What the papers should have told you about CTIJF

The most frequent question I’ve heard since returning from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) last week has been: “Why haven’t we seen any reports on the jazz?”

I’ve been writing about the reasons for a long time.

This is no failure of marketing or PR, but a shameful failure of the media, who have eviscerated serious arts coverage from almost all the platforms where South African music fans seek it. There is little page-space; there are few reporters – and what editors demand from them is “showbiz”. Which tells audiences nothing about the music.

Whatever alleged “trend experts” theorize, readers still enjoy reviews. If they were at the performance, they enjoy testing their opinions against someone else’s. If they weren’t, they can enjoy some vicarious experience – and maybe decide whether it’s worth attending next time.

The blogosphere acknowledges and meets that need. Blog reviews vary hugely in quality, but even the worst are voraciously consumed. Newspapers, despite their pressing business need to please, win and hold readers, choose to ignore it.

So, what was it like, there in Cape Town, as we struggled to get past shameful political behaviour and insults to departed heroes to give a fair hearing to the music?

Musically, it was probably one of the best festivals ever. The CTIJF’s multiple stages offer a fan many festivals in one. Mine largely revolves around the Rosie’s and Molelekwa stages, where the most interesting modern improvised music (reductively labelled ‘jazz’: a tag that obscures as much as it explains) happens.

The march of the philistines

What made the headlines was the so-called ‘riot’ outside the separately-ticketed Rosie’s venue where more people than the seats could hold wanted to hear Thandiswa Mazwai. It wasn’t quite a riot – unlike 2006, where the same thing happened before the late Miriam Makeba’s performance. The extremely perilous 2006 situation prompted the introduction of separate Rosie’s tickets. While I don’t see why a token R5 ticket would not serve the same purpose as the current R30 one, this year, ticketing proved its worth. No-one was trampled, and festival security filled all the seats and diverted the overflow efficiently, assisted by improved crowd control at the tops and bottoms of escalators. Frustrated, Mazwai-addicted fans may not care about any of this – but if it’s neglected, people can die.

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Nduduzo Makhathini/Thandiswa Mazwai

For those inside Rosie’s, what happened after that was equally distressing. Mazwai’s act merited the Rosie’s stage because her current show features intimate, personal singing and a sensitive jazz trio. It may seem perverse to have to assert this, but such music, lovingly created by skilled artists, is for listening. This seems to have been lost on sections of the crowd, who howled, chatted, selfie’d, phoned and ignored the music. They made life hell for those who wanted to listen. Many of those philistines were in the seats reserved for sponsors.

The problem the festival still hasn’t solved

This highlights the festival’s most important remaining structural problem. There is one venue with the near-perfect acoustics certain acts demand: Rosie’s. It’s relatively small. There is one venue that can accommodate monster audiences – Kippie’s – and it offers poor sound, discomfort and (this year) dirt. (I hope those damp patches I had to sit in were beer.) But in Kippie’s, the uncaring part of Thandiswa’s crowd could have played amongst themselves at the back, while those who cared listened to the music at the front.

Maybe the extended CTICC will offer some better spaces next year. If not, the organisers must do something about Kippie’s.

Because such problems do get solved at Cape Town. Timekeeping is now like clockwork, making commuting between gigs a breeze. The Molelekwa stage has been plagued with sound leakage in previous years, the only barrier to other nearby gigs a set of flimsy curtains across glass walls. This year, ceiling and walls had been reinforced with acoustic panelling, and the stage finally did justice to the acts it hosted.

Yes, you are allowed to dance AND check a solo

All that said, what about the music?

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Rowdy, retro, rejoiceful, radical: Kamasi Washington

The festival this year reflected lines of descent, personal and musical. Nowhere was that clearer than in Kamasi Washington’s rowdy, retro, angry, rejoiceful Friday set in Kippie’s. His 2015 album, The Epic, celebrated the fiercely creative reunion of LA musicians who’d grown up together: community spirit and radical politics; Coltrane and funk; the church; rap & rhythm n’blues. Live, we got all of that and more: a performance that brought together those parts of the audience who wanted to move, and those who wanted to meditate, eyes tight shut, on a heavy solo. Washington’s set provoked and challenged people to move between the two categories – a unique moment.

Next day, at the record stall:

“Is this the music we heard last night? Why is it so expensive?”

“Yes – but the album has three hours of it.”

