“Let us dream you, forbidden landscape”: the Storming project sings change

“We cannot keep digressing and hiding behind the truth, saying ‘It’ll work someday’. There’s no such thing. If we have to change things, let’s change them radically now.” – Ray Phiri 

You can’t relegate the activism of the late Ray Chikapa Phiri to the past; as the quote above (taken from an interview on 30 May this year, only six weeks before his death) illustrates, he never stopped urging the necessity for change. But it’s sometimes tempting to ask where his successors in that respect are, because we rarely hear or read about them.

That’s the point: much as the present proliferation of media creates the illusion we can access everything in the world, it can obscure as much as it reveals. Today’s South African political music is rarely written about: even when its practitioners are profiled, they are often presented as ‘personalities’, evading the content of their work. If a project has no big commercial impetus behind it, it may not be covered at all. (Those of us schooled with a different view of journalism quaintly believe our task is to inform readers of things they might not otherwise know.)

The music of past protests is often co-opted to shore up and sanitise those in power (Awuleth’uMshini Wam’ anybody?). Employed to comment on current causes (Dubul’ iBhunu), it is prosecuted and proscribed. South African news reporters – who really should know better – write crudely of ‘chanting mobs’. New songs, such as the woke anthem, ( https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2017-06-28-tracing-the-roots-of-the-decolonised-anthem/) receive minimal coverage. But new music demanding change is being written and sung, on the streets and on stages.

The Stroming Cover

One recent example of the latter can be found on the CD Insurrections III: The Storming (http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/insurrections-storming ). The Insurrections project began in 2011, the brainchild of South African poet Ari Sitas, musicians Sazi Dlamini and Neo Muyanga, and Indian scholar and vocal artist Sumangala Damarodan (http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/singing-an-archive/article7205671.ece ), to explore the intersections of Indian and South African music and writing. Two CDs followed: Insurrections (http://www.sahistory.org.za/collection/28511 ) and Insurrections II, The Gathering (https://shop.sahistory.org.za/product/cd/insurrections-ii-gathering ).

Ari Sitas

Now a third has appeared. Among its 14 participants, Sitas, Dlamini and Damarodan, New Music composer Jurgen Brauninger, singer Tina Schouw and bassist Bryden Bolton remain, joined for this outing by guitarist Reza Khota, poets Vivek Narayanan, Malika Ndlovu, Sabitha T.P. and more

The Storming is a loose, imaginative re-visioning of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Aimé Césaire’s 1969 Une Tempête (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Une_Tempête) for the age of neocolonialism. As well as being a startling piece of magical (sur)realism, The Tempest is a classic drama of colonialism, centred on the struggle between the colonising wizard, Duke Prospero, and the indigenous rebel, Caliban. Shakespeare was writing for an audience of colonisers in the age of colonisation; on his stage, Caliban was a monster spawned by the New World. Césaire, by contrast, aimed to interrogate and change both colonisers and colonised. His was the era of anticolonial struggle and his Caliban was a Caribbean hero: “Call me X. That would be best; like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen.”

Sumangala Damarodan

And now here we are in the postcolonial/neocolonial era. In the Storming playbook, Caliban is now Calibana (and the patriarchal nature of colonialism runs through the text). The dawn of liberation brings a glittering consumerist culture for a few and the task of reconstructing shattered souls and societies for the rest, who still live in want. Calibana continues to urge: “Let us dream of you, forbidden landscape…bring on the storm.”

The Storming, just out, is presented as an audio CD (a recording of the 2015 performance at the District Six Homecoming Centre) set in what’s described as a hardback ‘catalogue’ containing credits, text, and, where relevant, translations (some song texts are in Malayalam) interleaved with artwork from Stephane Conradie.

Artwork by Stephane Conradie

It’s a visually beautiful presentation, but it does not make for the easiest listen. At least on first hearing, it’s useful to follow the sound by reading the text, requiring free hands and a formal sit-down – not the way most people approach music on CD. It forces the kind of attention we apply in the theatre, and that’s no bad thing: Sitas and the others are all powerful poets, and the text alone merits attention for that. But, against those virtues, we are forced to become lone listeners and lose the communal experience of being in an audience and the interplay between the text and its embodied expressions on stage: the changing moods of lighting; movement; and expression. Budget is always a constraint in publishing projects like these, but a DVD could have preserved some of that.

If that is lost, however, multiple, rich layers of interaction remain. In the book, text plays off against Conradie’s often intensely detailed images. The two experiences of colonial theft differ in detail – teak and rubber in one place; mining and minerals in the other – but speak powerfully to one another through their shared human impact.

