Cape Town Conversations 1: no borders for Black British jazz

A diverse crew from the new UK jazz scene excited Cape Town this year. But how did their distinctive, diverse sounds emerge?

The most recent tune UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia composed, she tells me, “was inspired by living in London.

Nubya Garcia (3rd from right) with another of the outfits she works with: Nerija

“I tour so much I’m hardly there any more. When you are, you get used to that rat-race, mouse-wheel, ridiculous pace of the life. Then, when you’re away and come back, it really hits you. My starting points for composing are different for every tune I write, but that one started with a bass-line…”

Garcia is by no means the first musician to draw music from the feel of London. At this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival, she was one of a powerful contingent of visiting jazz players whose heritage lies in the historic communities of colour of Britain’s big cities. Like Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchings before them, the music of Garcia, Moses Boyd and Alfa Mist was welcomed by audiences because it was crammed with tough ideas and playing, yet completely accessible – and paid no heed at all to meaningless genre walls.

A hundred year tradition

“Black British jazz” – like “African Jazz” when Todd Matshikiza first used the term back in 1957 – crams into inadequate words a multi-voiced, distinctive jazz tradition whose roots can be traced back nearly a hundred years. As in America and South Africa, its roots weave back to early dance and swing bands. And the fearless musical boundary-breaking isn’t new.

Imperialism, colonialism and racism cloud that history, of course. But while South Africa’s white musicians’ union spent vast energies excluding black players from lucrative city gigs, in the early Jazz Age its British counterpart had other worries. Invading, high-wage Americans playing this new music seemed more threatening than black citizens of countries in the then British Empire. (It became the Commonwealth in 1931.) So, from the 1920s, performance spaces opened up for skilled black musicians, especially from the Caribbean. (In fact, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the Welsh seaport of Cardiff – not London – had the oldest and largest black British community and that left a musical imprint too, in the emergence of hugely successful pop singers such as Shirley Bassey.)

Swing bands of the 1930s

Leslie Thompson

Black players led some of the most successful UK dance bands of those early years. Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson recorded his memories in his book Swing from a Small Island ( ). Urbane Grenada-born pianist “Hutch” Hutchinson scandalised English racists as he found favour among the aristocratic socialites who swarmed the original Nest Club. During World War II, Guyanan bandleader Ken Johnson – an admirer of Marcus Garvey, who inspired Johnson’s preference for all-black ensembles – scored a regular gig broadcast by the BBC from the prestigious Café de Paris. It was black music that comforted Londoners as they huddled over their radios during the Blitz. Johnson and several members of his band died when a German bomb scored a direct hit on the Café de Paris in 1941.

Free form and fusions

Shake Keane

In the post-war years, Britain’s drive to attract cheap labour from the Commonwealth for reconstruction and industrial growth brought in more skilled musicians too. Some had to combine hard work in an industrial day job with music by night; others pursued the path of precarious professionalism in a deeply racist social environment. There were calypsonians, and musicians working across pop styles such as bluebeat, ska and rock steady and, like trombonist Rico Rodriguez who arrived in 1961, they often jammed where jazz was played too – rare, undiscovered catalogue items featuring this boundary-free music are still occasionally coming to light.

Joe Harriott

But for jazz fans, the most famous name is that of saxophonist Joe Harriott, who played searching free jazz

and challenged genre boundaries, collaborating with John Mayer for the Indo-Jazz Fusions Others included trumpeter and poet Ellsworth “Shake” Keane, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who headlined Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in 1964.

Africa rising

KK Lond 61 playbill
The original 1961 London playbill for King Kong

In 1961, the South African musical King Kong toured London, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa remembers how West Indian musicians in the theatre orchestra sought insight into South African jazz. “I particularly remember Paul Peterson who was a trumpeter…and we used to try and exchange ideas with them…they were kind of interested, always asking Mackay [Davashe] what’s happening now in the music, and why this, and how this?” By the mid-60s more South Africans had gone into exile in the UK: reedman Dudu Pukwana and others in ensembles around pianist Chris McGregor. Jazz photojournalist Val Wilmer noted how these South Africans “completely overturned” the London scene, and added their ideas to the collaborations among black musicians. By 1969, other pan-African influences were sounding as well, with the foundation of Osibisa by musicians of Afro-Caribbean and West African origin African independence and the striving for self-reliance was supporting strong national music scenes across the continent.

Warriors then and tomorrow

Through the 1970s and 1980s this polyphony grew. The children of those earlier generations of migrants found their own voices as young black Britons, absorbing and re-visioning all the musics UK cities had to offer. That was the London jazz scene I was part of. Aspiring young players crate-dived the record shops for Trane, Ornette and Monk. The lineup at the cavernous 100 Club on Oxford Street featured South African bands headlined by, for example, Dudu Pukwana, but onstage you could find everybody from British reedman Mike Osborne to Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett to Ghanaian saxophonist George Lee. Younger players jumped musical fences with cheerful abandon; Rip Rig and Panic combined Mark Springer’s explicitly Abdullah Ibrahim-inspired piano, Sean Oliver’s dub-punk bass and Neneh Cherry’s multi-culti vocals, with a trumpet guest who might be her stepdad, Don Cherry, or South African Dave Defries.

