2019: Part II – the decade that was and the issues that matter

31 Dec 2019 doesn’t only end a year, but a decade. What did that mean for music and the arts more broadly? Wherever we look, we’re faced with the imperative to find different ways of doing things.

Streaming assassinates serendipity

streaming.jpgFace it, album sales have tanked. The rise of music streaming has been the industry trend of the decade. It offers convenience to music consumers and a worldwide reach to music creators. Maybe…

South African artists often pay dollars they can’t afford to earn cents from streaming. They see their holistic creative concept (because, irrespective of format, that’s what a jazz album represents) disaggregated into floating single tracks because, hey, 99c is more affordable than $10 for the whole thing.

The streaming services operate in a highly integrated digital communications industry, so that often what they offer is something some other arm of their profit machine has a financial interest in selling. And so they create algorithms designed to shift you from what you might be interested in hearing to what they think you should buy. (I’m indebted for some of this framework to Nick Pinkerton’s Guardian analysis of movie streaming https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/12/streaming-giants-cinema-history-sites-netflix. Music is slightly different – but not that different) Meanwhile, they control what’s available out there in the aether, and can decide instantly and arbitrarily that something doesn’t exist any more.

You need to know what you’re looking for to search beyond an algorithm serving up things that echo your last search. If you don’t know that something existed, it’s very hard to discover it by chance. (Just try constructing a complete life and discography for any veteran South African musician only from what’s online. Then ask the artist if what you have found is complete and true.) If you believe the myth that everything that ever was exists online and nothing exists outside that, the walls of your world have been squeezed much tighter around you. And while this is going on, the streamers are busy harvesting your data to sell on as their most profitable commodity, to people who seek to make you buy more, or to think, or to vote, their way. Keep an eye on the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (yes, a different EFF  https://www.eff.org/ ) who have an interest in doing things differently.

Placemaking marches on, clubs close, independent spaces open

This time last year, I reflected on the relentless rise of placemaking: the often corporately-directed re-zoning of inner-city and formerly low-income areas such as those around Maboneng. Placemaking masks itself in pre-existing social and cultural capital, commissioning murals behind which homes and job-creating micro-businesses get bulldozed to make way for artisanal coffee shops and apartments that generate fat rentier profits. Joburg’s inner city, from Jeppe Hostel to Hillbrow, continues to be privatised and hollowed-out by this process. While in the short term a few cool arts spaces may emerge from it, in the longer term they’ll only survive if they can enhance the profitability of the other stuff. Which means they’ll need predominantly to serve high-spending elite arts consumers. Once more, impoverished communities that already exist and assert their own creativity get shafted. See

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The Untitled Basement


In January, the Orbit jazz club closed. That wasn’t entirely unconnected to placemaking in Braamfontein – gentrification raised the overheads of sustaining a large venue and handed unsympathetic property companies control over the environment such a place needs. That was only one cause among many, however, and ticketed metropolitan venues raise their own issues of inclusion and exclusion.

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The Commune: sister bookshop to performance space The Forge

But, as many of us hoped, alternative spaces, established and new, are filling the gap. When the Roving Bantu Kitchen https://rovingbantu.co.za/ hosts jazz these days, there’s often standing room only. Intermittently, the Untitled Basement on Reserve Street (https://www.facebook.com/UntitledBraam/ ) hosts the same kind of creative improvised music the Orbit used to embrace. And now, sharing its underground amenities but otherwise independent, another multi-use performance space has opened right next door: The Forge (https://www.facebook.com/theforgejhb/ ) The Forge opened in early December with free afternoon sets from Tumi Mogorosi and the Ancestors and Zoe Modiga, nailing its flag firmly to the mast of innovative music. It’s a sister space to the Commune Bookshop over the road, and has modest areas for exhibition, theatre, movies and music. That opening gig was packed by an audience that listened thoughtfully and grooved joyfully. Before the music began, the collective that shapes policy for the Forge explicitly outlined a mission to keep its events progressive, relevant and accessible in terms of cost and hours – for once, somebody’s thinking about the politics of placemaking and about doing things differently.

Brands own the arts

Another multi-use space opening last year was the AMPD Studios in Newtown. That’s a ‘creative incubator’ launched by Old Mutual; it’s clear about the bond it sees between the words ‘creative’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, and it’s unlikely to be a space where you’ll find advocacy for anti-capitalist creative praxis. It does have a knowledgeable advisory board, however, including the wise Letta Mbulu, and resources to learn and exercise music skills – how learners choose to use those skills must be their own decision.