And, of course, words interact with music, and musics born in different genres or geographies communicate and mutate. There’s a magic moment on Insurrections’ previous album, The Gathering, where the track Migrant’s Lament presents as a song of global migration: Alfred Qabula’s lyric, sung in an isiZulu vocal idiom, simultaneously asserting its own identity and flowing seamlessly along a raga pattern. On Storming, where the music is called on to underpin, underline (and subvert) a play-text, those kinds of mutations and conversations abound, but in more fragmented forms as the drama demands.

The Insurrections ensemble

It’s not the kind of recording where songs and solos demand attention for themselves, but there are multiple powerful moments that may make you stop reading to simply listen, such as Damarodan’s song as Ariela Whilst You Were Sleeping, with – I’m guessing, as solos are not credited – Khota on guitar. And although the vision of the drama is bleak and dystopian, it is never hopeless. There’s a triumphant conclusion in Calibana’s militant demand to “dream of forbidden landscapes… (we thought we’d almost known you once)” – surging forward over maskandi guitars; enacting collective protest past, present and to come…

“I’m inspired: I cannot understand hate”: Ray Chikapa Phiri 1947-2017

“Songs as truthful as a dream/flow as steady as a stream/A stream of knowledge and of pain…”

Ray oldIf any words summed up the work of Raymond Chikapa Enoch Phiri, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday, aged 70, in his birthplace, Nelspruit, it was those. They come from the 1986 song he co-wrote with the Ashley Subel: Whispers in the Deep (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9QPjUkvvM) – a song that became one of the decade’s anthems of liberation, and lives still.

Phiri’s Malawi-born father, “Just Now” Phiri, was a guitarist, and that family history gives the lie to all the xenophobic myths that cringe before colonialist borders. Migrant workers just like ‘Just Now’ built the economy, and fattened capitalist profits with their sweat. But they also built South African culture and music through the sharing, swapping and inventing of ideas that took place in hostels, shebeens and backyards. The king of instruments for translating and re-visioning music, because of its idiomatic flexibility, was the guitar.

“Just Now” Phiri was more than a miner who player guitar, however. He staged touring puppet shows, and the young Raymond started dancing and playing guitar in that setting. His first guitar, as for many young South Africans in the 1950s, was an oilcan with wire strings stretched up a wooden handle. He got his first break on a bigger stage in 1962, aged 15, as a dancer for the legendary Dark City Sisters when they toured Mpumalanga. That and similar subsequent jobs earned him enough for a ticket to Joburg, to try his luck forming a band.

He arrived at the start of the era of the Soweto Soul movement, when dozens of young musical hopefuls were starting to don flares, platforms and shades to mix the feel of the American Motown and Stax labels with the roots idioms of South Africa in bands such as the In-Laws, the Beaters (later to become Harari), the Emeralds, the Flaming Souls and more. Phiri put together a particularly potent combination with Isaac Mtshali, son of a traditional healer, on drums: the Cannibals. The group soon won popularity and served as the rhythm section for recording stars such as the Mahotella Queens. However, in 1975 they were joined by perhaps the movement’s most compelling vocalist, Jacob Mpharanyana Radebe, whose passionate delivery stirred audiences all over the country (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoH8eD2m6FM ). Songs like My Maria and Highland Drifter (top of the Zimbabwe hit parade for 18 weeks but banned in South Africa) won them fans across southern Africa.

Mpharanyana worked with the Cannibals for nearly four years, until his death. According to music historian Steve Kwena Mokoena, the band “played a critical role in nurturing a spirit of self-pride and defiance.”

Meanwhile, in the band’s engine room, Phiri was developing a less flamboyant, more introspective and complex style, and thinking a lot about what music could do, and where it should go. He found the narrow language boxes of Radio Bantu and apartheid’s retribalisation policy irksome and oppressive. “They were censoring me,” he recalled, “not to write in a much larger medium where I could reach [all] communities.”

In 1980, the Cannibals toured the then Eastern Transvaal with the Movers (including bassist Jabu Sibumbe and keyboard player Lloyd Lelosa) and Stimela – although they didn’t settle on the name until much later, after several other unsuccessful labels, including Splash – was born. The name Stimela came from the train that took the band back to South Africa after a disastrous Mozambican tour that saw them stranded in Maputo for three months and selling almost everything – including a few instruments – to raise the fare home.

Stimela 1988
Stimela in 1988

New artists (including Motijoane, organist Charlie Ndlovu and keyboardist Thapelo Kgomo) joined over time. Singles and albums, each more successful than the last, followed: the 1983 hit single I Hate Telling a Lie; Fire Passion and Ecstacy; Shadows Fear and Pain – and then Look, Listen and Decide in 1986, from which came that epoch-defining song: Whispers In The Deep (Phinda Mzala), as well as other powerful songs such as Sishovingolovane and Who’s Fooling Who? Despite the censors and the SABC regulations, Stimela continued to record defiantly in English and other languages, including Malawian Chichewa. “Most of us were ready to call a spade a spade, “ Phiri told the First World Congress on Music and Censorship in 1998.

