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.
IT was Hugh Masekela’s time with Fela Kuti that this album came to be. The latter wasn’t part of Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, but was the one who introduced Masekela to Ghanaian ensemble Hedzoleh Soundz.
Spending a number of years in America and parts of Europe, Masekela missed home but couldn’t come back to South Africa because he’d be arrested by the apartheid government for his politically-charged music and his work as an activist. But before coming down south in Botswana where he was just a border away from Mzansi, he spent some time in West and Central Africa. Like Miriam Makeba, he was warmly received in a number of African states one of those being Nigeria, where he spent a lot of time with King Fela whose career and nights at the iconic Afrika Shrine were at its peak.
Along the stupendous strands of marijuana the two shared at Kalakuta Republic, Masekela and Fela shared anecdotes, experiences and music-which resulted in Masekela working with the indigenous band from Accra. “I found a certain vitality in Afrobeat. Playing with Hedzoleh Soundz was like being on a big fat cloud. You couldn’t fall of,” said Masekela.
The eight track album was released in 1973 and it was largely written by the Hedzoleh Soundz, bar Languta. This album stands as one of my favourite works of all time. It is unequivocally traditional thanks to the organic African drums, merged with the melodies of the Akan and Ewe people. Yet very jazzy with a punch of funk. It was universal music, too sick to be categorized by a mere genre.
The track Rekpete will have you feeling like you’re in the Congo doing a Kwassa Kwassa. On Adade, Masekela’s trumpet is like a jet-ski, gliding at open sea which is the combination of indigenous instruments, harmonies and melodies. I don’t know why African filmmakers haven’t used Patience in any of our African stories. It’s a song that would accommodate some of the best scenes.
Nye Tamo Ame reminds me of migrate workers, African soccer players or young men at initiation school. It’s the harmony and spirited voices of men singing together. It’s inspiringly beautiful.
It’s said in isiZulu that Uk’hamba Uk’bona and Masekela’s travels to the West of the continent opened his eye to gems in Ghana, which has opened our eyes to Africa’s vast richness.
“ONE thing about music when it hits you, you feel no pain,” sang the immortal Bob Marley. To perhaps add to that, if an artist’s live performance doesn’t hit you, you may find yourself eternally scared by that experience.
I’ve not been fortunate enough to witness folk singer Adelle Nqeto live, but I’ve already been hit by her recorded compositions. God willingly in just a few hours from now, she’ll break that ice. Her music is so calming, that the imagery of her breaking anything is absurd.
The singer from Pretoria performs in Tembisa’s 4ROOM Creative Village this evening, as part of her national tour which has seen her travel more than three provinces. In each province, she consciously plays at small, intimate spaces which accommodate her music leaving onlookers with that fuzzy feeling inside. “This will be our second time playing in Tembisa, and we’re looking forward to it. Our bass player couldn’t join us last time around, so it’ll be great to play again as a trio. We had such as warm reception last time- we knew we wanted to come back,” Nqeto tells me.
In September she returned to the country after playing Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany. It wasn’t her first time gigging in Europe, “but it was my first time with my band though,” she says.
“…we’ve had great responses most places we play. I suppose there’s something novel about us when we play in Europe, being from the African continent, and we’ve had especially great responses over there.”
Some of the things she dabbles in while travelling, is try out different foods. “I also like to know the history of the place, as well as the art, so I do read up about that too, or check out museums and galleries.”
Apropos the band she keeps mentioning? It’s two fellas, drummer James Robb and Dylan du Toit who plays bass. She’s an ardent soloist who understands that being alone, is as valuable to her art as collaborating. “I’d like to be as versatile as possible, depending on the show. I still do play solo, but I especially love to have James and Dylan around, so the three of us have become the core for now,” Nqeto puts it to me.
Her vocal control is unassuming; it has an innocent fierceness to it. She’s the fine epitome that big things do come in small packages. But she’s had no formal voice training at any institutions, but with simplicity says she’s just been singing all her life and “learned a lot along the way. I’ve had few vocal lessons-to hone in on technique, but mostly, I’ve learnt a lot through experience.”
First time I heard her voice, I thought Soundcloud had made a mistake with her name, I expected the vocalist singing on her debut album Lights, to be a Caucasian female. I’m just another statistic, as other people too were gobsmacked by her race. “There are some interesting assumptions about my race, which are always great conversation starters,” she says.
There aren’t any songs sang in vernac in her album, but says she can and does write in isiXhosa. “I have reworked a song I wrote in French into isiXhosa that I’ve played for a French project I join every now and then, and have written some songs in isiXhosa that haven’t yet seen the light of day.”
She has a cocktail of musical influences, from Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald, Mango Groove, Ray Charles-all of whom she grew up listening to, added with the alternative music of Radiohead, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.
Last year she released her heart-warming and soul reviving album, Lights. The ditties in there have a sense of one who has overcome demons and realised the light inside themselves and those around them. A bit like those sisters that have just taken up Yoga, using Namaste as their only pleasantry.
“The songs on Lights were written over a few years, with some difficult periods of course. I wasn’t going through a difficult time when I wrote Lights [the song], specifically, I was looking back at the bitter-sweet end of a relationship.”
They are headed to studio for a follow up to that album, which could be expected early next year she says.
What was a simple interview at a local radio station for Robert Glasper, has made headlines on publications all over the world because of Lauryn Hill’s response. But rightfully so, these are two black giants of modern music.
But Hill’s response to Glasper does little to address longstanding perceptions about her.
