Sis Gwen Jazz Blog

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iPhupho L’ka Biko – dreaming, like Biko, of decolonised culture July 29, 2018 By Gwen Ansell

Bassist Nhlanhla Ngqaqu

June 16 1976 had multiple impacts on South African society. It’s often cited as marking the start of the “youth rebellion” that changed the country’s political landscape – although that minimises the long history of multi-generational resistance that preceded it. (Children had worked in white-owned households, mines, businesses, estates and farms, and formed part of anti-colonial struggles at those sites ever since the colonialists arrived.)

But new kinds of youth formations did emerge from ’76, and those in turn gave rise to new cultural expressions: songs, slogans, gestural language and dances. Those creative expressions travelled into exile, into the camps of young MK soldiers and into cultural collectives in Botswana, Zambia, London, more; into trade union cultural locals as school students became adult workers – and into performance spaces and rallies as artists re-visioned and developed the spirit of ‘76 with fresh creativity throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

The flowers from those roots were furiously diverse: the disciplined stage performances of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble; the take-no-prisoners compositions and playing of Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo-Moholo in exile; the mzabalazo of the Fosatu Workers’ Choir; Menyatso Mathole and Sakhile at Club Pelican (and that band’s Isililo a bit later); and the joyous defiance of the Malopoets ………..

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Sis Gwen Ansell

 Used with the permission of Gwen Ansell

Two years ago, I raised in this blog, the issue of a Eurocentric jazz curriculum. (Who should teach jazz in South Africa). The column was triggered by a letter from one of my readers, an SA musician studying overseas, as well as the publication of a very interesting piece of network studies research about the implications of homophily (p

reference for association with similar others) for diversity and career progression among South African scholars.

The responses to the piece were fascinating. They inevitably included accusations of “racism”, from a few individuals who really didn’t seem to have read it. There was even an invocation of what we have come to call the ‘Zille Argument’: “without [European music] their (sic) would be no harmony and no musical instruments. But this does not fit his (sic) tired and wordy narrative,” opined one commenter.

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A wee bit about Sis Gwen

Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, researcher and trainer. She writes about jazz (for this blog, The Conversation, the Financial Mail, M&G Friday and more) and reviews books – mainly science fiction & fantasy (these reviews have appeared in the Johannesburg Mail&Guardian and the Chimurenga Chronic, among others). As a Research Associate of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, she has researched and published on jazz and music policy in the creative and cultural industries sector. She trains journalists and academic and organisational writers, and consults on music industry policy, organisational communication and training policies as well as curriculum design.

A former Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor at the Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University, she is the author of Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa and the textbook Introduction to Journalism,, as well as various book chapters and journal articles. Watch out for her chapter on jazz in Johannesburg in the forthcoming second volume of Sounds and the City.

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Rico RodriguezTrombonist Emmanuel Rodriguez – “Rico” or “El Reco” – died on Sept 4 aged 80. The death of any great musician is a sad occasion. Even sadder in this case is the way the international press marked this passing. Without exception, the headline was “Specials’ trombonist Rico dies”.

Rico certainly did work with Coventry-based UK band The Specials between 1979 and 1984. His is the sinister ‘bone sound infusing Ghost Town, a 1981 anti-austerity (the Thatcher version) anthem that spent three weeks at the top of the UK Top 10 and ten weeks in the top 40.

But that is only a fraction of the career of a magnificent player, with more than a little jazz in his sound, which stretched from the 1950s to his final gig, only three years ago in 2012 and generated hundreds of recordings. It wasn’t just for Ghost Town that he was awarded an MBE and a Jamaican Musgrave medal. And while their era introduced him to more white listeners, The Specials did not make Rico’s career; he lent his skill and distinction to their sound.

Rico was born in Cuba in October 1934, but his family moved to Jamaica when he was still very young. He attended the Alpha Boys School: a historic religious foundation for ‘wayward boys’. He told Belgian website rebelbase that he had been “a little wily wily” as a child, and was placed there by an anxious mother.

An Alpha education was often synonymous with the uncovering of musical talent. Several leading producers, vocalists, and countless singers and instrumentalists including the four founding members of the Skatalites honed their skills behind its walls. For Rico – who started in the school band on cornet – it was older schoolmate Don Drummond who united him with his instrument. Rico said he found the initial experience of learning from Drummond terrifying “I wondered if I could ever reach up to his level.”

Drummond (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yENv58B02w) went on to be rated by pianist George Shearing as among the top five trombonists of his generation worldwide, but suffered severe psychological problems intensified by political persecution for his radical Rastafarianism. After killing his partner, he died in a psychiatric hospital, possibly from maltreatment.

Rico Rodriguez coverRico was drawn to political Rasta too, and adopted the faith in his mid-teens. Increasingly he spent his time up in the Wareika Hills with Drummond, legendary producer Count Ossie and the mix of devout Rastas, radicals, artists and students who dropped in and out of the day-long music sessions that were part-jam and part devotion. The Nyabinghi drumming that underpinned that music became a characteristic feature of his own later compositions.