He told the congress of one concert where Stimela had agreed not to sing Whisper in the Deep’s ‘inflammatory’ chorus, Phinda Mzala (Listen, cousin…). “I didn’t use it…the audience did. So I thought, if they sing, then they have to arrest everyone…Everybody sang along and that was the end of the show. They started shooting tear gas…We asked the people not to panic; not to throw any stones or things of that kind. The power of the music prevailed because they listened…They all walked out of the stadium and the police got mad because the people didn’t retaliate. The police started shooting innocent people with tear gas…but on that day, music won.”

Ray Phiri with accordionist Tony Cedras on the Graceland tour

Alongside this domestic career, Phiri toured to considerable critical acclaim with Paul Simon in both Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and collaborated with American singer/songwriter Laurie Anderson on the album Strange Angels. Stimela recorded, in all, a score of albums and EPs, most recently the 2011 Turn on the Sun with guest Thandiswa Mazwai (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4iK0GVfFrs ).

For his services to South African music, Ray Phiri was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver. In later years, he toured South Africa and overseas as a solo artist and was given his own stage at jazz festivals to showcase an original instrumental vision that stretched from folk roots to out-there improvisation. He also founded the Ray Phiri Artists’ Institute, based at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamazane in Mpumalanga, to identify and mentor young talent.

A mesmerising guitarist, thoughtful songwriter and articulate commentator on life, music and justice, Phiri leaves an unfillable gap in the South African music landscape. But it’s for that song, above all, that he is remembered: “Don’t be afraid/don’t whisper in the deep/speak out your mind.”

He always did, and perhaps the best way to honour his memory amid today’s silencings is to keep on doing it.

Hamba Kahle.

Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde and the death of the South African music press

Stats for this blog tell me that far fewer of you read the album reviews than anything else I write. So why do I keep on reviewing? Because there has to be a record…

Single narratives are dangerous. If standing over the stinking Bell Pottinger sinkhole observing the pathetic parade of ostensibly smart people snorting their poison has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that.

So the Gadarene rush of the South African press towards one narrative about music shouldn’t just depress us, as it has been doing for a while. It should seriously worry us. The Saturday Star 48 Hours finally jumped over that cliff last weekend, with a brash, shallow ‘lifestyle’ supplement replacing an already diminished, one-size-fits-all, syndicated copy-dominated, insert. M&G Friday and City Press #Trending survive. Both are now significantly smaller than they used to be, with many potential stories and some whole arts genres losing out every week, and consumer information fighting discourse and debate for space and often winning. Some dauntless radio DJs struggle on.

But the implicit narrative that’s coming to dominate is that music is a disposable fashion commodity (just like the couch on the decorator pages) with no ideas behind it, that players and composers have nothing to tell us (as they do not, when hurriedly interviewed by overworked, non-specialist reporters), and that South African jazz is virtually extinct. All this at a time when there have rarely been so many young, creative players generating riveting music.

The glib answer is that the other stuff happens online these days. The truth is, it doesn’t.

sisonk portrait
Sisonke Xonti

If you’re already a fan of, say, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, you’ll know there’s an Iyonde album out, and follow it on Sisonke’s FB page. You’ll find more gig information than ideas and analysis; if we still had a music press, Sisonke would be posting links to interviews and reviews. We don’t, so he can’t do much of that. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t live in Joburg or Cape Town, aren’t on a club mailer, don’t use your data budget for random browsing, don’t even have a data budget – you’ll never know him.

Google can be unhelpful if you’re not a good searcher – and, even if you are, for much information about African and South African culture, history and people that simply never gets into the aether. Your arena of knowledge and choice is narrowed to what you already know. The voices of artists with something to say are silenced for your ears.

In a thoughtful reflection published earlier this year (http://www.news24.com/Opinions/when-jazz-made-us-believe-that-black-was-beautiful-20170108 ), Oyama Mabandla reminded us that, even without words, music talks politics: it urges us towards humanity and ethics, hope, and the potential of people working together to create beauty. And that, too, in these days of betrayal, is why I continue to review.

Let’s start with Iyonde (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV2SvmHmFJY ), since it has already been invoked. Xonti’s parents apparently hoped he’d be a lawyer, but the music bug that had bitten him long before his teens (he started on recorder) wouldn’t let go. Starting out with Ezra Ngcukana and George Werner’s youth project, the Little Giants, and the Standard Bank youth jazz big-band, he qualified in classical saxophone through UNISA. His touring apprenticeship came with the Jimmy Dludlu band. Those names – the late Ngcukana, Werner and Dludlu – get far too little credit for the multiple jazz careers they got started. Now 28, with five years’ professional playing – with everybody from Lira and Hugh Masekela to Siya Makuzeni, as well as his own formations – he launched the Iyonde recording in April of this year.

