Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Dennis Constant Martin
Dennis Constant Martin is an ethnomusicologist and writer from France. He visited Cape Town in 2002. He said.
Tradition is a very big word. Nobody knows exactly what it means unless they have read the book by two British historians Terrance Ranger and Eric Hopsbarn. The title is 'The invention of tradition'. It shows how traditions are invented, constructed and reconstructed, not from nothing, from certain realities which have been transmitted from generations to generations. Whenever someone says this is our tradition. It's very likely to be something very recently reconstructed for various purposes, but contemporary purposes. That's one type of discourse on purity. The discourse of traditions is that we should protect the tradition.
You have this sort of opposition, which is the past, and on the other hand you have something, which is very tightly linked to the past which is the opposition with purity. That's very funny. You've got several types of discourses on purity you have the discourse, which is developed by some musical left. An aspect of this discourse on purity which is very amusing is a discourse which is developed by the people who are marketing world music. World music is very mixed. It is not pure at all. It is totally constructed and in some cases artificially manufactured in studio's in Paris or in the North in France in Great Britain and in the USA. World music is the combination of travel with music. It is the same combination you will find in the rough guide. When you look at the literature written about 'world music' they say it is about authenticity, about purity and it enables us to relate to a type of ideal purity that's been lost in modern societies. Of course these types of discourses are totally fake. This is a commercial discourse selling a certain product. If this is a commercial discourse, it has been devised in those terms because it appeals to potential buyers, because potential buyers are looking for the expression of a certain purity, because they have lost this sort of authenticity and purity, the feeling of their roots or whatever it is. This is true about what is written about African music, particularly in France and a bit less in Great Britain or the USA. When you look at the general literature on African modern music in newspapers and magazines, it's almost always irrelevant. There is a sort of globalization about African music were African music never existed. There are so many African music's, it does not make sense at all to label African music. It makes sense commercially, because people will buy African music whether it is from Senegal or Mozambique. They would not recognise the difference and then they will go to African dance sessions and possibly buy the djembe, and then all that to them, is African. They have an idea of Africa, which is at the same time primitive and pure because it stayed and remained primitive. This was already clearly articulated in 'The Negro Review' presented in Paris with Josephine Baker. There is a demand for exoticism which has been there in European and American societies. Discourse in terms of purity and authenticity is just one of the latest of that need for exoticism.
Identity is interesting when you consider it when you see who is talking in terms of identity. Mbalax is the musical emblem of Senegal because it is based on the rhythmical pattern which is the synthesis of different rhythmical patterns. Here the symbolism will be constructed differently because it tells of the possibility of a unified nation to the expectations or to the experiences of people living in Senegal. What is at a particular point in time presented as a musical symbol of identity does not have any route in reality. There are so many types of music which are produced today. The rhythmical patterns used in Mbalax and Senegal are actually in the music the students used in the Ivory Coast, Zouglou. Zouglou and Mbalax are based and constructed on rhythmical patterns which are actually a combination of several rhythmical patterns.
If you go to Kenya, you will find that it will be extremely difficult for people locally to tell you what is the symbol or the musical symbol of Kenya. In Kenya they will tell you, ‘Ok this type of rhythm is characteristic of the west,' and that will be a euphemism.
This happens in several African countries. Rhythmical patterns which may have been wide spread in one particular linguistic area have been transported and integrated into modern dance music. The major factor in countries like Kenya, Tanzania also to an extent Uganda has been the influence of Zairian Music. Very particular repertoires and styles of music have been preserved in Zanzibar and on the coast, from the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania, not really going in to Mozambique.
The influence of the Zairian music has been very strong on Tanzanian music. The same music had a different influence on Zambia. In Zambia the dominant influence is South African. If you look at the music in Zimbabwe, former South Rhodesia, for a long time South African music was dominant; they were South African forms of Americanized music. A rediscovery of first the modern African music which was not South African then of local traditional music used for religious participation, enabled during the 'life' struggle, a group of young people to devise a new form of modern Zimbabwean music, which could be identified as Zimbabwean as it used rhythmical patterns which are precisely those rhythmical patterns played by the mbira during the ceremonies whereby the people had the power to enter into communications with the ancestors through mediums and spirit mediums. These were artists like Thomas Mapfumo or Oliver Mtukudzi. If you look at someone like Thomas Mapfumo, his music is sort of main-stream rock music influenced by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and these kinds of musicians. He then rediscovers what he has been living with since he was born; this being the type of music played with drums and mbira's and used during the rituals when those mediums communicated with the ancestors. He made a blend of those mbira patterns which he already knew and patterns of western pop music from the late 70's and the mid 80's in South Africa. That's the story that has been told to me by Sipho Hotsticks Mabuso. They could not play outside South Africa except in Southern Rhodesia so they had a gig in Salisbury as it was then called and they were exposed to some Zairian music and then they realized that there was a form of African Modern music. And music was not only Western European. There were very modern styles of African music and then they decided that they were going to change their way of playing so that they could incorporate in their music elements, from South African music or from Zairian music and from there they renamed their group to Harari.
