Gender & Jazz: Cape Town Public Debate Tuesday March 20

Two quotes from artists, both appearing at this year’s CTIJF:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” – ROBERT GLASPER

“Music is action: the sound of bodies in motion. When we hear a rhythm, we imagine the act that gave rise to it. Some call it neural mirroring, or empathy. Music and dance are linked in this way: bodies listening to bodies. If music has ever moved you, then you already know.” – VIJAY IYER

And if – in the immortal words of Louis Armstrong – you have to ask why one of those statements (both discussing pretty much the same thing) is deeply misogynist and the other one isn’t, well “then you’ll never know”.

Glasper mis-spoke. He has apologised, and so has his enabler, columnist & musician Ethan Iverson.

Lil Hardin Armstrong

There’s as monstrous a failure of imagination in his statement as in the demands of the irritating groove bunnies of all genders who interrupt sets, loudly demanding musicians play only what they can dance to. At least as outrageous is the implication that imaginative soloing can’t move bodies. The wise and wonderful Sydney Mnisi playing at last night’s Voice reunion (more about that at the end) demonstrated that you can take a reed line to the Sun Ra asteroid belt of outer space and back and still get an audience swaying.

Such failures of imagination characterise sexism. The creep who gets way too close while mentoring a woman musician; the bandleader who demeaningly asks a trained woman instrumentalist “What songs do you know?”, the carpet auditioneers, leering commenters and bum-pinchers (“Where’s your sense of humour, girlie?”) and the solo hogs who just never make space for their female co-players, all share an empathy deficiency severe enough to warrant confinement in an institution. (Vibist Sasha Berliner has told some of those stories vividly at )

Melba Liston

But that’s not all we’ll be discussing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival Public Debate next Tuesday 20 March at 1:30 in the Artscape Opera Bar.

The gendered blinkers we rarely talk about also determine who plays jazz, what instruments they play and how their playing and composition are classified and discussed, including in the media. (And, let’s not forget, these blinkers oppress everybody whose music doesn’t fit the gender mould, whether nonconforming cis people, members of the LGBTIQ community, or people who refuse all labels. )

Dorothy Ashby

The labels determine how the history of the music and the literature about it are written. In this country, pioneering work by Lara Allen (summarised in her introduction to the first edition of Chris Ballantine’s Marabi Nights ) allowed us the first insights into the key role played by women in the development of precursor musics on the vaudeville stages.

Valaida Snow

For the USA, Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift and other books, as well as documentaries such as Lady Be Good ( ) and The Girls in the Band ( begin to tell the story.

You probably already know of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston – shame on you if you don’t – but if you doubt the breadth of the history of women instrumentalists in jazz, listen to the early sounds of Leona May Smith, Dolly Jones or Valaida Snow ( ) and the jazz harp of Dorothy Ashby ( and ). If you think women have been absent from classical composition, check out Florence B Price ( ) or the experimentalism of Julia Perry ( ). And, believe me, there’s more: much more.

Julia Perry

It’s not accidental that these great but hardly known players and composers are women of colour, and not only because communities of colour were the wellsprings of the music. Exclusion and erasure are intersectional: they operate at the crossroads where race, gender, class and power intersect. That jazz studies ignores women is about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how that plays out in the discourse of the field (see ).

But whether your interest is the theory or the practice of the still-gendered world of jazz, come to Artscape next Tuesday 20 March at 13:30 and join in the debate.

Our panellists are performers, teachers and composers Nicky Schrire and Nomfundo Xaluva; Professor Nirvana Bechan who heads the Media Department of CPUT and, for the CTIJF Arts Journalism Programme, myself and writer Percy Mabandu. #We have voice. Let’s use it to make creative noise about these issues!

international sweethearts1.jpg
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm



It’s us, the listeners, who sometimes want bands and players to stay the same. Musicians themselves are forever growing, exploring, and taking new roads – and that’s a good thing. Last night at the Orbit, Voice reunited for a single, remarkable night. It was worth the ticket, and even the late start and the hour-long wait in a queue. (That tells you how popular the outfit were). It was clear, though, that this wasn’t going to be a night for nostalgiacs right from the moment Sydney Mnisi launched into his first solo on Scullery Department and invited John Coltrane and Archie Shepp into that back kitchen to chow with Kippie. Everybody brought all the journeys they’ve travelled in the last decade-plus back into the music; nobody sounds like their ten years younger selves any more. The playing was fierce, powerful and often hot with emotion, with jaw-dropping solos from Andile Yenana, Mnisi and Marcus Wyatt and calm, masterful drum work from Morabo Morejele holding the strong visions together. By the closer, Blues for Green (there were two encores after that, despite the midnight hour) Yenana had coaxed bassist Herbie Tsoaeli into one of those tight walking lines to recall midnight at another club, ten years ago. But the set also announced that if these players work together again – and the imagining was magical enough to make us hope they do – there will actually be no going back to those days and it’ll be another journey onward & outwards.


