May 25 is Africa Day: the 57th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Maybe it’s a good day for reflecting on an issue Brenda Sisane and I talked about on Sunday on Kaya-FM: the “jazz police”. We were listening to the track Harari, the title track of the Beaters’ 1975 debut album https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuxTMpoMqVU. Some people, she pointed out, might unhappily conclude that The Art of Sunday had deserted adventurous music to “get us all dancing to township jazz.”
They might – but they’d be wrong on all counts. That track, in its time, was extremely adventurous in its use of polyrhythms and its invocation of a liberated continent. It’s perfectly possible to make adventurous music for dancing, and to dance to music that takes all kinds of sonic risks. If by “township jazz” you mean jazz historically made and appreciated among South Africa’s black communities, that category covers both of those and a great deal more as well.
Finally, rejecting the links between music and dance denies one of the features that makes jazz at its heart an African music – and the right one to play on Africa Day.
Only one of the features, though. Throughout their history and on today’s constantly evolving music landscape, Africans have created all kinds of musics. Travelling herder communities who couldn’t carry much made complex music using only voices, reed pipes and other lightweight gear. Highly-structured kingdoms such as Buganda had royal court orchestras with elaborate instruments, set repertoire and music-masters. Music for dancing is part of it, not all of it.
Still, dance has always sounded in jazz rhythms. It’s what we mean by ‘syncopation’: the catchy yet thought-provoking braid of two different sets of time intervals. One of those is a beat laid down by the musician. The other is often the patterns woven round that by dancing feet, or the spaces where they could fall. It was present in the music’s African roots and you can still hear it in the edgiest, most purist-certified jazz drumming.
The deep African origins of many important elements in jazz have been acknowledged by international scholars for a while now. Work such as Robin D G Kelley’s Africa Speaks, America Answers https://www.amazon.com/Africa-Speaks-America-Answers-Revolutionary/dp/0674046242 has looked at more recent conversations between African music and politics and those elsewhere. Strangely, rather less energy has been expended on the historic links between South African jazz and music in the rest of Africa. Now, that’s a good topic for today – and a cool playlist to enjoy.
When, in 1961, Dorothy Masuka’s outspoken song about Patrice Lumumba led to exile, her odyssey through Africa was punctuated by recording sessions in almost every country she visited, in a multiplicity of languages (listen to Ghana https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDeaKNBj6Mc). She became a continental star – and brought ideas from all that music home.
In 1962, Gideon Nxumalo recorded his Jazz Fantasia . The first track, Chopi Chopsticks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01dKeqk3HEQ, riffs on the polyphonic royal court music of timbila orchestras, recreated in Johannesburg mining house arenas by the late Venancio Mbande https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFZcIWlBsh8 . The city’s sonic landscape was, from the start, influenced by the musics and languages of the continent. They were gifted to us by migrant workers, some of whom escaped the labour hostels and established families, becoming citizens. (Bandleader Dick Khoza, who talent-scouted countless younger jazz players in Cape Town and Johannesburg, was the child of a Malawian father)
The Africa that apartheid feared was an Africa that jazz players from the 1960s on looked hopefully towards, particularly as victorious wars of liberation in neighbouring countries demonstrated South Africa, too, could defeat its oppressors.
Miriam Makeba’s influence on an entire generation of African female singers from New York and later from her new base in Guinea https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtm4dOAntlg has been widely acknowledged. In 1973, trumpeter Hugh Masekela injected fresh ideas into his music by teaming up with Ghanaian outfit Hedzoleh Sounds in Lagos, recording Introducing Hedzoleh Sounds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Opez_G-VG_w .
In 1977, Nigeria’s FESTAC arts festival hosted a South African delegation, including trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. He has spoken admiringly of music heard inside and outside the festival that enacted, for a too-short month, the pan-African cultural vision. For another delegation member, writer Mandla Langa, FESTAC showed how compelling South African jazz already was. Despite the presence of revered political leaders such as OR Tambo, “the people who took centre stage, who were the de facto representatives of South Africa and its struggle, were [Keorapetse] Kgositsile and Gwangwa.”
That’s just an incomplete list that could be much longer. We’ve left out, for example, Robbie Jansen and colleagues holed up in Angola during the war, woodshedding and reflecting on what African music should sound like, while Sakhile asked exactly the same questions in Joburg. The list reaches today, when, for just two examples, pianist Bokani Dyer composes music invoking Oumou Sangare https://play.google.com/music/preview/T7hnetub5fc3764cfh4z6zq6zjq?play=1, and Nigerian bassist Amaeshi Ikechi with Sydney Mavundla on the Urban Sessions last week pulls out the most perfect mbaqanga solo you can imagine.
Jazz is African music, but it’s also gloriously impure, breathing in everything it meets and breathing out the fresh, the surprising and the unique. That’s why we love it and policing it serves no purpose whatsoever: just listen. Happy Africa Day.