Movie Review: Red Joan feeds the myths of fascism

Since so few publications these days critically review anything, I plan from now on to dilute the pure ‘jazzness’ of this blog occasionally, when something from another art-form (a book; a movie) is worth talking about. In this case, the review is here as a warning to interrogate very carefully the ‘history’ the mass media sometimes pretend to show us. But don’t worry: 99% of the time you’ll still find nothing but jazz.

Nobody expects a biographical film to reflect every detail of the life it documents – even less when the film is itself based on a book explicitly fictionalising that life. Red Joan, starring Judi Dench, which opened in South Africa last month, is based on Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same title. The novel is based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, described by Soviet defector Vassily Mitrokhin as ” the most important British female agent in KGB history”.Flim poster

The movie doesn’t acknowledge that importance. Indeed, it tells us remarkably little that is truthful about the real Norwood. Fine, it’s a film based on a fiction. But creative choices in current fiction and film matter — because they tell us about now, not then. And the choices  made first by novellist Rooney and subsequently by director Trevor Nunn and scriptwriter Lindsay Shapero play out the mood – nostalgic, insular, right-wing – of Brexit Britain today.

Young Melita.jpg
The young Melita Norwood

The real Melita Norwood was the child of a refugee Latvian revolutionary, Peter Sirnis, and an English suffragette and shoemaker, Gertrude Stedman, who met when Stedman came to mend shoes at the radical émigré commune in Hampshire where he had settled. Sirnis died when Melita was six, but not before becoming a labour organiser and publisher of a workers’ newspaper, and reprinting the complete works of Lenin on the commune’s press. Gertrude later moved to London with her daughters, and worked as a ‘letter box’ for Soviet intelligence. Melita quit her university studies in Latin and philosophy to work, married trade unionist and communist Hilary Nussbaum (who Anglicised his name to Norwood) and in the late 1930s became an active Soviet spy, copying from her workplace top-secret materials about wartime weapons, which the UK and the US would not share with Communist Russia.

At the time she was most active, in the mid- to late 1940s, she was, in her own words “picking the kid up, getting the home-help and getting the shopping done.” These, she said, “occupied much more of my time than spying.” Melita’s activities had been suspected since the mid-1960s, but were only confirmed when Mitrokhin defected and spilled the beans. However, she was never arrested, and lived to the age of 93, still a radical, and proud of the work she had done for the socialist cause. “In the same circumstances,” she said, “I know that I would do the same thing again.”

You’d think there was enough there to make a compelling film. None of it appears in Red Joan.

Instead, the fictional Joan Stanley (played by Dench in old age and Sophie Cookson as a young girl) is a blonde, naïve, 100% English headmaster’s daughter – her father occasionally gave charity to the poor – who works towards a First in theoretical physics at Cambridge. She is seduced literally and metaphorically into espionage by a pair of glamorous Jewish refugees, Sonya and Leo. She recants for love of her boss, whom she later marries, and in apolitical old age is arrested, hobbled by a security cuff, and interrogated (in the movie world, a Communist must be brought low). The film is structured around her flashback memories of the early days.

old melita
Melita Norwood in old age

It all looks very pretty, revelling in the saturated tones and rich textures of 1940s décor and costume. Re-siting the story to the dreaming spires of Cambridge (Melita’s studies were at the rather less glamorous University of Southampton) permits a generous dollop of Downton Abbey-style nostalgia, and visual allusions to the world of those higher-profile – but less effective – elite spies, the Cambridge Five (Burgess, Maclean et al).

The historical revisionism doesn’t stop there. All the Communists Joan meets live privileged lives and are weak dupes, amoral reptiles or both. Sonya even steals Joan’s mink coat. (It’s unlikely Melita ever owned one.) No workers bar a few silent college servants, station porters and cafe waitresses sully the Cambridge scenery, and for that reason the real debates of the 1930s – about mass unemployment, hunger, war and fascism – are reduced to  placards in the background. The start of, and motivation for, Joan’s espionage are pushed forward to revulsion over Hiroshima in 1945. But Melita began spying in 1937, the year Franco’s fascist allies tested their advanced weaponry by bombing the revolutionary Basque town of Guernica into dust.

