Different styles of South African jazz music are played and heard in all the regions of Southern Africa, yet our jazz is united in an umbrella genre. This we call South African jazz. Where one may hear the very distinct sounds of the Sophiatown Shuffle and Marabi music of Johannesburg; the Goema and carnival inspired songs of the Cape; the big sound of Xhosa Africa Cape jazz from the Eastern Cape, the maskanda, virtuoso music, ensembles and big jazz bands of KZN: All these different styles form a part of the whole which is South African Jazz. It has a unique sound. Like a tree, it is a single trunk with many branches. Its roots are African. This tree comes out of the ground in Southern Africa, a very strategic location for the diverse and multi-cultural meeting point of humanity.
The primary locations to experience SA jazz can be found on an energetic diamond existing between Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. These are our major urban centres, flanked by a coastline and a mountainous escarpment. Jazz in South Africa developed alongside the movement of Western musical instruments through the ports. Southern African jazz developed in the urban centres of South Africa. A great school of South African jazz was American jazz. It famously travelled here through the ports. In the blazen path set by the American jazz musicians, South African jazz is said to have developed, emerging out of a similar socio-cultural oppression. Jazz was a healing and transformative tool. Jazz was a clear cut opportunity for the Black African man to show his genius on an equal footing. However it is that and much more. It is unlimited. Everything is possible, everything is acceptable. There are no limitations in South African jazz. Jazz appreciation becomes unbounded where spontaneous applause after each solo, riff, melody or brass blast is irresistible.
The sound musical principles of exploration, expression, improvisation and spontaneity coupled with its ability to absorb different influences, make it a strong musical base for any musician. Jazz is regarded by many as the classical music of the twentieth century. Jazz as an urban and diverse music form could express the full musical pallette of a ‘classical’ music with only a few instrumentalists.
Primarily all jazz and South African jazz develops out of a humans desire to express him or herself. Therefore the evolution of jazz is not a logical progression, it is primarily an involution born of great virtuosos looking inward to achieve mastery. Jazz music results from virtuoso musicians reaching into the depths of their creative genius and inspiring all those around them. Jazz music is built on liberation and not slavery. Southern African jazz is a way of life and an opportunity to express one's personal greatness. The love of this music is the avenue, the channel, the veritable fiord, leading to the breath of life, the vital energy to finding oneself and becoming oneself, as a sovereign and authentic person and as a united and holistic humanity. A society premised on sharing is the essence of jazz. Jazz is love, jazz is 'love thy neighbour.' Jazz is a unifying language. It brings people together and provides the vocabulary to have a great musical dialogue. SA jazz is a transformative shift to sharing. It is uBuntu in action.
SA jazz is a vehicle of shared consciousness. At its essence this music rises above the simple issues of good and bad and right and wrong and is a joyous sound. It is a beautiful music born of a collective consciousness. Ideologically jazz is about freedom of expression and liberation. Freedom embodies the principles of human dignity, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion and unity. Musicians are always entertainers, oral historians, educators and social commentators. Musicians make a massive contribution to where we are now and how well we live in that now.
As a musical example of the ever changing nature of South African jazz, we have witnessed its’ sound unite with many other sounds, styles and genres from all over planet earth, such as classical music, improvised music, meditation, folk music and traditional music. Jazz is a dynamic entity, evolving with culture, adapting to society's needs, always acknowledging and building upon the innovations of the past. Jazz is about surprise, freedom, expression, identity built upon the stories of intensity, passion, love and perseverance.
Carnival music, Goema of Cape Town
From spiritual beginnings, the generosity of the Cape has spawned a hugely cosmopolitan culture known as a creole culture. Goema is the reflexion of this creole culture. Goema is the name of the rhythm or spoken language of this creole culture. The goema language itself is an amalgamation of the Bushmen language with Afrikaans, English and some Bantu words. Goema language is a rhythmical potjie kos of words. The language is sometimes foolish, sometimes humurous, speaking in metaphors or taking some of the most simple situations and turning them into something to laugh about. From this goema language came a musical form developed in the Cape. It was named after the 'goem' and the 'gaai'; the drum and the fire; the wind and the waves; the 'this' and 'that'; of the mountain and the people. Goema is like the individual as s/he travels from the family to the community, to the world and to the universe. It is music but moreover it is a dynamic style and philosophy of people. It is a universal expression, united in itself. The goema music is a fun and flexible style not unlike the Samba of South America. Goema like any traditional rhythmical music pattern is open to shift and transformation. It can reflect any mood given and is therefore a universal experience. Goema like any traditional rhythmical music pattern is open to shift and transformation – it can reflect any mood given – and it is therefore a universal experience: The basic rhythm of goema is TA TAKA TAKA TA
The very lands of the Cape are known as a natural carnival. There is a natural movement from the cool waters of the Atlantic to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Sardines do this annually. They run from the Cape to the warm waters of KZN and Mozambique. The bushmen people walked the same route along the coast. There is a natural movement which the annual carnival in Cape Town ties into. Carnival means resurrection of the flesh. It is a great jewel for the people of the world to partake in. The carnival is emotionally cleansing and spiritually healing. Carnivale means celebration of the flesh. It is a great jewel for the people of the world to partake in. The music of the carnival is the samba! Carnival is born of a human experience that is pure expression beyond any distinctions of class and culture. The carnival lies at the heart of freedom. It developed during the 1800’s in imitation of the 'parallel stream of socio-cultural oppression' the black faced minstrels of America felt. The Cape Town carnival is not at all limited to being a reaction to slavery however.