“You lie! Did you hear that? We have to buy this – it’s three times more!”

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Siya Makuzeni

Siya Makuzeni is a musicians’ musician, as evidenced by the number of fellow-artists in the Rosie’s audience for her set. But, like Washington, she touches hearts as well as intellects, with deep roots in Xhosa vocal tradition. Where the grandmothers of Lady Frere village multiply their voices through choral overtones, Makuzeni uses digital loops to build up a layered host of healing sounds. Close your eyes, and it’s like a sculpture by Ayanda Mji, encrusted with bird-headed women: all singing.

Bird calls; Mahanthappa answers

Overtones, this time on a brass instrument, returned with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. His audience may have suffered from a shamefully early Saturday slot at Rosies – a consequence of the Thandiswa dilemma above – but the music suffered not one whit. For me, this was the performance of the festival: it should have closed the night, not opened it.

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Rudresh Mahanthappa

This is probably the final Bird Calls tour, and the rapport (and palpable humour and affection) the group has built up over time spoke powerfully from the stage. Mahanthappa’s homage to Parker is clever music carried by technically superb playing. It certainly demands thought – but there’s cold cerebral and then there’s hot cerebral. Bird Calls is definitely the latter, and in that defiantly assertive – and witty – intellectualism it truly captures the spirit of bebop without any of the retro-cliched junk. Francois Mouton is a quiet bassist: his ruthlessly steady lines hold the flying ideas together, his solos spin out on multiple ideas of his own. There were machine guns and metronomes from drummer Rudy Royston, while trumpeter Adam O’Farrill speaks equally fluently in both the lyrical and the bratty, speed-merchant voices of his instrument.

O’Farrill kept making me think of Clifford Brown, and that reference point persisted in Cape Town trumpeter Darren English’s Molelekoa set. On his debut release, Imagine Nation, English covers a tune made famous by Brown, Cherokee, which he has called “the pinnacle song for getting your chops up”. But English is no copyist: what impressed on stage was his fluent personal voice, bright, contained energy, and the freshness of his own compositions. It’s a pity he’s getting his (deserved) breaks in the US – we need to hear more of him here. The other discovery of English’s set was the compelling slow burn of emotion in the solos of saxophonist Gregory Tardy; the audience wanted more of those, too.

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Mandla Mlangeni

In some ways it was a festival of trumpets. Back at Rosie’s, Mandla Mlangeni with the Tune Recreation Committee gave us melodies such as Bhekisizwe that we already love, but more new songs from TRC’s latest release, Voices of Our Vision, with powerful lyrics delivered by Zoe Modiga. It’s interesting how Mlangeni’s compositions take on an entirely different character in his different outfits. Here, fresh spices and shading were added particularly by the jagged abstract explorations of pianist Yonela Mnana and the spacious, Metheny-ish – but distinctly Capetonian – landscapes painted by guitarist Keenan Ahrends.

It wasn’t Clifford Brown but Mongs that Mlangeni called up in some angry-hornet solos, and it must have been painful, in the weekend’s political context, to play Bhekisizwe, homaging a father who died for values no longer visible. Plaintive, descending notes from that melody seemed to keep coming back, in segues and improvisations – or maybe we just needed to hear those notes, as we did to chorus with Mlangeni on Afrika Mayibuye? Yet Voices of Our Vision also put strong new writing on display, such as the processional of (I’m So) True, slowly gathering obsessive pace.

Swiss chops and South African forests

Skyjack’s trombonist Andreas Tschopp certainly has chops, and we heard more of him in this Swiss/SA band’s set that we do on the album. But in Skyjack, it’s not just the players you can make easy puns about who have them. Kesivan Naidoo, Shane Cooper, Kyle Shepherd and reedman Marc Stucki all marry virtuoso technique with open, slightly quirky imaginations to produce something that genuinely merits the overused accolade ‘unique’. Maybe it’s the combination of cold North and warm South – or maybe it’s the blend of distinctive individual visions with apparently seamless shared ones? On a new number, The Hunter, for example, the relentless driving pulse of the tune was all kinds of hunting and being hunted, until Cooper’s and then Shepherd’s solo took the twisty path through a forest that ultimately turned out to be Knysna.