Joan is shown as motivated by liberal pacifism shored up by illusions of romance. While the script scores some valid points about the contextual sexism of the era and the scientific community – there is the predictable dismissive remark about women merely “making tea” – the film’s central discourse is stereotypically sexist. It erases all the independence, agency and conviction with which Melita Norwood pursued her path. Instead, everything Joan does is reduced to tearful desperation; she spies and then recants for one or the other of the men in her life: lover, husband and finally son.

Picasso’s famous evocation of Guernica

The script makes Joan’s quintessential and sheltered Englishness matter a great deal, and, more disturbingly, also Sonya and Leo’s Jewishness. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Jew before,” she confides to Sonya. In the context of Nazi hate-speech that defamed people of Jewish heritage as  rapacious, cosmopolitan Bolsheviks preying on Aryan virgins, that sub-text is repulsive. The real Melita was a migrant’s child who grew up with Jewish comrades, and married a Jewish man. People of all faiths and none worked closely together in the socialist and anti-fascist movements during the interwar years, while the antisemitic British Foreign Office was dismissing reports of  Nazi atrocities and death-camps as “hysterical”.

The acting skills of Judi Dench are formidable, here as in every other film she has appeared in, and despite a script that renders Melita Norwood’s unique life banal and stereotyped. But the script isn’t the worst thing about Red Joan. The worst thing is that it poses as grounded in history, now, when the most vicious myths of fascism are rising from the swamp again, and it feeds those myths.

(*Melita Norwood tells her own story in historian David Burke’s 2009 book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op )


SPAZA: freedom off the shelf

album.jpgA remarkable South African album launches today.  SPAZA ( records the May 2015 live performance at the Spaza Gallery in Troyeville of a group of intensely creative musicians. At that date, the group comprised bassist Ariel Zamonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, electronics whizz João Orecchia, trombonist Siya Makuzeni and violinist Waldo Alexander, with FX from almost everybody, and voices from Makhene, Makuzeni, Nosisi Ngakane and Nonku Phiri. The album launches on vinyl; CDs are coming soon for those dinosaurs – like me – who still collect them.

If genre mattered to anybody except marketers (it doesn’t) this music is ‘free improvisation’. That label, though, risks obscuring more than it illuminates. The late free guitarist Derek Bailey probably got it right when he wrote: “Opinions about free music range from the view that free playing is the simplest thing in the world, requiring no explanation, to the view that it is complicated beyond discussion.” South African percussionist Thebe Lepere lived precisely that tension, finding the theoretical earnestness with which the North Europeans he met in exile dissected free music “hilarious (…) in Africa it was a common, everyday thing. We didn’t need to talk about it, it was just there.”

Violin & FX from Waldo Alexander

But that doesn’t mean improvisation is, as some dictionaries define it, “done with little forethought or preparation”. Musicians are constantly developing and preparing its raw materials: the various sonic languages they learn; their individual personalities and thought patterns; the idiomatic limitations and possibilities of their instruments – and their understanding of the other players around them. In the moment, they make choices and discover or invent a fresh soundscape from that.

Vocals & FX from Nosisi Ngakane

So free music can be melodic, lyrical, rhythmic, dissonant, stuttering, jagged, knotty, catchy, danceably groovy…anything the players choose. And Spaza is all of that – sometimes all at once. It reflects not only the eclectic character of its performance site, the Spaza Gallery, at that time, but the inspiration for that name, the spaza shop. For that was how township residents humanised the bare spaces where they had been dumped: earning income by selling anything and everything their neighbours might need from a garage, front-room window or back kitchen door; compensating for the lack of convenient transport or shops; improvising trade to earn a little income, but also build ties of solidarity and an independent community economy.