Rip Rig & Panic: Sean Oliver and Neneh Cherry

Out of that era, the bands and individuals acknowledged as the direct mentors and inspirers of today’s generation of new musicians emerged. Most notable was the collective of black, British-born players, the Jazz Warriors , co-founded in the mid 1980s by, among others, bassist Gary Crosby and reedman Steve Williamson. (Again, the jazz label wasn’t exclusionary. Many of the Warriors worked fluidly across many music scenes; Williamson’s first band had been reggae outfit Misty in Roots.)

From there, the musical lineage – Pine, Kinch, down the line to Hutchings, Boyd and Garcia – is better known in the rest of the world. Garcia told music site The Quietus that Crosby’s successor band to the Jazz Warriors – Tomorrow’s Warriors, established in 1991 – “basically gave birth to the [current] scene”. And it was a scene that grew out of collective efforts, self-organisation, mentorship freely given and ideas freely shared. The scene is much more de-centred than in the 1970s, with pop-up events in multiple South London suburbs characterised by their own crews, loyalties and sonic concepts – but the small pop-up is the way to go when resources are tight and the desire to make music urgent.

Crosby today
Bassist Gary Crosby today

In these newer formations, the patriarchy of those 1930s dance bands – where women were only seen as vocalists – finds that stance untenable, faced with bands like the female-led  Nerija, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, and more prominent women players. (It’s a pity that the transport picking up Garcia from the airport in Cape Town last week was under the impression she was a singer.)

In this context, your identity as a musician – your voice – certainly matters, but the hard marketing borders of the commercial music industry are irrelevant. “The creative mind,” reflects Garcia, “draws on everything you’ve ever heard.”

Open season

Composer and pianist Alfa Mist’s trajectory shows just how irrelevant the marketing categories are. His early musical interests were in grime and hip-hop. “I was sampling from the start,” he says, “things like Q-Tip and Slum Village. There are heavy jazz samples in their sound, and at some point I said: I wanna make beats like that.” Something he listened to over and over was a practice tape he found of pianist Bill Evans, and he also rates Thelonious Monk, for “completely his own approach.”

AlfaBut in the era of Kamasi Washington, hip-hop meeting jazz isn’t surprising, if it ever was. Alfa Mist cites another influence that completely floors me: film composer Hans Zimmer, responsible for the scores to Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and other big-screen epics.

“Soundtracks can work in an important way in sampling, so I’ve been into film music for a long time,” he explains, “and in terms of the films I was watching at that time, he dominated.” Alfa’s own music aims to speak to listeners’ feelings “so I’m interested in how sound manipulates emotions. That’s what film music is for …I talked to some of my classical music friends, and not everybody rated him, and that led me into listening to a lot more classical music – but I still rate him.”

Shabaka album.jpg
Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse) Artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi

There’s a long, proud history behind today’s generation of black British jazz. It’s rooted in the skills and hard work that kept musicians from the Caribbbean working in the most prestigious venues from the 1930s, in the open ears that saw Joe Harriott exploring Trane and Indian music, Rico Rodriguez building bridges between ska and jazz, and pioneers like Gary Crosby persistently leading, encouraging and mentoring. South African influences have played their part, and today Shabaka Hutchings’ latest release, Your Queen is a Reptile features cover art from Mzwandile Buthelezi and a track dedicated to Albertina Sisulu As for the future, Alfa Mist reckons the music can only get more diverse and untrammelled: “With the internet, you can find anything, and put anything out. It’s open season now.”


CTIJF 2019: money too tight to mention

Our depressed economy is clearly biting jazz lovers like everybody else. Visibly reduced attendance meant this year’s 20th CTIJF actually felt comfortable: no queues for the toilets; far fewer steaming, bad-tempered, crushes of people. There may be reasons other than the economy: early publicity was so disastrous that people were asking me whether the event was actually going to happen. The continuing mainstream media neglect of the arts suggests that if you weren’t there, you might still be seeking evidence it did. (UPDATE 05/04: Some platforms do still care: see for my exploration of the themes and debates the festival foregrounded, with great pix by Barry Christiansen that you won’t find elsewhere either.)

Well, it happened, and in terms of the things jazz fans seek, it was good.


Not enough jazz?

