The Political Score #3

It’s still ANC 4/10; EFF 3/10; everybody else — ZERO!

It’s proving easier than I had feared to keep track of the cultural policies of South African political parties in the run-up to the election – most of them don’t have any. The DA joined those dishonourable ranks on Feb 23 with a slick document that doesn’t even seem to know we have a cultural heritage that matters, and that our creative industries already contribute nearly 3% to GDP: more than agriculture on some calculations.

So far, the ANC still has the most extensive acknowledgment of the sector overall, although one constrained and distorted by its commodifying lens. The EFF wins hands-down on arts education, with its call for a teacher for every grade in every school.

In Tito Mboweni’s budget, the ANC continued its trend of acknowledging the area – but still not quite getting it. The finance minister promised: “Officials from the National Treasury and the department of arts and culture will consider proposals for the development of a new national theatre, a new national museum, and also consider financial support for the national archives, a national orchestra and ballet troupe.” One wonders if anybody in government reads the masses of research produced over many years indicating the unique nature of the creative industries. They tend to be small, highly mobile, flexible, often project-based and therefore short-lived. Establishing monolithic, centralised, fixed infrastructure is absolutely not the best way to help them and could well suck more resources and talented people away from communities. It favours elite culturepreneurs and establishments. (And somebody’s just reminded me that we already have a State Theatre, albeit one housed in a monstrous lump of police-state architecture. We really don’t need to go there again.)

Put the money into communities – the Moses Molelekwa Arts Foundation

Certainly, the inherited disparities of apartheid mean we do need infrastructure. We need to replace – as we still have not done, nearly a quarter of a century later – the vibrant grassroots cultural infrastructure that people’s organisations sustained within communities throughout the struggle. But I guess giving artists spaces with the required digital and physical resources in their own communities, or keeping current modest initiatives alive, just doesn’t sound so grand?


Dorothy Masuku 1935-2019


I was once shown the script for a biopic purporting tell the early story of the late Dorothy Masuku (Masuka was her stage name). It was highly professional, but a shallow, deeply patriarchal thing in which Masuku’s pioneering work as a composer, her acute and precocious political consciousness and proud pan-Africanism were sidelined in favour of a narrative of affairs and flirtations. The sidelining continues. Dorothy Masuku was not simply the ‘jazz singer’ many newscasts today label her, although she certainly was that too. And she certainly had a life worthy of a serious biopic.

Dorothy Masuku was born in Bulawayo in then Rhodesia in 1935. Her father was a chef, originally from Zambia, but her mother, Liza Mafuyani, was a Zulu-speaking South African whose family originated from Ematsheni in KZN, and whose sister lived in Pimville. Her grandmother in KZN had been a sangoma, and Masuku spoke later of the spiritual sources of inspiration for her songs. They often came to her in dreams, and she would immediately sing them to somebody else in the house, so that elusive memory was captured.

The young Dorothy moved to live with her aunt in South Africa in 1947, aged 12, when, on health grounds – she had asthma – she was enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg. There, she joined the school choir and her talent was immediately spotted.

earlyShe was signed to the Troubadour record label in her early teens after impressive performances at her school concerts. She worked with the greatest bands of the period, including the African Inkspots and the Harlem Swingsters, and was lead vocalist with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Varieties, including a tour to Mozambique. Historical narratives of jazz in that era focus on the solidarities among male musicians, but when Masuku spoke of those days at a Sophiatown panel discussion last April, she revealed a different story: the links and solidarities among women musicians, from her tuition in Yiddish lyrics with Sarah Sylvia to the protection from male predation that she, as one of the youngest performers, was given by the older women on those tours.

AJ & V
Stereotyped but show-stopping: Masuka in African Jazz & Varieties

During her teens, Masuku composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which – including Hamba Nontsokolo, Khawuleza, Into Yam’, Zono Zam and Ei Yoh Phata Phata (the first hit song of that name, predating Miriam Makeba’s later composition) – achieved major hit status.

In the mid ‘50s, Zonk music magazine opined that the only artist who was outselling Masuka in South Africa was Bing Crosby.  She later wryly noted that the rewards were never commensurate: she’d be bought a dress, or given ‘spending money’  for her work, never a contract, wage or royalties.

Masuku wrote and recorded more music in Zimbabwe (mainly with Job’s Combination and the Golden Rhythm Crooners), and later composed and recorded in multiple other African languages in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia (for the Zambia Music Parlour label). Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Because of the fragmented, semi-formal nature of the African recording industry in the 20th Century, no complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100.