Traditional Music - a KZN perspective
There is so much traditional music from all the country that has influenced the development of jazz in one way or another. In Kwazulu Natal we have the slow moving sacred dance called uKusina. One of the greatest composers was Isaiah Shembe. He was born in 1865 and died May 2 1936. Isaiah was one of the first known maskanda's or ‘musikantes'; traveling minstrels. He played his bandoneon to sooth the wandering minds of gorgeous maidens. As he began to mature, he desisted from useless womanizing and actively sought his higher purpose. uNkulunkulu (that which is greater than greatness itself) saw this and spoke with Isaiah on the mountain. When Isaiah returned from the mountain, his attitude became very progressive and his music took on a healing purpose. He would play mouthbow (ugubhu) in a musical meditation, sometimes throughout the night. He was driven to leave something behind for mankind, a footpath for us to find our way back to uNkulunkulu. Amongst a number of great deeds such as setting up the craft traders on the beachfront, Isaiah composed a single eternal music called sacred dance or uKusina.
Maskanda developed from its early roots with Shembe on the bandoneon to become to mean music as played by the man on the move. Today, maskanda has become strongly associated with the guitar. The guitar could have been introduced by Portuguese explorers as early as the 1880's. The first style a guitarist learnt to play would be the style most commonly heard in his home area, the style of his roots. Until the 1950's the technique most commonly used in playing the guitar was ukuvamba (vamping style). Many of the styles of maskanda are named after the dance forms umzansi, isiShameni, isiBhaca, isiKhuze. Typically in Maskanda, the song starts with a message (izihlabo). "This is what I am about to play and this is who I am."
Izibongo (praise poetry) may accompany the dance to name and respect the authors (like a traditional copyright). Singer recounts lineage to identify ones-self. There can be sophisticated social or political commentary. Izimbongi – this is where I come from. The izihlabo is a message. “This is what I am about to play and this is who I am.”
Townships are historically the source of South African jazz. In the early 1940's, Christopher Ngcukana moved to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape and brought up a family of musicians in the township of Langa. He brought up five sons and many bands from Nahoon to Langa and spent many evenings in his yard practicing with other pioneering musicians and youthful up and coming musicians. And he traveled back to Nahoon regularly and brought up many bands there too. The music school of Christopher Ngcukana was a blueprint for music development, that continues to this day. He lived in the township and the best teachers of jazz are in the townships! He was known as Mra. He was one of the numerous great schools of SA jazz. He trained musicians that were to ignite the future sounds of SA jazz such as all of his children. 'Mra' is the example of a musical father of which there are dozens and dozens in this great story of SA Jazz throughout all time.
It is from townships that world class virtuoso jazz performers, educators and composers emerge. How is this possible? It shows that nothing is impossible. It takes learning and learning happens when 'the ordinary' and 'the extraordinary' work together through patience, passion and humility. South African jazz as practiced in the townships and as taught master to student focuses on self mastery and natural learning. South African jazz is a musical language and discipline. It allows for the natural power of self-expression to transcend all or any barriers. There is no greater example of the involution of the creative spirit of a human being then in the townships of South Africa where 'township dwellers' are met with tremendously unusual circumstances of living and surviving. A number of South Africa jazz artists lived and or continue to live in 'townships.' Even though poverty hunts there, freedom and passion is evident there too. Passion is the greatest asset to an education. South African jazz cannot be separated from township jazz.