John Scofield: “I can never say something’s not jazz”

Euthanasia is long overdue for the dumb canard about CTIJF presenting ‘not enough jazz’. On the two stages that most prominently feature original improvised music – Rosie’s and Molelekwa – there was enough that a recurring complaint in the media room was the impossibility of hearing it all. But it’s niche music, and if Chaka Khan, the Gypsy Kings, the Soweto Gospel Choir and other mass-appeal acts on other stages provide an economic cushion for it, let’s be grateful. Anyway, we need to check our categories. Guitarist John Scofield said at his masterclass: “Since I started playing, jazz has been ‘impure’. I can never say ‘That’s jazz; that’s not jazz’” – and he’s a player with credentials impeccable enough for the most narrow-minded anorak. Tiago of digital improvisers rePercussions invited listeners into a sound-world where “you open a door, and there are three other doors inside – and you have no idea which of those doors you’ll open.” One point of a big, diverse festival is opening those doors, not locking them if they don’t say ‘Jazz’ in large Gothic letters. (Big festivals do have problems too; we’ll get to those later.)


Technique, passion, originality

Notable this year was the amount of jaw-dropping instrumental technique on display. Scofield and Combo66 we probably expected; likewise veteran Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. Others were less predictable – some, because their music is less familiar here; some, because we know it so well we may not be listening carefully enough any more.

In the first category were saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s trio, and flautist Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble.

Siyabonga Mthembu: start of a new combination?

Garcia plus two filled the Molelekwa stage, making challenging original new music feel easy and accessible (a quality shared with the other Brit-jazz players working at Cape Town: Moses Boyd and Alfa Mist) – until you checked what was packed into the playing. Siyabonga Mthembu’s vocalese was a bonus, though the musical conversations Garcia started with him suggest we might have witnessed the birth of a fresh and striking combination.

Flute is reckoned to be one of the hardest instruments to learn, because of the challenges of embouchure it presents (how lips, cheeks and tongue relate to the mouthpiece to create sound). Mitchell commands a universe of tones: shouts, sweet, high birdsong, rough growls and whispers. In her presentations she emphasised the collective character of the 8-piece Black Earth Ensemble, and her virtuosity doesn’t stand alone. The powerhouse rhythm partnership of drummer Shirazette Tinnin and percussionist Jovia Armstrong fuels the engine and the fiery soul of singer Avery Young heats the room. It’s music with something to say, as Mitchell articulated at her press conference: “The paradigm is wrong. Everything is focussed on profit. The few benefit while the many suffer. It can’t last – this whole hierarchical system has to go.”

Shirazette Tinnin
Engine room: Black Earth Ensemble drummer Shirazette Timmin


Home crowd advantage

But sometimes we should pay more attention to the South African players we think we know. Veteran pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab showed once more how his technique and intelligence can open up any standard to dissect its unexpected harmonic core and delicately patterned emotions. But on the Rosie’s stage, his first five minutes presented something else: an edgy, modernist keyboard imagination that everybody wanted more of. Sometime it feels as if having to showcase all the facets of his remarkable creativity – his own jazz standard Spring, programmatic compositions like Jing’an Park, and infectious pop songs too – constricts the space for that other, recital-worthy material.


Sydney Mnisi
Keeping African Time: reedman Sydney Mnisi

Herbie Tsoaeli and African Time offered their well-loved mix of intense, down-home sounds: ‘Xhosa jazz’ not as narrow tribalism but as something new built on the foundations of a rich, searching regional jazz tradition. It honours Eric Nomvete, Tete Mbambisa and Chris McGregor: chords and harmonies inspired by bow music and overtone singing; the cantering rhythms of rural horsemen; and the community celebrations and historic big-band concerts of PE, East London and Cape Town. But it’s music reworked to be fresh at every gig. “We always try,” reflected reedman Sydney Mnisi the next day, “for perfection in bringing it all together. One day, maybe we’ll get there…”

Vuma Levin: meticulous craftsmanship and killer solos

The more I hear guitarist Vuma Levin, the more I hear his early teacher John Fourie in him – not in his style and voice, which are very much his own, but in the low-key, unsparing craftsmanship he applies to every detail. Live performance foregrounds intricacies such as the relationship, on a work like Life and Death …, between the speech sounds of his samples and the way they segue into notes. But Levin’s performances have changed over the years. His body language is looser now, he’s smiling more, more comfortable in his guitarist/leader’s skin and soloing like a dream. And the new music he presents (the suite Antique Spoons, set for a 2020 release) offered fresh moods and textures too: raggedy folk-dance feels; a good-humoured scramble through an invisible city; hints of bluesiness and club beats. There’s wonderful empathy with the quintet, and fierce solos from everybody – all in all, a set meriting a more respectful time-slot than that dead 5pm opener.

Siya Makuzeni: From Mahube (above) to The Mill

Siya Makuzeni, offering firecracker vocals and dance-friendly ‘bone riffs with Mahube on the outside stage, only had half an hour to switch headspace for her intense vocal and instrumental explorations with Swiss/South African outfit The Mill. And for me, it was The Mill rather than any more prominent name (superb though they all were) that provided the set of the festival. Jazz isn’t a competition: accomplished players are not ‘better’ than one another, just saying different things in different voices. The Mill took us everywhere. We went to church, to a dancehall, to the fried chicken shop, to a Swiss village square for some serious oompah brass and to a basement club for some free and out impro. Mandla Mlangeni’s trumpet-playing commands attention partly because most of his sonic reference points are South African. Miles may be flapping his angel-wings above, but it’s Tex Nduluka, Mongezi Feza, Dennis Mpale and those guys you think of first. Many of the compositions and arrangements are Mlangeni’s, offering the classic landscape of chorusing horns and braided meshes of free brass behind adventurous solos. But other players (there are 10; they were all superb) are no less remarkable. Yonela Mnana’s unique pianism is already known – but here it was his singing, alone and in partnership with Makuzeni, that was most striking. There have been many recent projects revisioning the music of Chris McGregor’s formations. All have been cool, hot and often beautiful – but at points, this lot caught more of the Brotherhood’s joyous live energy than any of them.