Something that is usually associated with African music and African American music is rhythm. There is a prevalent idea that European music is not rhythmical. It is not constructed on strong rhythms that touch the body and made people dance. Well, historically this is totally wrong. If you look back 100 to 150 years ago, and look back at the different musical cultures in different regions of countries of Western Europe, you will find that rural music was actually constructed on very strong and very lively rhythms. They were different patterns, not the type of patterns that are used in African music. If you look at the music of Britain and France, it is very animated and built on very strong rhythmic patterns. The type of music that was played in rural areas of European countries at the end of the 19th century has almost disappeared and it was totally forgotten for a certain period of time between the end of World War 2 and the late 60's. During the 60's young people interested in the music profession rediscovered the history of rural music. Fortunately there were old people who remembered the old repertoire and the old ways of playing. Some of these young people were in their 20's in the mid 1960's. They were people born just after the war, they took their tape recorders and they did field investigations. In rural areas, they recorded people who were in their 70's but who could still play the fiddle the hurdy-gurdy the guitar the accordion and they recorded and they tried first to reproduce the style of the old people and then they mixed it with other influences like rock, like American folk music and from there started the new musical movement which was based on the rediscovery of local traditions and which lead to a modernization of those traditions. That was very strong in Britain and France but I am sure that people from Italy Spain and other countries would find similar examples.
Regarding South African Jazz Denis Constant Martin said
People travelled. Look at the history of Abdullah Ibrahim. He plays jazz. I mean it does not sound very African, he's playing mainstream modern jazz then he goes into exile. He is exposed to a lot of modern music, European music and he comes back in ‘71 and he records Mannenberg which is based on a very simple and very old Marabi. Marabi is identified because it comes from the past. It is identified as something which is typically South African. It's not jazz. So as a matter of fact, it is urban South African gangs' music. It's not regional. It's South African. One would have to be into musical analogies to find more precisely how Marabi was created but Chris Ballentine wrote a book about that.
Abdullah Ibrahim records Mannenberg and apparently no record company is interested in releasing this particular recording. It sounds too primitive, it sounds old fashioned and it's only Rashid Valley in Johannesburg who accepts to release it on Ashanti Sun label. And then it starts selling like hot cakes because again it is perceived as something that can be of South African modernity, which is not dependent on white culture. Symbolically it is important as there are no words. I am not even sure if people in Johannesburg or in Durban can understand precisely the meaning of the title Mannenberg is where it is happening. I don't know if people can relate to Mannenberg, but they can relate to the music. They say look but that is something that's today's music. Its contemporary; its creative and its purely South African and South African in a way that is an implicit denial of all that the racist whites have been saying about African cultures and non-white cultures in general. The recording of Mannenberg in 1971 starts a renewal of South African music .
There was a sort of gap from '60 when most of the creative musicians were gone for eg. Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Chris Mcgreger and the Blue notes. Phillip Thabani was still here but he was totally marginalized. People like Winston Mankunku were still playing around, but again they were totally marginalized between 63/64 and 71 as there is a sort of gap. This is the period which apartheid is successful in realizing any creativity is oppressed in South Africa. And then comes Mannenberg and there was a start of a new period of development in South African music. This culminates in the 80's and 90's.
If you want your music not to sound like any other music and appeal to people of a particular area you have to include elements which are considered as musical emblems of the culture of that area. This is very clear when you consider Cape Town music. Whenever musicians want to give a Cape Town (feel) they will come back to the ‘coon.' The 'coon' is very simple and it is considered South African music. It is the same rule at a national level. Look at what used to be a group like Mango Groove. When they wanted (to be South African) they included elements of kwela music. Elements which are considered as musical emblems of identity are used when you want to sound local. Very often those elements are rooted in the past, whether that past is fifty years ago or three centuries ago, it does not really matter, it refers to a certain period. If you look at the symbolic place of kwela music in South African music today it is definitely associated with the drum era with the 50's, it is associated with Sophiatown, with a period of struggle against the implementation of Apartheid and a period where people of all population categories were still able to do something together and to be creative together, creative in this political struggle, creative in music because at the end of the 50's you had the Jazz Epistles you had the Blue Notes. Kwela sort of encapsulates the spirit or whatever is meant by that word spirit of the 50's. Goema is much older than that. It goes back at least to the end of the 19 th century and possibly even beyond that, but it has also been this dimension of something that it tells about the past. It tells about the common experience.
Going back to the past where people were not classified and segregated is very important.