Back to the future as Pops Mohamed’s Kalamazoo is re-released

In the beginning was the music – and the music was Sheer. Or, to put it another way, the political change of 1990 unleashed much original new South African music, but it wasn’t until 1994 and the advent of the Sheer Sound label that a coherent archive and a consistent catalogue gained wide public attention.

That’s tended to overshadow the great quantity of pre-1994 releases, from multiple labels –including occasionally the majors, but more importantly some we don’t credit enough for their role in the SA jazz renaissance. One of those was Shifty, which received a 30th birthday accolade at the Alliance Francaise in 2014.

Pops Mohamed

But far more venerable was the As-Shams/Sun stable of Johannesburg music industry veteran Rashid Vally, which for nearly half a century before and after liberation, under various imprints (in 1973, for the then-Dollar Brand, the label was ‘Mandla’), gave a voice to South African modern jazz. The label’s releases of the music of Abdullah Ibrahim are well known, but there were all kinds of other jazz and pop experiments taking place in those Sun studios and around the downtown Kohinoor record store.

Now, thanks to multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, who composed, produced and played on many, we have the chance to hear a rare gem again.


In September, Mohamed re-released the eponymous first volume of his Kalamazoo series (; 

Kalamazoo Music – ) These six tracks from 1990 feature not only himself as composer, arranger and keyboard programmer, but the late tenorist Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee and bassist Sipho Gumede – the release honours them both – with drummers Monty Weber and Ian Herman too. On the closer, Happy Feeling, reedman Robbie Jansen also puts in an appearance on alto.

If you like Manenberg, you’ll love Kalamazoo. The shape of the music is classic, but updated, bump jive (one track is actually called Kort Street Bump Jive). But the sound is carried far beyond that by the imaginations of the saxmen (the other altoist is Mzi Khumalo) and the impeccable rhythms of Gumede. Some of the tracks are frustratingly short – you’ll long for more than the three minutes-plus of Gumede’s groove-driven solo excursion Spring Fever – but those were sometimes the constraints of that era’s recordings.

Sipho Gumede

Kalamazoo was named for the close-knit, defiant informal settlement that abutted Mohamed’s home area of Reiger Park. It was another of those pockets of multi-ethnic resistance apartheid had tried and failed to erase (neoliberalism has been more successful); reminders that Johannesburg is a migrant city and ‘tribe’ ain’t nothing but a number.

Mohamed and Gumede’s own partnership had been forged in fire: enacting defiance all through the apartheid years when the regime was insisting on the scale and importance of the differences between the Zulu-speaking bassist and the so-called ‘coloured’, Afrikaans-speaking keyboardist.

“It was always very important for us not to stay inside the classification,” says Mohamed. “The regime divided us – people classified ‘coloured’ had identity documents; black people had the dompas. We didn’t accept that separation.  Sipho, although he was born in KZN, could play any feel. Sometime he’d joke and ask me: ‘Does [my bass line] feel coloured enough?’”

Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee

There’s more intriguing music where that came from. Next, Mohamed plans to release the ground-breaking 1975 Black Disco (also with Gumede & Coetzee), a sound inspired in equal parts by Soweto Soul, African Jazz and American R&B. Both that and Kalamazoo remind us how vast (and often unexplored) is the black South African popular music legacy of even the past few decades. This raises again the question of why radio doesn’t play it, music courses don’t teach it and public archives don’t collect, display and treasure it. International search engines such as Google can only access what we ourselves have first researched and published. If we delay, and such cultural traces disappear – as they too easily can – all Google will be able to show our grandchildren is a big, fat emptiness.

(NOTE: The quote from Pops Mohamed comes from a 2016 interview he granted me during the creation of liner notes for another re-release: the second ‘Black Disco’ album, Night Express, re-released by Matsuli Music.