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Skyjack take a bow

My festival closed with Escalandrum. Tango without bandoneon and dancers might seem as unthinkable as bacon (or Easter) without eggs, but these literal – in the case of leader, grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazzola – and spiritual descendants of tango pioneer Astor Piazzola made it work. Instead of watching flamboyant pasos and castigados, our ears tune to the delicate appeal of Astor’s compositions (Megadeath guitarist Marty Friedman has called them “shameless pop melodies”), and the scope they offer for imaginative, sometimes anarchistic, jazz improvisation. Pipi Piazzola has talked at length about his fascination with claves (the Latin rhythm patterns that overdetermine conventional meters ) and in this bandoneon-free zone, without that particular voice on top, listeners are drawn into his complex drum patterning. It’s a reminder that in Buenos Aires, African immigrants were among the working-class portenõs who built tango culture, and that tango, like the rest of the jazz family, has its share of African roots.

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Escalandrum

With so much good music to hear, the artists who stay most vividly in the memory have something important in common. It isn’t just that they played superbly – everybody this year did that. It’s that they also had something important to say.

“But what about the piano?” The Zille Argument and decolonising the jazz curriculum Part 3

 

This one’s for Human Rights Day. Every time I write about transforming or decolonising some aspect of the jazz establishment, somebody somewhere feels obliged to inform me either that “Without colonialism nobody would be playing instruments like pianos”, or, rather more inexplicably, that “Actually the first jazz record was made by white men: the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut Livery Stable Blues in 1917.” That second fact is so well known as not to require repetition. Why it is used to refute decolonisation arguments is puzzling, when it might equally well be used to argue that while the creativity of African-Americans developed the art form, it was white Americans who commodified and exploited it.

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Damon J Phillips, in his intriguing, rigorous historical study of cultural production in jazz, Shaping Jazz (https://www.amazon.com/Shaping-Jazz-Cities-Labels-Emergence/dp/0691150885 ) , provides ample evidence about the role of dominant financial elites in the music’s early days. Anyway, the real story is actually more complex than that – because the first contract to make a jazz recording was actually offered to trumpeter Freddie Keppard: a man of colour (http://www.nola.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2017/03/first_jazz_record.html ). He turned it down.

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Freddie Keppard

The first argument – “What about the piano?” – might now be rechristened the Zille Argument, since it’s essentially the same somewhat off-key melody the DA veteran was singing last week with her talk of piped water and infrastructure as fruits of colonialism, and it’s the updated cover version of an old, hackneyed, deeply colonialist, “ungrateful natives” song.

The title of this blog was borrowed with thanks from the most recent scholar to discredit that distasteful refrain: Shashi Tharoor, whose book Inglorious Empire was published earlier this year (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/india-britain-empire-railways-myths-gifts ). Though he’s writing about India, his points all hit home here too: colonialism distorted the sense of identity, politics, economic development and initiative of colonised nations, systematically stifling or eliminating local enterprise, applying divide-and-rule policies and re-shaping cultures and institutions in the image of patriarchal Britain – and more. Great cities (with piped water – as in Gedi, in what is now Eastern Kenya), trading empires, fearless explorers (think Ibn Battuta) and even factories existed in various parts of the colonised world before the Europeans arrived (as, of course, did a rich, diverse and complex range of musical instruments).

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All mod cons including piped water: the ancient African city of Gedi

What happened subsequently has a name – underdevelopment. Wherever the colonisers arrived, indigenous development that was everywhere already in process was forced backwards. The best general introduction to this topic is West Indian scholar Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europe-Underdeveloped-Africa-Walter-Rodney/dp/190638794X ) but that’s the tip of a huge iceberg of distinguished scholarship from writers such as Professor Ann Seidman (institutional underdevelopment and how it can be reclaimed), Dr Joseph Hanlon (Southern African economies), Professor Robert Sutcliffe (Latin America) and many more.

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How the Zilles of this world (often ostensibly well educated people) can have remained so ignorant of all this scholarship for so long surprises me.

How they can be so insensitive as to equate water-pipes (often initially installed to stop cholera reaching the rich, white parts of town) with oppression, dispossession and cultural – and literal – genocide is even more astonishing. Dismissing and diminishing the pain of others as either over-emotional or insignificant ‘in the balance of things’ has long been one of the ways colonisers justify colonialism. However, those who suffered it, own it.  As Irish anti-colonialist James Conolly pointed out long ago, there are “none so well equipped [as those who wear them] to decide what is a fetter.”