Fake News, ‘native’ content and the ethics of arts journalism

I receive emails like this three or four times a week. This is the most recent:

“Good Day,

I hope my e-mail finds you well and fab.


There’s a new […] TV show due to launch[…] for My Client […] and we were wondering if we can do a cover/ insert story with […]?

Details: […]

Suggested story angles & headlines: available on request

Kindly let me know if you’d be keen on this? We would be honoured to be featured on in (sic) your publication or cover.


 I’ve removed the details to save the blushes of the person – they call themselves a ‘brand architect’ – who penned this. Otherwise, linguistic infelicities, bad grammar and all, this is the full message. The person hasn’t even bothered to discover who I am or whether I’m in any position to offer a ‘cover/insert story’, even if I’m so inclined.

But it represents a growing and disturbing trend. Advertising agencies broker deals with publications; the publication’s writers generate content based on the “suggested story angles and headlines” brewed up by the agency. Newsrooms are short of staff and resources; media houses need advertising revenue; many editors have abandoned the arts as an area worth serious journalistic coverage. So they grab and run with this offered “story”. Even if no payment changes hands – and there is no suggestion of payment above – an allegedly independent publication potentially allows an outside interested party to set its news agenda.

Often, payment does happen, but by a more indirect route. As Songezo Zibi, former Business Day editor, observed in the 2016 State of the Newsroom report ( ): “Instead of selling space in our titles we’re now selling content, meaning as editors we have to sell advertising to clients and usually with a promise of positive editorial coverage.” (The Press Ombud’s Code requires paid content to be labelled as such – but when that specific story is not paid for, merely ‘suggested’ and accompanying advertising elsewhere, the situation becomes much greyer. And when it’s happening in an area of news that many editors don’t respect as such..?

But why, you may wonder, does this matter? After all, it’s only a puff about a new TV series.

First, it’s part of the pervasive creep of external agenda-setting and bought news bedevilling all our media, and brought to light when Bathabile Dlamini’s then-Ministry bought a praise song for her on an SABC station ( ).

Secondly, however ‘trivial’ you may consider the subject matter, this is the insertion of fake news into the media. The series may be so run-of-the-mill that it contains absolutely no news worth wasting page space on. Or it may be garbage. Or there may be real news lurking there, which this suggested publicity is designed to mask: presenters haven’t been paid; reality footage may have been (more) faked (than usual); a dozen other possibilities. (Additionally, if an agency genuinely has a powerful story, that agency should write it and send it out as their release. If it’s really news, it’ll get picked up.)

And, thirdly, of course, TV programmes are not trivial (after all, they are watched by millions). They contain multiple potentially engaging and important stories: about their discourse, process, economics and more. The same is true of any arts topic or event.

Attempts to set the news agenda by interested parties aren’t trivial either. Whenever anybody – be it an advertising or PR agency, a commercial company, a government department or some unholy alliance of these – offers journalists “news angles/headlines”, or guidance on the best way to cover something, the shit-detectors of those with an interest in press freedom should blare. Those who pay the piper invariably hope to call the tune.

Arts coverage, currently the neglected orphan of the newsroom, is particularly vulnerable, because editors no longer care to see the story possibilities in it (and not just for the arts pages), and no longer have budget for the specialist writers who can.

So, no, Ms ‘brand architect’. Your email does not find me “fab”. And as for the offer of “news angles/headlines” – thanks, but I’ll pass.