The Mill
Joyous energy: The Mill — Mandla Mlangeni, extreme left


So what didn’t go so well?

The acoustics on the outdoor Manenberg and indoor Kippies stage remain patchy and sometimes (when the wind blows the notes from one into the other) disastrous. After 20 years, surely some better solution than simply putting the biggest, loudest outfits there and hoping for the best can be found? Time slipped by ten minutes on Rosie’s Saturday programme – which made dovetailing-in a taste of snippets from other stages impossible. But sound quality matters, and musicians have a right to their perfectionism. They also have the right to sound-check in peace, without the distraction of an audience admitted early (much as we love the insight into such processes it provides).

MC-ing on the Rosies stage was inept: empty gushing, and burbling about the imperative to Tweet are no substitute for knowledgeable and respectful commentary. By contrast, Africa Melane on the Molelekwa stage pitched it exactly right – can we have him on Rosie’s in 2020, please?

The biggest staging error was the tiny, once-off slot allocated to Sho Majozi. She’s huge right now, not only here but overseas, and the hunger to see her caused the weekend’s only crush, even with smaller crowds.

Oh, and of course it was heartening to see the Department of Arts and Culture displaying its usual enthusiasm for all the great South African jazz I’ve described. None of their reserved seats was occupied during any of those acts.


The point of it all

A big festival made everything I’ve described above possible. But – and despite the investment which Cape Town, still more than any other festival, makes in free gigs, free classes and other attempts at equalising – such events remain expensive and exclusionary. They centralise resources and commoditise the music as a status good for the metropolitan rich. For South African jazz genuinely to flourish, we need support for more, smaller, events and local circuits using community spaces. The Freedom Charter acknowledged the importance of culture, and we’re still nowhere near realising its goals: access to create, and access to appreciate. To get there, we need to build cultural life beyond big-ticket calendar events.

Mandla Mlangeni’s Afrika Grooves –different voices; a shared home

download-1Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni is always a busy man. He’s launching two albums, and has two collaborations on the boil, both of which we’ll see at next week’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The Swiss/South African The Mill (whose first album, When the Wind Blows is out this month) features the trumpeter alongside Swiss bassist Marco Muller, reedmen Florian Egli, Matthias Tschopp and German Fabian Willmann, and South Africans pianist Yonela Mnana, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, guitarist Vuma Levin and drummer Kesivan Naidoo.

Mlangeni first came together with these European musicians and regular South African collaborators at the Berne Festival, and the recording session took place when the players were participating in the Makanda National Arts Festival. “Two things make this kind of project possible,” he says. “Having two bases – here and in Switzerland – splits the costs of quite an expensive nine-piece group. And the support of the team at Pro Helvetia has been vital. They’ve been incredibly open to making new music, new networks and new collaborations possible.”download

But if The Mill unites together musicians who already know one another well and have workshopped a lot, Mlangeni’s other collaboration in Cape Town, rePercussions, looks likely to be a site of surprise and serendipity.

The idea of doing something exploring rhythm and the “reverberations of both the sound and the ideas”, he says, started some years back with Mlangeni, bassist Shane Copper and saxophonist Sisonke Xonti. The diverse commitments of those three meant the project stalled for a while. This new edition includes DJ Lag, Mobo-winning UK drummer Moses Boyd, and Tiago of the well-loved outfit 340ml. “I’ve been struck by Moses’ skills and his voice,” says Mlangeni. “But we’re all very different musicians, and I wonder what effect our working together will have on listeners…”

moses-boyd-jazz-drummer.jpgIt’s another example of the quality Mlangeni always seeks in his collaborations. “It’s not ‘we’re all different but really we’re the same’”, he explains. “It’s much more: we’re all different, and the music’s creating a place where we all belong. rePercussions is going to be an adventure of backgrounds and personalities.”

That’s certainly true of the other album he’s launching: Afrika Grooves ( ). Before you hear it, that might seem wholly predictable as the title of the second album from Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committee. TRC, after all, is the trumpeter’s “Cape Town” band – as opposed to the more Gauteng–sounding Amandla Freedom Ensemble. So far, both bands have concentrated on Mlangeni’s compositions, but where AFE has been challenging and upfront political, TRC has acknowledged more explicitly the club- and dance-rooted nature of much of the Mother City’s jazz groove. So – more slightly world jazz for jazzing, right?

