The Cape Doctor

Robbie Jansen is a key figure in what is referred to as South African, especially Cape Town, jazz.

The cover art for Jansen's "Vastrap Island."

Robbie Jansen is an institution in Cape Town’s live jazz circuit.  His partly credited with inventing Cape Jazz as a commercial genre. He plays trumpet, alto saxophone and sings. He turn 60 today.  We couldn’t let this day pass without comment.  Jansen, who fell ill last year, now performs with an oxygen tank close by. In this low-res video, taken in 2007, you can see the joy of his playing. The oxygen tank is visible nearby. He is probably most well known for his work on the classic album “Mannenburg: Is where it’s happening.”  The title track (there’s only two songs on the album; the other is ‘The Pilgrim”) would eventually get the status South Africa’s “unofficial national anthem” during apartheid.

As the historian of South Africa, John Edwin Mason writes, Jansen along with Basil Coetzee, another musician who played on the Mannenberg contributed much to the song’s later reputation; providing it with second life in the 1980s. “… They made the hit an anthem by placing it at the musical center of countless anti-apartheid rallies, demonstrations, and benefit concerts throughout the 1980s. When Coetzee or Jansen played ‘Mannenberg,’ musicians flooded the stage to jam, and evoked a collective response, a kind of politically charged ecstasy, from everyone present.”

Mason continues: “The song’s popularity and the political context within which it was being played allowed the musicians to create moments of intense emotion and solidarity, making the song, in the words of an anti-apartheid newspaper, ‘a symbol of our hardship’.”

But Jansen developed his own reputation away from Ibrahim and Coetzee also, so much so that he is honored as one of the inventors of Cape Jazz. (Coetzee also became a legendary tenor saxophone and flute player and political figure in South Africa.)

Jansen was born in Claremont, now a white suburb, before his family was forcibly evicted by the apartheid state to Elsies River, later to become one of the largest townships on the Cape Flats. Claremont became a white area.

Jansen actually started his musical education in coloured klops (carnival) and pop music bands (his first band, The Rockets, were local legends).  He told the editors of a book of interviews with South African jazz musicians under Apartheid, Chatradari Devroop and Chris Walton, in 2007: “My dad used to play in the Salvation Army, in Cape Town. He used to play and teach brass instruments. My mother used to sing a bit. My grandfather was also a musician in a dance band, but I don’t know if that’s got anything to do with me.”

By the mid-1970s, he formed a successful “jazz-rock” group, Pacific Express, with a number of successful local musicians: pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (the former Chris Schiller; uncle of another well known Cape pianist Hilton), vocalist Zayn Adam, Basil Coetzee, guitarist and singer Issy Ariefdien (father of Prophets of da City’s Shaheen), bass guitarist Paul Abrahams and drummer Jack Momple. The group released the classic album, “Black Fire” in 1976. “The first successful confluence of Cape Jazz with R&B, fusion and pop,” as music writer Gwen Ansell, summarized its achievement in 2007.

Jansen, who played in a number of bands (Estudio, Oswietie, Sons of Table Mountain, Pacific Express and Workforce) only released a solo album, “Vastrap Island,” in 1989. In 2000, he released “The Cape Doctor,” and 2005, “Nomad Jezz” (the latter features some luminaries of the Cape Town scene: Hilton Schilder, Allou April, Spencer Mbadu, Basil Moses and Buddy Wells) The latter was nominated for a South African Music Award. (In-between he also collaborated with groups like the The Genuines.)

Jansen acknowledged in that interview  with Devroop and Walton interview that before he met Abdullah Ibrahim he wasn’t playing South African music. Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Cyril Magubane and Ezra Ngcukana, also influenced his turn to playing local music.

In a January 2007 interview with John Edwin Mason about the making of Mannenburg, Jansen spoke of his political evolution: “Jansen did accept that to be coloured was to be black, part of an oppressed community engaged in struggle for freedom. And he believed that black was beautiful. It was, he said, ‘the American influence,’ the influence of African American popular culture … The music, clothing, and hair styles of black America taught Jansen and young coloured people of his generation that ‘it was the in thing to be black, and people started to be proud of being black’.”

In the interview with Devroop and Walton he was asked whether he would support a Truth and Reconciliation Committee for music “to address the inequalities and injustices of the past music system, and prevent these from recurring today.”  Jansen was less about himself and more about his colleagues: “I think that would be too drastic, as long as the people who weren’t recognized are being recognized today. But instead of just being recognized, we need to get some things in place for them. We don’t have any benefits, like sickness benefits, pensions, and stuff like that. I would like something to be in place like that, and maybe some type of union that gives the artist the legal right to do this and that and the other. There is still a lot of exploitation, still the music industry is in the hands of a special few who control it so that others can’t get in easily.”

When asked what should change in jazz, he answered by referencing a trip he had taken to Cuba in the early 2000s. (That trip became the basis for a documentary film about Jansen’s life, “Casa de la Musica.”) It was also illuminating about Jansen’s radical politics: “What I discovered in Cuba is, they teach you music, they teach you the theory, and technique. They give you a good instrument. They teach you everything you need to know about music, they give you a blank canvas, and you can paint the picture you want to paint, you can make whatever music you want to make. I feel that at school, they should give you all that information so that you can weigh up your own possibilities, and see where you want to go. That will create a wider approach for artists, instead of this cocoon niche that we have formed.”

At the end of the Devroop and Burton interview, he would add to his comments about Cuba: “Like I said, this Cuban thing is great, sharing the music, and now we need to get the earning thing right. The little bands who are learning things, they must be treated like learners, and the professional musicians, they must be treated professionally. They must be paid like real doctors get paid, that’s what it is about. People must know who is who … You know, overseas they have unions and they have a grading system, which we don’t have at all, we don’t have any grading, so you can come and you charge cheaper than me so you get the jobs. The best musician may not always get the best job.”

Further Reading