But the AMPD Studios also illustrates the extent to which brands – especially finance houses – now own important aspects of the South African arts and are able to frame them as inseparable from global capital. Given the near-abdication of government – the erosion and instrumentalism of arts programmes in recent curricula; the failure to nurture independent community arts initiatives, and more – that’s hardly surprising. Support from somewhere has to be better than support from nowhere, doesn’t it?

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Activists protest art sponsorship from the profits of fossil fuels

Because what we haven’t seen enough of here yet is the debate and activism emerging elsewhere about the ethics of accepting such support. If some donor (private or state) reaps its surplus from planet-destroying fossil fuels, or winking at exploitative labour conditions, or spreading fake news, or peddling arms to Saudi Arabia, or building factories in the occupied West Bank, then accepting its sponsorship means you are colluding in making evil look good. Helping multiple ‘emerging artists’ out of their creative chrysalises – however fine the music sounds or the art looks – doesn’t change that. We need to talk about that, and about the fact that, historically, from the AACM in Chicago to the Gaur Collective in the Basque country, to the MAPP and the People’s Parks of South Africa’s struggle, people have the ability find ways to make and enjoy art outside ‘the system’. There are always other ways.

Artists asking questions: how did we get here?

And thus starting to interrogate the current set-up and look for alternatives has been gathering pace over the past decade. Greater numbers of musicians, including jazz players, are  interrogating the prisons of current politics and economics, both through their work, and on panels and in debates. All kinds of fake cultural histories and theories obscure the debate. We are still told that political art has no aesthetics (and, indeed, that ‘politics’ is a word to be ashamed of). We are told that a ‘cultural/creative industries’ paradigm is the only framework for policy-making. (It was certainly the sole perspective any party manifesto employed in the recent election.) Yet across the world, that framework is being critiqued and rejected. (For an article linking this back to the mythology of placemaking, see here http://archive.sciencewatch.com/dr/fmf/2010/10novfmf/10novfmfPeck/ ; for a discussion of how inappropriate it is for African music, see here https://theconversation.com/its-wrong-to-cut-and-paste-global-north-policies-onto-africas-music-industries-123388 )

We are told that things went wrong in the 1990s because the “insiles” and “exiles” fought – a misinterpretation as grotesque as apartheid explaining away its murders as ‘black-on-black violence’. There were certainly all kinds of mutual misperceptions between those who stayed and those who left – but there was pretty solid consensus on the kind of cultural scene both groups hoped and yearned for. (Check out, for example, the documents of the 2001 Music Industry Task Team http://www.concertssa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/DACST-Music-Industry-Task-Team-MITT-2001.pdf ) At every arts debate I have attended recently, somebody questions the handing-off of the arts to the marketplace that occurred in the 1990s – why and how did it happen and what can we do about it? We need to keep on asking and researching until we come up with some answers about doing things differently.

downloadSo let’s end with a questioning song for 2020: Bokani Dyer’s Mogaetsho, from next year’s album: Radio Sechaba:

“This song is dedicated to our leaders/Those leaders who seem to only love us when they need us/Mogaetsho
Remember why/They forget about the people/Remember why
They forget about the people/ your original intention/ mogaetsho
Remember why (Remember why)/They forget about the people
More power, more riches, more confusion/Remember why/They forget about the people/Hungry to lead but you’re going in the wrong direction/mogaetsho

Ofile o batla ke makopo a go tshepa go supa tsela mebileng mobileng (Mogaetsho)/Khumo di tlhakane tlhogo balatedi ba timetse gorileng (Mogaetsho)/Aye iye iye iye! (Mogaetsho)/Re thibetse kahle (Mogaetsho)/Aye iye iye iye! (Mogaetsho)/Igakole mogaetsho”

Have a change-making 2020!

2019: the year that was. Part I – the sadness

At the time of their passing, I reflected on the lives of some South African jazz figures who went offstage this year: Oliver Mtukudzi; Dorothy Masuku; Ndikho Xaba; and jazz writers ZB Molefe and Don Albert. Just at the turn of the year, at half-past midnight on 1 Jan 2019, legendary radio jazz DJ Mesh Mapetla also died; that was one I apologise for missing at the time.

The late Mesh Mapetla

Even catching up now, I’m aware this remains a very incomplete list. Despite sophisticated communication tools, it’s hard to keep track of the fate of every retired jazz veteran living quietly outside town; they remain under-researched and local newspapers often don’t even write about them, although from the 1940s onwards our jazz community here was crammed with remarkable talents, many of whom we’re now losing undocumented. May all their spirits rest in peace – and I’ll willingly give column space to any South African jazz deaths you want to announce, even retrospectively: please just send me the information via comments.