Spazashop art
Spaza shop: 1995 watercolour painted by Soweto artist Phaswane David Mogano

In homage to that, the album tracks are named for the goods you might pop next door to buy: Sunlight, Glycerine, 2 loose draws; Ice Squinchies ( ) and Magwinya.

Spaza evokes powerful moods, and presents textures so grainy your fingers can feel them. In Magwinya, Mangola ne White Liver the mood is lyrical: women’s voices in solo and FX-ed chorus building to a soaring climax. In Sunlight, Glycerine…the texture is conversational, with voices raw and processed talking and singing together and across one another. Five Rand Airtime…has Makuzeni’s trombone joyously exploring every sound it can make with and without the aid of electronics.

Trombone, voice & FX from Siya Makuzeni

And it’s never just sound: these are music-makers communicating: warmly, angrily, sadly, sometimes passionately. The words evoke human experiences and emotions and traditional occasions and ceremonies – this is precisely the kind of homebrewed African free sound to which Lepere was alluding, but one that welcomes in Manu Dibangu’s Electric Africa too.

Spaza is simultaneously avant-garde and “traditional” in the way it invites you to listen. Because it presents a polyphony, the best way to enter the music is to choose one sonic thread and follow it, hearing that thread as a single sound, a sound in relationships with other individual sounds, and a sound woven into massed sounds. And that’s exactly how you’d listen to a Xhosa overtone ensemble, or a Balinese gamelan orchestra.

Percussion & voice from Gontse Makhene

You can also just have fun: float on the sensual textures and let them carry you along to dreams of worlds where things might be different, because in this sound-world everything is possible.

As free reedman the late Steve Lacy said: “I think that jazz, from the time it first began, was always concerned with degrees of freedom. The way Louis Armstrong played was ‘more free’ than earlier players. Roy Eldridge was ‘more free’ than his predecessors, Dizzy Gillespie was another stage and (Don) Cherry was another. And you have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom, and then the music is finished. It’s a matter of life and death. The only criterion is: ‘Is this stuff alive or is it dead?’” In its fearless enacting of freedom, Spaza is some of the most alive music I’ve heard this year. Pop next door and get some.

Ndikho Xaba 1934-2019

It’s the late 1990s at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg. I’m with an American-born friend whose jazz tastes were shaped by the Chicago free music scene of the 1970s. On to the stage walks a slight, goateed figure in a blue African shirt, who proceeds to draw astounding music from…a water-cooler. “Damn!” says my friend, “Why didn’t I know this guy before?”


Too many people didn’t know Ndikho Douglas Xaba – multi-instrumentalist, instrument-maker, composer, actor, teacher and revolutionary. Hopefully, it isn’t too late for them to learn about the legacy and contribution of this musician’s musician, who died peacefully on June 11 aged 85.

+ Sun RaXaba’s journey took him from the streets of Pietermaritzburg and the countryside around it to the Little Jazz City of Queenstown, the musical ferment of Johannesburg’s Dorkay House, the Broadway stage, the jazz lofts of San Francisco, Chicago and New York, the training camps of the ANC in exile in Tanzania, the streets of post-liberation Soweto and, finally, back to his home province again. His music spanned a similarly broad canvas, for he drew no artificial boundaries between styles or genres. He was as comfortable imagining fearless cosmic explorations – he  shared a stage with Sun Ra – as with crafting instantly catchy hits such as Emavungweni, first covered by Hugh Masekela on the 1966 album Grrr! (and later on Uptownship, and by Miriam Makeba on Makeba!).You’ll know that tune as soon as you hear it . You probably didn’t know it was created by Xaba.

Xaba was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1934, the youngest of the six sons of a Methodist minister, James George Howard Xaba, a covert ANC operative and founder of the Natal African Teachers Union. His schoolteacher mother, Emily Selina Dingaan Xaba was an organist and choir leader.* But his family hoped their son would study towards a profession; they did not encourage him in music, so he picked up a penny-whistle, and often subsequently described himself as “proudly self-taught”.film.jpg

In KZN, and later when his father’s ministry was transferred to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape in 1953, he and at least one brother were active in the ANC – musicians interviewed for Nhlanhla Masondo’s biographical documentary about Xaba, Shwabada,( ) recalled that it was absolutely not cool to ask them what they were doing.

