein moment. As a female music writer and researcher you hear all the stories – and very often see them die with editors and newspaper lawyers whose fear of the defamation laws ends in “That’s only hearsay (perhaps they mean her-say?); we can’t publish that.”

Let’s get disbelief out of the way. Life would be impossible if we did not, most of the time, act on the assumption that people around us are telling the truth. Suddenly, when a woman calls out her rapist, that flips. Why? Police forces around the world – all of which work from what we might charitably call conservative (and more analytically call grounded in the patriarchy of common law) definitions of sexual assault – agree that recorded instances of false rape accusation are few, with the figures pretty much in line with those for any other type of false accusation. In the UK, a figure of 0.6% is cited.

Singer, poet and former MP Jennifer Ferguson

Of course, the existence of even that minute percentage means every accused person must receive scrupulous due process. But it does not support discounting accusations on the grounds that false ones are common. Do the math: way more than 90% of rape accusations are true. Everywhere. All the time. So it would be logical to begin by believing the accuser.

Versions of the so-called ‘casting couch’ are rife in music, beginning with “Let’s see you from the back”, “Come to the audition in a short dress”, and “Can I buy you dinner later?” and extending to far, far worse. Colleagues researching women in music here regularly hear the horror stories, from assault on tour buses to male stage and sound personnel forcefully demanding sexual favours in return for simply doing what they’re paid for.

Sometimes it starts earlier: that music teacher who stands far too close behind and just has to reach over to turn the page; that music prof who has an ‘affair’ (power imbalances render the term absurd) with a different student every year; that other one who keeps porn visibly playing on his computer during tutorials.

As Ferguson’s experience implies, women on stage suffer a particular kind of objectification in the eyes of predators. But an even uglier picture might emerge if the research was extended to the many women working in non-performing roles, such as club, theatre, bar, stage and sound staff. Their vulnerability is intensified because they often work earlier, or later, and under even more precarious labour conditions.

And that’s what workplace rape – the hideously real thing hiding under the glamorous guise of ‘casting-couch’ – is actually about: power.

In showbiz – and in society – more men than women occupy mutually reinforcing circles of economic and social power. In showbiz, labour is most often individualised, casualised and unorganised (often forcibly so), depriving individuals of the protection of their fellows in the workforce.

The worldview that dominates is capitalist patriarchy, here vividly summed up by feminist writer Ursula le Guin: ” ‘Civilized’ Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other — outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. (…) I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

It’s not about Ferguson and her monster, or Mercy Pakela and hers, and it’s about society, not only one industry.

By all means let the speaking-out continue and grow, and let those monsters be named and punished. Those of us who write need to take care we don’t reinforce objectifying stereotypes of female performers. (I once read a review of a South African jazz quartet where the three men all ‘played’ their instruments. The woman in the group ‘made love to’ hers.) Let’s look, too at those specific features of labour relations in the music industry that shore up the power of exploiters and abusers and erode the power of cultural and service workers.

But getting rid of workplace rape entails more: not just talking about our homegrown Weinsteins but doing something about the societal and ideological manure that helps them flourish.

Poster courtesy of the One in Nine Campaign

There is a classical Africa: Renee Reznek’s From My Beloved Country and more

Ignorance about African history and culture abounds – at both ends of the political spectrum. The smug racists banging on about railways and piped water are only a little more ignorant than the philistines asserting “science is colonialist” in blithe ignorance of the foundational legacy of Semitic, pre-Islamic (and later Islamic) research and invention in the North of our continent, among peoples today labeled Arabs, Egyptians and Libyans. (For more on where the myth of white Ancient Greek science came from, read the late Professor Martin Bernal’s Black Athena )

In the same way, other myths about Africa float around, for example about pervasive cultural ‘backwardness’ (more backward than the atavism of the Ku Klux Klan?). In relation to music, there are assumptions that the term ‘classical’ music can only apply to the European children of Bach and Mozart, or that African contemporary composition happens only in popular genres.

Let’s start with ‘classical’ music. The term has a number of coexistent meanings. For Wikipedia, it’s “music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized,” or, alternatively, “serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.” You could spend a thousand words deconstructing the assumptions in that second definition: jazz ain’t ‘serious’? folk music doesn’t follow “long-established principles”? and so on… Leave it.

Ganda court
East African classical music

Wikipedia’s first definition reflects pitch-perfect Eurocentrism. The word ‘classical’ means “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style.” To colonise that word for European music alone – albeit sometimes with a capital ‘C’ – ignores that, for example, Indian music, or the Arabic music of Al-Andalus, or the musics of the Mandinka or Ganda courts in Africa also went through historical phases during which the pinnacle standards for their forms were set. Every culture has its ‘classical’ music.

But in ordinary speech, classical music is simply the kind of repertoire presented in formal concert halls, whatever micro-niche the genre specialists would place it in.

Rznek album.jpg

That’s my only excuse for headlining the term when discussing this year’s release by UK-based South African pianist Renee Reznek, From My Beloved Country ( ). In fact, this is an album of ‘New Music’, all composed relatively recently in South Africa or by South Africans, and though Pietermaritzburg-raised Reznek has garnered many international accolades for playing more conventionally ‘classical’ material, that is not her project here.

The album comprises a dozen pieces, some of which have deep personal meaning for Reznek. Kevin Volans’ PMB Impromptu, for example, reflects their shared birthplace and pays tribute to Reznek’s keyboard skill through the demands the music’s intricacy places upon it. David Earl’s Song Without Words was written for her daughter’s wedding. The works are eminently accessible examples of their kind and provide, in total, an enjoyable introduction to the work of eight South African New Music composers, from the jagged edginess of Michael Blake’s Broken Line (which alludes to the conventions of Xhosa bow music) to the melodic lyricism of Song Without Words. And Reznek’s playing throughout is impressive: the pieces may sound accessible, but they are no less pianistically complex for that; her technique is the mediator. If just about every critic reviewing the album has used the word ‘warm’, there are good reasons: not only does the piano tone radiate warmth, but Reznek’s very evident pleasure in playing these particular pieces also reaches out warmly from disk to listener.

Pianist Renee Reznek at the JIMF 2014

However, From My Beloved Country – like, for example the Andre Petersen/Kathleen Tagg duo outing Where Worlds Collide ( ) before it – also serves a larger purpose by reminding us about the breadth of contemporary South African concert music. Two previous columns ( ) ( ) have already reflected on this rich, less travelled, part of South Africa’s music scene.

Reznek’s album opens with a composition by Neo Muyanga, whose work was showcased not only at this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF) (when he was composer in residence) but in 2014, when the pianist visited and premiered this very work: Hade Tata.

Neo Muyanga
Neo Muyanga

Hade Tata is a programmatic piece, evoking scenes from Mandela’s release onwards, and reflecting on high hopes un-met. For those of my readers not familiar with New Music criticism, it’s worth noting that in this context, ‘programmatic’ is often uttered with a slight sneer; for some, music with an extra-musical narrative isn’t so fashionable right now. But I’m not sneering. For me, Hade Tata is a moving ten minutes of memories and sound-pictures, from the icon’s slow footsteps out of Victor Verster Prison, through a riotously chaotic welcome home to the bluesy regrets of the final passage. (Come to think of it, ‘bluesy’ isn’t exactly an accepted term in New Music criticism either.)

That’s a good place to conclude. Forget the labels, and, next time, buy some South African music from a category you’d normally swipe left on. Whether ‘New Music’ or ‘Classical’ (or jazz) it’s all music. And music often brings us things that get everybody’s metaphorical feet tapping, alongside things that carry special meanings for certain listeners. Whatever its general appeal, Hade Tata will carry an extra resonance for those South Africans who were there and felt those emotions from the inside. And probably Mozart says some special things to a Salzburger, too…

Farewell to a powerful visual archivist of jazz

It is with sadness that we learn of the death of photographer Peter McKenzie. McKenzie’s images added immeasurably to the historical record we have of South African struggle and culture: pictures made with the spirit of a comrade in that struggle, as well as a knowledgeable observer – something he also conveyed in his ongoing work as a teacher, and his curatorial skill as a photographic gallerist. (see  )An appreciation of his work and contribution is long overdue. Hamba Kahle.

Eshu-Elegba in Groot Marico: Bird Monk Seding messes with readers’ minds to make them think

Bird Monk Seding: a novel

Lesego Rampolokeng

Deep South 2017


A jazz novel today, just to give Joy of Jazzed-out ears a rest. Reading is good too.

There’s no mystery about Seding in the title of Lesego Rampholokeng’s thirteenth outing. It’s the shortened form of Leseding (“place of light”), the small North West rural settlement to which the book’s narrator, Bavino Sekeng, moves on some kind of writing retreat “in the quest for Bosman’s ghost”. But Rampolokeng has always asserted that it’s about the words before anything else, so let’s not lose focus on three others that matter just as much: Bird, Monk, and ‘novel’.

Lesego Rampolokeng

Last first, because it might be tempting to read Bird Monk Seding as autobiography, since Papa Ramps gives us more of his own life story in one place here than you’ll otherwise find outside interviews. Bavino is a name the writer employs in books ( ) and on Facebook. But, as he told Mphutlane wa Bophelo ( ), it’s also a way of invoking Everyman: “About Bavino…if Zola-bound, I’d be Kau, elsewhere ntanga, or Bafoza, Magenge … my Orlando Western street-corner male endearment term.”

So seeking autobiography would be a mistake. Though his own story is the cloth he cuts from, Rampolokeng’s book is meticulously constructed of art and artifice to connect the physical and psychic violence before liberation to what persists and prevails now – so much so, that you might need to put heavy quote-marks around that l-word. Train-tracks at Phepheni in Soweto, and at the little station nearest Seding, facilitate travel between times as well as places: Soweto in the ‘80s; Seding today. “Jim comes to Joburg,” says Rampolokeng, “so Bavino goes to Marico.”


