Joy of Jazz – an ‘instrument of change’?

Next week sees the final jazz mega-festival of the year, the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz at the Sandton Convention Centre It’s a good programme: alongside the crowd-pleasing, bums-on-seats-ensuring popular music names, there’s everybody from the highly accomplished, jazz-establishment voices of Wynton Marsalis and the JALC big-band to the establishment-challenging innovations of Dr Salim Washington’s Sankofa and Kesivan Naidoo’s latest collaboration, Zachusa Warriors.

The event’s advertising slogan is “Celebrating 25 years as the Instrument of Change”, which is both a clever play on words and a (remarkably indirect and limited) allusion to the role of jazz in struggle. That’s worth interrogating. How far are festivals like JoJ ‘instruments of change’, and how far are the words merely another instance of commercial woke-washing?

Hotstix and the Liberation Project

Individual artists on the bill have certainly played their part in driving change. One JoJ radio insert credits Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse as an instrument of change for his youthful drumming – but that’s not the half of it. As part of the Beaters and then Harari, Mabuse was part of the generation of Africa-conscious cultural rebels who challenged apartheid through their sounds. He played another, less well known role in toppling apartheid too, using his touring career to covertly carry communications in and out of the country for the ANC. Today, as part of The Liberation Project – and alongside bassist Aus Tebza Sedumedi, who also plays the festival – he’s re-visioning South African and international liberation songs to speak to the struggles of today. If you’re going call him an instrument of change, that might be worth a mention…

btbBlack.jpgTrumpeter and Standard Bank Young Artist Mandla Mlangeni – subject of the striking ‘Instruments of Change’ poster – has inherited from his distinguished struggle family a discourse of change that now breathes, transformed for the 21st century, through all his projects: collective working and the proud assertion of radical identity (see Born to be Black ( ). He often takes his projects to schools and community spots outside the high-priced ghettos.

Reed player Washington, one collaborator with Mlangeni on Born to be Black, embodies in his career and compositions a similar discourse and consciousness, in both his American work with revolutionary musicians such as the late Fred Ho , and in his own recordings, such as Sankofa’s Tears of Marikana ( ) Another reed player and former SBYA, Shannon Mowday, has consistently spoken and worked in contexts where she can assert the rights and power of women in the jazz space.

All of these – and there are many more I could mention – show us what being an ‘instrument of change’ in jazz can mean. But despite the marketing slogan, no such aspects find space in the Joy of Jazz publicity. Possibly, they might scare the horses.

Radical roots: the late Bra’ Geoff Mphakati

The early history of the festival itself enacted jazz as instrument of progressive change. The concept was born from the rebellious cultural ferment of the Mamelodi jazz scene, in the working class jazz appreciation societies and the yards of grassroots cultural organiser icons such as the late Bra Geoff Mphakathi, long before the brand was corporatised.

But today the event is contained in the guarded fortress of the Sandton Convention Centre, with day tickets at R750 per person and a weekend pass at R1350 – round about the average take-home for an entire waged black household, before you’ve factored in travel costs and refreshments. Change has certainly happened there…

Staging good music is never a bad thing: it’s paid work for musicians who – heaven knows! – need it, and spiritual and intellectual nourishment for those who can afford to attend and actually take the time to listen, rather than noisily parading their conspicuous consumption around the festival bars on Swarovski-encrusted phones.

There’s still grassroots jazz in Pretoria: the CAFCA project

But it’s long overdue that we revive the debates of 1994 about where the money that supports culture comes from, where it goes to, and, most importantly in both cases, why. Too often, that money supports elite commodification and piggyback marketing, rather than creating opportunities for the majority of our people to create and enjoy. That’s the change for which we still, after 25 years, hunger.

Celebrate Joburg: our migrant city

It’s Heritage Month again. Monumentally ugly and costly statues bearing no resemblance to their subjects will be unveiled. Capitalist Big Food will cajole us into buying kilometres of sausage casing stuffed with minced gristle and carcinogenic nitrites ( The narrow, unchanging tribalism invented by apartheid will be nostalgically invoked. And Johannesburg’s true cultural heritage – the uniquely vibrant child of nearly 150 years of migration – will continue to be trashed, burned and savagely slaughtered.

Hugh Masekela: “There’s a train that comes from Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe…”

Listen to Hugh Masekela’s iconic Stimela ( The wealth of this city was built on the sweat and often the blood of migrants, from across what today is the SADC region, but also in huge numbers from the impoverished parts of our own country. Before apartheid, capitalism carved out colonial borders how and when it pleased, for exploitation and control ( ), and operated across them likewise. Regimented by the state and the mine bosses, migrant workers were easy to discipline, punish – and discard when they got too sick to work ( ). The 1913 Land Act made black South Africans foreigners in most of their own country.

passlawsMore borders were drawn under apartheid, none of them by or for the people The creation of the bantustans from 1951 added fantasy world-building to dispossession. The cruel Pass Laws were precisely about migration, denying Africans the right to settle freely and establish homes with their families. The retribalisation policies of the regime allowed Afrikaner ideologues to construct fake histories and demarcate cultural differences between communities, as tools for divide and rule. The Cold War “rooi gevaar” myth fomented fear and hatred of Africans from other, newly-independent African states.

The residues of that hostility and paranoia remain. So do the patterns of the migrant labour system: migration still reflects around 75% from the countries of the SADC region, and huge numbers of internal migrants from the still-desolate rural areas and former ‘homelands’. Most ‘migrants’ in Johannesburg are South Africans.

But that legacy has also shaped an electrifying and cosmopolitan city culture, particularly in music. As Wits scholar and community organiser Rangoato Hlasane told me, for my Johannesburg chapter in the book Sounds and the City ( “Johannesburg jazz has been multi-vocal, right from the start. It has to do with Johannesburg being a space that became the centre of migration at a particular time – and continues to be so. Jazz has no choice but to be like that here, because the city is like that. Even marabi, the earliest form, always used more than one language.”

The people’s languages of the city (tsotsitaal; ‘scamtho and more) draw words from everywhere people come from. Joburg dress styles are a promiscuous mix of Western consumer brands and fabrics, hairstyles and adornments from across the African continent. Those are fruits of migrancy too.

Joburg Fashion week.jpg
Joburg Fashion Week

It’s a-historical and false to reject that migrants are who we are, including the hostel-dwellers with roots in KZN who seem to have been prominent in the riots. They’ve been left stranded by changes in city employment patterns and marginalised by rapacious property ‘development’ policies.

In Heritage Month, let’s consider how Joburg’s cultural history as a black, migrant city is being erased, and how simply being poor in the CBD – wherever you come from – is being criminalised by gentrification (of which this is not the first wave). In other cities worldwide, we’ve seen how property developers shed at most crocodile tears (and sometimes none) when properties in areas ripe for redevelopment are burned out and trashed. The riots may hurt short-term, but they clear away impoverished people, homes and small productive businesses such as panel-beaters and barbers to make way for high-profit complexes and global goods and services accessible only to the rich.

So what can we do? We can stand with the current generation of migrants to honour, in this Heritage Month, that earlier generation who made our city what it is, and our political heritage of protest against the colonial and apartheid imposition of fake borders. We can offer active support and protection to migrants, as the women of Coronationville have done (see ).

And we can play Stimela at our Heritage Day braais, to start the vital conversations about Joburg: our migrant city.