And then you press play, and all those expectations get blown out of the water.

There are only two Mlangeni compositions on the album, the appropriately dreamy Lover’s Reverie and the closer Abazingeli – of which more later. The other five tracks come from pianist Afrika Mikhize (two), guitarist Reza Khota, bassist Nicholas Williams and drummer Clement Benny, with a powerful sonic contribution to all from Mark Fransman on tenor, bass clarinet and alto flute.

The album starts when Afrika (Mkhize) grooves: the opener, Kudala, begins with a classic mbaqanga structure – though the pianist says he was initially trying to avoid that I:IV:V chord progression – before taking off into something gentler and more lyrical, ending with fiercely intelligent foregrounded drumming from Benny. You could still dance to it, but you’d need to extend your repertoire beyond jive.

More composers, says Mlangeni, brings more of the ideas behind TRC into the music: it’s more collective, more democratic and grants everybody greater literal and metaphorical ownership. (UPDATE: For more about those ideas, see my interview with him at )He’s enjoying the current make-up of TRC (which has gone though a couple of incarnations). “Everybody is an amazing player, but we’ve all made different choices about how we balance live performance, teaching, studying, touring, profiling yourself, all the other things we do. This set-up gives everybody an equal platform.”

Mlangeni is deliberately lightening his own burden of multiple roles as musician, marketer and promoter. He’s currently Artist-in-residence at the UWC Centre for Humanities Research, and is drawing in other talents to share the work of making the music happen (respected promoter Aymeric Peguillan is organising the Cape Town appearances) – “because composing and practice also need time and honestly, me, I really just want to play!”

After Kudala, the compositions travel wide, through Khota’s meditative, constantly-mutating Diamond Mind, the impressionistic Lovers’ Reverie, Mkhize’s Herbie Tsoaeli tribute, Malume (the kind of brisk post-boppish tune Voice used to play so memorably) and Williams’ softly-landscaped Red Room. There’s still plenty of groove – the tricky patterning of Benny’s drum textures holds the sound together perfectly – but there are also memorably tuneful melodies and some gorgeous solos. On the sleeve note, Fransman describes the enterprise as: “singing, dancing, questioning, answering, but always listening”, and that’s what comes across: musicians entering the spirit of one another’s compositions and helping all the tunes to grow. And, promises Mlangeni, “Recordings are always an archival catalogue. They’ll be different again the next time you hear them: five or six months later, the music has always changed.”

The current TRC

The closer, Abazingeli, wraps the whole concept up and ties it with gold string. It takes us back to the basics of groove, using layered percussion (with guest Tlale Makhene) and overdubs to compress what can – and has – been a 20-minute track into six. It manages to allude simultaneously to the worldlier sounds of the first TRC album, and the outness of Mlangeni’s collaborations with Shabaka Hutchings.

There are dozens of delights on Afrika Grooves, but it’s for the compositions and arrangements that I keep on listening to it. It’s definitely a space where distinctively different voices comfortably inhabit a shared home.

Babes and Brenda: joining the dots

Bongekile Simelane at 15, round about the time she met her abuser

All women in music – all of us: individual musicians, music writers, teachers, promoters, and those in formal music organisations – should be offering very public solidarity and support to Bongekile Simelane as she pursues charges against her partner/manager.

It would have been comic if it hadn’t been tragic yesterday to see the slob in that video outside court mournfully telling us “she drinks…she attacked me…she hit me with a hard Gucci flip-flop” while his bros stood around him, commiserating.

  • After we’ve all seen him – large and paunchy – pursuing a young woman half his size (and ten years younger) around a hotel room, klapping her as she weeps.
  • After we all remember his gaslighting responses in May last year: “…while I may have overreacted on one or two occasions” … [She was] “given to me by God…”

There’s a trope that recurs constantly around showbiz sexual violence. A moderately successful older man discovers a fiercely talented, much younger woman. He “grooms” her, offering resources derived from his own career and cultivating her near-total dependence on his savvy and contacts. (That intense level of grooming, intricately woven into her career from its infancy, makes repeated returns to the abusive relationship  likely even if the young woman leaves. )He assumes ownership of her body and talent and sits back – revelling in the power and waiting for the money to roll in.

After all, younger, sharper stars will surely soon squeeze out a 40-year-old male performer – but she’ll still be in her prime.

If she wants to pursue her own musical direction – well, a klap will put her back in her place. It actually helps if, in the course of a ten-year relationship, begun when she was a child, he can tempt or more likely drive her to drink or drugs. It makes her more vulnerable, and gives him – as we have just seen – a fake excuse for the klaps, since the sexist ‘bad woman’ stereotype continues to influence some fools. (He was sitting quietly in the corner sipping organic spring water all the while, I suppose…)

Let’s remember the late Brenda Fassie: equally talented but equally — and often literally — in the hands of a succession of older male impressarios and managers since her early teens. How they loved to bill her as “little” Brenda long after she was a grown woman. How promoters desiring only compliant bankability enabled her addictions. How some male band-mates, awash with crocodile tears, described her indiscretions and boasted with relish about “keeping her in order”. And how a far more perceptive Hugh Masekela saw that, but saw more – a “super arranger…teach[ing] new bass lines, dictating rhythm and harmony parts, scatting drum grooves…”:  a musician.


