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.

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