RIP Muhal Richard Abrams

Muhal Richard Abrams in action at the piano.See here

for an appreciation of a very great man who was not only a peerless musician but a pioneer of progressive social movement, community music education and development and black artistic self-reliance. May his great spirit rest in peace — and may we all continue to learn from his life and music.


Must genius be ‘mad’? A response to the Mail&Guardian

In a thoughtful reflection on the life and work of writer K. Sello Duiker ( ) M&G writer Rofhiwa Maneta alluded to – but did not fully interrogate – a trope frequently encountered in writings about talented artists: that ‘genius is akin to madness’. Several studies have claimed a connection (physiological, or even genetic) between creativity and ‘madness’. Creative artists “are more likely to have mental illness in their families (…) share certain features of brain chemistry [with people with schizophrenia]”. ( More addictions, mood disorders and suicidal behaviours have been documented in the creative professions. Sensationalist biographers have played up these connections; the yellow press – and now online skinner – has gleefully reinforced the stereotype. And finally, a (very) few opportunistic artists have played the public role of mad genius to win a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behaviour such as ‘sex addiction’ (rape), or to exaggerate their marketing profile.

Jazz musicians  – Kippie Moeketsi here, for example, or Billie Holiday in the US – have often been written about in these terms. And many jazz musicians including those two have indeed experienced addiction, and received treatment for mental illness. (However,  the figures show it’s still only a minority of creatives who suffer these problems, and an even tinier minority of schizophrenics who exhibit signs of artistic creativity. Coincidences in brain physiology alone don’t explain much.)

Kippie Moeketsi: not ‘mad’

Yet there’s a massive contradiction here, because an even more overwhelming weight of studies suggests that involvement in creative activities is good for mental health, works effectively to fight depression, and can even mitigate some aspects of dementia. (see a general overview at ) So what’s going on here? It’s probably time to interrogate the ‘mad genius’ trope – and, along the way, also interrogate what a racist/colonialist/patriarchal society might mean by ‘madness’.

Mental illness is real, and is encountered everywhere – the World Health Organisation has estimated that one in four people worldwide may be affected by it ( ) – and so it is not surprising that it occurs among artists as well as among accountants: artists are simply people doing a certain type of (creative) work. Accountants, however – at least, in the pre-Zupta era – have not been so much in the public eye, so the ‘madness’ of artists inevitably appears more prominent.

But given that mental illness and the vulnerability to it exists among all populations, are there some special features of artists’ lives that might make them more likely to be battling mood disorders, addictions and despair?

Certainly – and those features infest the society around them, not the artists themselves.

Creative work is often isolated (frequently not by choice) and – except for a few ‘stars’ – poorly remunerated. That in turn creates enormous stresses around finding accommodation, travelling, buying instruments or raw materials, paying for healthcare or supporting a family. Find a ‘straight’ job to take care of those, and the time and mental energy for painting, writing or playing are eroded, setting up yet another destructive set of tensions.

In the music industry in particular, a shameful variant of the dop system often operated here, paying performers with “a case of the product”: many jazz musicians of the Cold Castle Festival era say they drank heavily to stave off exhaustion and hunger. Too many became alcoholics. That legacy persists in some dark corners of the industry worldwide, not just here: performers who remain ‘medicated’ into docility when not required to perform are far easier to manage and exploit. Even their eccentricities are often designed and policed: the clothing, hairstyles and stunts concocted by a publicist as marketing devices.

One of those veteran South African musicians was once upbraided that “Bra’ So & so, why do you drink so much? It doesn’t help your playing, you know.” And I heard him reply: “Do you really think I drink to help me play? No! Playing heals me. I drink because of what I have to deal with off the stage, not on it.”

