Jazz trumpets the notes of freedom

Jazz has always been the sound of freedom. Musically, it refuses to follow a form, rather growing organically with the musician. Politically, it has been the music of choice of resistance and rebellion, from its early days in the US’s Deep South to South Africa during apartheid.

hugh-masekela---text One of Hugh Masekela’s most famous songs, Chileshe, is especially relevant today, when xenophobic attacks are increasing in South Africa’s big cities. It speaks of the hatred of a fellow African and how, as an African, this is wrong. (Image: Revive Music)


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Ray Maota

For most of the 20th century, South Africa was in the depths of apartheid; at first a colony of Great Britain, and later as a republic with a white minority government denying crucial human rights to the black majority.

For black South Africans, jazz – a genre of music that originated in African American communities during the late 19th and early 20th century, themselves suffering under the shackles of poverty, prejudice and oppression – offered a way to protest against the political system and express hope for a better future.

There were attempts by the apartheid government to suppress the music by controlling radio broadcasts, raiding jazz clubs, and making it illegal for white and black performers to play together. But despite their attempts, jazz has always flourished in South Africa, even though many artists were forced into exile in more welcoming nations such as France, Germany, Britain, and the US.

Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Letta Mbuli are just a few of the more well-known of the many musicians who fled apartheid persecution.

The dawn of democracy

Most of their glory years were spent outside the country, where they wrote struggle songs and protested through their art. From this position of relative safety, they were able to bring to the attention of the world the scale of the injustice happening back at home. Then, with the changes in the country in the early 1990s, many returned – to a very different environment from the one they had left.

It dawned on many of the musicians that the good times for South African music were also the bad times for political freedom. And with political freedom has come new challenges for artists.

The legendary Masekela told The Christian Science Monitor: “When I came back here in 1990, this place was jumping, and Hillbrow [in Johannesburg’s inner city] was where it was at. And now I don’t know if there is anywhere that groups can develop and hone their skills, because there’s nowhere for them to do it.

“I think that my advice would be for the arts community to become creative and not expect hand-outs, because they are not coming.”

A lot of suburbs that were nightlife staples changed for the worse after the first democratic elections. Hillbrow, Yeoville, Orange Grove and Berea were the favourite spots of artists and their free-thinking audiences. Today, those many clubs and jazz bars have been replaced by corner stores and pawnshops, car repair shops and funeral parlours.

It’s hard to start things over, Masekela admits, but he isn’t the kind of man to dwell on negatives. “South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world, and the people, their expectation was high after freedom because they were promised so much,” he says.

One of his most famous songs, Chileshe, is especially relevant today, when xenophobic attacks are increasing in South Africa’s big cities. It speaks of the hatred of a fellow African and how, as an African, this is wrong.

Another, Stimela, which is the isiZulu word for “steam train”, speaks of the hatred migrant labourers had for the train that took them to the mines of Johannesburg and the Reef.

A new generation

During apartheid, artists had an obligation to highlight the struggles of the country; today, the new breed of artist does not have to worry about that. They need to charter a different course.

Among them are the composer and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who was born in uMgungundlovu near Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. With a pianist for a mother and a guitarist for a father, Makhathini was surrounded by music as a child, exposed to a wide range of aural cultures including traditional Zulu, church and Indian music.

A chance meeting with legendary saxophonist and flautist Zim Ngqawana and self-taught jazz master Bheki Mseleku, continues to influence him. “Bheki told me about how it was important to use music to speak to our souls and change the environment, change the people we are and heal others. That became my jazz connection,” says Makhathini, who released his first two albums, Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow, in 2014.

Down south, Kyle Shepherd grew up in the Cape Flats in Cape Town, the epicentre for a regionally distinct subgenre known as Cape jazz. Cape jazz grew organically in the predominantly Malay and coloured townships around the Mother City in the 1970s. The sound blended South African vocal traditions with American jazz, African folk music, Jim Crow-era jubilee singing, and the ghoema sound developed over centuries by labourers from South Asia and the Pacific islands.

“I heard all that music from a young age: Abdullah [Ibrahim], Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee,” Shepherd says. “I was really close to it — going to rehearsals, watching them workshop all their music.”