We’ll be discussing decolonisation in relation to the jazz curriculum next week at the Arts Journalism Public Debate, which every year forms part of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The debate will take place at the Artscape Opera Bar at 13:45 on Wednesday March 29th. Among the panellists will be pianist Kyle Shepherd, and media scholar Asanda Ngoasheng

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Asanda Ngoasheng

A former Clive Menell Scholar at Duke University, Ngoasheng currently lectures at the Cape Penininsula University of Technology and is undertaking Doctoral research on Decolonising Pedagogy After Rhodes Must Fall. More names will be announced. Entry to the public debate is free, but the room fills up fast so arrive early.

 

‘Bone raises the bones at Sterkfontein

There’s a lot of rhetoric about celebrating South Africa – but rhetoric is no substitute for real information about real achievements. Yesterday, close to the Cradle of Humankind, the Sterkfontein Composers’ Meeting helmed by Michael Blake held its closing concert, presenting new work created or refined after a month of intensive workshopping involving a dozen new music composers and players from South Africa. The Netherlands and Uganda. The composers included Andile Khumalo, Clare Loveday, Lloyd Prince, Samora Ntsebeza and more.

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Andile Khumalo

Only a few years old, the Composers’ Meeting has already spread the international word about new South African composition. 2015 guests, Swedish percussionist Johnny Axelsson and trombonist Ivo Nilsson – who returned this year – took the works created then back to Stockholm and Visby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hBY3gDFjLo ), and no doubt the process will be repeated this year.

Indeed, if you’re in Cape Town, you can catch a repeat of the concert tomorrow, March 3, as part of the Purpur Festival of Transgressive Arts at the Youngblood Gallery on Bree St.

As the event’s board representative, Paul Hanmer, phrased it in his closing remarks: “Just as small bands of those earliest people set out from this place to the world, so this small gathering – you don’t need massive stadiums and thousands of people! – will spread this music…”

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Paul Hanmer

(Yes, that same Paul Hanmer, who now composes across genres, for orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as for the jazz combos from which you may know him…)

The dozen works presented varied widely in mood, texture and compositional approach. One uniting factor was the skill of the Swedish instrumental visitors. Axelsson coaxes surprising sounds from familiar instruments, bowing the keys of a marimba, or stroking a drumskin to mirror the tones of a trombone. Nilsson makes his ‘bone speak in multiple tongues, employing more kinds of mute than I could count. Both opened our ears to sonic possibilities soaring far beyond the idiomatic.

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Johnny Axelsson & Ivo Nilsson

It was a short concert of startlingly new material, and I suspect I’m not the only listener who would have welcomed the opportunity to hear and reflect on all the pieces again. On only a single hearing, three lodged themselves most firmly in my memory.

Two works by Ugandan composers were revelatory. Milton Wabonya’s Empango , based on the court trumpet music of the Bunyara Kitara Kingdom provided a confident, infectiously swinging, fanfare to open the concert – a reminder that African kingdoms (and not only North European ones) had classical court music traditions too. Charles Lwanga’s One Buzzy Evening appealed to the ears of anybody who, like me, is more accustomed to listening to jazz, as it riffed on the possibilities offered by the Baganda pitch spectrum. It’s reductive to discuss African music in terms only of shared features across the continent. These two pieces reminded us that much as we may acknowledge African music generically, there remain distinctive sound-worlds in the countries around us that we have yet to learn about.

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Charles Lwanga

Lloyd Prince’s Bones! Rise! Speak offered a narrative reflecting on the workshop’s location: the excavation of Mrs Ples’s bones and the story they (and she) have to tell. Axelsson’s wood-blocks invoked not only a scene of patient archaelogists’ hammers on rocks, but multiple other musical echoes, such as the fossils dancing to a xylophone in Carnival of the Animals. The ensuing lyrical narrative took us from images to emotions, and the magic of being there, at the dawn of human life.

But if you weren’t there, and you didn’t hear it, you’d never know about any of this: not the workshop, not the South African achievement, nor the pan-African and international collaboration – nor even the fact that we have respected and accomplished African new music composers. We barely heard, outside the enclave of Classic–FM, that Neo Muyanga was composer-in residence at this year’s International Mozart Festival. When writing this piece, I could find almost nothing, not even a picture, on the web for many of the composers at Sterkfontein.