The Rays of Jazz
The story of South African jazz is the passing on of music from generation to generation in 'cycles and circles of learning'. The old teach the young. The young grow old and then they teach the young, and so one learns this music from ones teacher. There is a never ending cycle of young musicians and old musicians.
This is the cycle of jazz education in South Africa and it happens across formal platforms such as education institutions and informal platforms such as community centres and people's homes. This natural exchange will carry all the knowledge and wisdom systems from one generation to the next, ensuring the consciousness of our past and traditional roots are embraced and continued. These cycles of learning are experienced in waves of musical light that I have termed ‘rays’. A ray ebbs and flows in cycles like the tide. All though a wave may break on one beach, it builds across the width of an ocean. It is the same with a musical ray. It is expansive. When a ray of musical light is at its brightest, a cultural blossoming occurs. When it is not at its brightest it exists in the heart of the musical creator who is tasked to nurture or protect it to a point of release. The ray of musical light is a build-up of a collective expression that marks a cycle or an age. A measurement of roughly 15 years distinguishes one ray from another. 15 years is also roughly the length of time for a musician to fully develop his / her technique.
The First Ray of South African jazz
The 'Golden age' was when jazz music blossomed across the country. The Golden Age’ peaked in the early 1950's. The Golden Age was built upon freedom of expression and produced great musicians, writers and politicians too. Mandela's heyday was in the 1950's when he shared a downtown office with Oliver Tambo. This era represented the dream of unity. There were a number of musicians who made music no matter what and built everlasting careers at home and or abroad. There are a number of musicians who started life long jazz careers and projects during this era. In the 1950's, jazz meant so much to the musicians who made it through that period. The golden era of Southern African jazz shined so bright and was united across all the major cities. Jazz music tied all these urban centres together and kept them relevant and relative.
During the golden era our great cultural centres were inner city multi-cultural locations such as District Six in Cape Town, Sophiatown in Johannesburg and uMkhumbane in Durban. It was here that jazz developed and sustained itself. All these centres were demolished! After demolishing Sophiatown the once cultural centre was developed into a police town called Brixton. The musicians keep the music alive in Soweto and Meadowlands. The lands were the glorious houses of District Six once stood lie fallow to this day, and the community was pushed out to the Cape Flats. In Durban the vibrant urban centre and melting pot of that day was uMkhumbane. Where uMkhumbane was there is now an informal settlement for migrant workers from all over the continent which is kind of similar to what it was. So, fragments of the Golden Age still remain. The Golden Age lasted into the early 60's until it was divided, dispersed and destroyed by apartheid. In a sense all aspects of saamheid (togetherness) were destroyed by apartheid (separateness). Jazz was an expressive force seeking musical and social equality, and apartheid hated that. Apartheid was serious about destroying this liberating musical language.
Radio restrictions, big police clampdowns, violence and the destruction of vibrant communities ensued, leaving a big void for those who stayed behind in the 'Verwoerd to Vorster' years. Musicians went back to 9-5 jobs: 'Cups 'n Saucers' Nkanuka, for example, Cold Castle musician of the year in '62, was forced to work in a shoe store and stopped playing for many moons. Jazz lost a lot of its great talents and a lot of its identity however it actually grew stronger.
The Second ray of South African jazz
It was on the wings of the exiles that South African jazz traveled and the sound of South African jazz became internationally well known... It was in the belly of the inxiles that the fire of South African jazz continued to play at home. When Basil Breakey released his photographic book about South African jazz, he titled it 'Bebop and Beyond the Blues,' in reference to a Blue Notes recording, “Beyond the Blues.” South African jazz in this period was an exciting musical form that was beyond the dancing good times of the Sophiatown shuffle and a musical expression that had the power of change behind it. Musicians utilised jazz music to free their bottled up expression.
The personnel of South African jazz was split into two: the inxiles and the exiles. The inxiles kept the jazz alive in South Africa where jazz went into combat with all negative aspects of life in South Africa. The music is a joy that encompasses all the multiple colours of the resilience of the human spirit. African compositions, such as Crossroads by Mankunku, are encoded with specific harmonies to turn sadness into joy. This was a period of great musical alchemy.
The exiles took the jazz music abroad whereby they could build solidarity. By the mid 1960's SA Jazz had been disseminated and spread all over the world from a powerful home base; with the ideology of jazz = freedom. South African jazz built up a vast global network during the dark years of global politics. Abroad, exiled South African musicians had some opportunity to cement and celebrate their culture and their homelands. The jazz of this generation was a release. When listening to this music, immediately those fleeting moments, those illuminating experiences and eccentricities that define a period so vividly can become imaginable. For the inxiles, the memories have remained somewhat anonymous: timeless music of artists that only few have ever heard and compositions that only few can ever have imagined; whilst exiles set up a great dialogue abroad. Winston Mankunku and the Cape jazz quartet were at the centre of a vibrant period in Cape Town that lasted until 1967. Nothing could stop these musicians playing.
