iPhupho L’ka Biko – dreaming, like Biko, of decolonised culture

Bassist Nhlanhla Ngqaqu

June 16 1976 had multiple impacts on South African society. It’s often cited as marking the start of the “youth rebellion” that changed the country’s political landscape – although that minimises the long history of multi-generational resistance that preceded it. (Children had worked in white-owned households, mines, businesses, estates and farms, and formed part of anti-colonial struggles at those sites ever since the colonialists arrived.)

But new kinds of youth formations did emerge from ’76, and those in turn gave rise to new cultural expressions: songs, slogans, gestural language and dances. Those creative expressions travelled into exile, into the camps of young MK soldiers and into cultural collectives in Botswana, Zambia, London, more; into trade union cultural locals as school students became adult workers – and into performance spaces and rallies as artists re-visioned and developed the spirit of ‘76 with fresh creativity throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

The flowers from those roots were furiously diverse: the disciplined stage performances of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble; the take-no-prisoners compositions and playing of Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo-Moholo in exile; the mzabalazo of the Fosatu Workers’ Choir; Menyatso Mathole and Sakhile at Club Pelican (and that band’s Isililo a bit later); and the joyous defiance of the Malopoets https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ln-atDHLDk .

It’s now becoming abundantly clear that #RhodesMustFall/#FeesMustFall and the broader politics of the decolonisation struggle around it were just as significant a cultural moment as that for the generation who marched, carried placards and were tear-gassed a couple of years back.

Old struggle songs were resurrected and given fresh life and lyrics. New songs were crafted, including a fresh version of Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika. And new ensembles started coalescing, creating original music that spoke of and to the consciousness of the 20-teen years – think of Tumi Mogorosi and Project elo, Salim Washington and Sankofa, Mandla Mlangeni’s Born to be Black – and bassist Nhlanhla Ngqaqu’s iPhupho L’ka Biko.

Centre: Godfrey Mntambo, flanked by Miseka Gaqa(l) and Muhammad Dawjee (r)

Fresh from a very successful performance in Grahamstown, Ngqaqu’s outfit played as part of the Wits Theatre 969 Festival on Friday. And it’s not just the spirit and spirituality of Biko’s Dream that the band invokes. There are also important resonances with the cultural creativity of the Biko era. For Ngqaqu, the ‘dream’ means more than a vision of the future. It’s an invocation of the spirituality and worldview of that leader and his era.

As in the post-’76 era, the musical sensibility is diasporic, not narrowly nationalist. For the Biko generation, in the wake of Festac, the rest of the African continent was a key reference point. That’s still present, but the sounds of Africans in America are also very prominent now.

A snarky comment on a 2017 video of the decolonised anthem (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncFNz3HkJe8 ) complains about its ‘Westernised pop style’ – but that misses important points. When global capital kills, solidarity for all the murdered is intensely relevant. Ngqaqu explained this in his introduction to Queen Sandra’s Hymn (for an earlier performance see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg2kb0K3CxY ), drawing out the continuum of oppression between Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Mambush Noki in his green blanket on the Marikana Koppie.

And then, of course, much of what the West has appropriated as its ‘pop style’ descends from the music of the African American churches; that, in its turn, is descended from the music of Africans shipped to America as slaves. When Motswedi Modibe sang a soulful Rise Again, she was acknowledging that style as part of the African musical family, not borrowing it from America.

The programme was dominated by hymns and anthemic praises, but they were often envisioned in unexpected ways. Some of the most magical moments of the evening came during Abaphezulu, a conversation among the ancestors recounted by TBMO’s Siya Mthembu with guests, Kismen’s tabla-player Shailesh Pillay and sitarist Druv Sodha. (Kinsmen saxophonist Muhammad Dawjee is already a member of Ngqaqu’s outfit.) Mthembu’s husky vocals against the shimmering sound of sitar strings, and the tabla changing paces with Tshiamo Nkoane’s jazz drums called up a unique soundscape that could well have been the realm of the ancestors. For the audience, the arrangement was a roar-provoking hit.

iPhupho L’ka Biko at the Orbit

And yet, like the music of Sakhile in that earlier era, compelling, sad and passionate music shared the stage with brisk upbeat South African jazz, in compositions such as Braam Streets. And sometimes sadness and passion drove in wickedly satirical directions: Miseka Gaqa’s vocal undermining of the (colonised) national anthem has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Gaqa’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice underlined the genre fluidity of the whole conception. When she sang in counterpoint to the jazz instruments we were in New Music territory, but she also gave us sonorous Xhosa chords and straightforward, moving hymn-singing. The brass offered a strong mix of expressive individual emotion and beautifully-judged, disciplined chorusing. Dawjee’s lyrical restraint finds its foil in Godfrey Mntambo’s passionate eloquence, and vice-versa: they are perfect complements to one another. Meanwhile, trombonist Athamacwera Ngcaba’s trombone often invents outside what you might expect a ‘bone to do – but this is an ensemble in which nobody is predictable. There’s also poetry (powerful poetry, delivered clearly, in perfect synergy with the discourse of the sound), and off side-stage, Levi Pooe stands painting as the moods of the music inspire him.