In the rest of Africa, other important voices were silenced: Kenyan vocalist and actor Ayub Ogada; Angolan/Portuguese singer Eduardo Nascimento; Malian singer and composer Sali Sidibe; the dazzlingly diverse talents of Egypt-born percussionist Hossan Ramzyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THHe84alHAk ; or the veteran of the TPOK Jazz era in the DRC, rhythm guitarist and bandleader Simaro Lutumba.Sali Sidibe.jpg

Brazil will no longer hear singer Beth Carvalho or bossa nova pioneer Joao Gilberto.

North America and the jazz world mourned free jazz titan Joseph Jarman; pianist and teacher Harold Mabern https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLlHCHkp_M4, singer and civil rights activist Diahann Carroll and Spyro Gyra vibraphonist Dave Samuels. The birthplace of US jazz, New Orleans, was very much the poorer for the passing of the multitalented Dr John, keyboardist and music scene curator Art Neville and trumpeter (and much more – he composed, for example, Fats Domino’s Blue Mondayhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXnRmRi-kpQ) Dave Bartholomew.

But it’s the deaths this year of two remarkable American women jazz musicians that I want to catch up on right now: Clora Bryant and Ethel Ennis.

Clora imageTexas-born trumpeter Clora Bryant (she also sang and occasionally played drums), who died in October aged 92, only got to make one album, the 1957 Gal With a Horn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4l7GKWGqLg. Bryant played with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: that last told critic Leonard Feather he considered her the most underrated trumpeter in her home city of Los Angeles. Saxophonist Teddy Edwards offered the usual patronising accolade: “She was as good as any man”, without adding what is obvious from her solos: and better than most. And she was under no illusions about what had held her back:

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Clora Bryant 

“When you put that iron in your mouth, you run into problems,” Bryant told the LA Times in 1998. “The other horn players gave me respect, but the men who ran the clubs considered me a novelty.” Because of that ‘novelty’ image, Bryant found work opportunities most frequently in what the UK Guardian called “sequin-clad all-girl combos”, such as the Queens of Rhythm, and as a backing instrumentalist with artists such as Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham. Bryant studied music in Texas, and later in her life completed a degree in jazz history at UCLA, and lectured on the subject to local colleges. In 2002 she received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz award. You can hear Bryant telling her own story in the 1989 documentary Trumpetistically Clora Bryant https://vimeo.com/199838873

EthelBaltimore-based singer Ethel Ennis, who died in February aged 86, decided early that she did not want the career trajectory the record companies mapped out for female vocalists. She got her start, like many, in church music, made the transition to jazz and nightclubs at 15, despite an extremely religious family, who nevertheless supported her choice. She recorded only half a dozen albums across a 70-year career (listen, for example, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1n1eN7fxzM&list=RDc1n1eN7fxzM&start_radio=1&t=41 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXnRmRi-kpQ and watch her at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN7fV3PJvpc&list=RDc1n1eN7fxzM&index=4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGuf6aJ_LDE. She toured with Benny Goodman and was highly-praised by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, who told her, “You’re a musician’s musician; you don’t fake. Stay with it.” Frank Sinatra declared her “my kind of singer.”

But “I don’t like the way the music business is set up,” she told Jazz Times writer Geoffrey Holmes in 2005. “You have to give up a whole lot for that prize and it isn’t worth it. It’s not like they’re going to nurture the individuality of your talent; they’re going to fit you into a slot they already have. It didn’t appeal to me, and it still doesn’t. So I took a step back to think about it. Meanwhile, they said, ‘Next.’”

“They had it all planned out for me. ‘Go here and have your picture taken.’ ‘Go to a choreographer’  – that was a disaster. ‘Go to the right parties.’ I’d ask, ‘When do I sing?’ and they’d say, ‘Shut up and have a drink.’ ‘You should sit like this and look like that and play the game of bed partners.’ You really had to do things that go against your grain for gain. I wouldn’t.”

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Ethel Ennis

Ennis turned her back on fame, instead establishing a solid, modestly successful career in her home town plus some festival appearances: a career where she chose where, when and how to work on her own terms

We have learned, over the past few years from the survivors of showbiz predators such as Cosby, Weinstein and Kelly, what courage it takes to face down sexism and earn the accolade of being “difficult.” Let’s end the year by celebrating the courage of Bryant and Ennis, who did it long before #metoo became a thing



SABC has a Santa moment…maybe…

This is why it was called Boxing Day

We call today The Day of Goodwill, but in much of the Anglophone world it’s still ‘Boxing Day’: the day when some feudal lords gave their servants Christmas boxes and religious institutions distributed the collections from their alms-boxes. In other words, the title celebrates times when a decent life and livelihood depended on the capricious charity of the rich and powerful. I’m glad we changed the name.