Remembering Jurgen Brauninger

Next Sunday 20 October a memorial concert for New Music composer Jurgen Brauninger (who died in May) will be held at the Kerksaal, Hoofstraat Conceptual, 52 Hoofstraat, Reibeck Kasteel (, as part of the Sterkfontein Composers Meeting, which is being held this year in Malmesbury. The concert will feature the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet playing music by Brauninger, Michael Blake, Clare Loveday and Matthew Peterson. For an appreciation of Brauninger’s work, follow this link:


Vatiswa Ndara, the SABC bailout, and showbiz exploitation

Vatiswa Ndara’s open letter to the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture was long overdue. Set aside the specifics of the actor’s beef with Ferguson Films, and the general picture she describes resonates across all the creative industries, including music.

Vatiswa Ndara

No doubt some fresh idiot at the next funeral will repeat the question, “Why do artists die in poverty?” (The person to whom she addressed her letter is very fond of asking it.) The answer is twofold.

First, artists are part of the people, and most South Africans still live and die in poverty. That’s a much bigger discussion, and one we have postponed for far too long.

Second, artists are also workers, and the labour, contract, and conditions of production issues Ndara raised make the situation even worse.

People outside the industry are often fooled by headlines on the showbiz pages about an artist’s fee for a single event. Events such as arts festivals or stadium concerts happen only a few times in a year. In between, that fee has to cover all living and family expenses, rehearsal and development time on the artist’s craft, the purchase and maintenance of equipment such as musical instruments (at top VAT rate) or attire and other work expenses. Try dividing that figure by the number of weeks in the year when artists go without paid work.

Actors – and sometimes session musicians tied to a studio or label – often work on something close to zero-hours contracts: they have to be instantly on call, so cannot accept other work – but whether and how often they will be called is not guaranteed.

Artists – and especially beginners – are constantly enticed to work for minute (and sometimes no) fees for the sake of ‘exposure’. Conditions on stage and on-set are often squalid, sometimes dangerous, and too often infused with a toxic atmosphere of bullying and harassment (see, for example, ).

As inner cities gentrify, very often the spots, big and small, that stage live performances are squeezed out by zoning and noise regulations, or demolished to make way for residential property that helps rentiers get rich. There are still very few multi-purpose arts spaces for communities outside the cities in townships and rural areas. Research tells us that live performance remains the lifeblood of the arts.

What performers need is a militant trade union, well-informed about the practicalities and nuances of the labour issues in different arts disciplines, to take on these struggles. The Minister to whom Ndara addressed the letter is the current patron of a government-sponsored artists’ organisation whose existence stands in the way of forming one. CWUSA (the Creative Workers Union of South Africa) may have all the best intentions. However, it is relatively unknown outside its small membership; its mandating processes remain opaque, and its public pronouncements have been, at best, bland and generic. A social security fund for artists – CWUSA’s current main platform plank – would be useful. Attacks on recorded music ‘piracy’ – still its patron’s obsession – are increasingly irrelevant to the current industry value chain in Africa (see ). Neither of these policy points even gets close to addressing the kinds of structural exploitation Ndara has raised. Indeed, foregrounding them actually de-links artists and their labour issues from the ongoing struggles of all South Africans for a living wage, when in fact it’s the same struggle.

Ndara’s letter rather overshadowed the week’s other big cultural industry story, although the two share common ground: the SABC has been bailed out, but the corporation still owes massive monies to working musicians.

SABC currently owes R250 million in unpaid royalties – a fraction of its bailout bonanza. When Hlaudi Motsoeneng ran the organisation, he promised that playing 90% local music would make South African artists rich. He omitted the condition for fulfilling that promise: “if we actually pay them what we owe”.

Now the Hlauds have cleared and we can see what colour the sky is. Any chance of achieving a useful, realistic local content quota – such as the ICASA-proposed 60-70% – in the forseeable future has been sabotaged by his arrogant bungling; knowledgeable specialist DJs who actually played good South African music have lost their jobs; and the debt to artists remains.

david Scott.jpg
David Scott

The SABC owes R125.8M to Samro; R104.2M to Sampra; R8.8M to Airco; R3.3M to Risa; and R6M to Capasso. The effectiveness and probity of these collecting societies is in some cases disputed (again, a different issue) – but they can’t pay out what they don’t receive. Musician David Scott of The Kiffness has started a petition to collect on this debt. You can find it here: Signing it would make a start.



Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Jazz Orchestra Into Dust: situation normal, all fired up

“What could be more mysterious than a work of music?” writes US jazz critic Ted Gioia. “When the aliens arrive from their distant galaxy, they won’t have much trouble understanding our food, sex and politics – those all make perfect sense. But they will scratch their green scaly heads at why people plug music into their ears or get up and dance when the band starts to play. ‘Captain, we are unable to decipher the messages hidden in these three-minute bursts of sound and the earthlings refuse to give us the code.’ (…) And jazz performance may puzzle them most of all. What could be stranger than a band playing the identical song, night after night, but making it sound different each time?” ( )

Gioia has it right, of course. The shock of jazz’s new happens in process, in the moment, in the playing, whatever the repertoire and players. That often makes it hard for music writers – constantly pressured for news only of fads and ephemera to keep their platform ahead of FOMO – to place stories about a collection of known players working brilliantly in a known format.

Into Dust.jpg
cover artwork by Romy Brauteseth

Which may explain why the second, double-album release from Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Jazz Orchestra, Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi ( ), released back in July, has barely been mentioned by most South African media, while the same outfit’s “Battle of the Bands” with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra at Joy of Jazz last weekend has been name-checked almost everywhere. (It was not any kind of ‘battle’: that’s a zero-sum game, which good music never is. Two very different bands simply alternated. Unsurprisingly, each sounded different from the other. But, hey, novelty!)

So let’s start with a declaration. The ZAR Jazz Orchestra does, across two CDs, pretty well what you’d expect from 20 skilled and experienced jazz players using the conventional array of instruments and working in a live club setting. (The album was recorded at the Orbit). Of the 11 tracks, a handful have already been heard on Wyatt’s earlier albums while one, Feya Faku’s Peddie’s Place, is a much-played part of that latter hornman’s repertoire.Waltzf Joz.jpg

Nothing to see here, then: move along, please. Except that new things hit you …oh, about every couple of minutes.

First, Wyatt doesn’t run his big-band like a regiment. You’ll hear the expected gorgeous textural contrasts of massed instruments against solo sounds – but there’s no predictable order for who solos when, or which sections’ sound is foregrounded. Rather it’s whose voice and spirit suits which number, and so we have the lyricism of Bokani Dyer on the opener, Connected; Sydney Mavundla’s horn rather than Wyatt’s on Klipdrift Cinderella, and reedman Linda Sikhakhane bringing his fire to Peddie’s Place. (Sikhakhane is also a surprise in his own right, because, studying overseas, he’s recently been heard far too rarely on South African albums.)

Marc & romy
Wyatt & bassist Romy Brauteseth

Second, numbers initially recorded with smaller ensembles sound completely different using all the colours a big-band puts at the arranger’s disposal. The dynamics of Into Dust, for example, in its first outing on the 2013 One Life in the Sun create a lean, sinewy camel-race of a sound, with Domenic Egli’s clattering drums way out front. On the ZAR recording, by contrast, the number becomes a travelling conversation between drum and horns towards a more mysterious end-point .

That’s one aspect of the important work ZAR is doing: affirming and building the South African standard repertoire. New tunes enter the canon when a big-band arrangement demonstrates their robustness – Wyatt’s own Mali is probably a strong contender here. More established numbers, such as Peddie’s Place, have their position in the canon strengthened every time they are made to sound fresh again in a new context.

No big-band can survive without something perfectly imperfect going on between bass and drums, and the teamwork of Romy Brauteseth and Marlon Witbooi more than fills the bill. It’s hard to explain: you don’t want drum and bass marching in perfect lock-step – that takes us back to big-band as regiment again. What you need is a minute, perfectly-judged tension between the rhythm patterns of the two instruments. Brauteseth and Witbooi create that and never lose it. Your ears might not detect it under the volume of other instrumental sounds, but it’s that springy musical tension that holds the whole shebang together and moves it along. Getting that so superbly right makes Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi an energetic and energising listen, despite its coming from 20 players largely sitting down.

