Jazz and identity collide in Cape Town

The 2019 edition of the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival raises awkward questions of access, privilege, power and representation.

Saxophonist Steve Dyer’s Mahube opens the outdoor stage at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF), getting everybody dancing. The ensemble unites musicians from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique – in case we’ve missed the point, the leader spells it out: “No borders!”

Just five days earlier, Malawians were driven from three shack settlements in Durban by crowds who “started shouting and telling us to leave; they kept chanting that we must leave their country; [they] wanted us dead”, in what the government later described as “not xenophobic” attacks.

How do we untangle the paradoxes of South African jazz festivals? Despite their rhetoric of shared joy, and the diverse music and powerful talent always on display, they’re exclusionary events.

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Cape Town – not the most expensive festival on the jazz circuit – charges R1 290 for a weekend pass to its carefully secured metropolitan venue, the International Conference Centre. That’s just less than the average weekly take-home pay for a waged black household, even before you factor in transport and modest refreshments.

CTIJF does invest in balancing the equation, with multiple free gigs and classes at all levels (including in the township areas) and claims the creation of 34 000 direct and indirect jobs over the course of its 20 years in existence. Nevertheless, there remains a pervasive tension between the discourse of the music and the lived experiences that wrap and penetrate it: the tango of thesis and antithesis, the relationship between an idea and its negation in reality.

In the CTIJF media gift bag, alongside a programme, we find a dashboard cigarette lighter and a sales catalogue for headphones, both foreign made.

Style and memories

“Once you’ve got the technique,” reedman and academic Mike Rossi tells the press when asked about the University of Cape Town jazz curriculum, “the rest is just style.” But like the beer commercial says, it’s more than that.

Jazz is memories. It’s evident when pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab reveals that for 50 years his 1969 quartet album Spring (with Winston Mankunku Ngozi) has caused him secret pain.

“There was a mistake on one track,” he recalls at the panel discussion. “I stopped the musicians, so that we could play it again. But Gallo gave us one hour only, to make a whole album. They refused me, and put out the album with that mistake.”

On the Rosie’s stage, Shihab prepares to come out for his performance. The master of ceremonies fluently lists all the social media sites on which audience members can shoutout the event. She mispronounces his name.

Jazz is also process. Festival stages offer impressive showcases, but do not provide the same creative oxygen as more intimate stages, which is why London-based reed player and composer Nubya Garcia often “prefers to play in a standup venue, high-end places are not accessible”.

30 March 2019: Flautist Nicole Mitchell (left) chose the flute so she could ‘leave evidence that a woman was here in this music”.

‘Competitive culture’

Process makes the mission of flautist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble not only to explore “how we can coexist as a band” but also “how we can develop a musical language to express that”.

For Mitchell, the conservatoire model employed by many university jazz schools, including South Africa’s, is incompatible with the development of these languages.

“If you have [that method], you’re automatically closing off access to those who’ve mastered other music.” College places go to those who “can read their butts off [rather than] improvise their butts off … and then once you get in, you have to deal with staying there, surviving that competitive culture.”

“They are driving us away like dogs,” says my cab driver bitterly on the way into town. Two nights of Ed Sheeran at the Greenpoint Stadium followed by two nights of the jazz festival at CTICC establish prohibitively wide parking perimeters around venues, separating cabbies from fares and putting them at the mercy of capricious cops who often, he says, demand bribes. “Festival? That’s when we stay home to starve.”

The inescapable imprint of humanity

Jazz asserts and debates identity: individual, global and local. Many musicians at the festival attest to the inescapable imprint of humanity on the music they create. When asked what links the music of improvisers rePercussions to jazz, British drummer Moses Boyd selects “the fact that there are still humans behind it [with] that ethos of improvising”.

Mitchell says she chose the flute partly because she could hear its affinity with her own light, high-speaking voice: “I could leave evidence that a woman was here in this music.”

When asked what went into his sound, trumpeter Keyon Harrold says: “I grew up in Ferguson, what more do you need to know?”

Singer Avery R Young of Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble explains: “I was born black in America, so jazz is kinda natural.” He goes on to link that to the black socialist tradition, the Last Poets, Nina Simone and more.

They’re all explaining how the dialogues they craft between the textures, patterns and lyrics of their music, and their own emotional and political realities, create a space where, as audiences too, we can find fuel for new stories of ourselves.

29 March 2019: (From left) Mandla Mlangeni, Moses Boyd and Nonku Phiri are members of rePercussions.

Drawing on experiences

South African guitarist Vuma Levin’s music draws on his experiences “to generate a potential future identity” that can accommodate the unexpected. When he was a restless teenager, even Coldplay and Limp Bizkit “became South African music in me … because they spoke to my psycho-emotional struggles.”

In the same way, Garcia “draws on everything I’ve ever heard – classical music, Cuban music, reggae, jazz, Afrobeat” for her work. Garcia’s palette of sources gets richer as her sax duets on stage with vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu, exploring ukuthwasa (sangoma training) and warning against “living in Verwoerd’s/Biko’s dream”, unfold.

But Mthembu’s voice, with its hoarse ancestral inflections, points to similar sounds resonating in the voices of Mbuso Khoza with Mahube, Siya Makuzeni and Yonela Mnana with The Mill, in the trumpet timbres of Feya Faku with African Time, and across the Atlantic in Young’s impassioned sanctified sounds, closing the music’s circle of roots and routes.

As poet Calvin Gantt (also with Mitchell) acknowledges: “What we’re giving to you / we got from you /and we’re bringing it back.”

Small kid, big sax

This year’s festival iconography features a small African boy playing a large saxophone. His face is clumsily Photoshopped into doll-like plasticity. He’s wearing hand-me-downs, the too-long trousers and shirt cuffs rolled up to emphasise his juvenile form.

“Everybody,” says one festival organiser, “loves it. They think it’s cute.”

Not quite.

A South African player describes visiting black British and African American artists “giving me a hard time about it”. Its imagery is engineered to evoke the late 1950s, an era about which only the privileged in South Africa could get nostalgic.

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The late Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile immortalised those “kwela kids” in a 1966 essay he titled Whistle for Pennies.

“At a very early age,” he wrote, “African boys have to learn to live by their wits. At nine, when pretty often all they have to go home to for dinner is a few slices of bread and jam, they have to hustle for a few pennies to buy fish crumbs from some fish and chip shops which would, anywhere else in the world, throw them away.

“So in South African cities like Johannesburg, one finds boys … pennywhistling and dancing in white suburban sidewalks and train station entrances to catch a few pennies from whites enthralled by [their] agility.”

On stage with Swiss-South African band The Mill, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni plays Chicken Dust. “Where I grew up, it’s a delicacy.”

Gwen Ansell has a longstanding relationship with CTIJF around the training of arts journalists. The festival covered her transport and accommodation costs.

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