But it’s an appropriate day to update the story of a particularly capricious bunch of the powerful, historically reluctant to pay for the work – in this case the music – of others: the SABC.

A while back, I urged readers (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/10/14/vatiswa-ndara-the-sabc-bailout-and-showbiz-exploitation/ ) to support the petition of The Kiffness for the repayment of R250M owed by the SABC to musicians in royalties. On November 1, the SABC declared – oddly, there is no corresponding press statement currently posted on their website, so I can’t link you to it – that it was doing just that.

The public broadcaster announced it had paid 35% of the R160M it it had owed to one of the biggest collection societies, SAMRO, had committed to a schedule of monthly repayments, and would have cleared its historic debt to that organisation by April 2020, as well as being up-to-date with current invoices.

SABC spokesperson Vuyo Mthembu told Channel 24: “…the public broadcaster is cognizant of the fact that musicians rely on royalties over and above performance to make a living and artists need to receive what is due to them.” Samro’s Ditebogo Modiba in turn confirmed to the same channel that it had received the amount and that “all of the money received from the SABC will be used to secure the payment of royalties to our members, which is our primary and core function.” We don’t yet have information about SABC’s deals (if any) with other collection societies, or about the fine print of repayment plans – bearing in mind that there’s just below another R100M still outstanding to SAMPRA, Airco, Risa and Capasso.

That’s fairly typical of the feudal attitude South African authorities have often displayed towards the right to livelihood. Royalties are neither charity nor the kind of thing you can decide to pay or not – the right to receive them is legislated, nationally and

Feudal stronghold: fortress SABC

internationally, and governed by  contracts. Royalties matter. They are the life insurance policy of anybody who writes or records music. A live show might offer a more impressive-sounding payment, but it’s a once-off. Royalties have the potential to provide steady, lifetime, cash flows. Artists all over the world struggle to collect, and the digital music revolution has intensified those struggles (see, for example, https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2019/11/20/songwriters-artists-fight-music-streaming-royalties/ , https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/29/18531476/music-industry-song-royalties-metadata-credit-problems, https://variety.com/2019/music/news/discovery-networks-composers-music-royalties-1203434924/ ). In South Africa, the struggle takes place against a historical backdrop of intense, race-based exclusion and exploitation from recording companies, state broadcaster and collection societies alike. There are debts far beyond the monetary owed to our black artists.

Still, the SABC’s move is positive.

It may, however, simply represent kicking the can down the road to the collection societies, some of which have been characterised by Kafkaesque bureaucracies and what can only charitably be called chequered histories in terms of governance and actual disbursement. We’ll have to rely on musicians themselves to tell us whether the money is actually landing in their bank accounts. Otherwise, 1 April 2020 – promised as SABC musicians’ Boxing Day – could turn out to be double April Fools Day instead.

I hope you’re having fun celebrating whatever you celebrate at this time of year. Don’t forget the workers in precarious employment — such as many musicians – who may not be able to afford to.

CTIJF 2020 – tiptoeing on to the stage

Without any of the usual razzmatazz, the first artist – and other – announcements came out a couple of weeks ago for next year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (27/28 March 2020). Such discretion is hard to understand. Normally, the first announcement blares out pop names that are barely even yawn-worthy for jazz fans – but this year, the ‘first 19’ is dominated by jazz names respected at home and abroad. Those who usually, at this stage, cry “Not enough jazz!” may this year instead cry “Not enough internationals!” (The snarking has already begun on Facebook.) That, however, is an argument much harder to sustain when so much innovative, improvised music created by South Africans is winning respect worldwide and needs to be showcased at home. Even for familiar names, a festival stage can offer the chance to present something different from what’s possible in a club setting. The question is only whether this selection of names is the right one to both wow newbies to our music and satisfy fans who know it well. The answer’s probably yes.

Nduduzo Makhathini: new from Blue Note

The Usual Suspects

It’s no surprise, but always welcome, when Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonathan Butler play Cape Town: it’s their home city and audiences love them. There’s no information yet on Ibrahim’s ensemble, but it will probably be his regular and impeccable touring band. Butler, however, teams up with Dutch reed player Candy Dulfer, a stalwart of her own scene and an accomplished and winning instrumentalist.

Candy Dulfer — appearing with Jonathan Butler

Also predictable – because his international recording debut on Blue Note, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Yqq-jIxmLw, is due out next year (a fact surprisingly omitted from his festival profile) – is pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.