Hamba Nonts.jpgIt was the radical spirit of Masuka’s songwriting that led to her long years of exile. The 1957 Zono Zam recorded during the anti-pass campaign reflected: “It’s so hard in this world: Lord, help us to be free”. Two of her other songs, Dr Malan (“…has difficult laws”) and Lumumba (speculating about who murdered the Congolese leader) so infuriated the South African Special Branch that they seized and destroyed the masters: no copies can now be found. Dr Malan was the first South African song by any artist – let alone a young woman not long out of school, and not yet 20 – to call out an apartheid minister by name.

She continued to compose as she travelled across Africa: from North and South Rhodesia to Nyasaland (now Malawi), and into East Africa too. Everywhere, she composed in national languages; everywhere, she stirred up support for liberation struggles.

Masuku clearly and explicitly identified herself with the African nationalist cause, first in South Africa – “I didn’t understand why I should be barred from that restaurant (…) or to be with that person” – and then in all the other countries she performed and worked in.

MzilikaziAfter travelling across Africa, she was moved by the ANC to London. She performed at the London Palladium, for BBC-TV, and in various shows with Sir John (then Johnny) Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Later, she spent a brief period back in then Rhodesia, fleeing again to Zambia ahead of Ian Smith’s Special Branch. She spent 16 years there, performing and earning a living as an air hostess – pioneering that career as an elegant, intelligent independent woman with one of the earliest independent African airlines. During her 31 years of exile, she was repeatedly refused entry to South Africa by the apartheid authorities, having been declared persona non grata.

Lendaba.jpgShe returned only in 1992, settled in Yeoville in Johannesburg, and immediately began performing and composing new material, something she continued to do to the end of her life. After her return, she recorded four further original albums, including Mzilikazi and Lendaba, as well as releasing a collection of much of her historic material, Hamba Nontsokolo . (Apartheid’s thugs did their work of erasure efficiently; the compilation lacks Dr Malan and Lumumba) She featured in all South Africa’s major jazz festivals and, two years ago, starred in the New York Town Hall concert commemorating the Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.

She was always a compelling performer, and never failed to draw standing ovations. I once stood behind her in a bank queue on a sweltering Joburg day. Joining the rest of us in loudly complaining about the intolerable temperatures, she ended her contribution to the chat with a short, mesmerising single chorus of It’s Too Darn Hot.

Yes, Masuka was a singer but so much more: a composer, a hero of the struggle, and an architect of the discourse of popular African liberation music. The last time I met her, last year , she was animatedly discussing buying a new home: she wanted trees and birdsong around her to create a peaceful space for yet more composition. Music, she told the SABC, was like breathing for her: it was her life. A stroke late last year took her out of public life, and she died yesterday, February 23. Hamba Kahle: may her great spirit rest in peace.


There are things worse than sidelining. The Sowetan led its story on the musician’s death as follows: “Legendary Kofifi-jazz musician Dorothy Masuka’s bizarre wish was to die on stage but when she took her last breath on Saturday she was with her family at home.”

“Bizarre wish”? How dare they! What more noble and natural than that someone who gave her life to music should desire to stay in its embrace until the end? Again, gender stereotyping ensures that women’s informed professional choices become “bizarre” – and that they often fail, even getting the timing of their own death wrong. This hits a new low in music “journalism”.


A liberation song – Bazuka

Her most beloved hit – Hamba Nonsokolo

One from the old days: Ma Gumede

Live in Sophiatown with guitarist Bheki Khoza:

In conversation with Kaya FM’s Nicky Blumenfield

In conversation with Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, Bheki Khoza and Titi Luzipo at Sophiatown:




CTIJF 2019: a plethora of good jazz; a paucity of profile

John Scofield’s Combo 66

***UPDATE 20/03/19. Due to the unavailability of Benedikt Reising, the European contingent of The Mill is now the Swiss Marco Müller on bass, Florian Egli on sax, Matthias Tschopp on baritone sax and Fabian Willmann from Germany on bass clarinet and sax. 

It’s been an odd run-up to this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF, 29-30 March, ). Normally, by this time of year, I’m part of eager debates about which gigs my crew plans to attend. This year, I’ve been asked too many times: “Is there a Festival? Is anybody good on?”

I’ve written before about how the mainstream media decision to reduce music to ‘lifestyle’ weakens the whole music ecosystem. (Think of journalists as irritating biting flies if you must – but the extinction of insects is likely to do for the planet quite soon.) But it also has to be said that the Festival’s own publicity has been absurdly low-key so far, given that, yes, there is a Festival, and yes, it’s a remarkably good line-up.

In previewing, I’m going to concentrate on music in the broad church of jazz: there are other genres too, but your patience as readers is limited, and I assume jazz is what you read me for.

