Who would have thought that something so good as South African jazz would be born from the dark days of apartheid?
Well the likes of ntate Hugh Masekela, ntate Abdullah Ibrahim, and mama Dolly Rathebe, and mama Miriam Makeba, didn’t let what the apartheid government and its oppressing laws silent their voices.
One can’t begin to tell the story of Jazz icons or its history without going back to the past, a place which most of us are comfortable with it being erased from our minds.
Jazz music in South Africa came at a time when the then government was really making life difficult for many black, coloured, and Indian citizens. It was a nightmare for artists to freely express their minds and talk about how things were in South Africa. There were oppressive laws that made it hard for omama Dorothy Masuka and obaba Jonas Gwangwa to paint pictures of what was happening in the townships.
I had the privilege to meet ntate Sipho ‘Hotsix’ Mabuse where he spoke at the Democracy Works Foundation discussion that was held at the Constitution Hill about the impact Jazz music had in people’s lives.
Many musicians during those years sang songs that portrayed apartheid in bad light, which seek to highlight black people’s hard and traumatic experiences under that government, something which the then regime didn’t want to happen.
Some of these artists like mama Makeba spoke out against the evil acts that were done against people of colour, especially black South Africans, including police brutality, racial segregation and unfair policies that kept many black people under oppression.
“Musicians, visual, performing, spoken word artists used their talents to weaken and topple the apartheid government in South Africa but the government wouldn’t back down easily,” Mabuse said.
Harsh punishment like banning of their work would be made possible by the officials, who would later banish some of these artists who were not willing to keep their mouths shut.
They didn’t fear persecution and prosecution, even if it meant having their homes petrol-bombed or being killed.
Mabuse said throughout his music life, all he wanted was to change people’s lives through music, which he and the old school school generation managed to do so well.
PASSING ON THE BATON
Ntate Masekela, who was affectionately known as Bra Hugh, collaborated with many young South African musicians, including a track with Thandiswa Mazwai, which speaks about violence perpetrated on non-South Africans by locals, a topic that is currently grabbing news headlines in the country.
Bra Hugh believed in mentoring young people and we can see young musicians like Bokani Dyer, Mandla Mlangeni, the late Lulu Dikana, Nomfundo Xaluva following in the footsteps of those who came before them. The baton has surely been passed on as we are seeing more and more young musicians like Zoë Modiga, Langa Mavuso, Ami Faku and Kesivan Naidoo contributing to new school Jazz that IS sometimes referred to as Afro soul or Afro-Jazz.
Even though we are fighting new battles as a country, old ones like racism and crime are still making us turn against each instead of being unified as tata Mandela wanted.
JAZZ LIVES ON
Through initiatives like the annual Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, which starts tomorrow, Jazz artists and producers have been supported for the past 21 years, many of them are gaining international recognition just by performing at the stage.
New notable voices in the jazz scene are given a platform to showcase their talents at the Showcase Stage.
The Showcase stage has been unearthing new and raw talent for the past few years, while the On the Road to the official Joy of Jazz Festival also looks at shinning the spotlight on new jazz artists like the Karabo Mohlala Quartet, Thabang Tabane Quartet, Zano, aus’ Tebza, Sobantwana and Nelisiwe.
Some of these artists have been in the music scene for years now, but it would be the first time for them to perform at the festival. This would introduce them to new audiences, who would be traveling from countries overseas to attend the event.
I shit you not, you can Google Mam’Dorothy Masuku and ‘Masuka’ will pop up. Growing up, I’ve asked myself countless times what Mam’Dorothy’s correct surname is.
We live in times where assumptions of how someone’s name is spelt could land you in trouble. Not all Shabalala’s are slept with a ‘T’, in the same way Khoza can also be slept with an ‘S’. So I’ve always been unsure about the legend’s last name until I learnt that she was actually a Masuku.
In the 1950s, when the vocalist with an elegant voice began her career, a record executive misspelt her surname by adding the first letter of the alphabet at the end of her last name. The Caucasian executive butchered her Ndebele surname on one of her first records. Headlines today, carry the weight of the perilous ‘A’ at the rear of her surname. But this is because the young Masuku was told that Masuka will be her stage name. “She said she had kinda accepted it because in the Jewish language, the word Masuka means being happy, happiness or something like that. So she kinda let it slide,” said singer Tribute Birdie Mboweni speaking in an interview on Kaya FM.
Mboweni is one of the very few young singers that celebrated Masuku while she was still alive, by creating her own modern renditions of music originally done by Mam’Dorothy.
Born in 1935, in Bulawayo Zimbabwe but moved to South Africa as a 12 year-old and in less than 10 years in Mzansi, she was already touring the country as a 19 year-old. She passed away on Saturday the age of 83, surrounded by family. She’s expected to be laid to rest this weekend.