That genre fluidity is saying something too, about the necessity of removing walls, and returning to an earlier African creativity that did not impose those colonial (and essentially commodifying) boundaries between art-forms.

The music not only spoke and enacted important messages, but sounded good too. At various points the whole audience was on its feet. By the encore, much of that audience (the Wits Theatre was packed) was actually on the stage, dancing and breaking down another imposed boundary. Because those who clap, move, exhort, build the vibe and listen are part of music-making as much as those on the stage playing instruments.

And at that point, for me, it raised a few other spirits too: Kingforce Silgee at the Woodpecker on the banks of the Notwane River in Botswana, the Fosatu Choir singing Andries Raditsela, and some huge UDF rally with Basil and Robbie blowing out front. Which doesn’t mean it was old – until its demands are won, that kind of spirit is never old.

Race and South African jazz teaching – two years later…

Two years ago, I raised in this blog, the issue of a Eurocentric jazz curriculum. (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/who-should-teach-jazz-in-south-africa/ ). The column was triggered by a letter from one of my readers, an SA musician studying overseas, as well as the publication of a very interesting piece of network studies research about the implications of homophily (preference for association with similar others) for diversity and career progression among South African scholars.

The responses to the piece were fascinating. They inevitably included accusations of “racism”, from a few individuals who really didn’t seem to have read it. There was even an invocation of what we have come to call the ‘Zille Argument’: “without [European music] their (sic) would be no harmony and no musical instruments. But this does not fit his (sic) tired and wordy narrative,” opined one commenter.

Now, it seems the UCT task team set up by former Vice Chancellor Max Price to explore the issues raised by students during #RhodesMustFall has reached conclusions very similar to those I explored then. (For a media summary, see https://mg.co.za/article/2018-07-13-00-black-students-undervalued-at-uct ; for the full report see https://www.news.uct.ac.za/images/userfiles/downloads/media/UCT-Curriculum-Change-Framework.pdf )


The primacy of the conservatoire model of music education and of the genres of the Global North, as well as the neglect of African curriculum and materials, the report suggests, contribute to a context inimical to learning for working class black students at the South African College of Music.

Rather than rehearsing the arguments of two years ago, however, let’s look at only one aspect of what the report contains: how the privileging of some narratives (those of the Global North) over others damages the core business of universities: the exploration and creation of knowledge.

The answer is, important stories don’t get told. And since music (its sound and its praxis) embodies sociological and historical narratives as well as sonic ones, erasing those stories impoverishes knowledge. For everybody.

None of us sees everything about the situations we observe or are part of, and knowledge can travel in more than one direction. If playing South African jazz calls for an African sound then those who grew up in the communities that birthed and shaped that sound have a lot to teach those who didn’t – especially about what it means. (Example: a note is only called “dirty” in implied unfavourable comparison with a “clean” one. If a note is deliberately sung or played in a way that challenges the Global North convention – and it is merely a convention – then it isn’t “dirty”; it just is what it is, saying what it needs to say. There’s no cause to “clean it up”.)

This, given the current demographics of much South African jazz teaching, implies some role reversal. Students may know stuff teachers should be open to learning – as the best teachers everywhere always have been. The constraining paradigm of the conservatoire method runs directly counter to any notion of two-way learning. So change has to come.

Nothing in this categorises any individual, of any race, as a villain, and the changes hold out the promise of better teaching and learning, and better music.

