Toward new orbits

Reflecting on the closure of The Orbit in Braamfontein highlights contradictions between the music and the social contexts in which it is performed.

The Orbit Live Music and Bistro in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, announced last week that it would be shutting down.

A post on social media by the jazz venue cited not being “able to overcome the financial constraints that we have found with running a live music venue like The Orbit”. This  is definitely not the first and, sadly, probably won’t be the last such venue to close because of the financial difficulties of running a jazz club. These are real challenges.

But writer and performer Modise Sekgothe says he feels somewhat conflicted at its demise. In a recent Facebook post, he acknowledged the tragic nature of The Orbit’s closing “for music and the culture it housed and cultivated”.

Despite this, Sekgothe said, “I cannot mourn its collapse to the extent that I should, because it is also a space I came to resent for its mistreatment of black or seemingly low-class patrons.” 

As a space often unconditionally celebrated — and now mourned — by fans and musicians alike, Sekgothe’s position was neither widely held nor widely shared. He continues: “I’m aware that this isn’t a sentiment shared by many, but it is one that is certainly undeniable for those who have experienced what I speak of, on countless occasions [as] complete disregard and blatant condescension.”

While The Orbit will be missed and its end is undoubtedly a frustrating and disappointing blow to the jazz scene, the unsavoury dynamics that surrounded the venue and the way it treated and excluded poor and black people soured both the memories and the melodies.

Out of this dissonant nostalgia, I hope that the recent closing down of The Orbit (and many other venues of late) opens up a moment of much-needed  reflection on the relationships between our music, the motives of our music and the kinds of spaces we perform in. This reflection might allow us to relook the history of those who came before us, encourage us to reorient and restrategise, to rethink and reconsider what it is we are doing as musicians, and what it is we could be doing differently.

Fleeting spaces

Black music has been performed historically in fleeting spaces, in the shadows and in the cracks, in the betweens and on the fringes of colonial cities. Seen as sites of subversion and different ways of being, these spaces are threatening to repressive and oppressive systems. As a result, they are often criminalised or disappeared almost as soon as they emerge. If not disappeared, there are often attempts to control and manipulate the music itself and the times and spaces it is performed in, or both. Congo Square in the US is testament to this. Initially restricted to Sundays, New Orleans legislators  eventually banned the performance of African music and dance by enslaved people.

Closer to home, examples also abound. In the 1950s and 1960s, the apartheid government sponsored, so that they could co-opt and control, the production of a lot of black music to support their “retribalisation” projects. In Cape Town, the evil stepmother city, many a music venue has been destroyed (and many are still being destroyed). Venues where jazz was performed, such as The Zambezi Restaurant in District Six, Ambassadors in Woodstock and the short-lived Room at the Top in the city centre were destroyed during the same period. 

Against all odds, throughout the violence of history, black people never stopped performing, producing and enjoying music. And really, what the history of this music gives us is an imagining of what is possible under conditions of impossibility. The fact that black musicians under colonialism produced some of the most exciting music in the archive, that they continued to organise gigs when black spaces were under such severe threat from legal and brutal means, reveals a history that is a guide to action — music by any means possible.

Black cultural production

In the contemporary global moment, the forces of disappearance and destruction of spaces on the one hand, and control and co-option on the other hand, continue to stalk and haunt black cultural production. Seen in part through the recent trend of expensive whisky companies sponsoring gigs, using jazz to sell spirits, in South Africa there are concerted attempts to brand jazz as something for the elite. The ever-increasing cost of tickets for events such as the Cape Town Jazz Festival and The Joy of Jazz suggest the present’s fierce co-option of jazz into the comfy corner of wealth. On top of the cost, included in these events is a strong dose of ideology.

The “nation-building” and “social cohesion” potential of these expensive events — where the majority of black people’s most realistic option for attending, musicians included, is as a worker — suggests a lifestyle of “the nation” that is far from possible for the majority. 
While this works to normalise the class relations of capitalism in its wonderchild, “the nation”, it also distorts the history of the music, implying that it does not have its roots in the shebeens of Marabastad, those of Sophiatown or in the dance halls of the Cape Flats. It insists on the myth that this music was never made for or by those people.

While The Orbit was never formally part of the nation-state project, it was invested and involved in the neoliberal making of myths and realities. Its community of customers was undeniably elite. Gig prices at the venue were generally upwards of R100. If you add food and drink on top of that, a conservative estimate is R250 to R300 per person for a night out.

What Sekgothe points us to in this piece’s introduction is the ugly truth hiding behind this “nice life” myth: a profound and deep classist and anti-black sentiment. Many people who are employed in this country earn as little as R1 500 to R2 000 a month. This is to say nothing of those in more precarious work conditions. The possibilities for working-class people to attend gigs in places like The Orbit are practically zero. Above the price, consider the discrimination towards poor black people that Sekgothe references, and the picture painted of The Orbit is one of exclusion.

What spaces for the music?

In a moment where jazz is often spoken about and celebrated for its radical impulse, the exclusiveness of the actual spaces the music exists in seems to contradict the thing that many musicians, fans and critics are praising it for. The music is being removed more and more from its basis in black communities. The problem is the politics of the places in which our music is produced and performed.

And yes, part of the problem is also that the state should be supporting the music rather than just appropriating and co-opting it. But also, fuck the state. Black revolutionaries of the past have had such radical senses of autonomy. At the height of apartheid, in the shadows of the fascist state that preyed and thrived on black death, the Black Consciousness Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s established and ran its own clinics. Are our imaginations now, in 2019, so limited by the logic of capital that we can’t see beyond the possibilities of the market? We seem to have lost some of this spirit of creativity and autonomy. Perhaps some of this generation of musicians have been too complacent in the somewhat comfortable pocket we are in — desired by capital, needed by “the nation”.

As musicians, we need to use this moment to do some soul-searching. Of course, politics of the pocket will always be a consideration, we have to eat. But the equation of venues is not a zero sum of elite spaces or nothing. There are probably more black people with money than ever before in South Africa. It is surely time to think about how to mobilise that cash to build autonomous spaces away from the old colonial circuits of capital, spaces that extend rather than restrict access. Sun Ra’s maxim that we need new myths will always be true. At this current moment, we, too, need new orbits.

But never fear, we need not re-invent the wheel. Other orbits have been both explored and at hand for a long time. Many have continued to insist that (the proverbial) Mannenberg is where it’s happening. Many have insisted on producing concerts for the music and for the people. Elders Mabi Thobejane and Madala Kunene, joined by Thabang Tabane, recently played the final gig of their 50th anniversary tour at Village Pub in Mamelodi, inviting other local musicians to perform as well. R50 at the door. Cats on the fringes of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) are running The Black Power Station, a venue not only for gigs but also housing an independent radical library, a learning space. The Rainbow in Durban, a mainstay of the scene since Philip Tabane and Malombo opened its doors in the early 1980s, continues to host a number of free gigs in its schedule.

The music, which finds temporary homes in all of these places, seems to continue asking questions of us and how we will house it. Space (for us and the music) is surely part of the answer.

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