BOOK REVIEW: Poetry like jazz

2017-05-28 05:58

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Gwen Ansell

To Breathe into Another Voice: A South African Anthology of Jazz Poetry edited by Myesha Jenkins STE Publishers 146 pages R220


Declaration of interest: I wrote the foreword to this collection (nobody paid me). The first words I wrote were that when Thelonious Monk asserted “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, he was wrong. (The quote, it must be said, has been attributed to many others since.) Words and music belong together. Not just in songs with lyrics, but in the act of speech itself. 

Speaking voices, we say, sound musical or discordant. Entire languages can be pitched or tonal, including many west African languages from the places where the architects of jazz – slaves – were stolen and purchased. In those same places, there are talking drums whose pulses speak so powerfully that on the plantations of the American South the oppressors’ first act in crushing slave rebellions was to take away the drum.

Jazz poetry isn’t new.

A regiment of writers including Nate Mackay, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Thulani Davis, our own laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile and Mongane Wally Serote have published praises to the music and its players, or employed language that mirrors the processes and patterns of jazz.

Given the role that jazz has played in South African life and history, it’s perhaps surprising that nothing quite as comprehensive as this collection has appeared before.

Editor and contributor Myesha Jenkins ran regular jazz and poetry nights at The Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein, and what was crafted and performed there made a major contribution to the book. The collection is divided into five parts, including reflections on the genre, tributes to great figures present and departed, and the very special kinds of sociality jazz builds.

There are contributions from established poets we know: Aryan Kaganof, Phillippa Yaa DeVilliers, Eugene Skeef, Natalia Molebatsi and more. But even more impressive are the numbers of new voices – the poets we will hear more of – writing about the new generation of jazz makers.

This isn’t only a literary space where we can remember Dudu’s Groove with Kaganof (“When Dudu played we forgot that we were in exile/ Forgot even that who ‘we’ were was uneasily de/fined.”) but also one where we can discover Malcolm Jiyane’s Tree-O with Jenkins (“Inspired by ritual, repetition, chant/ Elemental/ Multiple notes played simultaneously/ Build on layers of sound, diminish to a note/ Not always solid/ Must be seen”). It’s a space where we can jazz bitterly about major moments of history with Richard Quaz Roodt (“Miners Swing/ The response,/ A bloody Bebop/ Black Bodies drop/To a new Deadly rhythm/ Machine gun Jazz”) and jazz gently among family memories with Mthunzikazi Mbungwana (“In my grandmother’s house music was the only religion/ Long before it was introduced to me as jazz”).

Inevitably, amid all this diversity, questions pop up – one in particular: about the absence of work acknowledging that women are and always have been jazz musicians as well as listeners and fans. But maybe that’s a cue for Volume Two?

- To Breathe into Another Voice launches today, May 28, at 2pm at The Orbit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg

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