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…


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