Thandi Ntuli

We also know, because superb networking and curation is regularly facilitated by Pro Helvetia, that there will likely be Swiss/South African collaborations on the bill. This year’s are as intriguing as ever. The first teams reedman Benedikt Reising with pianist Thandi Ntuli, bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Rico Baumann. The second, the Birdsong Ensemble, comprises South African trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Andile Yenana and guitarist Vuma Levin (with a new album, Antique Spoons, out early next year) with Swiss bassist Oz Yehiely and Germans, reedman Max Treutner and drummer Felix Wolf. Finally, given its name and history (they met at the much-missed Tagore’s), how could vocalist Palesa (Zoe) Modiga’s inventive, groove-oriented outfit Seba Kaapstad, with bassist Sebastian Schuster, Ndumisa Manana, and Philip Scheibel not be invited – especially with a new album out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idy1NvJXhGk?

The surprise of the new

On the strength of its bass player’s record, the Kwetu Trio probably belongs under ‘usual suspects’. Herbie Tsoaeli is increasingly being described as one of the fathers of our current contemporary jazz. Though slightly younger, his drum partner in Kwetu, Ayanda Sikade, probably belongs up there too. What will make the outfit new to many ears is the presence of superb Kenyan pianist Aaron Rimbui. Starting out as music director for singer Eric Wainana, Rimbui released East Africa’s first contemporary jazz album, Keys of Life, in 2005. In Joburg in 2016 when I heard him, he teamed up with Tsoaeli and Sikade to form Kwetu. He’s now spending professional time in New York, and with big ears that create from everything he’s ever heard – traditional, edgy, mainstream and popular – he has a truly original sound and vision.

Aaron Rimbui

That’s also true of vocalist/composer Gabisile Motuba, whose powerful debut as leader, Tefiti Goddess of Creation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmtDCWlbHik (also inexplicably omitted from her festival bio in favour of “worked with prominent jazzmen” – why do we so often do that to women musicians?) explored the concept and role of voice in an ensemble. (See my interview at https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/a-voice-is-a-voice-because-of-other-voices-gabisile-motuba-and-the-collectivity-of-sound/ ) The last time she sang on stage in Cape Town (with life and musical partner Tumi Mogorosi) there was a standing ovation; it could happen again…

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Aus Tebza Sedumedi

Bassist and vocalist Aus Tebza Sedumedi is no newcomer to the jazz scene, but, based as she is in Mafikeng, she may be relatively new to Cape Town. Last time she featured there was with The Liberation Project; she wowed audiences then. New, too, will be her repertoire, because she’s launching a new album, Motheo.

So well regarded is pianist Kyle Shepherd that he, too, might be classed a ‘usual suspect’. But in the group Elementaal, we’ll hear him in unusual company, with Indian musicians including Ranjit Barot and Taufik Qureshi. There’s no predicting what the creatively inventive Shepherd will do in this company, but it’ll certainly be worth hearing.

Finally, PE-born, Capetown-based trumpeter, composer and singer Mandisi Dyantis re-visions the heritage sounds of the Xhosa jazz of the Capes (Eastern and Western) with compelling stage presence and a voice as rich and warming as umsila wenkomo. (See my review of his album Somandla at https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/mandisi-dyantyis-somandla-almighty-moving-music/ and hear the music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViWj8TmyHrw ).

If wishes were horses…

There are additional names still to be announced, and as usual those (although probably already booked) are being kept under tight wraps. So here’s the dream of who I’d like to see added to the bill. The South Africa-plus theme is a good one to sustain, so how about US-based SA trumpeter Darren English in one of his more interesting current combos, with vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni, for starters? Pianist Bokani Dyer has a new – and somewhat different – album out early in the year, Radio Sechaba, (advance single at https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/bokanidyer3 ) and he always brings something fresh. So does reedman Muhammad Dawjee, who’s also due to launch an album in the first quarter, Otherness (advance single at https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/muhammaddawjee1). For Cape Town, his thoughtful intensity would be a new sound, although it’s starting to pack venues in Joburg. Vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu was on Nubiya Garcia’s stage at the festival last year – but isn’t it about time he was invited to helm a programme of his own? His work with Shabaka Hutchings (and more recently Garcia) is attracting critical attention worldwide. So, too is Cape Town drummer Asher Gamedze as part of Chicago vocal improviser and clarinettist Angel bat Dawid’s band, Brothahood (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRxynvOPz_I ). Bat Dawid is certainly somebody we should hear soon. However inept labels like “the next Kamasi Washington” really are (hello? she’s a woman; she plays clarinet; she’s nobody’s “next”), they do signal recognition of a new voice that’s going to be important to jazz. Finally, looking towards the rest of the continent, an invitation is long overdue for Niger-based composer and guitarist Mdou Moctar, after the release this year of his superb fifth album, Ilana (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFwEIwc561A).

