Dancing with the jazz police on Africa Day

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.”

Brenda Sisane

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.

Court music

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.

Cross-border inspirations

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.

The young Dorothy Masuka on her travels

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.

The H-word: local content and the Hlaudi legacy

Local content is in the news again. First, arts & sport minister Nathi Mthetwa declared on May 4 that “we are pleading for local content to dominate on radio and television” during the Covid period. Then, on May 6, ICASA granted broadcasters an exemption https://www.icasa.org.za/news/2020/compliance-exemption-to-television-and-radio-services from local content programming quotas (excluding music on radio) during the National State of Disaster and for three months thereafter. Those with an eye for contradictions might spot one here.

Mthetwa’s plea came in the context of a speech explaining the scale (60%), and reasons for the failure of artists to successfully access DACS Covid relief. As artists themselves have explained (most recently, theatre practitioner Thami ka Mbongo in the context of the Western Cape https://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=46222) the true reason is that the relief is surrounded by a thicket of obscure bureaucratic requirements, structured in ways that just cannot accommodate the working lives of most artists.

The Minister isn’t wrong

Nevertheless, (this time) Mthetwa isn’t wrong. First, locally-commissioned content is likely to be far better at speaking about South Africa’s Covid dilemmas and solutions than generic international TV. Second, artists’ desperate need for relief might have been slightly mitigated if broadcasters had been consistently commissioning local productions over recent years – and paying for them on time. The SABC, which brought the appeal for rule relaxation before ICASA, has historically been one of the worst offenders in that latter respect (and has been allowed by government to get away with it).

The furious online response to the minister’s plea, however, reveals the extent to which we’re still living with the legacy of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s lunatic 90% local content diktat. (Some publications and Tweeps went so far as to declare that despite his fall from grace, Motsoeneng might be getting his way at last.) The responders didn’t parse what Mthetwa actually said, but simply invoked the dreaded H-word to damn it.

Giving quotas a bad name

Motsoeneng’s irrational 90% plans gave local content quotas a wholly undeserved bad rap that persists. They routed advertisers, alienated listeners, made it harder for the national broadcaster to fulfil its information mandate by narrowing content – and, after all that, brought no extra revenue to most local musicians either.

It’s not stretching things to suggest they also made it far easier for the current SABC to persuade ICASA. With local content already in the reputational doghouse because of the Motsoeneng farce, it might seem like common sense to say yes to loosening the rules.

But it’s not. Local content at the right level builds jobs and culture. The commercial stations’ current required 35% for music, for example, is a joke; it should be at least 50%; SABC’s 60% could rise to 70% without anybody suffering. That won’t happen because everybody’s now scared of the H-effect.

In any case, enforcing rational quotas in any genre can’t happen overnight. It requires solid, appropriate investment over years, including from a government department that has taken time to understand how artists can work and thrive, and how to engage with broadcasters. That hasn’t happened, which makes the May 4 plea feel rather like belated tokenism.

For the same reason, relaxing those ICASA quota requirements not only for the disaster period but for three full months after, could kill many small local production houses for good. ( When actually, as my post earlier this week reported, high quality local music programming is being created right now that broadcasters could already buy.) What’s the point of even conceptualising productions now, when the broadcasters will not feel the slightest pressure to use them for possibly close to a year? After that, with other concerns much higher on the political agenda, how much impetus will there really be to restore the quotas? Why bother, when re-treads of imported media garbage remain available at close-to-dumping prices?

Are there better policies out there?

DACS should rather be looking right now at the example of the post-Great Depression WPA Federal Art Project ( part of the New Deal reconstruction programme: see https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/). That provided government funding for public art and performance, with a percentage of funding allocated to training and bringing in community members. Around three million arts-related  jobs were created. (If you’re wondering, the murals illustrating this blog were painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, some under the auspices of FAP.)

Invest in a National Art Project now in preparation for post-Covid reconstruction. Keep official hands off content; leave that to creators and their communities. That’ll give Minister Mthetwa his local programmes, give artists jobs, and give broadcasters shows faster than they believe possible. Meanwhile, ICASA should keep a firmer grip on broadcasters. Let them use more imported content, but require a solid quid pro quo right now in parallel investment in, or guaranteed commissions for, local productions for the future. And don’t offer carte blanche for Disaster+3 months. Instead, review the situation and adjust the policy at every stage as lockdown eases. (One doubts ICASA has too much else to do these days, and they’re still getting paid…)

The only way we can escape the zombie hands of the Hlaudi legacy is to make a completely fresh start on local content policies. We don’t want to return to ‘normal’ when ‘normal’ never served artists well before. There could hardly be a better time to begin the changes than now.