We know how that story ended.

Join the dots. It’s time to stop even asking: “Did she drink?” “Why didn’t she leave him?” It’s time for less lurid, slavering media coverage of relationships, and more serious journalistic investigation of what life is really like for talented kids trying to make it in music. It’s time for creating circles of mentorship that aspiring young women artists can access without the exploitative baggage. It’s time to simply say: you can build your own career – lord knows, you’re talented enough. And you’re not alone: we’re with you.

PS Sometimes a cartoonist gets it absolutely right:



The Political Score #3

It’s still ANC 4/10; EFF 3/10; everybody else — ZERO!

It’s proving easier than I had feared to keep track of the cultural policies of South African political parties in the run-up to the election – most of them don’t have any. The DA joined those dishonourable ranks on Feb 23 with a slick document that doesn’t even seem to know we have a cultural heritage that matters, and that our creative industries already contribute nearly 3% to GDP: more than agriculture on some calculations.

So far, the ANC still has the most extensive acknowledgment of the sector overall, although one constrained and distorted by its commodifying lens. The EFF wins hands-down on arts education, with its call for a teacher for every grade in every school.

In Tito Mboweni’s budget, the ANC continued its trend of acknowledging the area – but still not quite getting it. The finance minister promised: “Officials from the National Treasury and the department of arts and culture will consider proposals for the development of a new national theatre, a new national museum, and also consider financial support for the national archives, a national orchestra and ballet troupe.” One wonders if anybody in government reads the masses of research produced over many years indicating the unique nature of the creative industries. They tend to be small, highly mobile, flexible, often project-based and therefore short-lived. Establishing monolithic, centralised, fixed infrastructure is absolutely not the best way to help them and could well suck more resources and talented people away from communities. It favours elite culturepreneurs and establishments. (And somebody’s just reminded me that we already have a State Theatre, albeit one housed in a monstrous lump of police-state architecture. We really don’t need to go there again.)

Put the money into communities – the Moses Molelekwa Arts Foundation

Certainly, the inherited disparities of apartheid mean we do need infrastructure. We need to replace – as we still have not done, nearly a quarter of a century later – the vibrant grassroots cultural infrastructure that people’s organisations sustained within communities throughout the struggle. But I guess giving artists spaces with the required digital and physical resources in their own communities, or keeping current modest initiatives alive, just doesn’t sound so grand?


Dorothy Masuku 1935-2019


I was once shown the script for a biopic purporting tell the early story of the late Dorothy Masuku (Masuka was her stage name). It was highly professional, but a shallow, deeply patriarchal thing in which Masuku’s pioneering work as a composer, her acute and precocious political consciousness and proud pan-Africanism were sidelined in favour of a narrative of affairs and flirtations. The sidelining continues. Dorothy Masuku was not simply the ‘jazz singer’ many newscasts today label her, although she certainly was that too. And she certainly had a life worthy of a serious biopic.

Dorothy Masuku was born in Bulawayo in then Rhodesia in 1935. Her father was a chef, originally from Zambia, but her mother, Liza Mafuyani, was a Zulu-speaking South African whose family originated from Ematsheni in KZN, and whose sister lived in Pimville. Her grandmother in KZN had been a sangoma, and Masuku spoke later of the spiritual sources of inspiration for her songs. They often came to her in dreams, and she would immediately sing them to somebody else in the house, so that elusive memory was captured.

The young Dorothy moved to live with her aunt in South Africa in 1947, aged 12, when, on health grounds – she had asthma – she was enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg. There, she joined the school choir and her talent was immediately spotted.

earlyShe was signed to the Troubadour record label in her early teens after impressive performances at her school concerts. She worked with the greatest bands of the period, including the African Inkspots and the Harlem Swingsters, and was lead vocalist with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Varieties, including a tour to Mozambique. Historical narratives of jazz in that era focus on the solidarities among male musicians, but when Masuku spoke of those days at a Sophiatown panel discussion last April, she revealed a different story: the links and solidarities among women musicians, from her tuition in Yiddish lyrics with Sarah Sylvia to the protection from male predation that she, as one of the youngest performers, was given by the older women on those tours.

AJ & V
Stereotyped but show-stopping: Masuka in African Jazz & Varieties

During her teens, Masuku composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which – including Hamba Nontsokolo, Khawuleza, Into Yam’, Zono Zam and Ei Yoh Phata Phata (the first hit song of that name, predating Miriam Makeba’s later composition) – achieved major hit status.

In the mid ‘50s, Zonk music magazine opined that the only artist who was outselling Masuka in South Africa was Bing Crosby.  She later wryly noted that the rewards were never commensurate: she’d be bought a dress, or given ‘spending money’  for her work, never a contract, wage or royalties.

