All the things we don’t know about South African jazz

Ideas come together in interesting ways. Recent events have combined to raise important questions about the historiography of South African jazz: what is known about our jazz past, how that information is known, and how it is interpreted.

First, back in late April, the Sophiatown In Conversation with Mam’ Dorothy Masuka gave us access to the singer/composer’s sharp, clear-thinking mind and articulate, no-nonsense ideas (and an enduringly knockout stage presence). And her memories challenged us, as co-panellist Dr Lindelwa Dalamba pointed out, to confront a huge gap in our knowledge of the world of the female singers who dominated the early African Jazz scene.

Dorothy Masuka

It’s become a commonplace in writing about the history of men in jazz that in the Eastern Cape, players who went on to form bands had often bonded during initiation – and if they didn’t play music, they often formed a rugby squad, or some other professional grouping, instead.

We don’t, however, know anything about the solidarities and socialities built among women performers.

Then, as now, the media’s interest focused on rivalries, and on women’s behaviour in relation to men: the jealous mistress dousing her faithless lover in petrol and setting him alight as he slept.


Masuka told an entirely other story: one of solidarity and protective sisterhood. When she starred in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz & Varieties, Herbert’s mother, Madame Sarah Sylvia, shared her intellectual capital – the songs and their interpretations that had won her own earlier fame on the Yiddish theatre circuit – with Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klassen. On the road, older women singers and dancers clustered protectively around the still-schoolgirl Masuka, giving the evil eye to any would-be Lothario: “You will not touch this child!” Because “of course those things happened,” Masuka reminisced, “just like they do today. But they shielded me from a lot of it because I was so young.”

Those solidarities and connections were underlined by the contribution of another panellist, singer Titi Luzipo, whose own mother had been vocalist with the Soul Jazzmen a decade or so later. Warm greetings were passed between the two backstage – and it emerged that Masuka’s father, a chef originally from Zambia, had stayed for a while mere streets away from the Luzipo household in the Eastern Cape.

Titi Luzipo

These are all corners of a hidden history revealed: hidden, because many researchers don’t seem even to have asked the questions. (One important exception is Lara Allen, whose foreword to A Common Hunger to Sing ( ) provides an invaluable map of the rich landscape of female performance, management, journalism and entrepreneurship in early South African vaudeville and jazz.)

When we focus only on studying the stars, we forget the music communities, networks and relationships that shaped them. When we ignore backstage and home lives, we submit to the paradigm of a deeply gendered historiography that backgrounds and diminishes what are seen as female spheres of activity. Yet information about those spheres contributes to a 360-degree understanding of cultural milieus and all their protagonists, female and male; without it, we simply know and understand less. And musicology is the poorer for that.

And the current jazz scene is too. Because such shoddy musicology masks the continuity of strong female participation in jazz throughout South African music history. And that, as the Gender and Jazz Panel at last weekend’s South African Jazz Educators’ Conference made clear, makes it harder for young women to assert their voice, presence and right to be on the bandstand.

Because what we believe about the past often shapes what we do and how we behave in the present. There are few protagonists of colour in much fantasy literature because ignorant white authors believe there were no people of colour around in the West during the vaguely Mediaeval period their stories invoke. In truth, people of colour have been around all over the world ever since humankind could travel. There were black scribes and scientists in Ancient Greece, African Roman soldiers and administrators, black shopkeepers, sailors and craftspeople in Mediaeval London, and more. And, as historians are now beginning to help us discover, women have been making music and art (and, indeed, war: see Kameron Hurley ) as long as – and as capably as – their male counterparts for a very long time too. There’s just been a social choice not to count them, because maleness has often been naturalised as the default for ‘composer’, ‘painter’ or ‘saxophonist’.

The Lady Day Big Band

Before the SAJE gender panel convened, we heard a set from the 20-piece Lady Day Big Band ( ). The programme proudly announced this as an “all female” big band. There was reason for pride in the quality of the playing (see ) – but we never refer to the Glenn Miller Band as “all-male”, do we?

Founded by vocalists Lana Crowster and Amanda Tiffin, and trombonist Kelly Bell – all music educators as well as performers – already, LDBB is a tight-knit outfit with impressive soloists. (Since she has no recording out yet, if you’re not a Capetonian Bell may be one of the best trombonists you’ve never heard.)

Kelly Bell

But, like many South African big bands, the LDBB’s set was dominated by American standards. Yet there are interesting composers in the band too, as evidenced by drummer Teryll Bell’s composition The Forgotten. Hopefully, they’ll start crafting a repertoire that showcases more works like that. As Crowster and Bell pointed out on the subsequent panel, it’s demeaning to be offered gigs simply because an event “needs more women” – and with the playing already at an impressive level, it’s fresh repertoire that can give the band a musically unique profile.

• Catch the Lady Day Big Band in Cape Town next weekend – their Facebook page above gives details


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