SA jazz online: let the music dance you

In the age of YouTube, it’s easy to get cynical  and jaded about music online. So much of what’s posted there is ripped without artists’ consent, or greasy with the fake spontaneity of a brand promo, or shot with such ineptitude that you’re listening to a guitar while the cameraman shows you the singers’ legs. And when many of us stare at a screen all day long for work, staring at the same screen again for music doesn’t really feel like an occasion.

So what does it take to create compelling online music: the kind you just can’t use as background; the kind you might even be prepared to pay for? For many musicians under Covid lockdown, the question is vital. They need to play, because that’s who they are. But they also need to monetise, because that’s how they eat.

Siya Makuzeni, streaming live on May 13

Not being fake is a good place to start. Even before the pandemic, NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts https://www.npr.org/series/tiny-desk-concerts/ have always shown us who artists really are, shorn of the paraphernalia of showbiz hype. The Tiny Desk is still going strong, and these days it’s even tinier, streamed from artists’ own homes. (Check the diverse, deeply personal and moving performance a couple of weeks back from sometime Christian Atunde Adjuah sideman Braxton Cook.)

But while the free Tiny Desk events have made a feature of their homespun feel, they still always sound good. Sound and videography matter, particularly if you’re selling tickets. If next month’s online National Arts Festival is going to sell festival packages successfully – and the artists are depending on that – it’ll need to bring us into digital spaces that feel acoustically like real venues. One set of stop-motion, pixellated images and wow-filled sound and many people won’t come back for more.

Ayanda Sikade: streaming live on May 20

All hail then, to the Urban Jazz Sessions that I previewed last week. Filmed live, these South African concerts bring you into an intimate space that feels like you’re sitting in the old Bassline: almost (but not quite) knee-to-knee with the piano player. The camera-work is informed and accomplished: hear a bass player, see her fingers – it’s actually a better view than many of the tables at the Orbit used to offer. Assuming you’ve got decent speakers or cans for your device, the sound is clear and rich.

There are other advantages too – most particularly, if some idiot wants to talk over that bass solo, he is free to do so in the privacy of his own home. You don’t have to listen to him. There’s no transport hassle and you provide catering of your own choice, without having to spin out the entire evening over the plate of chips that are the only thing on the menu you can afford.

Is anything missing? Certainly. Much as the noisy vibe can be irritating, the sociality of a club is part of the experience. Tweets running along the bottom of the screen don’t quite equate to face-to-face conversations about the music in breaks and at the end; the serendipity of finding an old friend unexpectedly in town for the gig; a shared smile with a stranger at a particularly neat horn run; and the shared shouts of the crowd as the drummer winds up to a crescendo. We humans are social animals and we draw comfort from that kind of thing.

But improvised music in particular provides an incredibly rich source of sociality that can nourish us almost as well: the sociality enacted between the players on stage. There are conversations, debates, inspired changes of direction and new solutions to old musical problems. Glances are exchanged; eye contact sparks flights of imagination; body language signals shifts in mood – just as they do in a live show. The perceptive camera angles of the Urban Sessions let us in on that, so we can draw sustenance from it – so much so that you might well feel like clapping at the end, even if the artists can’t hear you.

Sydney Mavundla streaming live on May 15

The series has some potentially intriguing gigs scheduled for the next two weeks:

Siya Makuzeni 13 May https://militia.cleeng.com/siya-makuzeni/E205389648_ZA

Sydney Mavundla 15 May https://militia.cleeng.com/sydney-mavundla-live-in-concert/E214203335_ZA

Keenan Ahrends 16 May https://militia.cleeng.com/keenan-ahrends-live-in-concert/E490893031_ZA

Ayanda Sikade 20 May https://militia.cleeng.com/ayanda-sikade-live-in-concert/E563782568_ZA

Benjamin Jephta 24 May https://militia.cleeng.com/benjamin-jephta-live-in-concert/E824392073_ZA

So go catch a show – you can even dress up if that matters to you as part of the experience (there are always selfies). Just as artists need to make music; the rest of us need to partake in it, because the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano got it right: “The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them …”

Lockdown: the day the music (never quite) died

Make no mistake, South African jazz musicians are hurting right now. There’s no live work, and music is not a UIF-pensionable occupation. As UNCTAD and most current scholarship recognises (but the Department of Arts and Culture still mostly fails to) cultural work in music often succeeds by accreting multiple short-term creative projects.