The known quantities

Richard Bona

First, there’s a bunch of performers who need no introduction. Their music already has a solid fan-base, one or two are repeat visitors to Cape Town, and their performances always fulfil expectations. These range from the magisterial Brazilian pianist/vocalist Elaine Elias, Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona and US-based, Cape Town-born, reedman Morris Goldberg, to South African-based pianist Don Laka, saxophonist Don Vino, scholar and reed player Mike Rossi, as well as the golden-voiced Vusi Mahlasela (this year, leading a tribute to the late Oliver Mtukudzi in the slot that, sadly, both were meant to share).

And – known quantity though he is – the festival’s failure to proclaim more loudly the presence of guitar titan John Scofield is inexcusable. Scofield has paid enough dues to merit a much better welcome. He’s played (like a monster) with everybody; this time, he’s introducing Combo 66, with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Bill Stewart.

The home team

Any foreigner looking to see most of the many faces of South African jazz will get the chance. In generational terms, players span the 1970s, with veteran Cape Town pianist Ebrahim Khalil Shihab (, the golden age of the Sheer Sound 1990s with African Time Meeting Legends OverTime (bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, reedman Sydney Mnisi, trumpeter Feya Faku, pianist Andile Yenana and drummer Kevin Gibson), right up to today with the quartets of guitarists Vuma Levin and Reza Khota ( ).

Herbie Tsoaeli

Levin’s Quartet, with Dutch and Spanish co-players, also talks to the creative partnerships South Africans have found in Europe, as does another group he plays in: the Swiss/South African Mill. This unites Swiss saxophonist Benedikt Reising, reedman Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Marlon Witbooi. (Mlangeni gets a rather different outing in Re-Percussions, where his trumpet meets UK Mobo-winning drummer Moses Boyd, DJ Lag, Tumi & The Volume’s Tiago and Nonku Phiri.)

Xixel Langa

Tiago’s presence, in turn, reminds us that South African jazz belongs to a pan-African family, something underlined by the current edition of Steve Dyer’s Mahube, co-directed with son Bokani, with South Africans singer Mbuso Khoza and trombonist Siya Makuzeni, singer and mbira-player Hope Masike from Zimbabwe and Xixel Langa from Mozambique ( ). Makuzeni, Masike and Langa add continental power to a regiment of powerful women musicians, many of the South Africans drawn together in the Lady Day Big Band.

The surprise packages

Most exciting this year are the visiting players you may not know. There’s far less cobwebby nostalgia over mildewed international pop ephemera in this year’s line-up. Instead, those spaces are filled by new names. And they’re certainly spaces to watch.

Nubya Garcia

I’ve already written at length about scholar, composer and flautist Nicole Mitchell ( ) who brings her Black Earth Ensemble to the event. Mitchell is a virtuoso player and a foremother of Afrofuturism; simply, you must see her. Inhabiting a similarly searching musical landscape is UK sax and flute player Nubya Garcia ( ), who first came to notice in the all-female septet Nerija, but who has also grown an impressive portfolio of collaborations, and solo work that’s been described by the UK Guardian as “already collectible.” Neither Mitchell nor Garcia have pulled their punches about the infestations of patriarchy they’ve met in jazz; hopefully there will be workshops where they can share their skills and victories.

Alfa album“I wanted to make people feel something,” says UK multi-instrumentalist/pianist Alfa Mist. Growing up in grime and hip-hop music , it was hearing Miles Davis that switched him on to jazz. (How many players must that be true of by now? Garcia name-checks Kind of Blue too.) That means he’s not afraid of beats, but his 2017 release Antiphon ( ) is not the result you’d expect. Mist harnesses intricate rhythm underpinnings in the service of music that’s thoughtful and spiritual.

A different flavour of spiritual sounds will come from Hammond B3 player Cory Henry, who started off in church. When he brings the Funk Apostles to Cape Town, that sanctified feel will infuse a lot of what he plays, like his formidable hit Naa, Naa, Naa (  — Warning: the track is an earworm so addictive it should be illegal). Henry rescues the sound of the ‘70s and ‘80s from shoulder-pads, platform shoes and bad perms, to remind us that it was popular for a reason: it’s good music and a magnificent vehicle for impro. But this is the set everybody will dance to – even your sister-in-law who isn’t sure she likes jazz.

Well, that’s my pick. Now all I have to worry about is which of these great players gets exiled to the acoustically hideous spaces of the indoor Kippies and outdoor Manenberg stages (unless they’ve cured the problems this year?) and how to resolve the inevitable clashes between sets.

