Jazz dancing and pantsula perfection

An effervescent jazz dancer, Harry Msimango died in his sleep last winter. He didn’t become famous for his dancing, he simply stepped into the hearts of all who’d ever seen him move.

During the past winter, I spoke with a flowering dancer who would be dead before the spring. Known to some as Ma-Harrys wa le-jazz-maane, or Harry the jazzman, Harry Msimango was one half of the Msimango identical twins. With his brother Peter, they were two of the most eloquent dancers to ever don a pair of Florsheim shoes. The interview was a culmination of encounters that began in the summer of 2014 after I saw him dance in Hammanskraal, a township to the north of Tshwane. 

The emergence of diking 

It was late December and Msimango was dancing to the music of pianist Norman Chauke in what has since become social media’s best example of his kind of art. It is a unique dance style associated with Tshwane’s jazz-loving pantsulas, working-class folk bent on a defiantly elegant existence. 

Chauke was holding court at Hammanskraal’s African Cave Lodge. He was hosted by a chapter of the Tshwane Jazz Collector’s Club for a performance to promote another of his Jazz Dikas series of albums. Dikas, or diggas, is Pitori pantsula jazz slang for dancers. Diking is an elegant, improvised soloist art. It’s best known to have emerged out of the jazz-drenched shebeens and community halls of the greater Tshwane region. It is as much a fashion parade as it is a showcase and celebration of individual expression through movement. The form has never looked better than when Ma-Harrys was in the centre of the floor to dare and become something more than himself.  

On this day, Chauke was customarily preceded by a deejay, an elderly dapper man who played a curated set from his record collection. The music was decidedly avant-garde with a pan-African bent, Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio alongside Mabi Thobejane. A set peppered with some cuts from Mali and the way-out sound of Salah Ragab. A vibe! Then Chauke’s band went on. 

They lorded over a thoroughly festive mood. Naturally moved by the music, people started to enter the centre in random rotation. The dance and jazz appreciation was in thorough session. And so, Chauke called for his signature tune, Ndoko. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall. The band kept playing from their sheltered stand as everyone scattered for cover. The drizzle stopped as quickly as it had started. It was as if it meant only to clear the floor. There was light chatter and laughter all around. The sound of joy.

Msimango’s moves

Then Msimango took to the field. Tentative at first. Slowly he began to gather up like a storm, scuttling along in time with the music. 

He clapped! A sudden punctuation! Then he threw his hands open as though to hug a ghost, before he snapped his fingers in time to the cymbal crash. He went tip-toe, tip-toe and pulled his arms in, bending at the elbow. He lifted himself by the heels of his shining shoes, stayed there for a short eternity before returning momentarily to his toes. Tippy toe, tippy toe, then here comes the whole body spin. He did the shoe-side-slap move. His hands were outstretched like jumbo-jet wings. Taking a short pause to regain his composure, he settled on the delicate tempo of Chauke’s piano solo. His wrist turned and snaked away and pulled his arm. The rest of his body followed along in graceful flow. All the while his ankle and shining shoe echoed the move in tune to that, too.

At this point, Msimango was one with not only the music. All of our being, in the audience, was attuned to his. We were more than a mere audience now. We were witness to his will to beauty. The validity of his humanity. In a series of gestures, Msimango, a former shelf packer at a Clicks store, had articulated our dreams and desires for much more than the spoils of global capital, he had named our hunger and capacity to own our souls with the grace of his limbs.

Msimango danced his truth with more eloquence than the most crafty journalistic process could draw out with any set of questions. During our interview, Msimango had tried to tell me about growing up in Seshego in Limpopo before moving to Soshanguve in the north of Tshwane. By the time of his death, he was looking after his ailing twin brother at the family home in Block B-B.

Msimango also told tales of his time touring with the late Busi Mhlongo, when she was approaching the end of her career. “Me and my brother travelled with her and danced for her on stage. She was like our mother. The whole band was her like her children,” Msimango remembered, grinning like a boy being proud of a good run.

A few days before he died, Msimango “complained about some pain in his ear. He went to the clinic and they gave him some pills and he was fine. He then went to sleep. He didn’t wake up again,” Chauke recalled: “It’s a strange thing, he was so alive!”

Jazz appreciation stokvel

The ethereal subaltern vitality of Msimango’s moves fly in the face of clichés about sanctioned history, place and creative prominence. Consider that dust-bitten neighbourhoods like Hammanskraal appear on no list of jazz centres of the world. Just as London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club or New York’s Village Vanguard has never had to share a sentence with Mmakau Community Hall in Ga-Rankuwa or the Ga-Rankuwa YMCA. But, that’s a function of capital. Like how big money is wont to buy itself some hipster sheen even as it keeps its high walls and guards at the gate.

However, on any given Sunday of a payday weekend, subaltern townships in Mzansi come alive with a uniquely inspired jazz experience. A uniquely South African institution, the jazz appreciation stokvel convenes factory floor labourers, retail sector staffers and other members of the working class. Dressed to the nines, they come to dance; to heal bodies beaten by weeks of work. With beer in their bellies and bold bravado in their bones, they dare to claim their being with a rare elegance and some revelry.

At each gathering, the host, or the chosen selector for the session, plays music from his personal collection of records. His taste defines the session, until it’s someone else’s turn to play. In a good session, there’s a band, but there are always dancers – dikas who dare to step into the centre of the floor and showcase personal grammars of gestured meaning and express themselves for all to see.

The gifted dancer as soloist improviser is a feature of black vernacular culture beyond the jazz session, though. The working women and men’s body as a site of gestured text comes alive during protest and toyi-toyi, too. The mass movement of marchers will often chant their call and response indignations. All the while, moved by the spirit, one among them will take to the front of the line to improvise gestures in the vernacular of our cultures of protest to affirmations of hand claps and whistles to urge him on. 

It’s a ritual comparable to that of traditional war regiments of old with what the AmaZulu called, uku-Ghiya. In this way, our contemporary jazz pantsula’s penchant for personally perfected modes of expression is connected to a long history of movement as meaning. 

It’s something akin to what Ralph Ellison observes when he writes of “the vernacular as a dynamic process in which the most refined styles from the past are continually merged with the play-it-by-eye-and-by-ear improvisations which we invent in our efforts to control our environment and entertain ourselves. This is not only in language and literature, but … in music, dance, and technology. In it, the styles and techniques of the past are adjusted to the needs of the present, and in its integrative action the high styles of the past are democratised. From this perspective the vernacular is … a gesture toward perfection.” 

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