Trio Grande: a new outfit to watch

Anybody nostalgic for the moments of fierce conversational intimacy that characterised the music of Paul Hanmer’s Trains to Taung should have been at the Orbit last night for the debut of Trio Grande: Paul Hanmer, Feya Faku & Louis Mhlanga. It was rich with that kind of warm, thoughtful musical interaction, with some fabulous new material too – Paul Hanmer’s A Trip to the Beats demonstrated multiple and complex ways to approach groove-led material. If Mhlanga’s Zvinoshamisa already moves you to tears, you’ll need a box-full of Kleenex for the version with Faku’s solo added. Grande indeed…

God’s emeralds: Voice sounds again

In its early 2000s heyday, it was probably the best outfit in Joburg: a supergroup whose members went on to have stellar careers. It shaped, for many, the quintessential identity of the venue where it was resident and created standard-worthy material. But it never got quite as famous as it deserved, and the venue’s recent biography barely mentions it. What was it? Voice.

Voice at the Bassline: (l to r) Yenana, Mnisi, Tsoaeli,Wyatt, poet Sandile Dikeni, Morojele. Photo: © Oscar Gutierrez 


A dozen years on, on Saturday (March 17th) Voice reunites for what promises to be a unique night as part of the Orbit Fourth Movement anniversary celebrations ( ). The group comprises Sydney Mnisi on reeds, Marcus Wyatt on trumpet, Andile Yenana on piano, Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, with initially the late Lulu Gontsana, and subsequently Morabo Morojele, on drums.

Voice held a long-running residency at the old Bassline in Melville, and its rhythm section was the rhythm section of choice for a stellar selection of visiting players, South African and overseas. That’s not a little part of its secret: only via the kind of sustained working together that residencies facilitate can artists grow the seamless, almost telepathic understanding of one another’s approaches that Voice demonstrated.

Voice sounded promise of all the things the players have become in the years since: Wyatt’s flexible lyricism and quirky anarchy; Yenana’s demonstration of how beautifully Tyner-ish spacey harmonies transmigrate to Africa; Tsoaeli’s switchback marriage of precise walking lines and unchained imagination; Mnisi’s reed shout of hot soul, hard bop and anguish. Drummer Morojele (also an accomplished development scholar), subsequently moved his music into words in the powerful and beautifully crafted novel How We Buried Puso ( ), where, if you read it aloud, the rhythm patterns of his sticks still sound sinuous and sweet.

Vol 1

The group release two albums during their too-brief life together. The first, the 2001 Quintet Legacy Volume One ( featured Gontsana on drums. There may be jazz listeners today who weren’t around to know first-hand quite how fine a drummer he was: mercurial, subtle, terrifyingly clever. Listen to the tracks Sinivile and Blues for Green to hear two sides of his skill, the twisty and the straight-ahead. Wyatt’s still playing the song Sweet Anathi today, but here you can hear it not long after it was born.

The second album, the 2003 Quintet Legacy Volume 2: Songs for our Grandchildren ( ) features two compositions by legendary reedman Kippie Moeketsi, Scullery Department and I Remember Billy, and one by guitarist Allen Kwela, the spiritual You Are the Way, as well as originals from the band members. But the standout track – a fitting companion piece to I Remember Billy, another of the most beautiful jazz ballads ever written here – is Mnisi’s Ida, written in memory of his mother, who died while the recording was being made.Vol 2

The second album marks an important moment in South African jazz. It stands on the cusp when post-liberation homages to the jazz past reached their zenith. The bracing playing and fresh visioning on both the tributes and such unashamedly retro originals as Tsoaeli’s sprightly Days Mandulo and Mnisi’s Syd’s Dilemma recall the “dash of lime” that Todd Matshikiza invoked when describing the birth of African Jazz. But that mid-2000s moment was also the point when younger music college graduates were starting to establish the next wave of new sounds – and it was into that space that Voice’s members moved as teachers, composers and leaders of their own projects.

But before that they still created magic evenings at the old Bassline – once, I remember, playing close to midnight through a power cut: candle-shadows on the tables and an extended, seamless, unplugged set where it was impossible to spot the joins between Trane, Tyner and McGregor and the band’s raising of those and more spirits in their own work.

The blurb for Voice posted this week on the Orbit website – possibly serious, possibly ironic – emphasises the veteran status of all its musicians today. But as re-listening to the two albums – one 17 years old; the other 15 – demonstrates, age isn’t relevant except as it is to a vintage wine: flavours enrich, deepen and acquire burnished layers of complexity.

The headline for this column comes from Dudley Moloi’s poem on the liner of the first album. It still fits the music.