The near-extermination of serious local arts coverage in most of our newspapers (and it’s happened mainly over the past two years) means there is increasingly no record of what our artists do: their processes, their motivations, or their works. Under apartheid, when the academy stereotyped or ignored black composers, the informal musicologists of the media, such as Todd Matshikiza at Drum, provided valuable reportage to plug those gaps. Today, we don’t even have that. We know less about Lloyd Prince than Matshikiza told us about Ntebejane back then.

For the researchers of the future, this is a potential data disaster. For the musicians of the present, it’s a barrier to audiences, professional development and earnings. For the public, it actively builds ignorance about who we are as a creative people, directing interest instead towards the disposable music commodities of America. The next time somebody tells you they’re fighting foreign monopoly capital, ask them what they’re doing about this.

 

Jazz fans should celebrate Moonlight not La La Land

First, the 2017 Grammies ignored interesting music (Beyonce; Darcy James Argue https://daily.bandcamp.com/2016/10/12/darcy-james-argue-real-enemies-interview/ ) in favour of bland, unsalted oatmeal Adele. Now the 2017 Academy Awards give six Oscars – though not, thankfully, Best Picture – to whitesplaining and mansplaining, and a discourse that pretends to crusade for jazz but in fact distorts the music’s identity and offers, at best, decent, unexciting music.

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Keep trying, Ryan. In another 20 years you might be as good as Liberace

There’s now a significant body of analysis dissecting the racism of La La Land (https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/01/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-la-la-land.html?a=1 is a good place to start). But when I finally bought a ticket, it was worse than I expected.

First, sorry, it’s not a great musical even on its own terms. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play, sing and hoof adequately, but their voices are anaemic, and the dancing isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, where their predecessors Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had learned from the astounding Nicholas Brothers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNKRm6H-qOU ) how to make it genuinely so.

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The real thing: the astounding Nicholas Brothers

The cinematography is nowhere like as magically innovative as that of director Damian Chazelle’s acknowledged inspiration, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Ryan Gosling, we are told, “spent three months learning to play piano” – beat that, Thelonius Monk! – and doesn’t sound or look bad. But, again, he’s not astounding either, and composer/pianist Justin Hurwitz certainly doesn’t create anything that would justify Gosling’s character anointing himself the only great, pure visionary in jazz. There isn’t even a song you can walk out humming – and in a decent pop musical, you should expect at least that.

As for the script, it’s a familiar and tired white saviour narrative (Ryan Gosling whitesplaining to John Legend what jazz really is), infused with Chazelle’s customary sexism (Ryan Gosling mansplaining to Emma Stone what jazz really is) undepinning a romance driven almost exclusively by the solipsism of its two protagonists.

We’ve been here before: Robert de Niro did it in 1977 in New York, New York (with a Liza Minelli who really could sing and hoof), where jazz was also embodied in a white man. However, de Niro did at least pay the obligatory visit to Harlem (dis-embodied cinematically as not-New York) to hear Diahanne Carroll , lent black musicians including Clarence Clemons the stage at his club, and worked with a score that produced a genuine, hummable, hit in its theme song.

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New York New York: jazz embodied as a white man

The relationship between jazz and other genres is way more interesting right now than purists (whatever they are – because part of  jazz’s hipness was always its syncretism and signifying righteously on the popular) versus commercialisers. An intriguing and constantly shifting, expanding conversation is taking place between innovators such as Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington and hip-hop, nu-soul and simply label-refusing artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Chazelle’s discourse, by contrast, (as it did in Whiplash) seems stuck in some ’50s or ’60s America where only lone hipster rebels (but not hipster rebels of colour such as Monk) were acknowledged as misunderstood geniuses, and only Real Men truly got jazz.

Can we be clear about this? Jazz in America began its life as an African-American music, and almost all its great shapers have been African-Americans. Some of them were women: too many vocalists to name, but also instrumentalists such as Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston. It was the music of a community, not simply of a heroic soloist. There have been great and innovative white players – Charlie Haden and Gil Evans are good examples – and they have readily acknowledged their debt to the community that birthed the music. None of the good ones claimed to be the music’s saviours. So why can’t jazz history in the movies get it right? Because it’s never ‘only a movie’ – it always also hawks a way of seeing the world.

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The real thing: Gil Evans talks score with Miles Davis

Most of the Best Picture nominees tell us more about America than a slight, shallow confection whose whose most lasting contribution to popular culture seems likely to be the suddenly-fashionable colour of Emma Stone’s yellow dress.

