South African jazz history
Bebop and beyond the blues
“Jazz is a music which has its roots in a life of insecurity, in which a single moment of self-realisation, of love, light and movement, is extraordinarily more important than a whole lifetime. From a situation in which violence is endemic, where a man escapes a police bullet only to be cut down by a knife-happy African thug, has come an ebullient sound more intuitive than any outside the US of what jazz is supposed to celebrate – the moment of love, lust, bravery, incense, fruition, and all those vivid dancing good times of the body when the now is maybe all there is.”
Lewis Nkosi, journalist, in Jazz in Exile, 1966
“Sophiatown was a very beautiful place. There was music everywhere, flowing out of every house, from every corner and every shebeen. Rhythm was the unsaid word. There was mbaqanga, marabi, kwela jive, and on Sundays the gospel choirs marched down Toby street singing, and we always joined them. And then there was jazz at night. We used to go to `Sis Petty’s shebeen and watch the Jazz Maniacs and listen to recorded American jazzmen. Inside it was packed, you wouldn’t be able to move. But when the jazz came on, those bodies made space. Nobody would be standing still. Outside, `Sis Petty’s kids would be watching for the police, but the jazz was so good they would keep on coming inside. `Sis Petty would have to chase them out, and the men would carry on drinking as much as they could as quickly as they could, just in case the police arrived. Everybody used to meet there, musicians, artists, intellectuals, writers, politicians and boozers. And all of us, the young aspirants, were growing up in this cultural explosion, even Felicia [Mabuza Suttle]!”
Singing icon Thandi Klassens’ story is one of many from the racy, vibrant and seemingly indestructible Sophiatown of the early fifties. Along with Langa, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, Sophiatown was a place where black urban culture was erupting. And where there was black urban culture, there was jazz. And everybody wanted a piece of it.
All over the country, people tuned into Voice of America to hear what was hip. For a while, it was the big band sounds of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. But when bebop came, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were all over the radio, everywhere. The white musicians who’d been to America spread the sound, magazines talked about it, and you could by it from the avant-garde record stores or American sailors who often docked on our shores. Pianist ‘Dollar’ Brand (who later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim) got his nickname because he always had a dollar in his pocket in case he came across one of these jazz records. City life was very impressed by bebop and its hip style and happening jazzmen. Twotone shoes, Stetsons, Buicks, Chevys and suits were the image, and the gents were impeccably dressed and smoothly mannered, for the chicks, the bebop and the fun of it.
And in the blazen path set by the American cats, South African jazz developed, emerging out of a similar socio-cultural oppression, as a healing and transformative tool. Uniting the two suppressive streams into a form of music that had the expression of its roots, but with a unique African flavour.
At the same time, the Jo’berg scene was being set alight by Kippie Moeketsi, who modelled himself on the erratic, hip and stylish Charlie Parker, innovating and improvising on the saxophone with similar brilliance. He joined young trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and arrangement genius Abdullah Ibrahim to form The Jazz Epistles. As much as Kippie was the energy and virtuoso of the group, Abdullah was the composer and leader, intense and passionate. Long time friend, Vince Colbe, describes him as ‘a deadly serious bloke’. “He used to lock himself in his room with only bread and milk and compose. I remember going to his house and listening to one of his tracks, Eclipse at Dawn. I teased him you know. `Dollar, play something dancy!’ `You’re a prostitute!’ he replied. `You’re prostituting the art, you must speak the truth.’ That’s how intense he was. That’s why there was an edge to his sound, a hauntingness, almost a howl in the wilderness.”
King Kong was South Africa’s first jazz export and a major achievement in escaping political parochialism and taking our unique sounds to the West End. It also started the exodus of musicians to foreign and free pastures, where they could explore themselves and their art. Abdullah went to
Radio restrictions, big police clampdowns, violence and the destruction of vibrant communities ensued, leaving a big void for those who stayed behind in the ‘Verwoerd to Vorster’ years. Musicians went back to 9-5 jobs. `Cups `n Saucers’ Ngcukana, for example, Cold Castle musician of the year in ’62, was forced to work in a shoe store and never played again. Jazz lost a lot of its great talents and a lot of its identity, explains his son Ezra. “Things were wild, restrictive and so unneccesary then. I remember suggesting the name ‘Amoeboid Movement’ for a song, and just because of the political perceptions of the word `movement’, it was never given airplay.”
Abdullah returned in the mid-70s to record two albums, one with Kippie and the other with Cape Town musos Robbie Jansen and the late Basil `Manenberg’ Coetzee. With them he reworked a ’50s jazz mbaqanga melody into the quintessential Cape Town anthem, `Manenberg’.
But it was Saxophonist Winston Mankunku who anchored the scene, particularly in the late sixties, occasionally playing behind curtains under the alias ‘Winston Man’ to conceal his race, or performing out in Swaziland. His music was very avant-garde, an expression of society’s desperation for freedom. Wild and freeform, no restrictions for that. In ’68 he recorded the classic ‘Yakhal Nkomo’ (Bellowing Bull), “a scream for equality and freedom, a shout for recognition of the pain we were feeling,” explains Winston.
Of the newer names, multi-instrumentalist Zim Ngqawana is playing wild and adventurous jazz in the mold of the Blue Notes and the Jazz Epistles. And `young lions’ like McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Moses Molelekwa and Marcus Wyatt are igniting the scene with always fresh and often funky interpretations of old styles with new sounds, acknowledging the past and experimenting with the cutting edge, “in a conscious attempt to find ourselves,” says Moses. “As a country we are finally back in touch with ourselves and the rest of the world,” says Hugh Masekela. “It’s great to be South African and its great to have the music and we are exploring this freedom and discovering new and beautiful things.”
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