Jazz in the townships

An extract from Mabogo More’s new memoir, which reflects on the life of the mind of a black philosopher during and after apartheid.

In this extract from his new memoir of the life of the mind Mabogo Percy More, winner of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, reflects on the relationship between jazz and political consciousness in townships of the 1950s and 1960s.

This is an edited excerpt from Looking Through Philosophy in Black: Memoirs which has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Why this love affair with jazz and not local South African musical genres such as Mbaqanga, Sqathamiya, Marabi, African traditional music or other musical genres? The legendary black South African novelist Es’kia Mphahlele, in a critique of negritude, wrote: “It may be startling to a non-South African to notice how much of our cultural life is American … In every South African town, big and small, there are jazz bands and troupes.”

Like its American equivalent, jazz in South Africa was, and still is, city music groomed in the urban city spaces of this country, called townships, shaped and created from almost exclusively black suffering and struggle. In these mean and dangerous ghetto spaces, jazz was the dominant music for anyone who considered himself or herself hip. It separated the city slickers, ladies men (klevas/clevers) from the mostly country boys, nerds or simply those who were not streetwise (moegoes/baries/momeish, plaas-Japie).

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Indeed, in 1961, Eric Hobsbawn wrote, “Probably South Africa is today the most flourishing centre of creative jazz outside America.” Among those of us who lived during these times, this description of the dynamic jazz subculture is right on the spot of the experiences we underwent in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. During that period, an association with jazz catapulted one into an enlightened, smart, sharp, stylish, almost superior and untouchable category. As the great South African poet Don Mattera puts it, jazz brought back “[a] history that was both painful and beautiful, bringing us face to face with giants who came in all shapes and sizes, the ‘dwarfs’ and the ‘walk talls’ blowing mean melodies and drumming up storms … Yes it all happened in ‘Toeka’ – city slickers (klevas and moegoes) doing jazz like it was some kind of escape from the harsh cold-face realities.”

The clevers

In these township wildernesses, we younger boys copied, imitated and mimicked the mannerisms of the township’s older wise guys (klevas or clevers) who would every weekend stroll coolly along the main streets and avenues carrying and displaying the latest long-playing jazz albums (LPs) and loudly whistling, singing or humming some of the tunes contained in them. As a sign of respect for our elders, we always prefixed their names with “Bra” meaning “Big Brother.” Among those my friends and I looked up to and hero-worshipped were Bra Candy Quinchette, Bra Bandane Mabena, Bra Mbuzi Mekoa, Bra Masba Masupa, Bra Brian Jayiya, Bra Khubi (Joel) Thabo, Bra Dingaan Sebotsana and many others.

Saturday nights in the 1950s and 1960s were “sessions” nights. A “session” – taken from “jam session” – was an all-night dancing and drinking jazz music get-together in which individuals and couples would dance to jazz numbers such John Payton’s Along Came John and Spiffy Diffy, Jimmy Smith’s Walk on the Wild Side, Midnight Special, Prayer Meeting, and Cannonball Adderley’s rendition of Mercy Mercy Mercy. Bebop and avant-garde jazz were outrageously hard to dance to. One couldn’t possibly manage to dance to John Coltrane’s Ascension, Bahia, or Olé, or Ornette Coleman’s or Cecil Taylor’s music. All that such deep jazz required was the tapping of one’s foot and snapping one’s fingers and every once in a while during the music yell or implore others with: “Hoor daar!” meaning “Hear that, baby!”

Besides jazz, other genres also attracted the attention of politically conscious South African urban blacks; for example, Soul music in its revolutionary form of James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud or Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black. I personally liked the music of Curtis Mayfield with its radical lyrics, such as in the albums There’s No Place Like America Today and Curtis Mayfield Live, the social statements of Marvin Gaye’s songs and, of course, the inimitable Bob Marley. Who, as a politically conscious black person, could forget Marley’s song, War, with the message that conflict is inevitable where racism reigns supreme. The rebellious spirit and music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti also had a profound influence on me personally. Despite all these influences, jazz was and still is the dominant music in my life.

The jazz aesthetic

Outside music itself, we also appreciated the dress styles of the jazz musicians as they appeared on the cover sleeves of the albums. We imitated the styles of artists such as Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, John Coltrane and others. Clothes were also an important distinguisher between klevas and moegoes. Klevas used to purchase their clothes mainly from two shops in downtown Johannesburg, namely, American Showroom and New York Showroom or Marabastad’s Indian shops in Pretoria, such as Imperial Clothing Shop. These were popular clothing shops for those of us who dubbed ourselves “Young Americans”, and jazz was an integral part constitutive of “Young Americanism”. Clothing such as button-down arrow or long-lapel shirts; Florsheim Shoes; Stetsons; Glen-Eagle or Pepsis shoes; BVD T-shirts; American slacks; Ballantyne, Pringle or Arnold Palmer jerseys; and Borsalino hats all became famous among jazz fanatics and also became a means of becoming a ladies’ man (Casanova) and distinguished a jazz fanatic from everyone else.

Language as music

The words “moegoes” and “klevas” are part of a lexicon emanating from and associated with jazz. This lexicon belonged to an urban streetwise language known as “tsotsi taal” or “fly taal” or “wittie”, a kind of hybridised street language spoken only by those who considered themselves “hip” or streetwise precisely because they have appropriated jazz as a musical genre. Wittie was patois, that is, a creolised mixture of Afrikaans (combination of Dutch and Flemish) as a base, combined with African languages, and borrowing words and phrases from English, American slang (palooka, movies, broke, baby, fuzzy, blind, hooch), Hindi (panis), Spanish (vamoose, hola), German (miering), French (cherie) and other words.

Wittie was a language that though based on Afrikaans subverted Afrikaans at every turn. It is what Henry Louis Gates describes as the “blackness of the tongue” because it is a “closed vernacular tradition” that keeps the secrets of blacks away from the ears of the outsiders. Geneva Smitherman describes it as “Black Talk” or sometimes referred to it as “Ebonics”. Robert L Williams’s description of Ebonics approximates what “wittie” is. He writes that Ebonics is a superordinate term, covering all the African-European language mixtures developed in various African-European language contact situations throughout the world – for example, Haitian Creole, a West African-French language mixture; the Dutch Creole spoken in Suriname; the English-based Creole spoken in Jamaica; West African Pidgin English; the West African-English mixture spoken in the United States – all would be dimensions (varieties or dialects) of Ebonics, not of any European language.

Wittie in effect permits those who speak and understand it to protect their discourse from the ears of the Other. As Louis Molamu succinctly describes it: “The ability to speak tsotsi taal also tended to encourage a greater social arrogance, which totally excluded other young persons from the ranks of clevers – streetwise youth. It was also meant to reveal and reinforce perceptions of social differences between clevers and others.” Associated with jazz was thus a whole range of social behaviour patterns and values characteristic of a distinct urban subculture.

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