Grooving to the tempo of the black experience

To enjoy a braai in Gugulethu township outside Cape Town is to get a new perspective on that city’s musical life – far and safe from the pomp and pretence of the City Bowl and the ocean views.

In this neighbourhood, people have open faces and the music is played out loud. Jazz is very much at home here.

Think of what took place here as the 12th Cape Town International Jazz Festival was winding down; where jazz enthusiasts from across the country congregated for a unique, genial encounter with the music.

The venue was none other than Duma’s Falling Leaves Jazz Rendezvous, a jazz-specific shebeen in Gugs.

The establishment is run by Duma Ntlokwana, the great old bass player who once shared stages with the likes of Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Miriam Makeba.

Last Sunday evening, jazz collectors’ clubs and associations from across the country converged at BraDuma’s place for a post-jazz festival musical exchange session.

Gathered there were the Ekurhuleni Jazz Association, comprising 15 jazz clubs; the eThekwini Jazz Appreciators from Durban; and the Tshwane Jazz Collectors Association. They were hosted by Cape Town’s Ikapa Jazz Movement.

To get the picture of how elaborate these uniquely South African formations are, you must consider the following: Ekurhuleni Jazz Association covers the area to the east of Joburg and has 15 jazz clubs.

Some of these, like the Indibano Jazz Club from Katlehong or Bob Masters from Tembisa, have been around for 20 years or more. That’s older than democracy in South Africa.

So the get-together at BraDuma’s place is a bigger version of what happens on a monthly basis across South Africa in different townships.

The idea behind these gatherings is simple: the organisers aim to bring together individuals and groups of people interested in jazz and its politics.

Individual members buy and collect jazz records, which they share in jazz appreciation sessions at different venues each month-end.

This places South Africa in the top five of the world’s jazz-consuming countries outside the US.

But as Boyce Pagane, who speaks on behalf of the Ekurhuleni Jazz Association, puts it: “These clubs are about more than jazz music itself.

“We also work to encourage community development, especially in the arts.”

As they were preparing to travel from Jozi to Cape Town, they hosted a concert at the Moses Molelekwa Art Centre in Tembisa. The event included an exhibition and poetry reading.

Musicians who graced that event included pianist Paul Hanmer, renowned trumpeter Feya Faku and McCoy Mrubata, who is well known as a jazz saxophonist and composer.

Perhaps it’s important to note here that with the exception of Cuba and Brazil, South Africa is the only country outside the US with an independent and coherent jazz tradition, and a unique sound. In the same way we speak of Afro-Cuban jazz and bossa nova, it is possible to talk about a unique, South African jazz idiom.

So, when you hear compositions like Winston Mankunku’s Yakhal’inkomo or Johnny Dyani’s Magwaza, it becomes clear that they can only be created out of a South African imagination and experience.

That unique heritage in sound is what visiting jazz trumpeter Christian Scott pays homage to when he named a track Tembisa Sunrise, which will feature on his forthcoming album.

Scott, who played at this year’s jazz festival, says he aligns himself with what he calls “black struggles for justice in the world”.

And, of course, jazz is an aspirational music and there’s no loftier aspiration than human liberty.

The 28-year-old African-American musician quipped candidly about his impressions of Cape Town while being taken sightseeing by the festival’s ­
big-moneyed courtiers.

“Black people here exist everywhere except where it’s beautiful,” he said. He noted that he has turned “a few white faces red” by being vociferous about race relations in the city.

But he knows all too well about racial encounters in the world’s celebrated cities. In fact, the opening track on his latest album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, deals with one such incident in his life.

Titled Ku Klux Police Department, it purges a memory of the night he came face to face with racist police officers in his home town of New Orleans.

He was driving home after midnight on his way back from a performance when he was pulled over by police officers who harassed him.

The exchange ended with the “cops telling me to leave before my mother picks me up from the morgue”.

So, as his music now enters the shelves of jazz collectors across South African townships, Scott becomes part of a unique and organic consensus-forming platform in the black experience.

Here, the musical conversation stretches from early minstrel music in New Orleans, through creole Cape Town and Sophiatown, and all the way to Mamelodi in Tshwane.

The voices of superheroes like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday are reweaved into the native hollers of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Johnny Dyani and many more.

Jazz is alive and well.

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