Drummer Marlon Witbooi

I’m still in awe of Wyatt’s ability as leader to hold such an expensive, unwieldy beast as a big-band together, and even marshal the resources to record it – twice, now. I also hope he doesn’t desert the smaller formats, because, as this release demonstrates, those more spontaneous outfits can be where great new tunes and ideas are first born. But Into Dust, like its ZAR Jazz Orchestra predecessor, has to be a strong contender for the next SAMA, for delivering exactly what admirers of jazz big bands hope for.

Joy of Jazz – an ‘instrument of change’?

Next week sees the final jazz mega-festival of the year, the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz at the Sandton Convention Centre It’s a good programme: alongside the crowd-pleasing, bums-on-seats-ensuring popular music names, there’s everybody from the highly accomplished, jazz-establishment voices of Wynton Marsalis and the JALC big-band to the establishment-challenging innovations of Dr Salim Washington’s Sankofa and Kesivan Naidoo’s latest collaboration, Zachusa Warriors.

The event’s advertising slogan is “Celebrating 25 years as the Instrument of Change”, which is both a clever play on words and a (remarkably indirect and limited) allusion to the role of jazz in struggle. That’s worth interrogating. How far are festivals like JoJ ‘instruments of change’, and how far are the words merely another instance of commercial woke-washing?

Hotstix and the Liberation Project

Individual artists on the bill have certainly played their part in driving change. One JoJ radio insert credits Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse as an instrument of change for his youthful drumming – but that’s not the half of it. As part of the Beaters and then Harari, Mabuse was part of the generation of Africa-conscious cultural rebels who challenged apartheid through their sounds. He played another, less well known role in toppling apartheid too, using his touring career to covertly carry communications in and out of the country for the ANC. Today, as part of The Liberation Project – and alongside bassist Aus Tebza Sedumedi, who also plays the festival – he’s re-visioning South African and international liberation songs to speak to the struggles of today. If you’re going call him an instrument of change, that might be worth a mention…

btbBlack.jpgTrumpeter and Standard Bank Young Artist Mandla Mlangeni – subject of the striking ‘Instruments of Change’ poster – has inherited from his distinguished struggle family a discourse of change that now breathes, transformed for the 21st century, through all his projects: collective working and the proud assertion of radical identity (see Born to be Black ( ). He often takes his projects to schools and community spots outside the high-priced ghettos.

Reed player Washington, one collaborator with Mlangeni on Born to be Black, embodies in his career and compositions a similar discourse and consciousness, in both his American work with revolutionary musicians such as the late Fred Ho , and in his own recordings, such as Sankofa’s Tears of Marikana ( ) Another reed player and former SBYA, Shannon Mowday, has consistently spoken and worked in contexts where she can assert the rights and power of women in the jazz space.

All of these – and there are many more I could mention – show us what being an ‘instrument of change’ in jazz can mean. But despite the marketing slogan, no such aspects find space in the Joy of Jazz publicity. Possibly, they might scare the horses.

Radical roots: the late Bra’ Geoff Mphakati

The early history of the festival itself enacted jazz as instrument of progressive change. The concept was born from the rebellious cultural ferment of the Mamelodi jazz scene, in the working class jazz appreciation societies and the yards of grassroots cultural organiser icons such as the late Bra Geoff Mphakathi, long before the brand was corporatised.

But today the event is contained in the guarded fortress of the Sandton Convention Centre, with day tickets at R750 per person and a weekend pass at R1350 – round about the average take-home for an entire waged black household, before you’ve factored in travel costs and refreshments. Change has certainly happened there…

Staging good music is never a bad thing: it’s paid work for musicians who – heaven knows! – need it, and spiritual and intellectual nourishment for those who can afford to attend and actually take the time to listen, rather than noisily parading their conspicuous consumption around the festival bars on Swarovski-encrusted phones.

