North Sea Jazz Festival

North Sea Jazz FestivalWith Jesus singing and God on the drums,
How Can You Go Wrong?
by Struan Douglas

‘With Jesus singing and God on the drums, how can you go wrong?’ asked a friend of latin music geniuses Cubanismo.

As good as Jesus Alemany (lead trumpeter and singer of the band) is, if God was a singer, surely he would be Buena Vista social club lead Ibrahim Ferrer? What if he was a piano player? Ruben Gonzales perhaps or McCoy Tyner. If God had great fingers he would be Pat Metheny and if he sang the Blues, B.B. King. If the godfather was a funkster he would of course be Maceo Parker, and if he was a smooth cat, Al Jarreau or George Benson. Then there is the ghetto god, DeAngelo and the more than angelic powers of trumpeters Wanton Marsalis and Roy Hargroves.

These are only a few of the many deities of jazz related music, male or female, mortal, immortal, living or dead who have graced the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haige (Holland) over the last twenty five years. It’s the greatest meeting place for the greatest names in music to not only catch up on a cultural level but socially and commercially as well.

And when the popes are hanging, jamming and preaching – the groupies, the fans, the believers and the curious have got to be there – and they were. In fact a capacity crowd of 70,000 over the three days, squashed, pushed and squeezed their way into the massive monolith of a congress building, housing the 16 stages of the worlds largest jazz festival. It was just as well that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem, because if she was in Den Haige over the period of the NSJ, there would have been absolutely no room in any inn, hotel or brothel – and then where would have Jesus been singing?

And as a result, the festival becomes a bunfight, often becoming as nebulous as Sunday afternoons trainspotting. The friendly, relaxed and compassionate atmosphere a festival is meant to inspire is replaced by the driving and frenetic hustle of those ticking of names in their birdbook, names that they may have little affinity to other than years of media indigestion.

Everybody in the audience would have heard of Tony Bennett and Al Jarreau. B.B. King needs no introduction. Diana Krall gets shoved down there throats all day on TV, whilst Buena Vista Social Club has moved into just about every white suburban CD player. And that’s what the NSJ brings you – the names that will bring the biggest crowds, together over a short period of time, little hassle, little fuss – bring your car and park it, it is the perfect place for you to shop.

How would a hungry child react if you popped a dollop of mustard in its baby-food? I am not completely sure, nor I am advocating the activity, but risk, pushing boundaries and surprise are essential elements of jazz music – elements that the festival largely ignored. (There was a stage dedicated to unknown Dutch acts and another for the IAJE development bands – but they were unfortunately hidden and the major focus remained on the major acts).

Of the South African guys, Moses Molelekwa and Jimmy Dludlu were superb (contravening popular belief), that local music is no more inferior than those big international names. Both played to full houses, standing ovations and fabulous responses. But for the rest of Africa it was Youssou N’Dour again. Perhaps because of international success through high-calibre collaborations and a more universal and poppier sound he remains the one West African act out of a massive sea of extraordinary talent who is continually booked!

All said, it can not be denied that the festival is a hugely positive event for Holland and the world in that it exposes people of a variety of ages to a variety of music forms. It brings stars into the country and injects interest into the music industry, but for the Dutch musicians, I remain unsure on the effect it is having, whether it is inspiring or throttling growth, whether it is showcasing European talent on the same stage as America talent or whether the local musicians are being sold out to something of a jazz cultural imperialism?

And the answer to this, we can never know and we probably never need know, as these things seem to work in a cycle. A little like the Grahamstown festival has taken 25 years to wax from genuine artistic expression to straight commercialism and wane to pretty unpopular – perhaps the fact that the NSJ is loosing a little integrity and exceeding its audience is opening the space for another grass-roots festival and expression to begin. And perhaps South Africa’s own version of it, with its own integrity is the future.

for flying Struan Douglas to the festival.

Africa Beats is brought to you each month courtesy of the Afri-Beat Web Site.

Visit the Afri-Beat Web Site and enter the world of African music.