Jazz: A voice for black South Africans, the birth of a new sound

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Indy Lifestyle Online
From Hugh Masekela to Miriam Makeba to the Blue Notes, South African musicians have been key players in the history of modern jazz. At last, says Phil Johnson, they are receiving a little attention.

If jazz was born out of racism, struggle and a potent mixture of ethnic musical styles, it should come as no surprise that the music later adapted itself so successfully to life in South Africa, where there was an overabundance of each. The fascinating history of South African jazz - which is told in No Easy Walk, a new six-part Radio 3 series beginning tomorrow - is as vibrant and as sorrowful as the music it gave rise to. It's also a story that flows back into the mainstream narrative of jazz, as the trance- like rhythms and unique energy and commitment of jazz from SA, and the often exiled musicians playing it, have exerted an enormous influence. The pianist Abdullah Ibrahim may well be the most significant jazz composer since Duke Ellington, and these days any modern jazz group anywhere in the world is likely to be as familiar with the rhythmic shuffle of township jive as they are with swing or bop.

The list of musicians who have made South African jazz such an important and influential movement includes, as well as Ibrahim, 0 Kippie Moeketsi, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Louis Moholo, Harry Miller and Bheki Mseleku. What remains so intriguing is how jazz came to be received so whole-heartedly so far away from its source. The answer lies partly in the black underground of the big South African cities, where American culture was eagerly seized upon, and also in the waves of foreigners who came to visit and work in the country. The example of jazz was also important on a social level. "African-Americans were the only role models of urban life that we had," says Masekela. "It was always a political vehicle as well, and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were wonders for us. It was an escape hatch."

It was after seeing the film Young Man With a Horn that the delinquent schoolboy Masekela received his first trumpet as a gift from Father Trevor Huddleston. "He was like a hoodlum priest, and when everything else failed they sent you to him. He said `What do you want?' and I said I'd seen this movie, `Give me a trumpet and I won't bother anybody.'" The Runyonesque subculture of black gangsters, prize-fighters, musicians and molls was captured brilliantly by the writers and photographers of Drum magazine in the 1950s, which was edited by Anthony Sampson. One of Drum's writers, the late Todd Matshikiza, celebrated this world in his musical King Kong, which was a huge hit. In the first episode of the Radio 3 series tomorrow, Matshikiza talks superbly - in a tape unearthed from the BBC's archive - about the kwela dance rhythms that he used for the show, while Anthony Sampson remembers Nelson Mandela attending the premiere of King Kong the day before he had to stand trial for treason.

In 1960 Hugh Masekela joined Abdullah Ibrahim's band The Jazz Epistles (named after Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers), who became the first black group in South Africa to record an album. For Ibrahim, the music of Duke Ellington was so familiar that he was regarded "...like a wise old man of our community in absentia", and when he moved to Europe in 1962 it was Ellington who became his sponsor, helping him to move to the US in 1965.

Meanwhile, in 1962, the white pianist Chris McGregor, whose father taught in a Church of Scotland mission school in the Transkei, had formed the Blue Notes with four black musicians. As it become increasingly difficult for racially mixed groups to perform at home, the Blue Notes decided to stay in Europe after they played at the Antibes Festival in 1964. Their arrival in London shortly afterwards transformed the British jazz scene, by offering a new, much more emotional and aggressive alternative to pallid imitations of the dominant American modes.

The pianist Bheki Mseleku, who has been one of the most significant South African musicians of the past few years, feels that the music of South Africa has an often neglected history that goes beyond the rhythms of the townships: "When people hear about South African musicians they think about mbanqua and township music, but there are a lot of influences: there are Muslims, there's Hindus, Europeans and a lot of classical music. Even if there had been no jazz records coming through, we would still have played jazz, just because of the classical music and the African rhythms."

notes to freedom

No Easy Walk, The Story of South African Jazz, Radio 3, 17 Jan-

21 Feb.

Five Essential South African Jazz Albums:

Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya: Water From An Ancient Well (Tiptoe)

Johnny Dyani: Song For Biko (Steeplechase)

Bheki Mseleku: Timelessness (Verve)

The Blue Notes: Blue Notes for Mongezi (Ogun)

Hugh Masekela: Hope (Triloka)