“Jazz improvisation is about digging/subliminal jewels on the run/Like your whole life depends on it/ You search in frustration/ (…)/Most of them are lost in the spur of the moment/ in the deep dark recesses of your soul/ If you are lucky, they resurface/ And grace your soul like borrowed wealth/God’s emeralds.”

Voice resurface on Saturday night. Don’t miss them.

‘Send Me’ versus mini-me

The trouble with good ideas is they often inspire mediocre imitation. When Ramaphosa sang ‘Send me’, the words, the context and force of the music and the re-framing of deployment as answering the call of the people, all gave the quote real emotional force. So then Malusi Gigaba’s speechwriter got in on the act…
Now, don’t get me wrong, Kendrick Lamar has some great lyrics. Him & Dre jammin’ on “everything you buy/ taxes will deny” might have worked brilliantly in this context. But “everything’s gonna be all right”? For a start it’s what songwriters call a floating lyric. It crops up everywhere. Do a word-search and you might find it in a thousand other songs. So not original; not worth attributing even to demonstrate that the Finance Minister is down with the kids.
And then there was that excruciating faux-American accent. That, I fear, was all Gigabyte’s own idea. Lame.
Please don’t do it again.

It was beautiful – but what did Ramaphosa’s SONA jazz solo mean?

Culture as it is lived: Kippie Moeketsi makes music from, with and for the people of South Africa  – artwork by Thami Mnyele

There have been times when ANC Presidents have very publicly admired the immediate, visceral, power of critical art-making. The late OR Tambo, attending the London theatre debut of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, acknowledged: “It took [them] two hours to address what we have been trying to address for 20 years.”

The past nine years have not been among those times.

Certainly, some energetic workers in the Department of Arts and Culture have ensured regular (if sometimes formulaic), correct and timely acknowledgments of artists who fought apartheid and brought joy in previous eras. Honours have been awarded to those still living; eulogies offered for those who have passed. Yet others – sometimes highly-placed – have used arts and culture in the same way the fiefdoms of other departments have been used: as vehicles for individual self-enrichment and the distortion of the liberation narrative.

For art and artists working now, offering immediate and angry responses to the patriarchy, commodification, silencing and corruption that have deformed public life, that last has been the dominant response. Lawsuits have been launched (then quietly dropped) against cartoonists and satirical works, and there have been strident calls for censorship, along with the metonymic invocation of “culture”.

“Culture” (and this is a confusion that infested the first, though not the most recent, version of our not-yet-finalised arts and culture White Paper) has been invoked to stand for the past, for ‘legends’ only, for the art that was made, for the outlawing of debate around social understandings shaped in earlier eras, and for the reinvention of tribalism. This was the kind of static conceptualisation of culture that permitted Khwezi’s rape accused to justify his action as “entering isibhaya sika bab’wakhe (her father’s kraal)”: erasing the attacked woman’s existence as a person, acknowledging only the man entering and the father owning.

Within this framework, of course, the vibrancy, syncretism and constant iconoclastic discourse of African urban culture has come in for particular opprobrium, perhaps best crystallised in attacks in 2012 on “blacks…who become too clever.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa

But that was then. Two days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded his State of the Nation Address (SONA) with a quote not from some colonialist poet, or even a laureate of our own such as Keorapetse Kgositsile, but from the recently departed jazz trumpeter, Bra’ Hugh Ramapolo Masekela and the song Thuma Mina ( “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around/…Send me”

And, in that context, the quote signified a great deal more than simply a well deserved tribute to a distinguished jazzman recently passed.

Jazz, and Bra’ Hugh, grew up in Sophiatown: beloved of the klevahs who inhabited that epicentre of iconoclasm under apartheid. It was the syncretic music of non-tribal – and often explicitly anti-tribalist – black workers, whose acknowledgment of their shared South African-ness fuelled their struggles to transform the country in the interests of all. In citing it, Ramaphosa signalled the end of an era of narrow regional favouritism.

The lyrics matter too. As all art with real power does, Masekela’s song – first recorded in

The late Hugh Ramapolo Masekela

2006 and updated on every subsequent live outing – pays respect to heritage via a long-established Zulu hymn, but creates a unique new song about the issues we face now. Poverty has not yet ended; the war against AIDS is not won, gender oppression and violence have received dog-whistles of encouragement over the past nine years through the statements and actions of powerful men in public life. The speech, and the song, promise energy to deal with these issues.

“I wanna lend a hand/ I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse…Send me”, the song says. It is the song of a deployee, deployed not merely by one party but by all those desperately needing change.