The ten-track, all-original album features the usual suspects of the young Cape Town jazz scene: pianist Bokani Dyer; guitarist Keenan Ahrends; bassist Shane Cooper; drummer Marlon Witbooi, poet Dumza Maswana and vocalist Spha Mdlalose. In that city, there’s been a great deal of recent interest in the compositional approach of Bheki Mseleku, both scholarly and performance. The language of this album, with arrangements that spiral and soar outwards from initially simple motifs, and voice layered as an instrumental texture, will be both accessible and attractive for anyone who enjoyed, for example, Celebration. Both Xonti and Dyer, however, remain very much their own players.

Spha Mdlalose

Xonti has a full, rounded sound on saxophone – think a texture not unlike Duke Makasi – that manages to stay warm even on the spikiest solo. He’s never quite as spiky here, however, as he can sound with, for example, Makuzeni. Instead, we get a collection dominated by the kind of thoughtful lyricism that also suits the solo styles of Ahrends and Cooper. What shapes the Iyonde sound are the wonderfully seamless handovers between instruments, which render differences in texture and idiom between, say, bass and guitar (on Short-Lived Pt 1) or voice and reed (on Is this Goodbye?) irrelevant and create a feel wholly different from that old, head-solo-solo, formulaic ‘jazz’ process. Tightly empathetic headspace between the players speaks not just of work together, but also of a shared vision. That’s beautifully apparent, too, on Introspection – which, despite its title, is a sprightly piece of South African hard-bop modernism, with much harder-edged soloing. Perhaps the ‘catchiest’ number – and that should not be the only criterion, but it does help listeners remember an album – is Mdlalose’s song Is This Goodbye?( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSfnDlgJtLQ ) – certainly a track that merits airplay beyond the jazz slots, and one that displays the singer’s intelligent approach to lyrics as well as notes. Given the drought in media space for artists’ ideas, the album needs stronger sleeve-notes to introduce the tracks (at present, there are only thanks and credits), but that’s a minor carp. Overall, it’s an impressive and engaging recorded debut that more people should know about.

In coming weeks, alongside the usual reflections on current jazz news, there will be long-overdue reviews for Mandla Mlangeni’s TRC; guitarist Sibusile Xaba; the Keenan Ahrends Trio; Salim Washington’s Sankofa; Zoe Modiga; UK-based pianist Renee Reznek; the Indian-South African Insurrections project and anything else new I can lay my hands on. Because there has to be a record.

Dr Ramakgobotla John Mekoa 1945-2017

It’s 2010, in a bare college hall in Daveyton. Joy of Jazz stars saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer EJ Strickland are on their way in to conduct a workshop, chatting easily to one another. Suddenly, they both stop, transfixed and surprised by what’s coming from the stage, from young reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Oscar Rachabane. “No, but listen,” drawls Strickland, “these cats are really playing.”

The late Dr Johnny Mekoa takes a solo with the Music Academy of Gauteng

Sad news of the death of the man who made that possible, Dr Ramakgobotla John (“Bra Johnny”) Mekoa, arrived yesterday. It didn’t come from a media obsessed with commodified showbiz trivia, but via the network of friends, fundis and admirers still keeping culture alive. And few musicians had more friends and admirers than the 72-year-old trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, leader and educator.

Etwatwa-born Mekoa is best known today for his work with the Music Academy of Gauteng, which he founded in Daveyton in 1994. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1lIqb36Fpk ) He was fired by a determination that untapped young black talent should no longer meet the neglect and rejection he had encountered under apartheid. Mekoa relentlessly lobbied until donors coughed up to support a music school that ended up winning the International Jazz Education Network Award for five years running; produced a succession of highly-acclaimed young originals (trombonist/pianist Malcolm Jiyane and reedman Mthunzi Mvubu are only another two of many); and effectively nurtured instrumental skills among his community’s most deprived youngsters. “There’s talent like diamonds in the townships. You spot a rough diamond, you don’t have to cut it up; all you do is clean it up,” he once declared.

Mekoa held a B. Mus. from UKZN, and, as a Fullbright Scholar, an M.Mus from Indiana University . He had also received honorary doctorates from UNISA and the University of Pretoria, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Swedish Jazz Federation, multiple mayoral awards, the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy and the national Order of Ikhamanga Silver. He was a founder of the South African Jazz Educators’ Network, helped lay the foundations of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and served on both the SAMRO and Unisa Music Examination Boards.

All those accolades arrived late, after liberation, and shine the spotlight on Mekoa the music advocate, organiser and educator. All were richly deserved. But they shouldn’t draw attention away from the place where it all started: his fierce and formidable talent as a horn player.