Masuku wrote and recorded more music in Zimbabwe (mainly with Job’s Combination and the Golden Rhythm Crooners), and later composed and recorded in multiple other African languages in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia (for the Zambia Music Parlour label). Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Because of the fragmented, semi-formal nature of the African recording industry in the 20th Century, no complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100.

Hamba Nonts.jpgIt was the radical spirit of Masuka’s songwriting that led to her long years of exile. The 1957 Zono Zam recorded during the anti-pass campaign reflected: “It’s so hard in this world: Lord, help us to be free”. Two of her other songs, Dr Malan (“…has difficult laws”) and Lumumba (speculating about who murdered the Congolese leader) so infuriated the South African Special Branch that they seized and destroyed the masters: no copies can now be found. Dr Malan was the first South African song by any artist – let alone a young woman not long out of school, and not yet 20 – to call out an apartheid minister by name.

She continued to compose as she travelled across Africa: from North and South Rhodesia to Nyasaland (now Malawi), and into East Africa too. Everywhere, she composed in national languages; everywhere, she stirred up support for liberation struggles.

Masuku clearly and explicitly identified herself with the African nationalist cause, first in South Africa – “I didn’t understand why I should be barred from that restaurant (…) or to be with that person” – and then in all the other countries she performed and worked in.

MzilikaziAfter travelling across Africa, she was moved by the ANC to London. She performed at the London Palladium, for BBC-TV, and in various shows with Sir John (then Johnny) Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Later, she spent a brief period back in then Rhodesia, fleeing again to Zambia ahead of Ian Smith’s Special Branch. She spent 16 years there, performing and earning a living as an air hostess – pioneering that career as an elegant, intelligent independent woman with one of the earliest independent African airlines. During her 31 years of exile, she was repeatedly refused entry to South Africa by the apartheid authorities, having been declared persona non grata.

Lendaba.jpgShe returned only in 1992, settled in Yeoville in Johannesburg, and immediately began performing and composing new material, something she continued to do to the end of her life. After her return, she recorded four further original albums, including Mzilikazi and Lendaba, as well as releasing a collection of much of her historic material, Hamba Nontsokolo . (Apartheid’s thugs did their work of erasure efficiently; the compilation lacks Dr Malan and Lumumba) She featured in all South Africa’s major jazz festivals and, two years ago, starred in the New York Town Hall concert commemorating the Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.

She was always a compelling performer, and never failed to draw standing ovations. I once stood behind her in a bank queue on a sweltering Joburg day. Joining the rest of us in loudly complaining about the intolerable temperatures, she ended her contribution to the chat with a short, mesmerising single chorus of It’s Too Darn Hot.

Yes, Masuka was a singer but so much more: a composer, a hero of the struggle, and an architect of the discourse of popular African liberation music. The last time I met her, last year , she was animatedly discussing buying a new home: she wanted trees and birdsong around her to create a peaceful space for yet more composition. Music, she told the SABC, was like breathing for her: it was her life. A stroke late last year took her out of public life, and she died yesterday, February 23. Hamba Kahle: may her great spirit rest in peace.


There are things worse than sidelining. The Sowetan led its story on the musician’s death as follows: “Legendary Kofifi-jazz musician Dorothy Masuka’s bizarre wish was to die on stage but when she took her last breath on Saturday she was with her family at home.”

“Bizarre wish”? How dare they! What more noble and natural than that someone who gave her life to music should desire to stay in its embrace until the end? Again, gender stereotyping ensures that women’s informed professional choices become “bizarre” – and that they often fail, even getting the timing of their own death wrong. This hits a new low in music “journalism”.


A liberation song – Bazuka

Her most beloved hit – Hamba Nonsokolo

One from the old days: Ma Gumede

Live in Sophiatown with guitarist Bheki Khoza:

In conversation with Kaya FM’s Nicky Blumenfield

In conversation with Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, Bheki Khoza and Titi Luzipo at Sophiatown:




CTIJF 2019: a plethora of good jazz; a paucity of profile

John Scofield’s Combo 66

***UPDATE 20/03/19. Due to the unavailability of Benedikt Reising, the European contingent of The Mill is now the Swiss Marco Müller on bass, Florian Egli on sax, Matthias Tschopp on baritone sax and Fabian Willmann from Germany on bass clarinet and sax. 

It’s been an odd run-up to this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF, 29-30 March, ). Normally, by this time of year, I’m part of eager debates about which gigs my crew plans to attend. This year, I’ve been asked too many times: “Is there a Festival? Is anybody good on?”

I’ve written before about how the mainstream media decision to reduce music to ‘lifestyle’ weakens the whole music ecosystem. (Think of journalists as irritating biting flies if you must – but the extinction of insects is likely to do for the planet quite soon.) But it also has to be said that the Festival’s own publicity has been absurdly low-key so far, given that, yes, there is a Festival, and yes, it’s a remarkably good line-up.