Billie Holiday: not ‘mad’

What had to be dealt with was not only apartheid, savage though that was. Artists strive to express truths and create beauty freely: forming counter-waves of resistance by their very existence in societies that are hypocritical, philistine and interested only in commoditising and ‘branding’ creativity. (Think about that term ‘branding’ and what it meant in slave-owning societies before you embrace it.) For artists of colour and women artists (think of Billie Holiday: raped for the first time when still a child; often denied creative autonomy by the musical men around her) racism and patriarchy add more layers of othering. Artists often employ alternative epistemologies: constructing knowledge systems from dreams, ethics and spiritualities alongside experience. That’s one of the key reasons we need them.

Franz Fanon: analysed colonialist epistemology

All conformist cultures – from the police-state of apartheid to the mass-consuming sheep-herds of America – favour discourses that mark out the creative as ‘Other’, and conflate nonconformity with mental disorder. That way, artists can be corralled and contained. Colonialist societies have historically defined the epistemologies of those they invaded and enslaved as irrational and mentally disordered, something the revolutionary psychiatrist Franz Fanon began to explore in Black Skin White Masks ( ). “Sometimes” wrote Fanon, about this racist denial, “people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

So let us acknowledge that the conditions of capitalist society certainly can and do drive some creative artists towards despair and mental illness – but equally reject much of what capitalism dismisses as ‘madness’. That ‘madness’ actually represents an important contradiction: between hegemonic ideas and innovative creativity.  Unconventional behaviour more often represents the artist’s rejection of  exploitative ways of thinking. And those should make all of us mad as hell!

SBYA Thandi Ntuli: messenger of cosmic light

Waves of cosmic light are likely to be beaming across Grahamstown next year after the selection of pianist, composer and vocalist Thandi Ntuli as the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz. Cosmic Light is, of course, the title of the breakout single recently released by Ntuli ( ; ) as a teaser for her upcoming second album, Exiled. Cosmic Light signals movement from her 2014 debut, The Offering. There, the arrangements (based on compositions from her time at UCT studying for a B. Mus in jazz composition) were horn-led, with spaces for jazz piano solos that were recognisably ‘in the tradition’. Now, Ntuli is working more with the Fender keyboard, and using her voice more – not only, she has pointed out, in the classic sense of jazz singing – although there are lyrics – but “playing around with using the voice” ( ) as an additional sonic texture.


When I first reviewed The Offering, I described it as announcing “a very distinctive vision. If there is a point of reference, it has to be the late Bheki Mseleku in the way it employs minimal, almost meditative themes that spiral outwards, gaining ever more lush and ornate harmonic underpinnings as they progress. There’s a lyrical joy in the development of the arrangements (for example, on Love Remembers) that Mseleku would also have recognized and appreciated. Ntuli’s music, like his – and with the root reference point for both, traditional African music – swirls around richly-textured repeating motifs.” (Business Day, 12/11/2014; now pay-walled)

The memory of Mseleku is still hovering over Ntuli on Cosmic Light – not, now, so much in musical echoes as in spiritual ones. The lyric runs as follows: “Oh Cosmic Light, You shine so brightly, Yet your night is darker than these eyes can see/ Release your peace, and bring us Homeward, I can taste your freedom though I’m never free” – and that’s a set of sentiments that the pan-religious vision of Mseleku (like that of Coltrane before him) would certainly have appreciated. And, like Ntuli, he too believed that musician were vessels for larger cosmic forces.

Ntuli puts it like this: “[I was] put on this earth to be an expression of God’s excellence…[I try to stay] out of the way of the music, and allow it to do what it came to do through me.”

That calling came early. Born into a musical family – her uncle was Selby Ntuli of Harari/The Beaters; her parents were deeply involved in choral music, as well as making sure that family prayers at home always involved a lot of singing – Ntuli started piano lessons at four, with classical teacher Ada Lefkowitz. By 16, she had decided that music was her future, and began “losing track” while practising to write her own songs. But it was when she discovered jazz impro, at UCT, that her own compositional impulses were fully liberated: “improvising made it seem possible to compose.”