Read the report. Reflect that Kendrick Lamar’s Damn just won a Pulitzer – an award showcasing narrative power. Start wondering about the real cost of the ignorance of our own untold stories that prevails in many South African music academies…


Frank Leepa biography: brutal history, personal beefs and brilliant music

“Sankomota was a name I’d been playing around with for a while. It came from the stories told by Mathabatha (Sexwale’s) grandmother. Sankomota is a kind of David-and-Goliath figure in Pedi folklore. It seemed appropriate somehow…”

Frank Leepa in Two-Tone July/August 1992

book cover.png
The cover image for Born for Greatness

To outsiders, music is a baffling business. Novelists regularly get it wrong, veering wildly between portraying the musician as a crazed monomaniac, and creating a character who’s about something else entirely with the instrument as a mere accessory after the fact – sometimes in the same book. But the practice of music is often equally baffling to those who live with and around musicians. Parents and family patriarchs often don’t see it as a job at all – but if it is one, it’s a disgraceful one. Some find it hard to believe that a band can really break up bitterly over whether a number is best played in A Flat or G, and must invent deeper, darker tensions. Others (who regularly change up their own jobs when career satisfaction diminishes) expect the same group of players to stick together for life, churning out the same repertoire simply to please them. Others again become adoring fans, who elevate their human musical heroes into supernaturally awesome Marvel ones, too good for any of their colleagues, spouses or friends…

You’ll find many of those memes somewhere in Mpho A. Leepa’s biography of her guitarist/composer brother Frank, Born for Greatness (https://gekopublishing.co.za/tag/born-for-greatness-biography-of-frank-leepa/ ), expressed either in her own authorial voice, or through the attitudes of others she recounts. The book first launched with a tiny print run in 2014 (http://kaganof.com/kagablog/2014/01/07/born-for-greatness-biography-of-frank-leepa/ ); it has been reissued and should now be more widely accessible in bookshops – and if it isn’t, you should be encouraging them to order it.

Uhuru II
A young Frank Leepa (r.) during the second incarnation of the band Uhuru

Because, despite all the partiality you’d expect from a book written by an adoring sister, it’s also a valuable historical document. There’s a huge lacuna where southern African music history written by those who lived it should be; Born for Greatness makes a real contribution to filling the gap.

The book tells the story not only of Frank Leepa, but of the Lesotho he grew up in: its political as well as its cultural milieu. We sometimes forget, today, that the monarchies apartheid South Africa tolerated within its geographical borders – both the independent and the incorporated ones – were tolerated because many of their rulers could be relied upon (and indeed were appointed) to be as reactionary and repressive as apartheid South Africa itself. The rebel royals among them were routinely deposed, imprisoned or assassinated, as they had been by the colonial authorities before.

1st album
The first, self-titled, Sankomota album

Mpho Leepa paints a chilling picture of repression in Lesotho, and its brutal and bloody impact on her own family, and contextualises the anti-authoritarian stance Frank Leepa lived and sang as defiance against far more than the apartheid regime over the border. She draws moving links between her brother’s lyrics and the events surrounding the persecution of her family.

Every legendary band – and Leepa’s Sankomota was certainly that – has multiple foundation myths. Mpho Leepa’s version tells us a great deal about her brother’s visionary and dynamic role in forming the outfit. What’s less prominent in her account is the influential role across Lesotho’s scene played by the legendary percussionist BJ (Black Jesus) at that time. When I talked to Frank Leepa for Two-Tone in mid-1992, he described BJ as the “father figure” of Lesotho’s modern popular music and told me: “We found we shared the same obsessions. He invited me to stay, found me rehearsal space and helped me out a lot.” Leepa’s working relationship with BJ – in and out of various iterations of bands called Uhuru and Sankomota, and later in the self-reliance oriented Sanko Foundation – lasted until the guitarist’s death in 2003.

Mpho Leepa’s account is brilliantly perceptive on the detail and texture of a musician’s life in Lesotho: the petty slights, exploitative managers, unreliable transport, collapsed gigs and all. It will ring true for anybody who’s ever encountered the southern African music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. There are also some extremely useful addenda, which, while not exhaustive, go a long way towards mapping work, reviews and shows, as well as including extracts from Leepa’s own reflections on his projects.images

What’s missing is more on Leepa’s actual music: how it sounded, and the process by which it was put together. By the end, we don’t even know what model of guitar or brand of string he preferred – but in the story of a guitarist, such detail matters. That, though, is perhaps a story best told by those who worked with him – we do get a flavour of his relentless perfectionism from the recollection of onetime bandmate Laura Mhlanzi (Bezuidenhout). Sadly, what constantly intrudes is the author’s hero-worship, shading far too often into flat denigration of other people (particularly other women) in his life.

By the end of the 280 pages, it’s clear that there are two books within these covers. One is an important family memoir: stirring resistance history, tragic memories, joyous moments and, yes, interpersonal beefs too. The other is an equally important narrative about a great popular musician, whose achievement in shaping an instantly recognisable and highly influential African sound should never be underestimated. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QewADpS1_QM ) [For a complete discography, see https://www.last.fm/music/Sankomota/+albums]


Leepa was a talented and imaginative guitarist and composer, something his solo 1992 show at the Market Theatre, Frank Leepa and Friends, began to demonstrate outside the confines of his various ensembles. (That gig included, for example, a moving reworking of a Johnny Dyani composition.) Now we need a researcher to take the foundations of that second narrative – well laid in Born for Greatness – and build on them to tell us even more of the musical story, so that it is not lost.

