Jazz is once again back on its feet in South Africa. After many years of cultural oppression due to Apartheid, jazz is slowly but surely finding its way back to popularity in South Africa. However, the road to reconstruction is apparently not a smooth one, as many jazz musicians and the entire jazz community are still running into problems in South Africa. Despite this, the progress that has already been made is incredible and the future of jazz in this region has reached a new level of optimism.
In the 1920s there was an organist from the Eastern Cape called Boet Gashe who made his money, much like the early jazz musicians in America, by playing at wild parties in Johannesburg’s black ghettoes where the mothers charged three-pence at the door and sold moonshine to keep their families alive.(BEBEY-23)
Todd Matshikiza, legendary composer and music critic f described these events: “The hostess hunched next to a four-gallon tin of beer in the corner. She sold jam tins at sixpence a gulp. Gashe was bent over his organ in one
corner, thumping the rhythm from the pedal with his feet, which were also feeding the organ with air, choking the organ with persistent chords in the right hand and improvising an effective melody with the left. He would call for the aid of a matchstick to hold down a harmonic note. You get a delirious effect of perpetual motion — perpetual motion in a musty hole where men made friends without restraint.” (BEBEY-64)
This was marabi music, a foundation element of South African jazz and an indigenous product of the urban ghettoes that were a feature of South African cities for much of this century.(KEBEDE-40) Its distinctive rhythms, designed to bring some consolation and dignity to otherwise drab and oppressive working class districts, can still be heard in the music of jazz men and women who have today become giants in their field: Hugh Masekela, Abhudulla Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba and many others.(KEBEDE-47)
Many of these famous jazz artists have recently
returned from decades of exile. The repressive regulations that drove them away in the apartheid era have been abolished and broadcasting and recording opportunities are
open to all.(GOFFIN-187) But for South African jazz musicians, all this has been a mixed blessing: the musical
free market is a harsh place for an industry still recovering from the damage inflicted by apartheid.(GOFFIN-188) The story of South African jazz is the story of the nation. The road to reconstruction is a rocky one.
South Africa is one of the few countries outside the USA where jazz has been a genuinely popular music. Its roots are in the marabi styles that adapted rural rhythms to urban conditions in the first half of the twentieth century.(NEKETIA-94)
According to veteran bandleader Ntemi Piliso: “Marabi was sung by a solo voice over an instrumental accompaniment maybe an organ, an accordion, later on a guitar. Then some fellow might fill a condensed milk tin with stones for a rattle, maybe improvise a drum kit and the music would go on all night. Marabi uses a three-chord, two- or four-bar sequence. I suppose you could say the progression was limited, even monotonous. But it’s the monotony that holds the listeners. You vary the theme and improvise around it, rather than changing the chord sequence.”(GOFFIN-112)
Legendary bandleader “Zuluboy” Cele introduced modern instrumentation to the style.(GERARD-59) Later players, like popular bandleader Zakes Nkosi, blended in idioms from American jazz, especially the swing music of the big-band
era. Later still, the improvisational adventures of bebop were also drawn in.(GERARD-61)
But the chord progressions and improvisational style of marabi, together with excursions into the hexatonic mode of African choral singing continued to flavor the fusion and can still be heard in South African jazz today.(KEBEDE-133)
From its birth, it was dangerous music. It was performed at unregulated gatherings and drinking spots, rather than in the government-licensed and rigidly-controlled beer halls. Its practitioners were often classified as “vagrants”, under constant threat of expulsion from the cities.(NEKETIA-82)
But in the 1960s and 1970s the recording companies and state broadcasting corporation brought pressure on artists to record short pop tracks, with musical styles and lyrics conforming to SABC standards of tribal purity. The musicians dubbed it mbaqanga, a derogatory term meaning something like “instant porridge” – now used broadly for popular dance and jazz music.(BEBEY-97)
Yet jazz solos managed to sneak their way in. The lyrics from this time have been described as “the best poetry coming out of South Africa… Transom they plunged
into any aspect of our life; they spoke of bus boycotts, of abandoned love affairs; they spoke of the hideous pass system, of our exile in sanctuaries outside South Africa…They were even bold enough to speak of revolution and be banned.”(KEBEDE-117)
Performers were often paid only a few pounds which gave the recording company full rights to their music in perpetuity. And, says jazz trumpeter Dennis Mpale, “Many venues were closed to us (if we were) a racially mixed band, and there was often a scramble to get a show finished before midnight, because without a ‘night pass’ black musicians could be arrested for being in the city after that time.”(GOFFIN-147) Township events and venues dwindled.