Mozart, bodies and bows

There’s always been a gentle tug-of-war between the various elements bundled together in the title of the nine-year-old Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF). Initially, as Artistic Director Florian Uhlig recalled on Sunday, a theme of “Music in Exile” made talking heads and debates on musical discourse prominent. Since then, some programmes have foregrounded the ‘Mozart’, or ‘International’, or ‘Johannesburg’ aspects, while others have offered more of an even blend.

This is one of the blender years, and concerned – as Uhlig also noted – to augment occasions for listening with spaces for active engagement with the making of the music and its makers. Sunday’s Re-Mixing Music at the St Francis of Assissi Church in Parkview provided one of those. Through the facilitation of JIMF’s Composer-in-Residence, Neo Muyanga, three other South African composers, Kingsley Buitendag, Prince Bulo and Lungiswa Plaatjies presented and then discussed, original works that considered the interactions between Western and African musical traditions.

It was, as Muyanga noted in the discussion, a time for “getting away from the binaries” and exploring points of contact, echoes, influences, reactions and conversations. And those conversations, musical and verbal, also provided illumination from a different direction for the decolonisation debate.

Often, musical attempts to fuse or blend traditions end up merely ornamenting the dominant discourse of one tradition with some decorative elements from the other. Writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, discussing his own context, put it well: “an Indian classical musician moonlighting with Western players: him soloing, representing some so-called immemorial tradition; them adding colour and representing the modern – neither category in itself static, but becoming static in their meeting.”

Such limitation can be reinforced by commitment to the binaries, such as the assumption that no real meeting is possible because, in one of Muyanga’s examples, “African music is said to be circular or cyclical; Western music to be linear.”

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Lungiswa Plaatjies

But the music presented on Sunday subverted that kind of categorisation. Plaatjies’ Vuma–Ekhaya–Ndiyahamba, for example, (the most extended of the three works) managed to be both circular in its use of traditional sound-cycles, but linear too in (as its title describes) its expression of a musical journey. There was equal interplay, without dilution, between the tones and textures of her voice and bow and the tones and textures of the string ensemble.

And the African elements foregrounded for listeners an aspect of embodiment of the music that can be forgotten when considering Western music. Some elements of African traditional music are always silent: they’re the spaces where the feet of the dancer should fall. Both Plaatjies and Bulo, in the discussion, recounted how movement helps players, especially in their role as healers (which is Plaatjies’ lineage), to enter the mental space the music needs. That embodiment goes further too. Plaatjies’ uncle Dizu (of Amampondo fame), a contributor to both performance and debate, explained how bow-gourds need to suit the breast shape of their female players, and how community midwives can use the vibration of the bowstring like an ultrasound.

In response, Uhlig discussed how the intervention of music industry intermediaries over time had erased that personal bodily connection from the Western musical tradition. Mozart’s manuscripts, he explained, contained minimal instructions. When Mozart wrote them, he was going to be the player and did not need to tell himself how to interpret. The instructions were created as the music was disseminated to other contexts – and we do not know what different variations in mood and feel Mozart may have employed on the same piece, because the instructions have made one mood and feel canonical.

Violinist Waldo Alexander picked up the refrain of ‘lost’ interpretation, recalling his work with legendary bow composer Madosini, where the lack of an adequate notation method meant that the musical moments of those performances, if not recorded, were lost forever. But how to notate? Bulo queried whether and how traditional Xhosa terms denoting musical feel should be translated.

It’s a pity the conversation was too short to explore full answers. Because we do not worry that glissando and its ilk are Italian words. A decolonised musical space might equally easily just use those Xhosa terms and add them to our lexicon and classical culture.

Neo Muyanga’s own composition is showcased at the JIMF closing concert on February 5 at 3:00pm in The Edge, St Mary’s School. You can also catch visiting UK pianist Joanna McGregor (a former collaborator of the late Moses Molelekwa) on Saturday 4 February at the Linder Auditorium, and pianist Paul Hanmer with guitarist Louis Mhlanga creating music for the 1916 silent movie Snow White at the Maboneng Bioscope on Thursday Feb 2 at 7:30. The full programme is at http://www.join-mozart-festival.org 

 

Politics to take centre stage at Cape Town Jazz Festival

Unlike ‘money’, ‘trend’ and ‘branding’, the word ‘politics’ doesn’t often cohabit with ‘jazz festival’ in South Africa these days.

