Journalist Struan Douglas explains The Story of South African Jazz, Vol 2 (2019): A Book Review

This is a journey through musical histories of South Africa’s eras of social, political, and even spiritual changes. One’s fellow passengers are the musicians as the ride runs through various urban and peri-urban African communities to mega-cities, like Johannesburg with its surrounding mines which absorbed a myriad of African dance and musical expressions from miners. The passengers chat loudly and excitedly, remembering days gone past.

eThekwini-born writer, freelance journalist, and musician Struan Douglas

This Volume 2 of journalist Struan Douglas’ three book series entitled “The Story of South African Jazz”, self-published by his www.afribeat.co.za website, takes us on a slightly different wagon train: It’s not just about Douglas’s own personal interviews with musicians and arts promoters, found also in Volume 1; Volume 2 has musicians talking about other musicians, eras, and influences. These include memorable and humourous experiences at joint gigs, having to defy the Apartheid police enforcing the Group Areas Act as musicians dodged road blocks on their way home in early mornings; stylistic musical joys that older jazz legends brought to young enthusiasts; sorrows upon reflecting on the pauper status of dying musicians; humour ….. tragedy…..Life itself of a musician.

According to Douglas, the Story of South African Jazz Book Series in three volumes responds to one of the real tragedies around the time of the deaths of rising star,  Moses Molelekwa and his wife, in 2002, when an unfortunate lack of communication existed between the different sectors of the jazz industry. The fall away of the record industry from about 2004 started to open up and integrate other professions such as writing, technology and film into the industry. Volume 3 is currently being written.

Albeit, in this 357 page Vol.2, Douglas can give only brief snippets of mini-stories, anecdotes, and quotes about the lives of a myriad list of musicians. Fascinating unknowns are given: When Alice Coltrane met Bheki Mseleku  at the Newport International Jazz Festival, she gave him her husband, John’s, saxophone mouthpiece; When Mark Fransman talks about how Zim Ngqawana cast a healing spell on him one night at Zim’s gig, causing Mark to vomit out an emotional repression he was carrying. 

Laced with anecdotal narratives about collaborations, the book presents the chronological eras of South African jazz when artists searched for creative spaces touched by the spirit of their times. From an inherited colonial landscape and the soundscape that went with it, to the alienation brought about by resulting raw social, economic, political, and spiritual divisions, to finding some sort of rewarding cohesion in rootedness, South African jazz boasts colourful remembrances that ooze into contemporary and very youthful styles of expression. This book explains that, as in the author’s Prelude (p.8)::

“The power of jazz is typically a journey through loneliness, sadness, pain and broken-ness to that place of acceptance, forgiveness and realisation.”

Douglas’s jazz is African and multi-cultural, displayed in musical cycles, or rays – from 1950s swing to inxiles and exiles of the 1960s, to anti-apartheid liberation movements of the 1970s, which also saw departments of music open jazz doors in educational institutions. Democracy fomented mindful consciousness for change as Mandela’s era took hold and morphed into what we hear now – from Khoi, Malay, Afrikaans and carnival sounds of Kyle Shepherd’s diverse Cape to the visionary, electronic improvisations of bassist Carlo Mombelli.

Volume 2 is about lives telling about lives. “Life is one long composition” says Cape musician Mac Mckenzie, and is echoed by other ghoema ‘captains’, like Hilton Schilder, whose ancestral accounts explain their natural gifts and accompanying pains which slave histories have thrown their way. Pianists Abdullah Ibrahim and Kyle Shepherd echo the dance music of the Bushman. The Langa-based Ngcukana family dynasty form meaningful bands with the Kippie Moeketsi’s of the Johannesburg jazz scene.

Jazz has movement. Douglas traces musical migrations: how Mozambique’s marrabenta style absorbed into Johannesburg’s marabi music; how the mines, a backyard to South African flourishing musical styles, produced dancing miners. Douglas shows how music moves culturally into the foods and other arts, as the Roving Bantu of Brixton, Johannesburg, is trying to do with its African cuisine and visual arts. The playful, carnivalesque Balkanology of Marcus Wyatt’s Bombshelter Beast exudes a gypsy freedom of expression. Excelling talents wander from Cape Town or Johannesburg roots to Berklee in USA or to the popular Bird’s Eye Club in Switzerland or to Oslo’s Music Conservatory for further jazz training and networking. Sonic messages from abroad fuse with a rootedness of South African jazz; bonds are made which go international as well as intergenerational.

Douglas moves his African narratives into the final moments of the book: leave ancestral rooted-ness behind, and meet the business market and wallow in the challenging and sometimes cut-throat industry of the Copyright Law, Labels, Recording contracts, and royalty deals. The reader feels like it’s been a very long musical journey, hipcupping along the way, occasionally surprised or at awe, sad yet happy to see a musician’s resolve to continue. South Africa has run a jazz marathon which continues to expand and speed up, if the music industry allows it.

Volume 3 just might have an answer to that……

A Listening Session takes place on Thursday 5 December prior to Vol 2 book launch which happens in Durban on 6 December at Curiosity, hosted by Durban Jazz Xpression.

In Johannesburg, the launch is on 12 December at the Brixton Roving Bantu Kitchen. Cape Town dates in 2020 to coincide with the 30 April International Jazz Day 2020.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Album Reviews, Carol's Musings

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.