In previewing, I’m going to concentrate on music in the broad church of jazz: there are other genres too, but your patience as readers is limited, and I assume jazz is what you read me for.

The known quantities

Richard Bona

First, there’s a bunch of performers who need no introduction. Their music already has a solid fan-base, one or two are repeat visitors to Cape Town, and their performances always fulfil expectations. These range from the magisterial Brazilian pianist/vocalist Elaine Elias, Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona and US-based, Cape Town-born, reedman Morris Goldberg, to South African-based pianist Don Laka, saxophonist Don Vino, scholar and reed player Mike Rossi, as well as the golden-voiced Vusi Mahlasela (this year, leading a tribute to the late Oliver Mtukudzi in the slot that, sadly, both were meant to share).

And – known quantity though he is – the festival’s failure to proclaim more loudly the presence of guitar titan John Scofield is inexcusable. Scofield has paid enough dues to merit a much better welcome. He’s played (like a monster) with everybody; this time, he’s introducing Combo 66, with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Bill Stewart.

The home team

Any foreigner looking to see most of the many faces of South African jazz will get the chance. In generational terms, players span the 1970s, with veteran Cape Town pianist Ebrahim Khalil Shihab (, the golden age of the Sheer Sound 1990s with African Time Meeting Legends OverTime (bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, reedman Sydney Mnisi, trumpeter Feya Faku, pianist Andile Yenana and drummer Kevin Gibson), right up to today with the quartets of guitarists Vuma Levin and Reza Khota ( ).

Herbie Tsoaeli

Levin’s Quartet, with Dutch and Spanish co-players, also talks to the creative partnerships South Africans have found in Europe, as does another group he plays in: the Swiss/South African Mill. This unites Swiss saxophonist Benedikt Reising, reedman Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Marlon Witbooi. (Mlangeni gets a rather different outing in Re-Percussions, where his trumpet meets UK Mobo-winning drummer Moses Boyd, DJ Lag, Tumi & The Volume’s Tiago and Nonku Phiri.)

Xixel Langa

Tiago’s presence, in turn, reminds us that South African jazz belongs to a pan-African family, something underlined by the current edition of Steve Dyer’s Mahube, co-directed with son Bokani, with South Africans singer Mbuso Khoza and trombonist Siya Makuzeni, singer and mbira-player Hope Masike from Zimbabwe and Xixel Langa from Mozambique ( ). Makuzeni, Masike and Langa add continental power to a regiment of powerful women musicians, many of the South Africans drawn together in the Lady Day Big Band.

The surprise packages

Most exciting this year are the visiting players you may not know. There’s far less cobwebby nostalgia over mildewed international pop ephemera in this year’s line-up. Instead, those spaces are filled by new names. And they’re certainly spaces to watch.

Nubya Garcia

I’ve already written at length about scholar, composer and flautist Nicole Mitchell ( ) who brings her Black Earth Ensemble to the event. Mitchell is a virtuoso player and a foremother of Afrofuturism; simply, you must see her. Inhabiting a similarly searching musical landscape is UK sax and flute player Nubya Garcia ( ), who first came to notice in the all-female septet Nerija, but who has also grown an impressive portfolio of collaborations, and solo work that’s been described by the UK Guardian as “already collectible.” Neither Mitchell nor Garcia have pulled their punches about the infestations of patriarchy they’ve met in jazz; hopefully there will be workshops where they can share their skills and victories.

Alfa album“I wanted to make people feel something,” says UK multi-instrumentalist/pianist Alfa Mist. Growing up in grime and hip-hop music , it was hearing Miles Davis that switched him on to jazz. (How many players must that be true of by now? Garcia name-checks Kind of Blue too.) That means he’s not afraid of beats, but his 2017 release Antiphon ( ) is not the result you’d expect. Mist harnesses intricate rhythm underpinnings in the service of music that’s thoughtful and spiritual.

A different flavour of spiritual sounds will come from Hammond B3 player Cory Henry, who started off in church. When he brings the Funk Apostles to Cape Town, that sanctified feel will infuse a lot of what he plays, like his formidable hit Naa, Naa, Naa (  — Warning: the track is an earworm so addictive it should be illegal). Henry rescues the sound of the ‘70s and ‘80s from shoulder-pads, platform shoes and bad perms, to remind us that it was popular for a reason: it’s good music and a magnificent vehicle for impro. But this is the set everybody will dance to – even your sister-in-law who isn’t sure she likes jazz.

Well, that’s my pick. Now all I have to worry about is which of these great players gets exiled to the acoustically hideous spaces of the indoor Kippies and outdoor Manenberg stages (unless they’ve cured the problems this year?) and how to resolve the inevitable clashes between sets.

(DECLARATION OF INTEREST: As most of you know, I have had a long-standing partnership with the CTIJF for Arts Journalism training and they host me with transport and accommodation.]



Finally congratulations to the 85-year-old Wayne Shorter, whose Emanon has just taken a brilliantly well-deserved (and far too long coming) 2018 Jazz Grammy. Listen!