For once, prices go down

But even if none of those names do turn up in future announcements, an already solid jazz bill is not the only good news. The festival still takes place in the metropolitan fortress of the CTICC, but ticket prices are down: R999 for the weekend; R649 for a day. That remains a punitive amount for most working people, but more than last year may be able to stretch to it – and that can’t ever be a bad thing.

The elephant in the room

Un-discussed by any press release so far are any demands the Public Investment Corporation might make early next year of two of the three main sponsors, AYO Technologies and Independent Newspapers, and how the PIC asking for what it believes is its money back might relate to the health of the festival. (Another element of the Survé commercial and media empire, AEEI, seems to have slipped quietly off the sponsorship livery; it did feature in 2019, and in earlier years as Sekunjalo). There has already been cost-cutting: trainers have been notified the arts journalism and photojournalism programmes, for example, will not run in 2020. It’s to be hoped no erosion of the festival’s customary great community outreach, decent artist treatment and high staging standards ensues.

McCoy Mrubata’s Brasskap Sessions Volume 3: bridging history and hope

Brasskap Volume Three,” (https://music.apple.com/za/album/brasskap-sessions-vol-3/1458537490 ) reedman McCoy Mrubata says, “is probably my deepest search into Xhosa sounds of those three Brasskap albums. But it wasn’t a planned direction. Like all my albums, it’s the people I work with who help me to shape the sound.”album cover

One key contributor this time was roots isiXhosa vocalist Daluxolo Hoho (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzpX9qaammgYE7g9nLd7uEA), with whom Mrubata had been wanting to collaborate “for years. I’d first heard him in the ‘90s, and I wasn’t certain he was still active now. But two songs for this album needed that kind of voice, and a poet friend put us in touch. When he answered the phone, I got a shock: his speaking voice sounded so different. But his singing made those compositions sound exactly as I’d heard them in my head, and also helped shape the feel of the album.”

The three Brasskap Sessions albums form a distinct section of Mrubata’s output. They’re the place where he “brings together my students, younger players, and the elders.” We tend to think of him as a Jozi jazzman, but Brasskap 3 reminds us how much his own musical history belongs to the Cape – and how much “Cape Jazz” owes its character to the historic coming together of Xhosa music and the traditions of the communities apartheid called Coloured. Record labels sometimes use the genre to exclude: to market music from Abdullah Ibrahim or Robbie Jansen but not Ezra Ngcukana or Tete Mbambisa. But right from the start (see Nomvuyo Ngcelwane’s memoir Sala Kahle District Six https://raru.co.za/books/1902750-sale-kahle-district-six-nomvuyo-ngcelwane-paperback ) musicians were shaping jazz together in the Cape, across apartheid’s arbitrary barriers.

The album’s dozen tracks reflect that, in personnel and sound.

Vocalist Daluxolo Hoho

Hoho features on two, the galloping rhythms of Sukugxadazela and the praises of Ma Madosini, with other voices including Luyanda Madope (who also produced), Sakhile Moleshe, Titi Luzipho and Hlubi Kwebulana. Guests include baritone saxophonist Gareth Harvey, altoist Mthunzi Mvubu, longtime collaborators Paul Hanmer on piano, Jabu Magubane on trombone and Louis Mhlanga on guitar, marimba player Bongani Sotshonanda, vibraphonist Ngwako Manamela and the steelpans of Andy Narell, overdubbed at Narell’s French studio. Rhythms are provided by Lumanyano Unity Mzi and Bernice Boikanyo alternating on drums, Tlale Makhene on percussion, and Nhlanhla Radebe, Thembinkosi Mavimbela and Steve de Souza on bass. It was a big, open-armed collaboration; I’ve probably omitted some other important names.

The breakout radio hit has been Bamba. That’s the kind of slow, searching modern jazz tune that composers like Eric Nomvete were crafting in the 1970s, underpinned by those characteristic ‘Xhosa chords’ evoking overtone music – but it also recalls Mrubata’s own music history in his dialogue with Hanmer, as well as the compositions of Zim Ngqawana in the same vein.