Many jazz artists responded to these pressures by leaving the country. Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba were able to leave when the jazz musical King Kong took them overseas. These artists went on to make a name for themselves and for South Africa jazz overseas: Masekela in New York and Makeba in West Africa.(GOFFIN-189)
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new generation of performers was emerging, mellowing the established South African jazz style and pervasive African traditional
influences with the kind of jazz-rock fusion being played overseas by bands like Weather Report and Earth, Wind and Fire.(GERARD-73) The one remembered most nostalgically is Sakhile, whose members have now gone their separate ways, but whose compositions such as Isililo/Soweto Blues have an almost anthemic quality for the “generation of 1976”.(GERARD-74)
An important strand was added to the music mix in the Western Cape: the modulations of the South Asian music inherited by the Islamic Malay community.(BEBEY-151) As a seaport, Cape Town was also open to broader musical influences, including Latin sounds and the rhythms of the rest of Africa. Bands like Oswietie and Pacific Express featuring hornmen such as Ngozi; the Ngcukana brothers, Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee and Robbie Jansen drew from these eclectic roots to create a style instantly recognizable as “Capejazz”.(BEBEY-153)
There have been success stories in the 90s.Recognition at home as well as abroad is at last coming to Masekela, Gwangwa, Ibrahim and their generation. Younger bands such as Bayete, which started its life on the jazz scene in the 1980s, are gaining growing status on the World Music circuits.(GOFFIN-166) Jazz is forming a recognized part of
music education curriculem, although township schools are only slowly getting the resources they need to efficiently teach jazz.
Performance spaces remain concentrated in the city centers. However, due the violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s many city-dwelling patrons still find fear of crime a disincentive to club-going. While jazz-lovers in the townships lack the safe transportation and the money needed for regular, evening trips to town.(GERARD-121) All this makes for hard times for jazz club-owners and musicians. And it means there is no “neighborhood scene” where young jazz players can pay their dues and develop their style before moving on to bigger venues.
The free market has also allowed a tidal wave of imported music to engulf local sounds on radio waves and record store shelves. Not that this stops the players. The new generation, like their predecessors, are creating potent mixes of South African heritage and world jazz trends.(GERARD-127) Reedman Zim Ngqawana draws on folk roots, from the migrant mineworker’s harmonica to Asian flute sounds. Pianist Moses Molelekwa plays wistful marabi piano, but also works with DJs for excursions into drum ‘n bass.(GERARD-129) Producers/players Sean Fourie and Vee
Ferlito are busy drawing on the talents of some veteran jazzmen to create highly danceable acid jazz mixes for the club scene.(GERARD-130)
Yet South African commercial companies seem more drawn to the rediscovery of the old. Bands resurrecting marabi styles, like the African Jazz Pioneers and the Elite Swingsters, are enthusiastically promoted; talented young players of the penny-whistle, are discovered and recorded.(GERARD-138) Nltemi Piliso, leader of the African Jazz Pioneers, says,”It’s wonderful that white audiences here are discovering our music. It’s gratifying to get recognition for it at last. But for most black people, it’s just nostalgia. And jazz can’t survive by riding on nostalgia; the music has to keep on growing.”(GERARD-139)
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Gerard , Charley. ” Jazz In Black and White. ” Praeger Publishers, Wesport, C.T 1998
Goffin , Robert. “Jazz : From the Congo to the Metropolitan. ” DA Capo Press, New York.,1975.
Kebede , Ashenafi. ” Roots of Black Music.” Little, Brown ; Company, New York, 1988.
Neketia , J.H. Kwabena. ” The Music of Africa.” W.W. Norton Company, New York. 1974.