The Blue Notes: stills from an archive of absences

Pianist Afrika Mkhize is jamming with vocalist Siya Makuzeni. She leans challengingly over his keyboard, devising smart sonic calls for him to echo or transform, and he responds with relish. Eventually he leans back and opens his hands: “OK, she’s better at this than I am!” Then he taps his forehead, universal shorthand for bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela and drummer Lungile Kunene to return to the head – the theme – of the song.

But turn off the sound, take a few snapshots, and what would you see in each? An infuriated Makuzeni shouting at Mkhize? A baffled Mkhize retreating, pantomiming: ‘She’s crazy’?

In London 1965

So what does a photograph really “show”? What do we really “see” in it? Those were the questions raised by the words, images and sounds of that night, at the July 4 photo exhibition Before the Wind Blows: 1964 and the Making of the Blue Notes at the Wits University Atrium.

Brought together by jazz scholar Dr Lindelwa Dalamba and visual curator Boitumelo Thloaele (who is concurrently responsible for the major Sam Nhlengethwa retrospective at WAM), the images have an intriguing backstory. Back in 1961, Norman Owen-Smith was a science scholar and enthusiastic amateur photographer. He made the images in Durban, at the then University of Natal where he studied and where Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes were playing one of their rare local concerts before leaving South Africa for the Antibes Jazz Festival and exile. In the 1960s, universities controlled privileged spaces where racially mixed performances might still occur; a traditional Indian ensemble preceded the Blue Notes on stage. Carefully conserved, the negatives travelled with Owen-Smith around the world as he developed a distinguished professional specialism in herbivore ecology. In 2017 and home again, he wanted to identify a repository that could use them, and asked me. And through the close (if, at times, distinctly non-herbivore) ecology of jazz, I asked Dalamba, and she immediately began seeking the resources to restore, display and debate this remarkable visual archive.Township Bop.jpg

The dozen-plus images so far restored to exhibition quality differ from some other visual archives we’ve seen – Basil Breakey’s, for example, or Lars Rassmussen’s. As Dalamba’s address observed, they capture South African jazz during one event in one place, rather than providing, as those others do, a national, multi-year perspective. They reflect the tightness of good jazz: the relationships between the six men playing(Chris McGregor, Nick Moyake, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo); human expressions, gestures and emotions. And they weigh the sound of history in their greyscales.

Such images become even more important “in the absence of a sonic archive”, Dalamba stressed. For despite the music recorded by the Blue Notes and various individual members in exile, there’s very little on record from the time before they left. The 1962 Cold Castle Festival tracks of a ‘Chris McGregor Septet’ aren’t the Blue Notes, although you will hear some of the players who formed that ensemble individually in other bands at the event. There are only the albums Legacy – Live in South Africa (re-released by Ogun) and Township Bop to give us some sense of how they sounded before the wind changed to a cold BN posterEuropean Northeaster.

But as Thloele pointed out, there is a significant absence of visual archive too. We don’t know, she reminded us, who else might have been taking photographs then – or where they are now.

We do know a little about black South Africans who were not professional photographers, but who may have owned a camera and documented social events. Countless personal testimonies demonstrate what an effective eraser apartheid’s forced removals were. The council moving trucks were small; boxes got smashed or thrown off. The new ‘matchboxes’ were tiny, on the racist assumption that being able to store precious personal stuff did not matter for township residents. The inexorable demands of dispossession, racial zoning and the labour market split up families and their possessions again and again. Everything – the false and divisive origin myths of retribalisation; removals; censorship; migrancy – was engineered to destroy knowledge of real lived histories and struggles.

So what we ‘see’ in those photographs can be mediated by our awareness of subsequent and even manufactured histories. Their denotation is clear and captioned: “Mongezi Feza playing trumpet at…” Their connotations – apartheid; exile and death to come; the mood and texture of improvised sounds – are infinite. Where the edges of the image are set (framing), and how light is used, influence our readings of the final pictures.Blue Notes booklet cover.jpg

Often today, the greyness, graininess or sepia tones of old photographs are taken as a cue for nostalgia. Open a high-priced champagne lounge. Call it a ‘shebeen’. Add some of those old jazz photos to enact authenticity and you can charge what you like to punters nostalgic for a past that never was.

For the good old days were not what you think they were. They were worse than anything you can imagine in the corrosive macro-and micro-agressions they wreaked on people of colour. But they were also better than anything you can imagine, in the solidarities, creativities and resistances wrought by communities in response.

Those kinds of joyful shared defiances sing out of the Blue Notes images. UK photojournalist Valerie Wilmer declared that the band’s arrival in Europe inspired young Europeans to “develop their own ideas of freedom”.

One audience member was puzzled that Norman Owen-Smith so willingly donated his pictures to an archive: “because I certainly wouldn’t do that!” That tells you some of what we’ve lost. Privatising and commoditising creativity certainly aren’t new, but seeing them as the only possible approach brands the globalised capitalist now that we live in. Owen-Smith understood that public wealth is more important and more sustainable than private riches. More people have already appreciated and learned from those images and the discourse around them – last Thursday night alone – than would ever have done so if the negatives had stayed in a box in his office. Now, their messages need to travel wider.wind changes.jpg

3 thoughts on “The Blue Notes: stills from an archive of absences

    1. Hi Timothy — this was the first outing for the exhibit, as part of a Wits graduate conference. But I understand other displays are planned and I’ll flag upcoming events in my blog as I get dates GA


  1. Dear Timothy. Lindelwa here. We are still aghast that this could happen. Our university funding meant that things had to happen. But, scholarship being what it is, it likes afterlife. People’s responses have been encouraging. Work will be done. Thank you.


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