Ever since 1998 when New Ark, the group of musicians who helped Lauryn Hill put together Miseducation, sued her for not properly crediting them for the work they did on the classic album, there’s been a cloud of suspicion hanging over Hill and that album.
“The Miseducation was the first time I worked with musicians outside of the Fugees who’s report and working relationship was clear. In an effort to create the same level of comfort, I may not have established the necessary boundaries and may have been more inviting than I should have been. In hindsight, I would have handled it differently for the removal of any confusion. And I have handled it differently since, I’m clear and I make clear before someone walks in the door what I am and am not looking for. I may have been inclusive, but these are my songs,” Hill writes in her letter.
The lawsuit was settled out of court in February 2001, for a reported $5 million
Hill’s weakness in punctuality and prima donna antics are well reported. In 2012, when she was in the country for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, she disappointed with her performance, not because she’s wack a performer but it was down to her insistence on wanting to change how the sound was set-up by the organisers who know the venue very well and are experienced at catering for each artist on the line-up. Before her performance on the Kippies stage, Hugh Masekela had killed it in his tribute to Miriam Makeba which featured Thandiswa Mazwai, Vusi Mahlasela and Freshly Ground frontwoman Zolani Mahola. Hill was not audible enough and resigned to walking off stage. While just last month in Toronto, while in Canada for the 20 year anniversary of Miseducation tour, she arrived an hour late for her performance.
Hence I was baffled when she made an excuse for her late coming in the letter. “Me being late to shows isn’t because I don’t respect my fans or their time, but the contrary, It can be argued that I care too much, and insist on things being right. I like to switch my show up regularly, change arrangements, add new songs, etc. This often leads to long sound checks, which leads to doors opening late, which leads to the show getting a late start. This element of perfectionism is about wanting the audience to experience the very best and most authentic musical experience they can from what I do.”
It’s one thing to be a perfectionist and it’s just plain ill-mannered not to honour ardent fans and disrespect qualified sound technicians.
If anything, this comes-off as being unprepared. I mean people buy tickets, using their hard-earned cash to see you at a specific time-by virtue of being on the line-up for that particular performance, means an artist agrees with all the prerequisites.
I don’t remember anyone questioning her undeniable talent and palpable influence she’s had in the industry. Ever. So she’s very much correct to say “I was also a member of the Fugees, another ground-breaking, multi-platinum selling group, who bridged social and cultural gaps, and were ambassadors of hip-hop all around this planet. We laid important groundwork upon which an entire generation of artists and musicians still stand. We broke through conventions and challenged limited world views every time we played.”
To add to that, she was an integral part of the Fugees, I personally think the fellas would’ve been another bar-spitting average clique, had she not been part of the group. She’s an impeccable emcee with beautiful vocals. The original rap singer. But it’s her attitude that’s always been questioned- even by former group members, Pras and Wyclef Jean.
What I found particularly interesting in the letter, was not really her responding to Glasper’s statement, but addressing a bigger issue: misogyny and patriarchy in the industry when she said “And yes, Ms. Hill was absolutely a requirement. I was young, Black and female. Not everyone can work for and give the appropriate respect to a person in that package and in charge. It was important, especially then, for that to be revealed early. I adore Stevie, and honor [sic] Herbie and Quincy, who are our forebears, but they’re not women. Men often can say ‘I want it done like this’ and not be challenged. The same rules don’t always apply for women who may be met with resistance. When this happens you replace that player with someone who respects you and the office you hold.”
If we wake up tomorrow and someone like Priddy Ugly says, he wants be called King Priddy from now on, reluctant as society might be at first, they’ll eventually heed that call. And it would totally be a different story if a Gigi Lamayne, associated herself with royalty. Her artistry would be questioned.
It was like reading useless Facebook posts about people who brag about being older, to those born in the new millennium, when Hill wrote “Most people are probably just hearing your name for the first time because you dropped MINE in an interview, controversially. Taking nothing away from your talent, but this is a fact.”
A cheap shot, really. Glasper is a multi-award winning genius artist that has paid his dues, she knows very well that he’s a pianist that only came to the fore in the popular music scene just over a decade ago.
But fortunately there was no malicious speech between the two artists, it was honest criticism and a simple difference in opinion, which both creatives respected.Or so it seems.
It had nearly been a decade since Miriam Makeba released any project, when she gave the world her classic album Sangoma in 1988.
Mama Africa, as she was known throughout the world, was a superstar of note. She is credited, alongside Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita and Hugh Masekela and others, for being the first globally recognized African musicians.
Sangoma was as a follow up to Comme une Symphonie d’amour that came out in 1979. She was the first world superstar to come from Mzansi, who never lost touch with her Africaness, regardless of where in the world she was.
During her time in exile, after being banned by the South African government, a number of countries became an abode for her. She was issued passports by Algeria, Guinea, Belgium and Ghana. She held nine passports and was granted honorary citizenship by at least 10 countries.
True to her moniker Mama Africa, she was the only performer invited by Halie Selassie to perform at the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity (what it today known as the African Union) in 1963. A book could be written on her life as a political activist, alone. She was married to Stokely Carmichael, who was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, and was very vocal against the apartheid system in South Africa, from wherever she was in the world.
In her Grammy award winning album with Harry Belafonte in 1966,one of the stand-out songs there was Ndodemnyama Verwoerd! which lambasted one of the architects of the oppressive system.
She had style, poise yet at the same time, abrasive when it came to things she was passionate about. Often misunderstood, much like her friend Nina Simone, she left a legacy that a lot of African artists live off today.
Her influence couldn’t be captured in one article. But as Sangoma celebrates 30 years since its release, here are some of the songs that came with the album.