In Queenstown, Xaba joined his first band, Lex Mona’s Tympany Slickers. The Slickers often played for ANC fundraising events and this plus the Xaba brothers’ own activities led to a great deal of ducking and diving, until finally the Special Branch interrogated him. For his family’s sake, it was clear he must move.

And so to Johannesburg and Dorkay House: sporadic work in a range of outfits, shows and recording sessions with, for example, EMI-label band the Globe Trotters.. He commuted to Durban at times, for work and to see his family, and in 1960 was part of the production of Alan Paton’s Umkhumbane, with music by Todd Matshikiza, at the Playhouse Theatre.

Increasingly, not only police-state oppression but also the rigid cultural categories of apartheid and the denial of black originality and excellence became intolerable. When, playing at an SABC Studios recording session, his pianist was told by the producer, “ ‘Look, I don’t want you going anywhere with that tune. Just stay on that thing: ka-ting ka-ting. That’s all I want you to do.’ That’s when I said to myself: enough is enough. I’m not going to be involved in this degenerative artistry.”

His ticket out came with another Alan Paton play, Sponono, with music by Gideon uMgibe Nxumalo and an all-black cast. Xaba played the part of a traditional praise singer. In 1964, the play was invited for a short Broadway run at the Cort Theatre. When the run ended, Xaba stayed. It was the beginning of 34 years of exile.

In America, Xaba hooked up again with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and others. Their musical campaigning, he recalled, had a clear agenda: “One: we are black. Two: we have been colonised. Three: we were enslaved. Four: we were victims of imperialism. We are victims of racism collectively – so how can you divorce yourselves?”

He had no illusions about America. Arriving at Kennedy Airport on a snowy day, and forced to pose for photographs in scanty Zulu attire “our African-American brothers who worked in the airport didn’t want anything to do with us. Because to them, here was Tarzan – live! …[but after we had changed into our suits] those same people are like ‘Hey, my brother! How ya doin’ man?” Shortly afterwards, he found what he saw clearly as “apartheid” in a New York Irish bar. “I remember noticing – hey, wait a bit, you don’t have black people coming in here; it’s just us…And the Irish guys were like: who are these guys? But we were just like: Hey, man, gin and tonic and a steiner – this is freedom now, we’re in America!”Sunsets.jpg

Xaba created  a powerful sonic evocation of those days in the track It’s Cold in New York on his Sunsets album

But Xaba found a great deal in common with the underground free jazz scene across the United States, and its discourse of post-civil rights African-American liberation. After New York, where he taught himself piano, he worked in San Francisco – where he met his wife, poet and activist Nomusa Xaba while giving Zulu lessons at Malcolm X Unity House – and in Chicago and later Canada, before returning to South Africa in 1994.

albumIn San Fransisco, Xaba immersed himself in music making and cultural education. Those days are described in Nomusa’s memoir It’s Been A Long Time Coming . She describes him teaching how music had the power “to create powerful, meaningful, lasting change.” The band he formed, Ndikho and the Natives played solidarity concerts and community events, mixing far-out improvisation, re-enactments of anticolonial history, solid, funky groove, spoken word and more in a single performance. Close to two hours of archival footage of those performances was recovered and restored by film-maker Nhlanhla Masondo for the documentary Shwabada

Xaba’s late ‘60s/early 70s work was part of the countrywide radical cultural and political movement best known through the 1966-founded Art Ensemble of Chicago. Xaba is the only South African exile whose creativity in this context went on record; his music is compelling, surprising and unique. And it was influential. Former Natives’ saxophonist J. “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch attested when the album was reissued: “I create message music, teach in schools, and promote political awareness while entertaining … because of Ndikho Xaba.”

