The lineups are out for the next Big Two South African jazz festivals: Standard Bank’s Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (27 June- 7 July http://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za) and Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg (26-28 September http://www.joyofjazz.co.za ).
I’ve noted before the economically exclusionary nature of big-ticket national music events. Both festivals offer concessions for students and others, but attending all three nights in Sandton will set you back at least R2 100. The Makhanda jazz concerts are individually ticketed, so you can cap your own budget – but what you can’t afford, you won’t see. At both festivals, transport, accommodation and meals add to the costs. Both also run classes and some lower-cost events designed to broaden access, offering a very limited selection from the main bill.
There are other considerations too. While festivals certainly bring some revenue to the areas where they take place, in Johannesburg that’s the epicentre of conspicuous consumption, Sandton – presumably on the prosperity gospel principle of “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given.”
Makhanda is in the midst of a crippling drought. The National Arts Festival has instituted the laudable Amanzi Yimpilo project to support basic water for schoolchildren, and additional boreholes are being sunk (but see https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2019-05-16-companies-paid-for-work-done-by-gift-of-the-givers/ ). However, each festival-goer will be drawing extra water – that might otherwise be used elsewhere – from an already water-starved area.
Policed audience; commodified experience
Those hard impacts matter. Equally significant is the commoditised and tightly-policed discourse big-ticket music festivals establish around making and enjoying music. Go to a festival, and your identity is prescribed and inscribed on your wrist. As a writer in The Jacobin (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/music-festival-coachella-bonnaroo-musicians-union ) puts it: “You can be a member of the creative elite; an owner of capital; hired staff; or a member of the policed, regulated audience. The fences, hierarchy of privileges and security guards are a live theatre version of our cultural life’s stratification.”
So even for those in a financial position to attend, big-ticket festivals pose ethical questions. But if they didn’t exist, there would be one less opportunity for musicians to eat. So who’ll be on those stages?
Makhanda offers one of its most interesting programmes for years. It’s headlined by Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and the ensemble Born to be Black, which includes drum titan Louis Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Salim Washington and pianist Andile Yenana. Washington also leads his own challenging ensemble, Sankofa, (with whom he will also appear in Sandton). Finally, we get to hear live the gorgeous collaboration between trumpeter Feya Faku and US drummer Jeff ‘Siege” Siegel, King of Xhosa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEDJ3FnLbr8. From a big bill, the other don’t-miss South African performances include bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt with the Sama-winning ZAR Orchestra (they’ll be in Sandton too), vocalist/hornman Mandisi Dyantyis, guitarist Billy Monama and Norway-based reed player Shannon Mowday leading a South African/Norwegian youth band.
That last is one of the array of youth music projects that always makes Makhanda the place to spot South Africa’s next original jazz voices.
The visitors offer a diverse and intriguing range of musical approaches. The Brazilian Instituto Anielo ensemble offers close to a quarter of a century’s experience of democratising music through its jazz education work, initially in the low-income suburbs of Sao Paolo. Nils Landgren, a regular visitor to South Africa, brings the latest incarnation of his favoured funk big-band format. And the Nairobi Horns are rapidly growing a following for their distinctive urban Kenyan jazz sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR5TkWOlwHQ ).
Re-dreaming the past in jazz
Most intriguing is the visit of Chinese composer/vocalist Coco Zhao and pianist Huang Juanji with their Dream Situation project (http://www.pianojazz.com/coco/Full%20Moon,%20Blooming%20Flowers.mp3 ) Shanghai-born Zhao is the child of traditional Chinese opera musicians and initially followed the conventional route as a highly-rated conservatoire player. But “there were such limitations [in classical music]” (https://www.criticalimprov.com/index.php/csieci/article/view/962). In Dream Situation he explores and re-visions the music of the Shanghai bands of the 1920s and 1930s, when the cosmopolitan port created space for musicians to riff on American jazz styles and create original dance and cabaret music.
No more war
Nothing quite so intriguing in its freshness is promised yet for Johannesburg in September. There’s certainly some very good music, including, on the opening night, something described as a “Battle of the Bands” between the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Wyat’s ZAR outfit. That tired trope – please retire it now! – is, of course, nonsense. Notions of ‘battling’ and ‘winning’ are wholly inappropriate for both the collaborative enterprise of jazz and the experience of hearing two world-class bands on the same night. Just enjoy.
Fans will also enjoy a return visit from dazzlingly creative Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (who was at Cape Town in 2012 and 2016), and hear original rhythm master Manu Katche, US clarinet legend Ken Peplowski, and Dutch reed veteran Alexander Beets. In addition, Sandton will have many great voices, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Soil, Nomfundo, Nokukhanya, and Siphokazi among them.
Out of Africa something new
Joburg Joy of Jazz always features a strong Africa-continental presence, which this year includes Mozambican saxophonist Moreira Chonguica and Nigerian trumpeter Etuk Obong, both of whom already familiar to South African audiences. Unfamiliar and thought-provoking, however, may be Sor Kyekyeku and the Ghanalogue Highlife band (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvi9SWjB9SI). Like Zhao in Makhanda with historic Chinese jazz, guitarist Kyekyeku is drawing on a contemporary sensibility to get us listening afresh to Ghana’s historic urban sounds of the same period (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZVxpzJvkhI).
That’s something we’ve never heard before, and that’s the promise festivals always hold out. It’ll be audible in all the improvisation, and in one new combination: Zachusa, with the restlessly innovative South African drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff and US bassist Reggie Washington. A few more like that on the Sandton bill wouldn’t go amiss.