It was in 1964 that Mekoa first applied to study music formally. He came from a musical family and his brother Fred “Mbuzi” Mekoa was already a talented player. He’d already been jamming regularly with the many bands in the East Rand area: his first outing had been with Shadow Raphiri’s No-Name Swingsters. Like all jazz fundis, he listened to whatever he could find, inspired by spiritual messages as well as new musical ideas: “We had our own traditions too,” he told the Mail & Guardian, “but walk down the street in the township during the struggle and you’d hear [John Coltrane’s] Naima. That music sustained us.” A neighbour, Caiphus Semenya, introduced him to the music learning opportunities at Johannesburg’s Dorkay House in 1962.

But the rules of apartheid barred Mekoa from admission to a ‘white’ higher education course.Nomvula

It didn’t stop him learning, at Dorkay and whenever Mbuzi could spare time for an informal lesson, and it didn’t stop him playing: with Early Mabuza’s Big Five and more, in gigs increasingly constrained by the segregation of places of entertainment.

Frustrated by the narrowing space for music, Mekoa (with reedmen Aubrey Simani, Furnace Goduka and Duncan Madondo, pianist Boy Ngwenya, bassist Fana Sehlohlo and drummer Shepstone Sethoane) founded the Jazz Ministers in 1967, “ ’cos you couldn’t stop playing the music – it was one’s life; it was one’s journey,” he told me. Ngwenya had worked with the Woody Woodpeckers and another musician from that outfit, composer and singer Victor Ndlazilwane, joined as musical director. His additional skills, Mekoa told scholar Chats Devroop, gave the outfit “a very strong and positive direction.” Later, the band also acquired Ndlazilwane’s preternaturally talented young piano-playing daughter, Nomvula. Two albums from that period can still be found: Nomvula’s Jazz Dance from 1972, and Zandile (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2011/09/jazz-ministers-zandile.html ) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cqFSSkxL6I ), from 1975.

Three times – in 1973, 1974 and 1975 – the Ministers were invited to the New York Jazz Festival. Three times, Mekoa was refused a passport. In 1976, the band recorded tracks on the live album of the Michaelangelo and Woolmark National Jazz Festival. Finally, in that same year – and after a convoluted and still today argued set of circumstances also involving PE’s Soul Jazzmen – Mekoa got a three-month exit visa, the band played Newport and some other events, and a performance album ensued (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2012/11/jazz-ministers-live-at-newport-1976.html ).

jazz mins newport back.jpg

All this time, Mekoa had also been also working full-time as an optician (he had qualified in 1967). “It was very difficult,” he recalled. “…but because the music was strong, we held on.”

The New York trip made life even tougher when Mekoa returned home. Invited to play on a South African warship, the Paul Kruger, visiting for the Bicentennial, the Ministers refused. Almost as soon as they stepped of the plane in Johannesburg, Mekoa and the others were detained and interrogated.


Despite official scrutiny, Mekoa continued playing: the Ministers recorded another album, Ndize Bonono Na? in 1984. He was also teaching local youngsters. In 1986, the pull of music became too strong. He resigned from his day job, briefly became part of the faculty at Fuba, and then enrolled in Darius Brubeck’s pioneering jazz studies programme at UKZN, where his fellow students included Zim Ngqawana. A recording with the Jazzanians, We have Waited Too Long, (http://afrosynth.blogspot.co.za/2012/01/jazzanians-we-have-waited-too-long-1988.html ), and a US tour followed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V6B8XvxX_c ) Then another tour and a recording with Abdullah Ibrahim (Mantra Mode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dd-WgaZ3mM ). Then, in 1991, at the dawn of liberation, that Fullbright. The rest, as they say, is history, and magnificent history at that.

Tall and broad, with a loud, infectious laugh, Mekoa was always a physically imposing presence in the room. But it was his achievements, and what he gave to following generations of young musicians, that made him a real giant. Hamba Kahle.

SEE ALSO: http://www.gov.za/speeches/mec-mazibuko-pays-tribute-legendary-music-educator-dr-johnny-mekoa-4-jul-2017-0000

Surrealism lives – and it is black, female and revolutionary


Robin D G Kelley

Word got round quite slowly about the presence of distinguished jazz scholar and UCLA professor Robin DG Kelley in Johannesburg last week. That’s a pity, because as well as being the author of a mammoth biography of Thelonious Monk (and more), Kelley has a strong interest in the relationship of jazz in Africa and jazz in America, not only as a line of descent, but also in its more contemporary manifestations of cultural circulation and solidarity, discussed in his most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers: modern jazz in revolutionary times (https://www.amazon.com/Africa-Speaks-America-Answers-Revolutionary/dp/0674046242 ).