There’s still grassroots jazz in Pretoria: the CAFCA project

But it’s long overdue that we revive the debates of 1994 about where the money that supports culture comes from, where it goes to, and, most importantly in both cases, why. Too often, that money supports elite commodification and piggyback marketing, rather than creating opportunities for the majority of our people to create and enjoy. That’s the change for which we still, after 25 years, hunger.

Celebrate Joburg: our migrant city

It’s Heritage Month again. Monumentally ugly and costly statues bearing no resemblance to their subjects will be unveiled. Capitalist Big Food will cajole us into buying kilometres of sausage casing stuffed with minced gristle and carcinogenic nitrites ( The narrow, unchanging tribalism invented by apartheid will be nostalgically invoked. And Johannesburg’s true cultural heritage – the uniquely vibrant child of nearly 150 years of migration – will continue to be trashed, burned and savagely slaughtered.

Hugh Masekela: “There’s a train that comes from Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe…”

Listen to Hugh Masekela’s iconic Stimela ( The wealth of this city was built on the sweat and often the blood of migrants, from across what today is the SADC region, but also in huge numbers from the impoverished parts of our own country. Before apartheid, capitalism carved out colonial borders how and when it pleased, for exploitation and control ( ), and operated across them likewise. Regimented by the state and the mine bosses, migrant workers were easy to discipline, punish – and discard when they got too sick to work ( ). The 1913 Land Act made black South Africans foreigners in most of their own country.

passlawsMore borders were drawn under apartheid, none of them by or for the people The creation of the bantustans from 1951 added fantasy world-building to dispossession. The cruel Pass Laws were precisely about migration, denying Africans the right to settle freely and establish homes with their families. The retribalisation policies of the regime allowed Afrikaner ideologues to construct fake histories and demarcate cultural differences between communities, as tools for divide and rule. The Cold War “rooi gevaar” myth fomented fear and hatred of Africans from other, newly-independent African states.

The residues of that hostility and paranoia remain. So do the patterns of the migrant labour system: migration still reflects around 75% from the countries of the SADC region, and huge numbers of internal migrants from the still-desolate rural areas and former ‘homelands’. Most ‘migrants’ in Johannesburg are South Africans.

But that legacy has also shaped an electrifying and cosmopolitan city culture, particularly in music. As Wits scholar and community organiser Rangoato Hlasane told me, for my Johannesburg chapter in the book Sounds and the City ( “Johannesburg jazz has been multi-vocal, right from the start. It has to do with Johannesburg being a space that became the centre of migration at a particular time – and continues to be so. Jazz has no choice but to be like that here, because the city is like that. Even marabi, the earliest form, always used more than one language.”

The people’s languages of the city (tsotsitaal; ‘scamtho and more) draw words from everywhere people come from. Joburg dress styles are a promiscuous mix of Western consumer brands and fabrics, hairstyles and adornments from across the African continent. Those are fruits of migrancy too.

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Joburg Fashion Week

It’s a-historical and false to reject that migrants are who we are, including the hostel-dwellers with roots in KZN who seem to have been prominent in the riots. They’ve been left stranded by changes in city employment patterns and marginalised by rapacious property ‘development’ policies.

In Heritage Month, let’s consider how Joburg’s cultural history as a black, migrant city is being erased, and how simply being poor in the CBD – wherever you come from – is being criminalised by gentrification (of which this is not the first wave). In other cities worldwide, we’ve seen how property developers shed at most crocodile tears (and sometimes none) when properties in areas ripe for redevelopment are burned out and trashed. The riots may hurt short-term, but they clear away impoverished people, homes and small productive businesses such as panel-beaters and barbers to make way for high-profit complexes and global goods and services accessible only to the rich.

So what can we do? We can stand with the current generation of migrants to honour, in this Heritage Month, that earlier generation who made our city what it is, and our political heritage of protest against the colonial and apartheid imposition of fake borders. We can offer active support and protection to migrants, as the women of Coronationville have done (see ).

And we can play Stimela at our Heritage Day braais, to start the vital conversations about Joburg: our migrant city.