That’s a contrast with the past, when the accomplished assertion of sounds that refused apartheid categories made even attending an event such as the 1962 Cold Castle Festival a political gesture. But the new commodification of jazz becomes very clear when African-American cultural struggle icons such as bassist William Parker or vocalist Dwight Trible appear in South Africa and the history and role of their music is so underplayed as to be rendered invisible.

That won’t happen in Cape Town this year. It’s no understatement to say that the announcement of the second batch of artists for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (March 31-April 1), offers probably the most politically hip musical fare ever seen.

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Jonas Gwangwa

The highest-profile politics come from Andra Day, whose song Rise Up provided an anthem for #Black Lives Matter. Day initially intended the song as an expression of personal struggles, but she has embraced its broader adoption, proudly identifying with those causes too.

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Digable Planets

For South African veteran, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, growing up under apartheid, the personal was always the political, particularly as his role grew into leading the Amandla Cultural Ensemble which carried the message of our struggle around the world. Gwangwa’s playing, compositions and achievements have sometimes received less profiling than they merit – he’s an Oscar nominee, for example – but this showcase, to be directed by Festival Director Billy Domingo, should correct that.

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Kamasi Washington

There’s more. On the home team, the festival offers the deconstruction of gender roles from rapper Dope St Jude, and the long-term project of multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed to recover Khoisan roots and assert the integrity of that belief system. Among visitors, hip-hop radicals Digable Planets were “reading Marx where I’m from” back in the 1990s, and by all accounts their reunion tour retains the righteous message. (Ishmael Butler’s La Femme Fetal will take on new poignancy and power as the Trump regime reinstates the global gag.) Then there’s reedman Kamasi Washington (saxophonist and strings arranger for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly). On his multiple award-winning three-hour release as leader, The Epic, Washington also draws the connections, backwards and forwards between jazz and other strains of black popular music and between jazz and the struggles of the African-American community. The Epic includes a re-landscaping for instruments of Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X.

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Rudresh Mahanthappa

For another award-winning visiting reedman Rudresh Mahanthappa, casual neighbourhood racism and stereotyped musical expectations based on his South Asian ancestry drew him towards making music that explored and challenged ideas about identity and immigrant experiences. His most recent album, Bird Calls, takes this exploration of identity in a different direction: it creates a tribute to Charlie Parker that relies neither on covers nor quotes. And it’s that questioning of identity as it relates to genre boxes that also characterises the work of Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore.

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Nomfundo Xaluva

That’s a very small sample from a 30-odd act lineup, which also includes highly conscious vocalists of the calibre of Siya Makuzeni, Nomfundo Xaluva, Thandiswa Mazwai and Gretchen Parlato – all of whom write, arrange, lead and refuse to be coralled into the role of compliant “singer with the band. There are also instrumentalists such as Manu Dibangu, Moriera Chonguica, Buddy Wells and Darren English, and ensembles such as Skyjack and Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committtee. My list doesn’t consider African supergroup Jokko, Argentine tango modernisers Escalandrum or the South African/Indian collaboration of Marcus Wyatt, Deepak Pandit and Ranjit Barot…but there’s a wbsite if you want to see the full programme (http://www.capetownjazzfest.com ).

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Skyjack

The politics of content, however, aren’t the only questions around a major music event. On the progressive side, the numbers of African/South African and foreign artists have always more or less level-pegged at Cape Town, and South Africans have never had to fight for decent profiling on the bill. In addition, the festival’s school and community education programme is long-term (it begins months before the festival), building up to a showcase concert that is an official festival event. Selected youth and development bands get named space in the programme and on stages, not anonymous interval gigs in foyers. There is a free concert in Greenmarket Square and other free events in (this year) Athlone and Langa.

Still, at R1190 for a weekend ticket (plus transport, food and possibly accommodation costs), attendance at the actual festival demands a healthy bank-balance, and some of the most interesting names appear only inside those Cape Town Convention Centre barriers. That’s an issue of inequality and exclusion with no simple solution: with all the good intentions in the world, venues have limited capacity and those who make and service the music need to be paid. And it underlines once more that every mega-event carries its own unavoidable politics of process. We should not depend on the Big Three jazz festivals for too much.  Size isn’t everything, and South Africa still lacks support for sufficient smaller live events to open the doors of culture wider.