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.
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.)
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.
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.