It’s hard for musicians to prove how much income they have lost, because they may not even know what work was on the horizon – but has now sunk far below it. (That was underlined today, 4 May, when sports and arts minister Nathi Mthetwa announced that two-thirds of the applications for relief funding from performing artists had failed, in many cases because of lack of evidence of lost earnings. The minister acknowledged that this further disadvantaged artists who were often from already impoverished communities.)

The good news is that metropolitan musicians are using their creativity to develop some inspired workarounds.

Linda Sikhakhane: hear him online this week

But before we talk about those, there’s bad news too. Metropolitan musicians are only the ears of the industry hippo.  Outside city centres, in townships and rural areas, are countless music makers who are not known beyond the devoted audiences who follow them: Xitsonga music circuits; isiZulu music circuits; gospel performers not supported by mega-churches; jazz players holding down small gigs in local venues; and many more. Some of these musicians may lack the resources or skills  (or simply the connectivity) to assemble or monetise online gigs, and their so-far undocumented plight is probably truly desperate. But without a long-overdue mapping exercise, we don’t even know who they are.

In that context, it was sad to read in the most recent SAMRO statement https://www.samrofoundation.org.za/blog/2020-04-28-winds-of-change-at-the-samro-foundation (after the stuff on Board appointments) about reductions in the numbers of NGO music schools and projects the SAMRO Foundation will be supporting. That support provided one vital channel through which to discover and network with music initiatives across the country we should – but too often don’t – know about. (The music bursaries and overseas scholarships have gone, too.)

Shane Cooper and Mabuta: hear them online this week

Additionally the 2020 Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival won’t be happening in its usual form in Makhanda. That’s an inevitable decision – the event normally involves a 10-day ‘boarding school’ for young players, and that’s not desirable until the Covid epidemic is safely controlled. But current alternative hopes – still embryonic at this stage – to explore the viability of “regional mini-SBNYJFs later this year” might be positive. More, and more localised, gatherings could actually improve accessibility for resource-poor young players located far from Makhanda.

So that’s what’s not happening. Now for the good news about what is.

For musicians with some resources, knowhow and online connectivity, or with links to institutions that can facilitate those, there’s now quite a flowering of online music. South Africa was not an early adopter of online technology, but in a whole range of fields – for example, banking – it has become an effective and innovative fast follower. And the pandemic has provided a spur for working musicians to step up to the screen.

One example is the UKZN Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, which has been presenting a weekly series of online concerts on Wednesdays. The events are ticketed: proceeds go to the musicians. Information is on the Centre’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UKZNJazzcentre/ and there’s currently a call-out for more submissions from musicians too.

Keenan Ahrends: hear him online this week

Many of us remember the Mzansi Magic DSTV Downtown jazz sessions in previous years. They turned out to be genuine magic in how they conveyed the thinking as well as the playing of our current generation of jazz musicians though thoughtful conversation and extended music. Now Aymeric Peguillan, who had a hand in curating those, is part of the team bringing another set of live contemporary South African jazz sessions, this time to your computer screen. His message reads:   

“We’re starting the Urban Sessions series on Wednesday 6 May 2020. We hope to have at least 5 concerts per week from next week. Please find the links below and thank you for sharing as widely as possible.

https://militia.cleeng.com/shane-cooper-and-mabuta-trio-live-in-concert/E644905085_ZA. Shane Cooper and Mabuta Trio

https://militia.cleeng.com/linda-sikhakane/E183801725_ZA. Linda Sikhakhane Trio

https://militia.cleeng.com/keenan-ahrends-live-in-concert/E490893031_ZA. Keenan Ahrends Trio”

Finally, the Makhanda National Arts Festival is going to be an online event too. The Festival is exploring options to effectively monetise its events for performers – and some form of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival will be part of the mix, although details are not yet available.

So March 26 wasn’t quite the day the music died. This is just a sample of the South African jazz currently out in the aether, and all of these gigs promise much – for us as audience, for the artists, and for international listeners who have a whole set of new opportunities to learn about our jazz. But South Africa simply cannot afford the social and creative capital we will lose if the many musicians currently shut out from these digital opportunities aren’t empowered to take part too.