Kelley book

By the time he spoke at the Afrikan Freedom Station on June 29, however, it was clear that news was finally spreading; the room was packed for his conversation with Unisa’s Tendayi Sithole on Surrealism/Thelonious Monk and the Psychic (spiritual) Debt to Black Genius.

Surrealism is often discussed as a European phenomenon. However, Kelley was clear that the roots of the movement were assertively African, revolutionary and anti-colonialist. (For more on this, see the volume he co-edited with Franklin Rosemont: Black Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora https://www.amazon.com/Black-Brown-Beige-Surrealist-Revolution/dp/0292725817). As French Surrealists declared in their 1932 manifesto, Murderous Humanitarianism: “We surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”

Monk was a hero to many surrealists in Europe (poet Claude Tarnaud imagined him jamming with Rimbaud) but, like many African-American writers and artists, his surrealism related not only to a cultural heritage that was wider, deeper and more playful than narrow puritan positivism, but also to a lived experience as a person of colour in racist America that was regularly, literally, surreal. Responding to audience questions, Kelley noted that overturning the rigid, inhumane and commoditised circumstances of modern capitalism – anywhere – demanded hard, collective work. Just as one message of Monk’s jazz was the need to be constantly “ready for the marvellous,” so another was that “ensemble work is always collective work.”

Suzanne Cesaire

Conventional views of surrealism have often been reductive. Its playfulness is reduced to kookiness, its interest in unpredictability to the random insights of the idiot savant. Monk suffered from both these in the commentaries of philistine and sometimes racist critics. Certain US acolytes, such as white beat poet Jack Kerouac, also reduced the movement to something exclusively and toxically masculine. (There were precedents. Andre Breton was a notoriously vicious homophobe.) That, too, was never the case: black women such as Suzanne Cesaire – from whom Kelley quoted extensively – and Simone Yoyotte, as well as other women including Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun were prominent among its early shapers and voices. They were not – horrible term! – ‘muses’, but makers. And to their ranks may be added the musician Alice Coltrane, the writers Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and many more.

N.K. Jemison
NK Jemisin

Another reductive trope about surrealism holds that its observations of the bizarre and the grotesque are ‘fantasy’. But for the peoples of Africa, America and Asia, alien invasion, subjugation, kidnap and experimentation are realities of history (they are called colonialism). If you want to know where that intellectual thread of black female surrealism is today, don’t tarry too long at the pop Afrofuturism of Janelle Monae (her sartorial style is not new, as any account of the Harlem Renaissance makes clear). The visual art of Kara Walker in America and Mary Sibanda here are already gathering attention. On the bookshelves labelled ‘fantasy and science fiction’ you’ll find genuinely radical imaginations at work; after Butler, award-winning writers Nnedi Okorafor and N.K Jemisin are very good places to start. Surrealism lives.


Geri Allen
Geri Allen

In jazz, there are too many radical imaginations to list, but tragically one is no longer with us. Pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and scholar Geri Allen died on June 27 following complications of cancer. She was 0nly 60. At the time of her death, Allen was Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and, with drummer Terri-Lynne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray, was part of the MAC Power Trio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XltrW7tGNVk ), which had been scheduled to play the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival in September. Detroit native Allen grew up with jazz through her father’s extensive record collection and began music lessons aged 7. Like many Detroit players, she was a mentee of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. You can hear her discussing her life in music in a 2008 interview here: http://jazzmuseuminharlem.org/remembering-geri-allen/ . Her first degree, in jazz studies, came from Howard University, and she later completed a Masters in ethnomusicology at Pittsburgh. Her distinguished stage and scholarly career included more than two dozen recordings as both accompanist and leader – including the highly-praised 1992 Maroons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieyBjoVd70w ),

and the 2010 solo outing Flying Towards the Sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4LHMeXwA1U ), as well as work with Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Ornette Coleman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG2FeoqQtdk ), and McCoy Tyner. Allen’s style was often labelled ‘avant-garde’, but she resisted that and other labels, preferring that listeners should relate to her music as they heard it, without preconceptions. Indeed, she often stressed the historic roots of her adventurous style, and its relation to African-American dance, as on the 2010 Timeline project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnO8pUKhooM ) with tap percussionist Maurice Chestnut. She was co-producer of the re-mastered Erroll Garner Complete Concert By The Sea, for which she earned a Grammy nomination. A Guggenheim Fellow, Allen was the first recipient of the Lady of Soul Award for jazz, and the youngest-ever recipient of the Danish JazzPar Award. Allen also participated in and pioneered projects asserting the role and right to performance space of female musicians (as in Carrington’s Mosaic project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKQRms3bUS0 ), including time as programme director for the NJPAC’s all-female jazz residency scheme. She will be buried on July 8 in Bethany, New Jersey. Hamba Kahle.