(DECLARATION OF INTEREST: As most of you know, I have had a long-standing partnership with the CTIJF for Arts Journalism training and they host me with transport and accommodation.]



Finally congratulations to the 85-year-old Wayne Shorter, whose Emanon has just taken a brilliantly well-deserved (and far too long coming) 2018 Jazz Grammy. Listen!

Mandisi Dyantyis Somandla: almighty moving music

Sometimes an album is just so damn gorgeous that where it fits in the canon (“Yes, but is it JAZZ?”) is completely irrelevant. That’s the case with trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis’ debut, Somandla, which I first heard a few weeks ago and which I’ve had on play ever since.

In my book, it certainly is jazz, and parts of the gorgeousness exist in the ways it invokes the historic voice of the jazz born in the Eastern Cape half a century ago.

Album.jpgThe word ‘voice’ is deliberate. Dyantyis is as powerful a singer as he is a trumpet player, and within the first few tracks he’s revisited memories of both Victor Ndlazilwane and Victor Ntoni, with exhortations that could get you on the dancefloor in Kuse Kude (plus a pinch of gravelly traditional vocalese too, at the end) and romantic crooning on Izingo. Further into the album, you think of Ringo Madlingozi as well.

We have to wait till the fourth track, Olwethu, to hear a trumpet solo, and then it’s one that combines bluesiness and dazzling runs with the brio of a Dennis Mpale.

But although you can call up all those historic names to sketch the feel of the music, they absolutely don’t define Dyantyis, because his compositions are his alone.

Dyantyis is a graduate from the UCT jazz school, and while the products of that milieu consistently produce intelligent, vibrant music, catchy hooks in the old-school sense aren’t always its most prominent feature. He seems to write them all the time. Even on more impressionistic numbers, such as the slow processional, Because You Knew (Less), the idiomatic common ground between horn and voice is so strong you can walk away humming.

A strong ensemble underlines all this: three alternate pianists – Andrew Lilley, Blake Hellaby and Bokani Dyer – plus Lumanyano Unity Mzi on drums, an empathetic Sean Sanby on bass and the inimitable Buddy Wells on reeds. Wells is responsible for many moving solos, including those on the lush love song Ndimthanda, and Ingoma Yenkedama – his power as a saxophonist has always lain in his ability to reach the heart (of a melody, a harmony, and the listener). And in case that latter ballad hasn’t pulled enough heartstrings, it warms up for the title track, which pulls even more with a plaintive, velvet-throated solo from Dyantyis himself and some equally velvet fingers from Dyer.

As well as uniting the horn as voice and the voice as horn, the album also draws out a clear line of descent from historic community singing (Molweni, Esazalwa Sinje), through the big bands of the Eric Nomvete, Ndlazilwane and Tete Mbambisa eras, to today’s complex, thoughtful jazz compositions of, for example, Feya Faku. There’s no mistaking where this music comes from – and not solely because of the language of its lyrics. The chords and harmonies born from overtone songs, the way solo and ensemble voicings are juxtaposed, and the restless canter of rhythms all position it proudly in relation to its roots.Portrait.jpg

Dyantyis is music director for the Isango Theatre Company, a position he’s held since 2008 and which has taken him across the world. Mood is obviously an important concern in theatrical composition, and here, on an album dominated by ballads, the overwhelming mood is spiritual and lyrical. That’s reinforced by an all-acoustic sound, and sensitive mixing from Murray Anderson. It’s unashamedly romantic music – not merely the hearts and roses kind, but more the love of god and community. So you might consider buying it for Valentine’s Day…but you’ll be playing it, and savouring the spirit and musicianship, long after that.


The politics score #2

I did promise to keep an eye on the arts and culture policies presented in election manifestos. That’s proving an easy job – because there’s hardly anything. The EFF document, launched on Feb 2, is strong on things to be made mandatory, but shares the pervasive malaise of the other parties: silence on implementation processes and where the money will come from.

It has one excellent proposal: an arts and culture teacher for every grade in every school. That needs some attention to teacher training and curriculum materials too, and perhaps we can read more of the intention from the manifesto’s advocacy of more scholarly publications in indigenous languages – definitely a progressive step. There’s also a proposal, in the section on Traditional Leadership, for “mass participation in cultural activities”: again, an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the words are so general that they could mean anything, including compulsory Reed Dancing. We need the phrase “access to create and consume the arts” upfront, and some indication of how. The creative economy, meanwhile – over-foregrounded (but at least present) in the ANC document – is invisible.

As for the GOOD Party manifesto, launched the other day, it contains just the usual platitudes and silences on the arts. Artists and musicians, we know, all love a good party – but they won’t find one there.