May 19, 2024

Jazz comes home

By Gwen Ansell

“Jazz music will never die,” affirms trumpeter Johnny Mekoa, “because it’s the people’s music and you can’t keep it down.”

Perhaps only in the US and South Africa has jazz ever had that popular character. It was one of the common strands inspiring the 8-part radio series “Ubuyile/Jazz Coming Home”, that ABC Ulwazi commissioned me to script and produce.

ABC Ulwazi trains community radio broadcasters and produces a wide variety of educational and developmental radio programmes, which it distributes to community radio stations. As part of this programme it is building up a Living History sound archive of the diverse memories and experiences of the older generation of South Africans. It had long wanted to add a history of South African jazz, with its musical memories, to the Archive. The Ford Foundation was particularly interested in exploring the cultural common ground between New World jazz and the music of Africa.”

So the project came together: a hundred years of musical and social history, starting with the arrival of African music on American shores in the slave ships and ending with the fall of apartheid. It was to run in eight 20-miute episodes and be distributed on CD for the stations to flight.

At that stage, back in March, I and interviewer/ narrator colleague Peter Makurube, didn’t realise what a huge mouthful we’d bitten off. Our first programme, for example, covered the tail-end of the Nineteenth Century. Where was our live audio to come from? That programme went through three versions as we moved from academic description to voiced excerpts from the historical record, laced with traditional music from Burkina Faso and Mali. We knew, even before the ethnomusicologists told us, that we could never re-create the authentic sounds of New Orleans’ Congo Square; we settled, rather, for painting a sound-mood that reflected what the historical record described. And the imagination of some of our interviewees produced other inspired re-creations. Hugh Masekela, for example, crediting Louis Armstrong the cultural moderniser. “Hey, I’ll always say if it wasn’t for Satch we’d still be walking round in powdered wigs and stuff, talking like ‘I say theah old chap’!”

Serendipity was a great force in the programme. Entrepreneur Lucky Michaels reminisced about the political role his Pelican Nightclub had played as a meeting place during the Soweto uprising. In separate interview three months later, saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu revealed that he’d been rehearsing in that very club on the afternoon of June 16 and had had to drive family members across town in the wake of the terrible shootings. Such detail wasn’t in the published biographies of these figures, but time and again it provided our sound links.

But making the programme had its sad moments too. The jazz life is hard: many older-generation musicians we’d have loved to talk to were already dead. One, Mike Makhalemele, passed away the week before we were scheduled to interview him. And those who’d lived through the harsh years of apartheid when their talent was exploited and their cultural identity suppressed often found the interview process painful, as old memories boiled to the surface. It reminded us, too, of how a fickle public quickly forgets its artists. General Duze, the best guitarist of his generation, now sits in an old people’s home in Soweto with, as he wryly reflects “nothing to do but watch the birds fly and the ants getting ready for winter.”

For me, the biggest historical discovery was of how direct the link was between today’s South African jazz renaissance and the period of the Cultural Boycott against apartheid declared in 1982. Artist after artist – even those who had disagreed with the politics of the boycott – told us: it wasn’t comfortable, but it made us look inwards at the music we had here and treasure it. Most credited their own current originality to that introspection.

In the end, we talked to 57 artists and other cultural figures. We had our programmes – but we also realised how many other narratives our eight episodes had not told. In particular, the rich stories of the jazz centres outside Johannesburg: Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and the great “little jazz city” of Queenstown, needed far more time than our broad outline survey could provide. So there will be more research and – we hope – more programmes. And we hope that other researchers will use the sound archive. Not only for what it has to say about music, for it also reflects on fashion, movies and a whole range of other cultural concerns.

For us, the nicest surprise is the interest the series has sparked outside community radio. Almost everyone who’s encountered it has said they’d like to own a copy. That holds out the hope that broader publication could fund expanded work on the cultural aspects of the Living History project. That’s still in the future. For today, we have 160 minutes of sound that honour the part jazz artists played in building our new society – and introduce listeners to some damn fine music along the way.

To find out more about Ubuyile – Jazz coming home, email Gwen Ansell

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