But you had to be there… David Coplan’s intensely personal memoir of Melville’s Bassline tells only one of the untold stories

“Don’t it always seem to go” queried Joni Mitchell, “That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Big Yellow Taxi could, in fact, be the leitmotif of David Coplan’s memoir Last Night at the Bassline (Jacana) and he said as much at the book’s Rosebank launch: that there was a kind of hopeful innocence in the crafting of a new socio-musical world on Melville’s Seventh Street that would probably be impossible in these Guptarised days.

Pianist Andile Yenana takes five outside the old Bassline on the book cover

The book isn’t Coplan’s usual kind of scholarly tome. The 168-page narrative unfolds in a deliberately looser, more personal, easy-reading voice, although it’s clearly underpinned by research as well as Coplan’s personal experience and conversations, and is helpfully indexed and footnoted. And it’s certainly as important, in its own way, as books like In Township Tonight. Given how thinly documented the most recent eras of South African music history are, books such as this, full of the experiences and voices of key role-players, are vital to the record. It’s a unique document of what was certainly a very special slice of urban, musical and social history. As important as the words are the photographs: Oscar Gutierrez’s love for the music has always guided his eye, and he has curated from his vast archive 60-odd pictures so evocative you can almost hear them.

David Coplan

Anybody involved in publishing knows how expensive it is to produce books – with pictures at all, nogal! But it’s still a pity most of the images were used so small. The story that’s told cries out for a larger format, to let the pictures sing louder. And there are points, too, when the book itself feels too small, because there are at least two other potential volumes hiding inside it.

One is a scholarly history of the place and its era. That’s deliberately dealt with here through the lens of highly personal, quite often quirky, reflections; Coplan spoke at the launch of wanting to exercise a different set of writing muscles in this work. Because he’s both a keen observer and a knowledgeable scholar, those reflections are always worthwhile. But they are also sometimes arguable, as any personal reflections are. They form part of a landscape of multiple alternative analyses this book has no space for. As one example, the demise of the ‘old’ Bassline is discussed in the personal frame of disagreements with a landlord. But it happened at a time when other discourses were equally relevant: changing patterns of urbanism, transport, settlement and sociality; the changing operations and business models of both live and recorded music industries; the changing nature of the genre; the impact of generational taste shifts; issues of race; and more. That’s not this book – the nostalgic, often rose-tinted spectacles would have to come off for that – but it’s also a book we need.


Oscar Gutierrez

The other book hiding inside Last Night at the Bassline is the autobiography Coplan now clearly must write. He’s had a fascinating life, from playing with Philip Tabane to authoring the first study of South African performance that smashed the lens of externally imposed ethnomusicological difference and let performers and creators speak for themselves. When, in Chapter Two, we meet the Bassline’s owner/managers Brad and Paige, and Coplan interrogates his own role in creating words about music, something quite remarkable and exciting happens in the text. The human-ness of the book works powerfully when Coplan is explicitly present in narration, actually recalling memories of performances and encounters with club denizens and offering his wry asides not as omniscient analysis but as idiosyncratic opinion that tells the reader who he is. Sadly, in many places that voice recedes, displaced by an ‘invisible’ narrator.

There are also ways in which Last Night at the Bassline speaks to In Township Tonight. In the latter book, the rather compressed (and later) update chapter alludes to many stories that demand to be told more fully. One is about the growing Pan-African nature of the Joburg music scene, and that gets a better unfolding here through discussion of the changing guest acts at a single club.

One omission puzzles. One of the things the Bassline needs to be remembered for is an initiative that probably contributed more to the Joburg jazz scene than any other at that time: hosting the long-running residency of a quintet called Voice (Marcus Wyatt, Sydney Mnisi, Andile Yenana, Herbie Tsoaeli and Morabo Morojele). Think of where those musicians have gone since then, and the influence they’ve had. Think of the original repertoire created, and the band and solo recordings. Only a long-running residency can achieve that kind of thing. Yet while individuals from the ensemble get deserved mentions, the outfit Voice gets mentioned just once, in an interview with bassist Carlo Mombelli.


The rose-coloured glasses and nostalgia occasionally cloy. Pace George Benson, hindsight is not always 20:20 vision. In that era, even Seventh Street in Melville was not the warm bohemian utopia memory may paint it. I’ve stood outside and heard racist epithets (often in Afrikans) directed at the place and its music and musicians by the passing citizens of what was a historically ‘white’ and Nat-voting suburb. In that sense, the early Bassline was often just a little red base in enemy space, even as it struggled to be an advance guard of social change. Sometimes, it wasn’t even that: the gulf between club patrons and near-destitute car-guards and others on the street always jarred: a weathervane for what was continuing to go wrong even as the club’s warm interior cosied our dreams of things going right. The Bassline wasn’t the first place where exciting, original, liberated jazz was made in the city – Kippies and Sof’town share that honour – and it will not be the last, as the Afrikan Freedom Station and the Orbit among others demonstrate.


