Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Robbie Jansen
Robbie Jansen was the leader of the Rockets (often referred to as Cape Towns Beatles) in the 60's. Robbie Jansen was nicknamed the Cape Doctor because The Cape Doctor blows the shit out of the city. The Cape Doctor is a healing wind that pumps around the mountain taking all the viruses and bugs floating in the atmosphere around the whole city and then throws them out into the sea somewhere past Robben Island. In the late 80's his band was 'Sons of Table Mountain'. Robbie Jansen days short of seventy years, came back from the dead. He continued to perform for a few more years before retiring to the great jam in the heavens.
In interviewing Robbie in Cape Town in 2000, he said:
I worked my ass off to have a little home. I hope you understand, my story is very serious. This is my wife she has been with me for more than 27 years.
Joburg, Cape Town, PE, we got more or less an equal little vibe. Even PE is a minority of people, but we have great jazz in PE. But Cape Town and Joburg we are more or less sorted out. Durban we have a university teaching jazz but we have an audience problem there. People need more awareness programmes to do with African Jazz instead of American Jazz. We have about as much American Jazz as we can stand. When are we going to be us? When am I going to be me? I have to play like someone else to be accepted in my own society.
When you are a musician and you are born African you consciously create an African music. You don't have to write an African music. You don't have to think of it essentially as an African music because you are born African. Whatever you are going to write is going to be African music because it is from you and you are an African. You can't write an African kind of music if you are an American or if you are a Japanese or Chinese or whatever you want to be. You cannot write African music because you are not African, same as it is impossible for me to write any other kind of music. I could maybe write a jazz fusion song and people will call it American. I am an African, I am born in Africa, I play African music as an essence. This is my birth-right. Whatever I play is African; even though we have been learning from Americans and Indians and Chinese, Japanese, Russians and Europeans. We have been learning from all those people. Jan Garbarek is a favourite saxophone player of mine and Egberto Gismonti is one of my favourite guitar and piano players. We have been learning from these people, but it is also time to be ourselves. After the rebirth of this African thing, maybe we are more ourselves now then we were ever before?
I do not see a difference between Africa and the rest of the world. We have a music now called ethnic world music. I am very interested in Indian music. Jan Garbarek converses with Indian musicians and gets involved with all of that. He plays his traditional folk music. And the Indian will play their folk music and the music will intertwine. It will become one. Right now I am involved with an Indian musician Siva Mani. He is a percussion player. I play African sort of music and he plays Indian music but it is like the same. Music is coming into one now. The world is getting smaller. Instead of having divided music, we are having a sort of world music, a revolutionary something. Most musicians talk the same language. Maybe not the same conversant language as in words and the alphabet we have. But music has a smaller alphabet, so we have a much easier way of conversing. Tonally we hear things, and musicians speak at an international level.
I play a Western instrument. I use a saxophone like most other Western musicians use to put their ideas across. Saxophone was not developed in South Africa. Saxophones were played all over the world. It is more or less a military instrument. In America, those were instruments they found lying around in schools and establishments. And they used those instruments as a voice. It was a voice of the oppressed people who wanted to speak out about themselves. And those black Americans use that instrument as an instrument of truth. They spoke and it was a language with no words. Music's vocabulary is very small. ABCDEFG, a small alphabet. Those instruments were used to tell stories. Here we also found ourselves with those instruments, but before that, we had other instruments. People here used to use a one stringed instrument and that instrument would make different sounds on one string. All those sounds it made were emotional things. Music is to do with emotion. Music touches certain feelings of people, whether it is a high note or a low note or whatever the note, but the sound of the note, the pitch of the note, even when you speak, you can make somebody cry with your voice, without singing without talking sad things. It is the same with playing music. An instrument becomes an instrument when you can speak through it. Music is an expression. It is a feeling. It is not what it has been explained to be, a technical situation that you have to explain your way out of. Music is a feeling you make a sound you make people happy with that sound or you make them sad. To do with the church and burying somebody, people cry because of the sadness of the music. Other times when we have festivals and New Year and Christmas time, people get happy with the music. That is what made me a musician.
Cape Jazz, this label was created as a commercial venture. To sell your wares you have to have a label. In order to add validity to whatever you are selling you give it a name. We have African Jazz. With African Jazz and South African Jazz and North African Jazz they all have a different sound, or different in approach or attitude of musicians because of our different lifestyles or political situations that we were in.
I am one of the so called coloured people. You have black, you have white, you have Muslim, which is also in the coloured category. But, we all have different approaches and attitudes to music.
