Grappling with that most tangible of elements, land

Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins’ collaboration with South African musicians tackles issues such as land dispossession and harsh economic realities beyond borders.

“Land stands for a whole lot more than just that word,” declares Chicago saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins. “It stands for justice, equality, respect, dignity, humanity and everything that comes along with that.”

Dawkins is discussing the political foundations of his most recent South African collaboration with the Englewood Soweto Exchange Project, We Want Our Land Back. The title single from the album was released in March, the full album was launched officially on 14 May and Dawkins has just completed a three-city South African tour of the repertoire.

It’s the saxophonist’s current waypoint on multiple journeys: a specific music-exchange project initiated in 2019; a relationship with South African jazz players dating back to the 1990s; and a commitment to collective, engaged music-making from almost the start of the 68-year-old’s own playing career. 

15 May 2021: Ernest Dawkins plays his saxophone at the Jazz Room against the backdrop of a portrait of the legendary South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim.

The Englewood Soweto Exchange began life as a 2019 jazz camp project linked to Chicago’s Englewood Festival, bringing together young musicians who did not previously know each others’ countries to explore shared history, sounds and struggles. When visas were denied for some of the original South African participants – bassist Chantel Willie-Petersen, trumpeter Thabo Sikhakhane and vocalist Keorapetse Kolwane – to travel to the United States for the recording, Dawkins called on trumpeter Lesedi Ntsane and saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, South Africans based in the US, alongside young American musicians he was working with in Englewood. 

“I gave the young players at Englewood the task of discovering the essence of the situation in South Africa politically, sonically and spiritually through books, recordings and video. Both their own compositions and the South African tunes selected were research-based as well as theme-based. Then we discussed it together and made the decisions.”

That research echoed Dawkins’ own earlier explorations of South African realities. He met South African band Brotherhood of Breath (including players like reedman Dudu Pukwana) at the Moers Festival in Germany on his first trip to Europe, and rapidly discovered commonalities of struggle. He played solidarity concerts for South African liberation in the US and later facilitated trips to Chicago for players such as Zim Ngqawana. Subsequently visiting South Africa to work with Ngqawana and others, he travelled widely, constantly discovering more shared perspectives. “Durban’s been another home to me for over 20 years. If I don’t talk first, people come up and speak to me in isiZulu,” he says.

Practice and principles

During all that time, South African themes have spoken in many of Dawkins’ compositions, including a jazz opera to honour Nelson Mandela. He keeps in constant contact with creative work here, for example, using artworks by Malcolm Jiyane and Mabaso Philasande at the Afrikan Freedom Station gallery in Westdene, Johannesburg, on his 2016 New Horizons Ensemble release, Transient Takes.

But the notion of music as a collective language of struggle took root much earlier in his life. “It’s a direct line of ascent,” Dawkins says, “from my time in the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians].”

The saxophonist started out playing bass and percussion, but when he switched to reeds, his family’s concern for their apartment neighbours’ ears forced him to do most of his learning and practice in a nearby park. A more established player advised him: “Man, you need to go to the AACM.” 

15 May 2021: From left, Ernest Dawkins rehearses at the Jazz Room with trumpeter Thabo Sikhakhane and other members of the Englewood Soweto Exchange. 

As part of its political principles, the association music school offered access to community members. In Dawkins’ first week, he received free instruction from three titans of the Chicago scene: Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Chico Freeman. “They had me playing  [Tad Dameron’s] Hot House, transcribing it, transposing it – man, I was butchering it!” he recalls.

But the early lesson of that free access to great teachers stuck with Dawkins. “I told them I’d be back, and I later taught there. That idea of free training for inner-city youth stayed in my mind. I always said if I can do something like that, I will.” 

That was the genesis of the young masters programme Dawkins now directs, in which selected musicians grow their playing and career skills and are encouraged to compose, supported by a stipend. “Paying the artists matters,” he says. “It makes what happens possible and it’s also an issue of workers’ rights. You can’t just spend your life as a gigger, playing a whole night for $50. In the US, where our musicians’ union is weak, we have to make a plan to survive.” 

Physicality and spirituality

Those ideas about music and solidarity coalesce on this album around the spiritual idea of land. 

“Land’s a tangible thing that everybody can grasp. But on a spiritual level it’s also one of the four elements,” Dawkins explains. “And for me as a Chicagoan, my city is a place of water. We’re nested on Lake Michigan, which the Native Americans called a great spirit lake. They travelled there for important rituals. It’s one reason I never left Chicago: you won’t find that spirit anywhere else.”  

So land constantly recurs in the lyrics of the Soweto Englewood album and not only in the title track. It’s also the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed slaves, which were rarely delivered and almost immediately snatched back during America’s post-Civil War Reconstruction, and the land struggles of dispossessed and homeless South Africans. “Land’s real and an allegory,” says Dawkins. “It’s a whole story we’re trying to tell.”

That invocation of collective cultural memory is made explicit through the flows of American DJ Artemis and South African spoken word artist Memphis. “We’re coming with our own cargo,” asserts Memphis. Artemis invokes sonic history, echoing Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (the album it came from, What’s Going On, has its half-century birthday this year). Where Gaye sang “Hang-ups/ let-downs/ bad breaks/ setbacks/ Natural fact is/ I can’t pay my taxes” in Reflex Influence, Artemis builds on those metres to explain “What’s happening/ To me/ Is happening/ Overseas/ Same hustles/ Different worlds/ Same struggles/To be heard”.

Given the place of Chicago as a spiritual and transport hub, it’s not surprising that a lot of the young Americans’ musical choices reference sounds shaped in the Cape and Durban, both crossroads for ancient and modern journeys here. The track Brotherly Love comes from Durbanite Sikhakhane and was written for his brother Linda. The other South African compositions are Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg and Mongezi Feza’s You Think You Know Me

But then, Dawkins sees the Soweto of the project’s title as also allegorical, in addition to being the home town of some early participants. “Soweto and Englewood both speak to underprivilege and economic challenges. The stories we’re telling deal with the causes and effects of those,” he says. “It’s also Englewood-Durban, Englewood-KwaMashu, Englewood-Cape Flats, Englewood-Mamelodi. What’s happening this year is just the start.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.