Jazz as Tradition in Cape Town

"Jazzing" on the Cape Flats, almost similar to salsa as developed in New York City. It's the dominant sound of parties in Cape Town.

The saxophonist Basil Coetzee plays to a crowd in downtown Cape Town. Image by Suren Pillay.

In Cape Town jazz here is not just jazz. It’s a whole lot more. For one, it is a dance style that continues to be the predominant feature of successive generations of Cape Flats families. Almost similar to what is called salsa in the Latino communities, jazzing on the Cape Flats is now somewhat of a tradition. And I use tradition in a deliberate way, to think about inheritances of practices that are shared, dynamic and made and remade anew, but always defined also by what is continued as it is passed down. Tradition is also useful I think as a description, because it plays with what we most often consider tradition: traditions refer to things before the modern in some peoples minds.

South Africa is of course a place where its not that easy to speak in the singular of a South African tradition. We might have some age old traditions, but in a society that has been produced by keeping things and people apart for so long, traditions are fragmented and particular most of the time. There are few “shared” traditions in a place where races and ethnicities were prescribed to think apart, live apart, make their cultural artefacts apart, and play sport apart. For that reason, it is an interesting phenomena that jazz has become the cultural genre that has come the closest to creating audiences that crossed these boundaries. Given the rapid forced migration of African’s from the country side into cities by white industrialists, many older bonds and ties where strained and eviscerated in the 20th century. A very urbanized society, in contrast to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the townships of South African cities threw people into a melting pot where ethnic traditions were reshaped and remolded in urban settings, and where new subjectivities emerged.

New musical forms like marabi, emerged in this moment. As many of the musicians of that period would describe it, the formative influences of marabi were drawn from African American popular culture, and from the swing and bebop jazz eras. Many of the early bands were local instantiations of their American role models, with the music being judged on how close they could imitate their idols in sartorial elegance and virtuosity. Even the names, like Manhattan Brothers, Jazz Epistles recalled these influences.

Even though it seemed derivate as a style, it later, displayed the particularity of its African origins. There is a wonderful moment, when as Hugh Masekela describes it, he goes to study in New York, through a scholarship arranged by Miriam Makeba via Harry Belafonte. He quickly learns the American song book. But having left the country, Masekela and other artists, find themselves in exile from the country of their birth, and faced with the prospects of being working musicians in North America and Europe. They realise that they needed to tap into their particularity if they were going to offer something distinct, and this encouraged the accentuation of those traditions that were there in marabi music, that plaited the vernacular forms of African ethnic cultural production into the generality that had become jazz.

The gift of this pain, we might say, is that if we are too think of what might be a distinctive modern South African sound, a soundtrack to a future imagined out of divided past, then it is jazz. It was jazz musicians who played in small clubs to mixed subversive audiences in the country at the height of the State of Emergency. Jazz musicians were the main attraction of meetings billed as cultural events, happy to serve as alibis for anti-apartheid organizing when political meetings were banned.

Figures like the late Basil Coetzee was one such persona, along with Robbie Jansen, in the Cape. These two chose not to go into exile, but both had also been given great prominence by the international attention that the other genius of this distinctive jazz style, Abdullah Ibrahim had achieved. They had both played saxophone with Ibrahim, at various points, and Basil Coetzee was known by the moniker Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee, because of his searing saxophone solo on Ibrahim’s classic composition, which was also the title track to the album, ‘Manenberg’. It referred to a working class “coloured” group area on the Cape Flats where communities who were removed from areas like District Six, were thrown into after the Group Areas Act designated these areas white.

Coetzee and Jansen were remarkable artists whose fates and fortunes waxed and waned when they chose home over exile. For many years Coetzee worked as cobbler, repairing shoes, when the political repression made living as a jazz musician financially disastrous for black musicians who had little access to main stream commercial prospects – no radio time, no official recognition, and few recognized clubs to play to paying audiences in a way that could sustain a life. But they did, in the ways that made the life of jazz musicians precarious and closer to and often times, beyond the edge.

Both Coetzee and Jansen are now late; the toll of lives lived in difficult times made bearable by hard living and its associated pleasures and perils. Ibrahim’s conversion to Islam in the 1970’s perhaps offered him a gentler mode of absorbing the heartbreak of exile, A daily regime of yoga and martial arts also finds metaphor in his music, as he has learnt to discipline time and sound. As a stereotype, many people will tell you that those of us who grew up on the Cape Flats talk very fast, as if you have to get all your words in before being cut off by your fellow conversationalists. Fast, quick and loud. Ibrahim is slow, deliberate and silent. He rarely ever speaks publicly. He does not editorialize much, or express opinions loudly. He is a certain kind of enigmatic figure, elliptical and opaque, made more complex by simplicity.

Which is why the picture that I like that I have taken of him performing is the one I have included here: a silhouetted figure. Known in form, recognizable in profile. But impenetrable to a certain kind of knowing or becoming intimate with him. We never really “know”, we always will be surprised, we cannot anticipate the minds work, or how it will translate into the pianists fingers. When he sits down to play, particularly at his solo concerts, he will greet with a Salaam, play for an hour or so, without breaks, and end with a Salaam and walk off the stage.

Then there is his disciplining of Time. The deliberateness of the pauses between his notes. The yogic practices of breathing. Even when there are frenetic moments, it’s a controlled cacophony, it goes out and returns to structure, in the best way that jazz gives the illusion of improvisation. And as always, there are the particularities. The names of albums and songs are rarely generic. Place and time seem always to mark them. There are the beats, the sound of the goema drum, the drum of the free slaves of the Malay descendants.

In his rendition the goema beat is faint, distilled, abstracted into its purest and simplest elements, made to weave between and within, so that the familiar and the strange, that which we recognise and that which we are learning to know, are conjoined contrapuntally.

Perhaps I have too romantic a rendition of this art form. Yet when you join the audiences that South African jazz gives birth to, you are reminded of where the wellsprings of possibility always lived in the darkest moments of apartheid repression, and even in the most somber moments of our growing postapartheid depression. Traditions are ironic that way, because they always produce something new. And that’s a reserve of sanguinity.

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