Nicole Mitchell’s Downbeat award should bring her to South Africa

The Downbeat Critics Awards are out http://downbeat.com/news/detail/downbeat-announces-winners-of-2018-critics-poll , and South Africans can enjoy a slightly smug feeling. We heard the Vijay Iyer sextet before they scored that award for Far From Over, in March at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. It was a joy – but I suppose it would be repetitive to ask that Iyer be invited back?

Actually, there is one respect in which CTIJF is already repetitive: jazz headliners over the years have been overwhelmingly male – and where they have not been, the jazzwomen have been overwhelmingly vocalists. That’s allowed us to hear some superb musicianship in song, which is never a bad thing. But it’s overdue that festival programming also acknowledges the world of female instrumentalists.

Nicole Mitchell

The 2018 Downbeat poll offers us more than one name here. But one that stands out, for a lifetime of achievement encompassing playing, composing, ensemble and community leadership and scholarship, is that of flautist Nicole Mitchell. Mitchell, who has been nominated and awarded multiple times in the past, took away this year’s instrumental award for flute, and a rising ensemble award for her outfit (although it’s closer to a collective) the Black Earth Ensemble.

Syracuse, New York-born, but a longtime resident of both California and Chicago, Mitchell grew up with parents who, today, would probably be pigeonholed as Afro-futurists: they were concerned with new ideas, interested in science fiction and, of course, music. She began with classical training on piano, viola and flute, and attended the University of California San Diego, and then Oberlin College. But she found California arid in terms of diversity and open-mindedness, while at Oberlin she was the only woman in the entire jazz programme, constantly cautioned about how hard it would be for her to make it in the genre.

“How is it,” she has reflected, “that someone can consider themselves supportive of egalitarianism and all this stuff, and then they don’t ever work with artists of colour, or women?”

Moving to Chicago, she found an edgier, more open-minded scene. She began working with members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_for_the_Advancement_of_Creative_Musicians ) an organisation whose first female president she later became. She also worked for 13 years for the visionary Third World Press: the oldest African-American press in the country.

AACM group Samana – Mitchell back left

Under AACM, she was a part of the all-woman instrumental group Samana. But she also resumed her scholarship, working towards an eventual Masters degree from Northern Illinois University. She taught at half a dozen universities in and around Chicago, and in 1997 formed the Black Earth Ensemble, a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, multi-generational outfit whose concern, she told one interviewer, was about “the concept of ancient to the future (…) you can create something familiar and bridge that with the unknown.”

Black Earth
The Black Earth Ensemble

That futurism relates both to the sci-fi her father so avidly consumed, and to her own admiration for the work of black speculative writer Octavia E. Butler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavia_E._Butler , in tribute to whom she recorded the Xenogenesis Suite https://vimeo.com/3985660

albumMitchell has released more than 20 albums, and is also currently Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine. Her most recent outing with the Black Earth Ensemble, the 2017 Mandorla Wakening II: Emerging Worlds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ngBAQJExOE , engages with possible futures in which technological advances can be liberated from their current commodified context and integrated with collaboration, sharing and care for the environment.


For more spiritual exploration, check – if you haven’t already – the newly-discovered John Coltrane tapes released by Impulse late last week as Both Directions at Once https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EH3mb3oXCpw . The title references Trane’s speculation about, in Ben Ratliff’s words in an excellent, thoughtful Pitchfork review (https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/john-coltrane-both-directions-at-once-the-lost-album/ ) “the possibility of improvising as if starting a sentence in the middle, moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.” There has been much anorak excitement about a “lost” Coltrane album, and it is unarguable that having more of the prophetic saxophone thinker to hear is a wonderful thing. Trane.jpgBut when media who never seem to notice when a new South African jazz album lands, suddenly and as never before get all breathless about the event, you can’t help wondering about their priorities. Trane was a titan who made transcendently beautiful and challenging music and still has huge amounts to teach us. One of the things his life and work teach is that we should be listening to new jazz now, as it’s being made and as the experiments are happening, not wait to get excited until the artist is dead and the music can be commercialised as a hipster’s collectable. Both Directions at Once is not exciting because it is a rare collectors’ antique. It’s exciting because of what Trane says.