The book’s ‘main characters’ are clearly owner/managers Brad and Paige. Coplan paints them in romantic colours, his affection and admiration for their efforts very apparent. But the book’s implicit message is that shifting the parameters of what could happen in that kind of suburb, and what could happen in the music, wouldn’t have been possible without others too: all the musicians, and audiences, and the club staff, and those car guards, and multiple people who don’t ever appear on the pages. Yet the owners’ achievement – keeping a more than decent jazz stage going for a remarkable nine years – is notable in international, not only in Joburg, terms. And given that, most music fans might not be concerned if they were actually ogres who chopped up noisy patrons and baked them into pies. Come to think of it, the food sometimes did taste a bit funny…


Win a free CD and capture some steelpan and kora magic

“You should never just keep on delivering a product that’s working,” steelpan player Dave Reynolds asserts. But the problem with audiences is we often want to keep musicians in little boxes shaped by familiarity.

Dave image
Dave Reynolds

Probably South Africa’s worst example was Sakhile. The group had created a substantial fan-base, which was wonderful for gigs and record sales, but eventually came to be a straitjacket on the imaginations of principals Khaya Mahlangu and the late Sipho Gumede. Every time one of them tried to break free to pursue a new musical direction, commentators (and many fans) would present this as an issue of “fault” or “ego” – instead of acknowledging that it’s the player him or herself who is best-placed to decide when a new path or new partners are needed, and that isn’t a matter of ego, but of creativity.

But it should be refreshing – good news not bad – when musicians grasp the freedom to bring something new to what we know them best for. The results often surpass expectations.

Take multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, for example. For a long time, the CD-buying public has known him best for explorations of Khoisan sounds, often with infusions of digital mixing. But Mohamed had at least two musical identities before that: first, as an inspired crafter of pop hits (something we were reminded of recently when Matsuli Music reissued Night Express on vinyl: https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2 ); second, as a spiritual kora improviser in the company of jazzmen such as Bruce Cassidy in many live performances and on the astoundingly beautiful 1997 duo album, Timeless. That was a decade ago, and we have not heard anything quite like it from him since.


Or take Reynolds. Before he moved to Cape Town, Reynolds’ gigs in Johannesburg were often convivial affairs, memorable for infectiously danceable African rhythms, in the company of players such as guitarist Louis Mhlanga. Then, in 2014, he released The Light of Day, which still had some of that character but was also richly infused with what he called “ambient, meditational moments.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that musical fate has brought Reynolds and Mohamed together over the past five years; a partnership they have benchmarked with this year’s SAMA-nominated album Live in Grahamstown (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davereynolds1 ). “We’re both committed to a South African musical identity,” Reynolds says, “but we also both have ears and souls that search other African sounds – and we both play instruments that we weren’t born to – Trinidadian pans and Senegambian kora – but were rather called to.”

Tony Cedras

They are joined by other musical travelers and explorers, Tony Cedras on accordion, drummer Frank Paco, and bassist Sylvain Baloubeta. It’s in no sense a solo project, “ Reynolds explains. “It’s a process of sharing to which we invite other distinctive contributors. We’ve got a particular interest in creative bass players – Sylvain is certainly one of those. And Tony is just super-talented: having him up on stage was a big moment for me.”

The result is an album that both reminds us of the improvising kora master Mohamed of Timeless and the Reynolds of those good-time Joburg jols – and offers several things we haven’t heard before: new tunes, and new sonic textures and synergies, particularly in the way pans and kora play off against that husky-voiced accordion. The playing is skilful and empathetic, and the recording draws listeners into the absorbing atmosphere of a live gig: “We’re taking people on an emotional, stylistic and instrumental journey,” says Reynolds.

The set also reminded me, irresistibly, of the quality that Tananas used to bring to their music: deceptively straightforward, hummable, almost folk-style, melodies that nevertheless serve as vehicles for some very sophisticated, adventurous improvisation. Mohamed is not a ‘classical’ kora player: he’s equally adept at giving the instrument the voice of mbaqanga. Reynolds is explicit about shunning the standard steelpan repertoire of what he calls “ditties” played straight, in favour of jazz improvisation. Cedras makes his accordion literally sing: rhythmic, celebratory and sad by turns.


  • Now Reynolds is offering readers of this column the chance to be ahead of the SAMA curve and win a free copy of Live at Grahamstown. If you think you can sum up what South African music means to you in THREE WORDS ONLY. Don’t write to me: click this link http://eepurl.com/cPvdtf

complete your answer and details on the form there – and keep your fingers crossed.