Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Claude Deppa
Cape Town born trumpeter Claude Deppa lives and works in London. In the year 2000 before a show in London he said to me:
I came to Europe in 74, my parents brought me over direct from Cape Town. I grew up in Cape Town, Bridgetown, Gugulethu and very much the Cape Flats. My Grandfather had a brass band and a choir so that is where the music side of me comes from. I remember music from the time I could crawl. Music was always there. I came over went to music college and the first three months I thought it was full of shit, it was all orchestral, they were all straight playing. I was saying to all these musicians we got to do extra work. There is not a lot of orchestras to hold us all, but they were all no, no, no, that's what you hear from them. So after three months I left. My mother said, “You think you are smarter than the teachers you gonna end up working in a bottle factory.” I took a job working for the London Electricity Board I did that for about two years but I knew I was going to do music. I was always walking with my trumpet. I kept going from there. I left that job after 2 and a half years, I actually asked them to fire me. I went to the district manager and said, ‘listen if I was working for me I'd fire me, you know. I am late, sometimes you don't know if I am coming in.' Then they said, ‘but you are good at the job'. But I said, ‘don't you need someone here 9 to 5, 5 days?' So they fired me. And I just kept going from there. I always walked with my trumpet. I just kept going.
Jazz was always there. SA music is jazz based. People say jazz is American. NO. There were orchestras in the 50's as there were in the States and records weren't that easily available. The music was always there, you sing at home, you sing a melody, you sing your melody in count; that is jazz and improvising. I have a strong harmonic sense. That's one thing in SA we have, is a strong harmonic sense. We are not the greatest drummers, but harmonically you can't touch SA.
Whenever you leave your home you're in exile, whether it is political or economic. Once I was here I didn't initially start off. I played in youth bands and that's where I got my reading and discipline from. I came to meet Louis Moholo and in fact my second gig was with Louis Moholo. My first was with Dave Halsworth and Harry Miller whose wife Hazel Miller incidentally, is standing outside. She is just waiting for tickets.
I was just a young kid at college and one of the teachers was a trumpet player, Dave Halsworth, an English guy working here. He put this band together for us at collage. It wasn't even music. There was no music. It was on all levels. It blew my mind. I said that's what I want to do, that exactly, and I went from there.
I'd been playing trumpet for about a year and a half, two years and then Louis Moholo booked me for a gig at Bracen Jazz festival that summer and it just blew my mind. I had been playing two years and from there a lot of work came. I was doing big bands, playing with various people, I did a lot of benefit gigs for the movement during the struggle.
My music is completely South African. You can hear it from the first note. You will hear the introduction and you know it. It's meant to be happy music. This band has crossed the section where people think of African music as just dance music. This is jazz. I am not a believer of what Duke Ellington said: 'Jazz is African music'. That's where it basically comes from. It's that harmonic structure. It's that freedom, just to take a single melody and expand on it, to improvise. We have been doing that since time immemorial. All different forms of African music have that, and that is what jazz music is based on. It's that that gives jazz command of European instruments. The accuracy of the European instruments was such that we did not have in Africa. We have no fixed pitched instruments. Once you get into a fixed pitched, this is what it sounds like. Tomorrow it doesn't change slightly.
People are beginning to recognize that actually Africa is the seed of life. Life started in Africa. History is only one persons' story, and you got to start correcting all of that. If you look at American school books and Geography books, Africa is marked smaller than America! America is a country, Africa is a continent. It's three times the size, but in their Geography books it's the other way round. How are the kids going to get a perspective of the world, when you think we are this big and everybody is that small?
I am upfront and I try to always be correct and honest. I don't tolerate shit, I have always tried to be honest and true to my profession and my lifestyle as a complete human being not just as a musician. Being honest, you will find that you meet various people. On the planet there are various species and even within one species there are various characters. We are all individuals, so there are very different people. If you treat yourself as one separate entity you feel that if anything that comes against you can bounce off, but if you think you are fragile… a cracked glass splits, a solid glass can hold it .
In answering the question on when Claude last visited South Africa, he said:
I have been on a British council tour with Andy Shepard about 3 or 4 years ago. Before that was the first British Council tour with Louis Moholo, ‘Viva le black', my first time back after 17 years. When you go home it's like you got to go here and here. You get bogged down and you never get to see anyone. Whereas when I am working, I can only spend so long. So you get all those people together, I spend one day with you and one day with you guys….
In Africa generally people are open, people are free. It's not cold. In Europe, people walk with hunch backs. It's cold, people don't look you in the eye very often. People are very narrow in the protection of themselves, they create their own bubble by cutting you off. You can create the stronger bubble by opening up. If you find the tube breaks down then all of a sudden you get this deadly silence. People start talking and that's what you want… In Nigeria I had to sit on this flight with my trumpet under my feet so my diaphragm was pushed against my belly. After an hour I was like this, “ahh ahh”, I couldn't breathe properly for an hour then I go into a car and I was like, ‘get me out I want to sit in the front'. London is tight, it's a city, it's like New York. But people like New York. New York has got more freaks, that's all. You want to see New York, go to South London you see the monks, no problem…