Despite what some academics would assert, of course, practice is harder than theory. Laying out the broad principles for change is easier than making effective implementation happen, and we’ll still need the critical citizens – and artists – to help in the process and sound loud alarm bells if it goes off-track.

Arts and culture did not feature in SONA apart from that magnificent song. They could have fitted well into Ramaphosa’s discourse, because what has happened to the cultural space has not been immune from the rot, and what will be done about it will be one barometer of the reality of any new dawn. Culture is a living manifestation of society; we shape it with our own hands and actions as we live. We need from government an environment that does not dictate what culture should do, but genuinely enables access for those who create with brushes, notes or words, and those who participate in creation by dancing, viewing, reading and offering feedback. We need that White Paper finalised (with more popular debate processes as necessary to get it right). We need tangible support for the creation and consumption of the arts. And we also need a minister who can bring the sector some joy and inspiration…

Yet, despite those gaps, there was powerful beauty in that Thuma Mina moment because it signalled that we may now have a President who understands and respects that ‘culture’ includes the new songs and art (and, in the wake of Inxeba, new films too) that we are making now, about the things we experience now. A president who will not mock, or attempt to censor, the diversity of voices in the contested space that arts and culture must always be. And who will, perhaps, carry on listening and actually hearing what we say.



Saxit: only four reeds but many more interesting ideas

It was just over two years ago that seven-year-old Cape Town-based saxophone quartet Saxit launched their self-titled debut EP ( ): a short, tantalising glimpse of what a saxophone quartet can do. Two years on, and the outfit is back with an 11-track album: Système Diabolique (, whose promotional video you can view here: ( )


This time, soprano/alto saxophonist Joel Benjamin, altoist Jade de Waal, tenorman Simon Bates and baritone and flute player Gareth Harvey have stretched their musical horizons wider. The material includes poetry from Qaqamba Mbili, Allison-Claire Hoskins and Emile XY, drama, songs from Maya Spector and Monique Hellenberg, and compositions from Randy Brecker, Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim, the two singers, Harvey himself and Martin Wolfaardt. Genres stretch beyond jazz to contemporary chamber music and, in the case of Hellenberg’s song, something very close to smoochy Rn’b.

Despite the existence of the earlier EP, in fact, Système Diabolique feels a lot like most debut albums: a sampler of everything the outfit has to offer. If you liked the funky feel of Peewee Ellis’s Chicken on Saxit’s previous outing, you’ll probably enjoy the opener: Brecker’s 34th n’Lex. If your tastes veer more towards new music, Wolfaardt’s Brain Meltdown and Harvey’s title track (with thoughtful soloing from de Waal) may appeal more. If South African repertoire is your interest then the closer, Ibrahim’s Chisa (with a gorgeous solo from Benjamin paying stylistic homage to Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee and that whole era of Cape Town jazz) will definitely hit the sweet spot.

Accompanying poetry always poses challenges for instrumentalists: do you provide embellishments to underline the mood, Greek-chorus-like commentary, or simple punctuation with the reed equivalent of vocal doo-wops? Saxit deploy all these tactics and more, creating, for example, a bitter, foreboding commentary on Hoskins’ Sobukwe/Mandela poem Burning Messiah, and mirroring the emotions of Mbili’s feminist call to resistance, Rise. 

The most texturally interesting  track is the collaboration with Black Noise veteran XY on Story of the Wind. There’s a gentle sonic pun there, because ‘wind’ is not only the theme of the English/Afrikaans verses, but also the power behind the instruments. As well as the melodic sax sounds we know, the reeds provide the blowing gusts of a Cape SouthEaster, the fluting of Khoisan pipes, the songs of birds, and clacking instrument keys that might be blown leaves or dancers’ leg-rattles. If I had to pick a favourite track, Story of the Wind would probably be mine.


Like their earlier outing, Saxit’s Système Diabolique is finely played. What makes a saxophone quartet successful, though, is not merely strong, accurate playing. What we listen for is both the individuality of the different sax voices – and that comes through clearly on this album – but also a collective voice that can give the ensemble its own identity. In both adventurous programme choices and in the very evident respect and enjoyment each player shows for the others’ space and style, Saxit are staking their claim to a very distinctive space in South Africa’s soundscape.




Saxophone quartets around the world, like Saxit, make very interesting music indeed. Here are a few others you might also enjoy: