Over the weekend, SAFM issued a press statement ( http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/sabc-announces-talent-lineup-changes-safm/ ) formalising what had been known and rumoured about the broadcaster’s plans for some time. The shuffling of the deckchairs among existing presenters, and the arrival of EWN’s Stephen Grootes belong in another debate. Urgent to consider here is the near-disappearance of jazz and African music.
By a monstrous irony, Ike Phaahla’s jazz show had its final outing while most of his listeners were in live concerts at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Phaala’s presentation style was old-school: the most you’d get in the way of commentary from him was a staid read-through of the liner notes. But his knowledge of the field was encyclopedic, and the respect he gave to, and received from, the SA jazz community was enormous. I cannot count the number of people I know who’ve told me their first introduction to certain artists or albums – and, this is important, particularly South African products – came via his magical late-night hours: “Did you hear that amazing album Ike played over the weekend?”
Richard Nwamba – also absent from the new line-up – by contrast, had an effervescent presentation style, alongside an equally encyclopedic knowledge of the continent’s multiple genres. If some obscure but brilliant Congolese chanteur happened to be in town, Nwamba would tap his grapevine, track him down, and drag him into the studio. Former dedicated disciples of Brenda, or John Coltrane, or Durban house, all got their schooling in the music of the wider continent from Nwamba. And he had listeners, lots of them: you heard his show belting from all kinds of unlikely radios in taxis, barbershops and restaurants.
What these two did was unique, and what other DJs may do – easy-listening meister Ernest Pillay, for example, now has a generous slot – however professional, does not replace either. Huge thanks to both of you – you will be missed.
Many of us predicted that when the pendulum swung away from Hlaudi’s dictatorial and poorly thought-out 90% quota, the reaction would be even more disastrous. It’s starting to look as if we were right. So we have to ask: what on earth does the SABC think it’s doing to our music?
The SABC is our national broadcaster. It thus has a mandate and responsibility to offer listeners a wider palette of cultural choices than the purely commercial, even in financially straitened times. It further has a responsibility to maintain and enrich the sonic archive documenting our creativity. But, more than this, eliminating jazz and African music from SAFM (concert music has disappeared too, at the very time when composers of colour are on the rise) represents the erasure of important areas of discourse from the channel where discourse is supposed to rule.
Because music isn’t just sounds, it’s discourse too. It carries discourse in its notes: a language of sound that can enhance emotions and convey information and meaning. When Feya Faku plays a solo, he is telling us about our history and asking questions about our future. The indigenous jazz now being made is more creative and challenging than ever. Music also carries discourse in what it connotes: Nwamba’s show, for example, enacted in its very existence a powerful counterblast to anti-African racism and xenophobia and the dehumanisation of our neighbours – if any programme could be said to be building social cohesion and offering a damn good time on the way, it was his. Finally, music is, in Val Wilmer’ words “as serious as your life”: it merits being discussed as well as played, and the station for that kind of discussion is SAFM.
Knowledgeable SAFM presenters who remain, such as Michelle Constant and Shado Twala will no doubt do their best to keep the discourse alive – but the formats of their programmes demand diverse coverage of multiple genres and topics, with only small inserts on each. The formidable Nothemba Madumo on Metro, KG Moeketsi on Radio 2000 (and the brilliant Brenda Sisane and Nikki Blumenfeld on Kaya: outside the SABC stable) all still earn respect for treating Jazz and African music with the intelligence and focus both merit.
But the SAFM music offering – on the national station with the widest reach – has been shamefully impoverished by these changes. The future sound archive and thus what will be available to researchers will be equally diminished. The new SABC Board no doubt has paying the bills at the forefront of its mind – but maybe we should be reminding Board members that programming priorities and the non-commodifiable values of broadcasting matter too, and that what has just happened needs a long, hard re-think?