Xaba continued teaching throughout the rest of his life. He established musical instrument-making facilities and created a music curriculum for the ANC’s refugee school in Dakawa, Tanzania; and, on his return from exile, held music and instrument-making classes at his Soweto home, before moving back to Durban. There, UKZN scholar Dr Sazi Dlamini introduced Xaba’s work and ideas to music students, in co-operation with him. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Makanda Project (primarily dedicated to reedman Ken Mackintyre) also performs big-band arrangements of his work Xaba himself performed increasingly rarely in South Africa. He had little enthusiasm for an unimaginative and often reactionary commercial music scene, and in his final years Parkinson’s Disease limited his mobility.

So why is Xaba so little known outside musical circles? Film-maker Masondo beleves: ““The reason that Ndikho Xaba is rated an enigma is because he’s way too hip.”

But Xaba’s praxis also retains the power to make a conventional music scene – and society – very uneasy. His music could bowl you over with its inventiveness; and the breadth and erudition of its cultural references; he declared himself a son of Kemet half a century before Shabaka Hutchings. His life enacted the rejection of boundaries, including the bourgeois boundary between aesthetics and politics. He lived and played what he believed, uncompromisingly; and he imagined beyond any category towards a world where all peoples were family, and where oppression could and would be thrown down. Hamba Kahle to a soldier for the beauty of the future.

& Nomusa
Ndikho with Mama Nomusa Xaba at his Durban tribute concert


* (For many factual details I’m indebted to Francis Gooding’s excellent biographical notes on the Matsuli Music Ndikho and The Natives album)

In Memoriam Z B Molefe 1944-2019

There have been three sad deaths of veteran journalists this week: photojournalist Herbert Mabuza, former Rand Daily Mail editor Raymond ‘Oom Ray” Louw and ZB Molefe. Society is very much the poorer for the loss of all three, but this column must pay particular tribute to

Arthur Zuluboy ‘ZB’ Molefe had a distinguished career in newsrooms as writer, editor and mentor that stretched back to Drum magazine, and more recently included City Press. He was a two-time winner of the Book Journalist of the Year award (1994; 1996), contributing editor at the Know Africa encyclopedia, a published poet, and a Poynter, Harvard and Niemann Journalism Fellow. But the obituaries have rightly focused on his publication in 1997 of A Common Hunger To Sing, where – accompanied by striking portraits from photojournalist Mike Mzileni – he interviewed 50 South African women musicians whose careers spanned the period 1950-1990. At a time when South Africa’s popular news media often treated women in music as mere decorative add-ons, Molefe created space where they could talk seriously about their music and their lives. A Common Hunger isn’t just a book, it is priceless archive enshrining the voices of both the famous (Dolly Rathebe, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sibongile Khumalo) and many other key figures (Snowy Radebe, Marjorie Pretorius, Mary Thobei) who are less well known. Without Molefe’s pioneer and accessible work, my own and that of many other music writers would have been incomplete and wholly unbalanced, lacking information about the vital role women played in shaping South African jazz. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. May his spirit rest in peace; hamba kahle.


Ziza Muftic’s Shining Hour: singing in tongues

Shining hour cover 2019 for social media.jpgMost of the lyrics on vocalist/composer Ziza Muftic’s second album, Shining Hour ( are in English. But English isn’t her first – or by any means her only – language, and the sound as well as the meaning of words is a key aspect of how she conceives songs.

“When you write a song it’s all about texture and sound,” she reflects. “When I started in jazz, there was a period when I was singing Brazilian standards. For a while I sang them in English – but no, the sound is just too hard. Brazilian Portuguese has a certain softness that’s important to the songs and it was getting lost. So I tried to pick it up phonetically, used online language lessons, and it just fits the music, and you fly!”

That self-taught Portuguese joined many other languages she can call on. Her parents arrived in South Africa in 1992 from Croatia, so she’s familiar with the closely-related Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian language family. You can add to that the French, German and Italian lyrical understanding required for her classical singing studies at Wits – and the isiZulu spoken by many of her fellow-students and the other African languages she heard around town.