In 2008, Ntuli turned down the offer of a scholarship to Berklee, preferring the more personally connected learning environment of South Africa. After graduating, in 2013, she came to Johannesburg, worked for a time in Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-female ensemble and started building her own outfits, repertoire and projects.

Ntuli has described her composing as a highly variable activity: sometimes a song comes complete; sometimes it takes a long time to gel. Meditation and prayer often guide the process. She has told interviewer and fellow musician Spha Mdlalose ( ) that when there are lyrics, she likes them to be oblique and multilayered, so that although the music on Exiled will be united by a theme of ‘love’, that love might be read as personal, socio-political, or (as on The Offering) familial. Ntuli has never shied away from issues, as those who saw her work at this year’s Orbit Marikana Concert will have noted. Now “I’ve been asking myself what my voice is on social issues…I’d like to incorporate that going forward.”(

Given the limited – and often deeply gendered – attention paid to female instrumentalists in this country, it’s inevitable that gender has become one of the issues she is regularly asked about. Ntuli concedes that there “are a lot of limiting beliefs” about the abilities of female instrumentalists, and has been scathing about the comment that “ ‘You play so well for a girl’ – perhaps if people thought about saying ‘You play so well for a black person’, they’d realise what the problem is, even if they intend it as a compliment.”

Yet she also finds the – albeit sympathetic – focus on her gender, limiting. “I have had quite a bit of write-ups done on me but not necessarily on the music I make. I can probably count a handful of articles over the past 3 years since the release of my album that have actually spoken about my album or artistic contribution. Ironically, as much as being female has attracted a very welcomed interest in what I do, it has also somehow silenced me on the art.

“It is not sufficient to constantly ask an artist: ‘What made you decide to become a musician?’ or ‘What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?’ but for writers to really display an interest in what they write about on a deeper level than just the artist’s personality and general background. Such questions are not unimportant, but … some questions have already been asked.”

Like all good musicians, Ntuli is also still seeking those questions that have not already been asked in her music. Her journey from The Offering to Exiled and beyond is being shaped by many inputs. The first voice that really caught her ears was Malian Oumou Sangare ( ), not as a model, but “for the rhythms”. Recently, she says ( ) she’s been listening to Sun Ra, and the Herbie Hancock fusion exploration Mwandishi ( ). But she’s also been collaborating with DJ Kenzhero on the Rebirth of Cool project, and co-producing a house album with Sit LSG.

So the music on Exiled, and what we will hear in Grahamstown and beyond, is not easily predictable. Those diverse ingredients, melded with and transformed by Ntuli’s own unique vision, could take her sound in multiple directions. Her time as SBYA award-winner is welcome, and richly deserved – but above all, it’s likely to create a very interesting SB jazz year indeed.

Born to Be Black live: ten out of ten

“Good jazz is when the leader jumps on the piano, waves his arms, and yells,” observed Charles Mingus. “Fine jazz is when a tenorman lifts his foot in the air. Great jazz is when he heaves a piercing note for 32 bars and collapses on his hands and knees. A pure genius of jazz is manifested when he and the rest of the orchestra run around the room while the rhythm section … dances around their instruments.”


Mingus often talked to journalists with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But his satirical humour still captures something important. At its best, music is not only an aural experience and not only a spiritual one, but a kinetic one too. The air dances. The musicians dance. Your heart dances.

album cover

Unleash trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni in front of a new, ten-piece, Amandla Freedom Ensemble to launch the Born To Be Black album ( ) at the Orbit last weekend and that’s exactly what you get.

Mandla Mlangeni


The album and the performance share the same principals: trumpeter Mlangeni, pianists Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana, drummer Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo and reedmen Salim Washington, Oscar Rachabane and Nhlanhla Mahlangu. On the album, they’re joined by tenorman Shabaka Hutchings, vocalist Zoe Modiga, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Ariel Zamonsky and guitarist Keenan Ahrends. On stage, the horns were Washington, Rachabane and Mahlangu, plus veteran Kaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata on bari, and Siya Makuzeni on trombone and voice, plus bassist Bryden Bolton and drummer/percussionist Thebe Lipere. In South African jazz terms it was a much more cross-generational experience that resounded in everything we heard.

Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo


Mlangeni dancing as he directs and plays…Makuzeni taking a magnificent extended scat on Sdwedwe Rag starting where Ella started (“stealing from the horns”, Ella called it) and spiralling out to a place that has half the horn-line and Moholo-Moholo as well as the crowd yelling encouragement…Mnana forensically dissecting the innards of the piano on a re-christened Uthando Lwako to take the tune into territory Ornette and Dudu would both have relished…Rachabane and Mlangeni duetting on Mama Ngibongakonke in the very personal music-space they share, but inviting the rest of us in, not shutting us out…Moholo-Moholo just inhabiting those tunes, picking us up and carrying us along twisty, challenging, joyous paths (nothing ‘effortless’ here: close to seven decades of hard physical and intellectual engagement with sticks and skins talking)…and the cry of Moholo-Moholo and Yenana’s When Spirits Rejoiced, invoking gospel and the experimental SA jazz of the 1970s, but wrapped in an ancestral consciousness much older than that, and a creativity fresh as tomorrow.

Andile Yenana


Born to be Black is the AFE’s second recorded outing, and the album comprises a dozen tracks not recorded before. From the stage, we heard a generous sample of those, plus a moving, rousing finale with Mlangeni favourites Bhekisizwe and Woza Mama. In the reed line-up, Mlangeni must have assembled a crew of the most emotionally intelligent sax players around ( the elder Mahlangu, remember, brought us the tears of Isililo way back, and still commands that power) and that was important because this is music that is meant to wake listeners to what’s going on, and to the revolutionary power of authentic, collectively shared, emotion.


The album isn’t the stage performance, and never could be. “When you hear music,” Eric Dolphy said, “it’s gone: in the air. You can never capture it again.” A different combination of players means different opportunities for serendipitous interplay (on the album, one different delight is the conversations between Ahrends’ guitar and the rhythm; another, the crisp strings of the Resonance String Quartet) and a stage show offers twice the space for solos to stretch out. So you won’t hear what we heard. But you will hear those melodies and others – muscular enough to support multiple diverse imaginations, and catchy enough to stay in your ears a long time. It’s not cosy music: the arrangements take a ton of creative risks in their juxtapositions of texture and their dislocations of rhythm. But it’s kept wholly accessible by its lexicon: magically transformed root references to mbaqanga, bop and the blues.

Oscar Rachabane

South African music: time for our very own Weinstein moment?

A young Thandi Klaasen

“[Kippie Moeketsi] was not one of those who would say: come to me at lunchtime and I will make you a star because they want to have sex with you …There’s some of the white people – and some of the brothers here – who’d want to use you for that.” (The late Thandi Klaaasen, discussing the 1950s, in Soweto Blues (Continuum 2001): p.122)

Mercy Pakela in the 1980s

“The producers are men…record companies are run by men who want you to open your legs for them to get somewhere…And they tell you that we have been waiting for you to grow and now you are grown you should be able to open your legs for them. Some of these people I thought they were my mentors but they only [saw] me as a sex object…even the editors want you to open your legs…” (Former 1980s teenage bubblegum star Mercy Pakela in The Shopsteward Vol 19 No 4 Aug/Sept 2010: p50)


Musician Jennifer Ferguson’s brave statement describing her experience of rape last week ( ) must have prompted a weary sigh of recognition from many other women working in music.

Not shock. Not even surprise. Just weary recognition. Because like every other sector of every other society deeply infused with patriarchy, the South African music industry is long overdue for its Weinstein moment. As a female music writer and researcher you hear all the stories – and very often see them die with editors and newspaper lawyers whose fear of the defamation laws ends in “That’s only hearsay (perhaps they mean her-say?); we can’t publish that.”