Through suppressing musicians, apartheid did a good job in disconnecting future generations from the memory of who we are as unlimited human beings (people with an unbridled potential waiting to be realised). This suppression reflected on South African society as a whole. These musicians and their musical greatness is an authentic presentation of a warrior generation. Freedom comes with a shockwave of opponents. In 1971 Abdullah Ibrahim recorded 'Manenberg is where it is at.’ The simple marabi riff of 'Manenberg is where it is at’ created a sense of belonging. This was a significant outpouring of African culture if even only a token amount for what was still to come.
The third ray of SA Jazz
isiginci asakh'umuzi - a guitar doesn't build a homestead goes the age-old Zulu prophecy, but in such circumstances- isiginci siyakha' ilizwe - a guitar builds a nation.
Globally reggae music was making waves. 'Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights,' sang Bob Marley and the Wailors. Reggae kept many youths optimistic and grounded during a tough time. Young people were freeing themselves from social and economic oppression and following the simple reggae messages of liberation and equality. Music was active in celebrating cultural heritage and identity; representing the shifting perceptions of community empowerment; and projecting the birth pangs of a new world of change. The cultural boycott arrived in South Africa, a little like a hunger strike. Artists were prevented from performing to segregated audiences. It was the beginnings of a cultural revolution.
Paul Simon and the Graceland tour controversially broke the boycott with performances with artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambaso, Ray Phiri and the face of South African music was exposed internationally. Attenborough's 'Cry Freedom,' and Mandela's massive birthday at Wembley Stadium made a huge international impact in exposing apartheid. South Africa began to emerge from the belly of the beast. A new generation of musicians also emerged in the 1980's. This was an era of experimentation, self-confidence and a never say never attitude. Campuses danced, whistled, communities marched, cheered and stadiums were alive with the shouts, screams and songs of freedom. All music due to its nature of unification across the colour line became politicised. Music was about society, about freedom, fashioning an honest culture and building an equal world-view. And it was irresistible.
Nelson Mandela was moved to Pollsmor Prison and there was a relaxing of apartheid in the late 80's. Young white South Africans were also gradually becoming conscientised. ECC (End Conscription Campaign) was mobilised and had a significant cultural profile and white musicians joined for the passionate and impulsive ‘Voel vry' tour of suburbia and the campuses. Eighties music became the reflection of the blossoming of years of mass struggle. All music was united in this third ray and jazz got a specific boost when Darius Brubeck was employed by Chris Ballentine to take a post at The University of Kwazulu Natal, UKZN. He first merged musical education and musical performance across racial and intellectual stereotypes to create a number of celebrated years. In the late 1980's UKZN was the learning grounds for great talents to emerge, which included Lulu Gontsana, Feya Faku, Melvin Pieters, Zim Ngqawana, Rick Van Heerden; to name a few. Musicians spearheaded the cultural revolution to conscientise people to fight for their own liberation.
The fourth ray of SA Jazz
Nelson Mandela was released on 11th of February 1990 and he shouted out to the Cape Town people that had gathered to see him, 'I love you.' It was the very beginning of the African Renaissance from a South African perspective; an African Renaissance by Africans for Africans. What had been a trickling stream began to flow like a river. South Africa was dubbed the rainbow nation. Jazz walked the dream of the rainbow nation. During the rainbow generation all began to realise that a great part of being a great musician is being a great human being. I learnt that from Moses Molelekwa. He lead by example. His music as he said was: “A conscious attempt to find ourselves.” The shooting star career of Moses Molelekwa together with the commencement of major festival initiatives in the country marked the signs of a a great explosion of jazz and the entrenchment of a musical tradition that could withstand anything.
More so than ever before the South African jazz music world experienced a bright ray of joy, and it had arrived on the world stage. The voice that was lost was rediscovered and reinvented in many ways, by both the returned exiles, the revitalised inxiles and the new musicians. The youthful spirit of this generation added a rawness and freshness that shifted jazz appreciation from the conventional to the unbounded. This was fantastic as a collective of kindness was rising in the wake of this pure expression, and where a victory over racial separation had been posted in the recent past, a victory over economic separation seemed possible.
However life got really nasty for some with a number of shocking deaths and dominations.