“I always knew that opera wasn’t for me. My ears kept leading me to some other musics. I used to watch the SABC traditional music shows, and isiZulu somehow felt warm, round and deep – a bit like Italian: it’s again about textures. My former husband and his father were Zulu-speakers too – all that together made me feel like I must just learn it.”

English is, says Muftic “my first language of expression,” but she has written and continues to write lyrics in both Bosnian and IsiZulu. And now – when she not only teaches, but has embarked on further studies of her own, this time in piano – the idiomatic ‘languages’ of musical instruments also contribute to what she writes. Her track Blue, for example, acknowledges inspiration from the flow and phrasing of the guitar.

The 9 tracks of Shining Hour comprise three Ziza originals, one by saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, and the rest arrangements, from sources as diverse as Bheki Mseleku, the Beatles, Bryan Ferry and Antonio Carlos Jobim. After listening, her descriptions of these as mere “arrangements” feels a bit too self-effacing. While Mseleku’s Homeboyz (see the original at ) merely gets lyrics and the spaces to express them, Lennon & McCartney’s Norwegian Wood, for example, is transformed by new left-hand ostinato rhythms – “I was looking to improve my left hand freedom…the new rhythm gave the phrasing a very different feel [so] I also changed the harmony to complement this dreamy mood.” Muftic’s blend of the Jobim Chega de Saudade and Chick Corea’s Got a Match?, where the songs, in her words, “swim out of one another”, produces something completely new.

Bassist Peter Sklair

Shining Hour is very much a family affair. The personnel – saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, pianist Roland Moses, bassist Peter Sklair and drummer Peter Auret – are Muftic’s regular gigging band, with whom she plays at the Ascot Hotel among other venues. Her piano teacher, Theodora Drummond – “She’s given me lots of wonderful ‘Aha!’ moments” – produced, and Muftic’s student, Aveshan Govender, took the atmospheric cover photo.

Narrative matters for Muftic’s songs and that comes out most clearly in her original The Colour of My Heart. “What is the colour of my heart, dear? /You said you’d like to know/ Yet to know is not the same as to grow/And understand all the colours that we are/The beautiful the sad/at times mad/easy, hard, even bad…” It’s a classic torch song: a term first used in the 1930s for a singer alone under a spotlight singing love and loss and reminding us that those individual sorrows reflect shared lives.

Because just as listening to such songs is a communal experience, so is playing them. Muftic values and builds on the closeness of her quintet. “Roland and Peter [Sklair] have great synergy, and Sydney and Roland discuss harmonies all the time – and of course I‘m around those conversations.” The singer interprets Mnisi’s composition Kwela/Gontsana (written for the late guitarist and drummer) and adds with her lyrics another layer of homage perfectly in the same mood: homage to the evocative scenery of Vranduk in Bosnia and the heroic and tragic community histories it embodies.

Saxophonist Sydney Mnisi

That empathy emerges in every arrangement: the solos from Mnisi and Moses and the sensitivity of Auret’s drumming and Sklair’s bass. If there’s such a thing as a torch saxophonist, it’s probably Mnisi: in conversation, he’s an understated, sensible chap; under the spotlight, so much emotion pours out that an audience must be moved. And it’s a tribute to Sklair that his bass-lines never intrude – though he does take a tasty solo on Blue – but you’re always conscious of that strong, flexible thread holding the music together.

As I noted when I reviewed Muftic’s debut (, she’s a storyteller /chanteuse rather than a predictable, by-the-numbers “jazz” singer. When she employs a jazz technique, such as the scatting on Love is the Drug, it’s done deliberately and judiciously, to complement what she calls Ferry’s “cheeky” lyrics, rather than as a default device. Shining Hour takes that character forward with repertoire that’s both diverse and accessible – and an increasingly distinctive approach as both composer and arranger.