Let’s get disbelief out of the way. Life would be impossible if we did not, most of the time, act on the assumption that people around us are telling the truth. Suddenly, when a woman calls out her rapist, that flips. Why? Police forces around the world – all of which work from what we might charitably call conservative (and more analytically call grounded in the patriarchy of common law) definitions of sexual assault – agree that recorded instances of false rape accusation are few, with the figures pretty much in line with those for any other type of false accusation. In the UK, a figure of 0.6% is cited.

Singer, poet and former MP Jennifer Ferguson

Of course, the existence of even that minute percentage means every accused person must receive scrupulous due process. But it does not support discounting accusations on the grounds that false ones are common. Do the math: way more than 90% of rape accusations are true. Everywhere. All the time. So it would be logical to begin by believing the accuser.

Versions of the so-called ‘casting couch’ are rife in music, beginning with “Let’s see you from the back”, “Come to the audition in a short dress”, and “Can I buy you dinner later?” and extending to far, far worse. Colleagues researching women in music here regularly hear the horror stories, from assault on tour buses to male stage and sound personnel forcefully demanding sexual favours in return for simply doing what they’re paid for.

Sometimes it starts earlier: that music teacher who stands far too close behind and just has to reach over to turn the page; that music prof who has an ‘affair’ (power imbalances render the term absurd) with a different student every year; that other one who keeps porn visibly playing on his computer during tutorials.

As Ferguson’s experience implies, women on stage suffer a particular kind of objectification in the eyes of predators. But an even uglier picture might emerge if the research was extended to the many women working in non-performing roles, such as club, theatre, bar, stage and sound staff. Their vulnerability is intensified because they often work earlier, or later, and under even more precarious labour conditions.

And that’s what workplace rape – the hideously real thing hiding under the glamorous guise of ‘casting-couch’ – is actually about: power.

In showbiz – and in society – more men than women occupy mutually reinforcing circles of economic and social power. In showbiz, labour is most often individualised, casualised and unorganised (often forcibly so), depriving individuals of the protection of their fellows in the workforce.

The worldview that dominates is capitalist patriarchy, here vividly summed up by feminist writer Ursula le Guin: ” ‘Civilized’ Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other — outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. (…) I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

It’s not about Ferguson and her monster, or Mercy Pakela and hers, and it’s about society, not only one industry.

By all means let the speaking-out continue and grow, and let those monsters be named and punished. Those of us who write need to take care we don’t reinforce objectifying stereotypes of female performers. (I once read a review of a South African jazz quartet where the three men all ‘played’ their instruments. The woman in the group ‘made love to’ hers.) Let’s look, too at those specific features of labour relations in the music industry that shore up the power of exploiters and abusers and erode the power of cultural and service workers.

But getting rid of workplace rape entails more: not just talking about our homegrown Weinsteins but doing something about the societal and ideological manure that helps them flourish.

Poster courtesy of the One in Nine Campaign

There is a classical Africa: Renee Reznek’s From My Beloved Country and more

Ignorance about African history and culture abounds – at both ends of the political spectrum. The smug racists banging on about railways and piped water are only a little more ignorant than the philistines asserting “science is colonialist” in blithe ignorance of the foundational legacy of Semitic, pre-Islamic (and later Islamic) research and invention in the North of our continent, among peoples today labeled Arabs, Egyptians and Libyans. (For more on where the myth of white Ancient Greek science came from, read the late Professor Martin Bernal’s Black Athena )

In the same way, other myths about Africa float around, for example about pervasive cultural ‘backwardness’ (more backward than the atavism of the Ku Klux Klan?). In relation to music, there are assumptions that the term ‘classical’ music can only apply to the European children of Bach and Mozart, or that African contemporary composition happens only in popular genres.