I played pop music in my younger days. I played British pop, the Who and Rock, like Deep Purple and all that shit. We were already involved with world music, then. Through politics and people talking a lot of bullshit, telling us, you supposed to be this or that, disturbed our direction. We have different rhythms falling around all the way, because we have dance music, langarm. That is like ballroom, it is waltz and quickstep and all that stuff. Langarm is Afrikaans, you have goema music coming from the coon carnival. It is all a matter of attitude and approach.
I came (onto the scene) in '68, '69: The Cape Town musicians were not deeply involved in the Africanisation of our music. The Cape Town musicians were very much involved in copying other people's music. When I got into music we were copying other people. We were copying the Who, the Turtles, the Beatles, mostly British pop. In Joburg we had people in Sophiatown playing what they call township jazz, it was an imitation of American Jazz, a watered down version of jazz. It was not really jazz. Jazz is an American thing. We have our African thing, mbaqanga, marabi, kwela and pata pata. The music is spread all over the country and the jazz came in by the way. I was never a jazz musician, in fact up and until today I don't regard myself as a jazz musician. I have always been a musician. I have been playing since the age of 13. I am still playing. I will not give my music a name. The names people gave it were the names to sell music.
I feel African jazz is African jazz, South African jazz is South African jazz because our jazz is slightly different. I can't explain it in technical terms. When I can hear it, I can know it. Jazz from Ghana or Angola is very different. South African Jazz has something of its own. To say Cape jazz is different to Joburg jazz or Durban jazz I would be overstepping my mark. If there is a difference it is in the air.
We had a cultural boycott in that time. Before that in the late 60's and early 70's I used to play in so called white venues in Port Elizabeth, Joburg, all over the country. Here in Cape Town as well. We had a Ronnie Something where we used to play with our band called the Rockets. By about '71 '72 we were banned from playing in white venues. We couldn't play at those venues. They said no no you can't play in this venue because you are coloured. People like Winston Mankunku if they played in city hall had to play behind the curtain. I played a show with international artists Adam Wade and Juanita Flemming. They came to South Africa. They had a group called the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. They had to paint themselves black and put some black afro wigs on and sit behind the curtain. We sat in front of the curtain. That was at the Three Arts and Luxurama theatres. We backed those people. We had to be separated because we were not allowed to play on the same stage at the same time. All those little things contributed to the division in the music, even though musicians never divided themselves. We have always had black or white musicians, we have always been together for many years. The type of music we played was defined by what was necessary, what people wanted, what people paid for. We couldn't really go out and play jazz music. Jazz we could play in the sophisticated clubs and out here at our parties. At our disco clubs we had to play disco music, so called dance music. Even though we learnt a lot there, actual jazz suffered. We had to play what was required by club owners and managers and bosses. And that is why our music didn't grow for a long time. It was only when we decided that we had enough of this. And when we had the cultural boycott there was no music coming across from overseas. We started playing our own music. And then we realised our own people were accepting our music as theirs. It was not an easy task because radio stations, televisions, all the media, never ever mentioned us. It was always to do with overseas.
Local does not mean here. You must understand people have many languages. Local to us means in this locality, immediate environment. Local to my people means ‘low grade'. It didn't mean music that is from here. It is the same as the word cultural. With the language barriers cultural means a lot of different things. Cultural means civilized, uncultured means uncivilized. There are various meanings to different English words. People misconstrue these words.
Being Africans you know I don't even know an African language. My African language is the music that I play. At least through that medium I can express myself. Through my music I speak my language, my own language because there I can at least speak the truth without being dishonest.
See this school behind this house. That is where I went to school. Jazz is becoming world music there is no longer African Jazz or American Jazz. The way I understand it is JUST MUSIC. Hey man it is JAZZ music we are JUSST talking about music. Wherever it comes from it doesn't really matter it is JUSSST music. So when the Americans say JAZZZ music, it is JUSSST music.
I wear an outfit for specific reasons so when I walk in to a hall where I am about to play I am a little bit removed from the listeners and the audience. I come there as an artist coming to display my goods. That is why I dress different to my audience. When I walk in there they must know that is a performer. This is my own ideology, it is my attitude. Your attitude and approach is always important. I have my own attitude and approach without overriding other people's ideas. Fashion doesn't really come in. You find the audience have fashionable ideas. They think I am in or I am out or I am not really there or whatever. I like to dress up for a gig. I have always had to go and play in jazz dens, jazz grottos, jazz caves, all down dressed places and jazz joints. I always thought why can't I play in jazz palaces? Why can't we play in fantastic venues and play beautiful music? So I have always been involved in dressing up instead of dressing down. I can't play in a place with a lot of smoke because I can't breathe properly. I like to play in a great venue where people come and pay their money to listen to great music. And then we can sit at home and practice and work out lovely music for those people instead of sitting in dark joints sorting out something for the next couple of pennies. A different attitude like that.