Dashiki dialogues: Portrait of uncle as a jazzman

2011-03-25 16:31

Darker-than-blue babies born and raised in the townships all keep childhood memories of jazz, Florsheim shoes and objects that burn. In that world, all these ­elements converged immaculately into a portrait of an uncle as a jazzman. I know your curiosity is whetted, but “objects that burn” is an innocent euphemism for all things that needed fire to have ­effect, such as tyres.

But what I want to talk about here are syncopated grooves, as we mimic our uncles for a weekend of jazz in Cape Town.

Well, perhaps we will come short of being pantsula proper, as our uncles generally were. There are no two-toned shoes, fedoras, checked shirts or “dice” jerseys. No razor-creased pants or pocket knives either. But there is jazz, lots of it, and all of it tinged with nostalgia and ­speculation about what the music means to us all.

There are arguments about the relationship between individual ­talent and the depth of its ­heritage, but as we smile at polite strangers at the festival, it will become clear why our beloved jazz bands have always been like model families for the dispossessed.

This is because the jazz band as an ­institution has always been the black community’s projection of its desired state of relations.

In fact, bands have always been like our most functional family units.

Think of Philip Tabane and the Malombo Jazzmen, or Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. For instance, can we conceive of Sakhile with a bassist other than the late Sipho Gumede? No, ­because family ­members are ­irreplaceable.

Imagine the love it must have taken to work with players like Charlie Parker, Winston Mankunku or Kippie Moeketsi with all their heavy drinking or drug use.

Yet their bands always produced their best. So that regardless of your uncle’s multiple brushes with the law, he always came home to love and the family always held its rhythm together.

You see, my generation looks back to record collectors with a taste for blues-based music. The type of music that made our heads spin and drove us up the wall.

You’ll remember that we didn’t ­always like jazz’s ­demanding quality and preferred our rap and kwaito jive.

But the uncles were unrelenting, hogging the hi-fi as they polished their sharp-nosed shoes, over-
feeding us a sonic diet of Jimmy Smith, Don Cherry, Dollar Brand and other heroes such as Hugh Masekela.

Oh, but this weekend of ­mimicking uncles will also make a case for passive listening.

There’s space for it. For just as they took us through our rites of passage, our uncles ­also listened passively to tales of our trivial joys, not just robust Dashiki Dialogues.

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