Let’s start with ‘classical’ music. The term has a number of coexistent meanings. For Wikipedia, it’s “music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized,” or, alternatively, “serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.” You could spend a thousand words deconstructing the assumptions in that second definition: jazz ain’t ‘serious’? folk music doesn’t follow “long-established principles”? and so on… Leave it.

Ganda court
East African classical music

Wikipedia’s first definition reflects pitch-perfect Eurocentrism. The word ‘classical’ means “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style.” To colonise that word for European music alone – albeit sometimes with a capital ‘C’ – ignores that, for example, Indian music, or the Arabic music of Al-Andalus, or the musics of the Mandinka or Ganda courts in Africa also went through historical phases during which the pinnacle standards for their forms were set. Every culture has its ‘classical’ music.

But in ordinary speech, classical music is simply the kind of repertoire presented in formal concert halls, whatever micro-niche the genre specialists would place it in.

Rznek album.jpg

That’s my only excuse for headlining the term when discussing this year’s release by UK-based South African pianist Renee Reznek, From My Beloved Country ( ). In fact, this is an album of ‘New Music’, all composed relatively recently in South Africa or by South Africans, and though Pietermaritzburg-raised Reznek has garnered many international accolades for playing more conventionally ‘classical’ material, that is not her project here.

The album comprises a dozen pieces, some of which have deep personal meaning for Reznek. Kevin Volans’ PMB Impromptu, for example, reflects their shared birthplace and pays tribute to Reznek’s keyboard skill through the demands the music’s intricacy places upon it. David Earl’s Song Without Words was written for her daughter’s wedding. The works are eminently accessible examples of their kind and provide, in total, an enjoyable introduction to the work of eight South African New Music composers, from the jagged edginess of Michael Blake’s Broken Line (which alludes to the conventions of Xhosa bow music) to the melodic lyricism of Song Without Words. And Reznek’s playing throughout is impressive: the pieces may sound accessible, but they are no less pianistically complex for that; her technique is the mediator. If just about every critic reviewing the album has used the word ‘warm’, there are good reasons: not only does the piano tone radiate warmth, but Reznek’s very evident pleasure in playing these particular pieces also reaches out warmly from disk to listener.

Pianist Renee Reznek at the JIMF 2014

However, From My Beloved Country – like, for example the Andre Petersen/Kathleen Tagg duo outing Where Worlds Collide ( ) before it – also serves a larger purpose by reminding us about the breadth of contemporary South African concert music. Two previous columns ( ) ( ) have already reflected on this rich, less travelled, part of South Africa’s music scene.

Reznek’s album opens with a composition by Neo Muyanga, whose work was showcased not only at this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF) (when he was composer in residence) but in 2014, when the pianist visited and premiered this very work: Hade Tata.

Neo Muyanga
Neo Muyanga

Hade Tata is a programmatic piece, evoking scenes from Mandela’s release onwards, and reflecting on high hopes un-met. For those of my readers not familiar with New Music criticism, it’s worth noting that in this context, ‘programmatic’ is often uttered with a slight sneer; for some, music with an extra-musical narrative isn’t so fashionable right now. But I’m not sneering. For me, Hade Tata is a moving ten minutes of memories and sound-pictures, from the icon’s slow footsteps out of Victor Verster Prison, through a riotously chaotic welcome home to the bluesy regrets of the final passage. (Come to think of it, ‘bluesy’ isn’t exactly an accepted term in New Music criticism either.)

That’s a good place to conclude. Forget the labels, and, next time, buy some South African music from a category you’d normally swipe left on. Whether ‘New Music’ or ‘Classical’ (or jazz) it’s all music. And music often brings us things that get everybody’s metaphorical feet tapping, alongside things that carry special meanings for certain listeners. Whatever its general appeal, Hade Tata will carry an extra resonance for those South Africans who were there and felt those emotions from the inside. And probably Mozart says some special things to a Salzburger, too…