That’s where Eshu-Elegba comes in: the Yoruba trickster god. Because those intersecting railroad tracks are where Eshu lives, presiding over language and communication, mediating between the mundane and the divine, the ancestors and the present, the revered and the downright rude. That’s what writers do too. The connection to Eshu, they say, is traditionally established through hearing, playing and dancing to certain rhythms. Enter Bird and Monk.

Bird Monk Seding is on these pages because it’s a jazz novel. In this case, not because it’s about jazz – though often it is – but because the music of its words, patterns, rhythms, breaks and improvisatory excursions call up and echo the jazz it describes.

Thelonious ‘Sphere’ Monk and his cat

Thelonious “Sphere” Monk: his music born from the blues but précised through meticulous craft to the point where it sounds wholly new. “Monk’s radical idea,” said Robin Kelley, “was not to add more notes to chords but rather take them away, creating much more dissonance.” A bit like this, perhaps?  “Expensive dressed in poor veneer. The face slum, the core bourgeois. Bars, restaurants, bookshops where upward mobility gets its chops.”

Charles “Bird” Parker: master of what John Fordham summed up as “the ability to move far away from a tune’s ‘home’ key and back without losing the thread.” “The base was there before me. Solid. I stand my pen on it. And the paper winces/ while I wait for the blood/ (…)Step. ‘the melody’s more important than the navigation.’ And motif is/ trampoline in this. Bounce on it/ only to take off and then back again…on the one!”

Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker

The book is also a tribute to Mafika Gwala, who died in 2014, and there are multiple explicit praises for the poet’s work, and shared, echoed allusions, for example to Phillip Tabane. But the real homage is embedded in that music of words, because that was Gwala’s voice too:

Mafika Gwala

“If we are not saints/ They’ll try to make us devils;/ If we refuse to be devils/ They’ll want to turn us into robots./ When criminal investigators/ are becoming salesmen/ When saints are ceasing to be saints/ When devils are running back to Hell/ It’s the Moment of Rise or Crawl/ When this place becomes Mpumalanga/ With the sun refusing to rise/ When we fear our blackness/ When we shun our anger/ When we hate our virtues/ When we don’t trust our smiles./ one and two/ three and four/ bonk’abajahile” (from Bonk’abajahile published in Jol’iinkomo, 1977)

Within Bird Monk Seding’s polyphony of true and trickster voices, it is clear which parts are true, and irrelevant which are autobiographical and which are not. This much is the important truth: we have failed to deal with racism and violence and racially-structured degradation and so they poison today, when former liberation fighters join former SADF killers – some of them farmers just outside Groot Marico – on the gravy-train. But grasp Eshun’s hand and he can also link us to another level of existence, where music accesses the sublime and good people still live. The two worlds exist at the same time, side by side, sometimes colliding or intertwining: jazz cannot erase desolation, but nor can desolation erase the freedom and beauty of jazz, and so Bird lives, and so we are able to breathe as well.

Poet Lorenzo Thomas said some similar things, in another voice tracking the swoops, flurries and soaring of Parker’s music:

“According to my records, there was something/ More. There was space. Seeking. And mind/ Bringing African control on the corny times/ Of the tunes he would play. There was Space/ And the Sun and the Stars he saw in his head/ In the sky on the streets and the ceilings/ Of nightclubs and lounges as we sought to/ Actually lounge trapped in the dull asylum/ Of our own enslavements. But Bird was a junkie!”

(from Historiography by Lorenzo Thomas)bird-monk-cover

There are new things in this book. The personal voice is not so relentlessly a voice of disgust as it has sometimes been. Though the shifts between affectionate memory and visceral horror still happen fast enough to feel like a punch in the guts, there are more of the former than there used to be. There’s nobility, fortitude and love in the lives of people such as Seding’s Pogisho and Mmaphefo, risking everything to protect their son. Other things about Rampolokeng don’t change. The writing is as meticulously crafted as ever, mashing up memoir, reportage, movie script, music and verse with his customary forensic scalpel. “BUNIONS ON MY FINGERS/ I put in a lot of work on the pen…” “I celebrate the minds fashioning us on more than just a couple of dimensions. Death to literary apartheid and art-ghettos,” Rampolokeng told wa Bophelo. And, in the book: “The idea though is to take it/away from the inherited form. Make a new dream./ Four-pronged attack,/ channeled through one. Mafika, Bird, Monk and me.

In short, Bird Monk Seding is about as autobiographical as Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog. Mingus – who was never a pimp, and, in Mingus Speaks ( ), shows a somewhat different character – rode on pimp-style boasts and repellent sexism to throw racist stereotypes back at their architects and more generally, Eshu-like, mess with his readers’ heads.

That’s the strategy Rampolokeng’s brew of bitter truth and baroque imagining also employs. It declares it’s a novel. Believe it. In one legend, Shangu, the Yoruba thunder-god, asks Eshu: “Why don’t you ever speak straightforwardly?”

The trickster replies: “I never do…I like to make people think”