Reaching back even further is ¾: a tribute to Kimberley-born pianist and composer Roger Khoza, who arrived in Cape Town in the early 1960s and became a fixture on the modern jazz scene, working with the Soul Jazzmen, Mankunku, the Ngcukana family and more. By the time a much younger Mrubata encountered him “I was hearing him with bands like Skyf [with reedman Robert Sithole, a young Spencer Mbadu and more]. What impressed me was that he always brought good material. I was Robert Sithole’s roadie at that time, and making my musical transition from pennywhistle to flute. And Bra’ Roger was playing a big role in shaping the sounds that were around.” Sadly, Khoza, who had guested with the band while some of this material was being developed, suffered a stroke just before the track was cut and was unable to play. “But we have his voice, talking about the tune and how it was composed. That’s important. People don’t know that history.”

McCoy Mrubata

Mrubata’s compositions have always carried messages – Wanna Talk About It (https://www.google.com/search?q=McCoy+Mrubata+Talk+About+It&oq=McCoy+Mrubata+Talk+About+It&aqs=chrome..69i57j33.7911j1j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 ) on his 2002 Face the Music album was early in raising the issue of gender-based violence – and Brasskap 3 is no exception. He’s wary of using the restrictive term ‘politics,’ “because people sometimes get the wrong impression from the word, but I’ve always written about what is going on in society. The song Ziphi? is directly addressing things around us that worry me, like initiation deaths and schoolteachers who abuse young girls: Ziph’Inkode zakwantu mawethu/Nezibonda zelali/Ziph’Ikokhel’ ezi krelekrele/Ilizwe liyonakala.” (Where are the elders…my people /Where the village chiefs/Where are the wise leaders/Things are falling apart in our land)

Wmns March.jpg
One Ma Sophie: Sophia Williams-de Bruyn (extreme r.) at the Women’s March 1956

You’ll often find a big, lush ballad somewhere on a Mrubata album, and in this case it’s another tribute, political and personal: Two Ma Sophies . The first Ma Sophie is the late Sophie Mngcina: actress, cultural organiser, educator and singer. “I worked with her at the Market Theatre, on the SA Love Project with Barney Rachabane. I learned so much from her, especially about dealing with close harmony voices: she was so generous with information. She was knowledgeable – and she was tough: the best kind of teacher.” The second is Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, whom Mrubata met as the landlady in Berea of the first family-sized home he was able to rent. “We fell in love with the place, and it became a mini music hub – Miriam Makeba, Bra’ Jonas Gwangwa, other bands came and worked there. And she and her husband were so patient about rent, with a musician whose family was growing and who couldn’t always pay on time.” Mrubata had initially been unaware of de Bruyn’s other identity, as a Fedsaw leader at the forefront of the 1956 Women’s March against Pass Laws. “Then one day on TV I saw a film about the Women’s March – and there was Mam’ Sophie. I was knocked out. She’s truly a hero.”

Visual artist Tyrone Appolis with another music-themed artwork

The last bit of personal history on Brasskap 3 is the cover, contributed by another longtime friend from Mrubata’s pennywhistling days: artist Tyrone Appolis. It’s a joyous, vibrant mash-up of instruments and people moving together, with reeds front and centre. “I’ve known Tyrone since 1976,” Mrubata says. “We started playing pennywhistles at UDF meetings together. He learned isiXhosa and used to come and eat with my family. We were both interested in drawing and painting in those days too. I still am – but music has kinda taken over and my older daughter’s the designer in my family now. But I have wanted some art from Tyrone for an album for ages, and this was the album for it.”

We’re due for two more releases from Mrubata soon. Finally, he plans to mix and put out the music he created in 2001 when he was working on a John Coltrane project in Norway. “I couldn’t find a record company who understood that project at the time, which is why it has sat on the shelf for so long. But now, it will come out.” And then there’s another outing in same spirit as Brasskap, Mrubata’s Strings Attached project, which draws young township string players together with more experienced musicians. (You can see a short video on how the music in that project grew here: https://youtu.be/fEQohPpLZrQ)

As our interview ends, I ask Mrubata why he didn’t include the infectious dance tune  Power to the People among the ‘political’ tracks he discussed. “Actually, I was thinking about the other kind of power. I was sitting in a long, cold queue at City Power – I’d gone to complain about the hassles they were giving my tenants. I didn’t have a book; my mind was kind of empty – and then the idea for the tune just came.” The reedman pauses and thinks for a moment. “But of course,” he adds, “that slogan has a twofold meaning.” Especially, as it happens, this load-shed week.

Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye: painting a decade of changes

Jazz isn’t a scene, it’s an ecology: its parts relate to and impact on one another. We’ve felt that hard this year with the closure of the Orbit, the consequently fewer venues where new work can be developed and trialled (and artists can earn to support their recording projects) – and the very much smaller number of local jazz releases in 2019 than in 2018.

It’s been noted many times that the Orbit wasn’t perfect – and any ticketed venue is going to be exclusionary, given current levels of inequality. But it had some strengths other spaces didn’t and still don’t offer: a tuned, playable piano on-site; a Green Room for musicians; room for the new; and an audience gradually cohering into a community – a knowledgeable and respectful sounding-board for artistry.

The Birds Eye stage

You can find other stages like that, and in an increasingly globalised jazz community some South Africans have even been able to access them overseas. One example is the Birds Eye Club in Basel, Switzerland. Founded by bassist Stephan Kurmann in 1994, the club has hosted and networked a remarkable number of international artists, many South Africans among them. It’s a tribute to the jazz acuity of the Swiss cultural organisation here, Pro Helvetia, how many have made that journey: Herbie Tsoaeli, Mandla Mlangeni, Hilton Schilder, McCoy Mrubata, more. There’s even a volume dedicated to South African guests on the club’s own CD label (Vol 13: see https://www.birdseye.ch/index_e.php#!/pages_e/cd-club )

Now bassist Carlo Mombelli has used his various sets at the Birds Eye to document his own musical history over the past decade, with Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye 2009-2018 (https://www.carlomombelli.co.za/shop )

Appearances at the Birds Eye are not Mombelli’s only links with Switzerland. He has also guest-lectured regularly on Jazzcampus Basel (at the Northwestern Switzerland university) where, this year, trombonist and educator Adrian Mears created big-band arrangements of the bassist’s works for students (an extract here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRSekvcqloI . Mears, vibraphonist Jorge Rossy, trombonist Andreas Tschopp and drummer Jonno Sweetman comprise Mombelli’s ensemble for the last three of the CD’s six tracks.csm_Carlo_Mombelli_live_at_the_birdseye_b818d6d985.jpg

Others include a 2009 version of Zambesi (recorded on the 1990 Happy/Sad with Charlie Mariano) featuring Marcus Wyatt, Siya Makuzeni and Justin Badenhorst; Song for Sandra and Motian the Explorer from 2013 with Mbuso Khoza; and the 2018 versions of Road.., Athens and The Spiral Staircase.

Mombelli remains a firm believer in the album format, despite the industry switch to disaggregation and streaming. He’s not a fan of that. As well as the high dollar cost and minimal cent returns of publishing on streaming services, “When I put an album together, it’s conceptual – there’s a movement of ideas from how it opens to how the finale must be,” he says.

In the same way, this collection tells the story of the movements, musical and conceptual, in Mombelli’s music over the period. Apart from Zambesi (which was the only track retrievable from that particular session) that’s how he made the selection – to travel towards what he calls the “gentleness” of his current voice.

“With Prisoners of Strange I used a lot more sound designs that were maybe more quirky, for example the bird loops that I created on Zambesi, or the music I composed for toys – which I never recorded.” Because of the music’s intricacy, Prisoners, he says, demanded “a lot more rehearsal time.

“My music since 2011 has been a lot freer in approach but I still try to keep a strong sense of melody.” By composing more on bass than piano recently, “I feel I have developed a more personal sound in my composing and playing than ever before.”

(That was also my assessment. When I reviewed Mombelli’s Angels and Demons last year https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/carlo-mombelli-quartet-playing-like-angels-facing-demons/ I called it “his most personal album to date.” )

There are other elements to think about on this retrospective too. Mombelli’s plangent, sonorous bass voice is gorgeous. But I find I still also hanker for human voices in his work – it just feels made for singers. Earlier tracks remind us of the fearlessness of Makuzeni’s contributions, and the imaginative richness of Khoza’s.

Carlo Mombelli

And while, for example, Athens on Angels and Demons was a fiercely personal interpretation (it was the city where he re-met his father after so long), this arrangement offers a focus on chords and harmonies as well as emotions: how the musical elements fit together. The two trombones are the almost-human voices – it’s tempting to call them a Greek chorus – first responding to the bass, and then conversing with Rossy’s delicate vibe sounds.

Yet you never lose the thread of experience inspiring each number, because narrative always matters in Mombelli’s music. There are two sets of stories here: the individual tales inspiring each track, and the arc of the composer’s past decade in music. In depicting both, “I use my bass as the paintbrush,” Mombelli says.


* The album isn’t the only thing Mombelli has published recently. He also has a new music book out. See https://www.newframe.com/book-review-pulses-in-the-centre-of-silence/