Those contacts, and the constant challenge of extended practice honed Rico’s skill, making him one of the most in-demand studio trombonists of the booming Jamaican ska scene. He worked with everybody: Count Ossie and other production dons like Vincent Chin, Duke Reid and Lord Coxsone, performers such as Prince Buster, Toots Hibbert and, of course, the Skatalites. No discographer claims a complete account of the tracks he wrote or featured on, but in the press this morning/sell tonight climate of Kingston studios and the emerging sound systems, it is likely to have approached triple figures even before Rico left for London in 1961.

If life in Jamaica, with the constant threat of police raids on Rastafarian gatherings, had been hard, London with its pervasive racism was equally tough. “It was hard to get work if you weren’t European or Caucasian, “ Rico remembered. He talks about the prejudices of those early days on www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_YrKAvwsZA .His first gig outside the Jamaican community was with singer Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames – but word of his skill spread, and over his career he worked outside Jamaican music with artists as varied as John Martyn, Ian Drury, Jools Holland, Ray Davies, Paul Young and many more.

Meanwhile, he was leading his own outfits, including Rico and the Rudies, with whom he recorded in 1969 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5iW69KssvQ) . It was work for the Trojan label playing what came to be known as ‘skinhead reggae” (espoused by anti-racists among white working-class youth – and, more covertly, by not a few racists too) that blossomed into the “two-tone” movement and the teamwork with The Specials.

But Rico was also working on his own music too. In 1977, he brought out what he considered his finest album, Man From Wareika. He loved it best because he felt it caught the mood and musical textures of those early days jamming in the Wareika Hills. Other albums followed, too numerous to list in full, but including the 1981 That Man is Forward and – for those who like their ska with more space for improvisation and (old-school) rhythm n’blues swing, the 1982 Jama Rico, whose Destroy Them features haunting Nyabinghi drums.

Rico also worked with performance poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and the tragic, powerful Michael Smith on his album Mi Cyaan’ Believe It, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGUh2KSrgpE ) in partnership with another studio legend, Dennis Bovell. He was a regular at anti-racism rallies and anti-apartheid gigs: self-effacing; never with much to say, except through his horn.

In his later years, the recognition and touring opportunities did come, but usually confined within a ‘reggae’ or ‘ska’ box, and often as the guest of young white revivalist bands. Yet as superbly as Rico spoke in the voice of that genre, he was also an improvising musician who, on stages such as that of London’s 100 Club in its heyday, was equally masterful and at ease in the company of jazz players. Listen to him with the Rudies on the 1969 Mighty Dan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wyw9xa3wVE ) skillfully weaving quotes into a rock steady rhythm matrix. Listen to the power and precision of his improvisation on Java from Jama Rico.

And even when he was playing a straight, tuneful little ska melody, Rico was a superb player who could hit his notes perfectly straight and sweet – which is hard on a slide trombone – or play around with them, daring as you like. It wasn’t accidental that one of his younger-generation collaborators was that edgiest of producers, Mad Professor: “Rico is [an absolute legend]. We toured together, worked, lived together: a nice guy.”

Rico was so much more than the “Specials’ trombonist”. He was a master musician who enriched the sound of his on-stage collaborators, and provided food for the souls, brains and feet of those of us who merely listened. May his soul rest in peace, while his memory and music live for a long, long time.

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sisgwenjazz Blog by Gwen Ansell

Gwen Ansell micThe weekly Blog by the doyen of South African Jazz journalism, Find out her and read her thoughts, insights and observations of the S-African and international jazz scene, also listen to her weekly live online chat, during the Jazz Rendezvous Radio Pinotage & Coffee Stockvel Club Show, Monday’s at 11:00 Central African Time.

 

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Is capitalism the only road to making it in the music biz?

AUGUST 31, 2015

cultural policy-makers

Every time I attend a music industry gathering, I am struck by how far behind the curve our cultural policy-makers are.

Last weekend’s KZN Music Industry Imbizo, where I was a speaker, was a modest affair: a trade exhibition, some live performance showcases, and three days of talking heads variously pontificating, educating and entertaining, all folded inside the faded glory of Durban’s historic Royal Hotel. This year, the seventh edition was slightly more modest than the organisers had hoped, since despite a go-ahead from provincial funding mechanisms back in May, the cash still hadn’t arrived by the opening date of August 27th.

Nevertheless, there was an impressive guest list, headed for South Africa by one of the fathers of our modern jazz, Themba Mkhize, and for the visitors by Monte Malone, Senior Vice-President of A&R Worldwide and Seymour Stein, vice-president of Warner Bros Records and founder of legendary label Sire Records.

The symposium sessions were packed to overflowing. The seminar audience, though, was dominated by youngsters, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and eager to learn how to become a (hip-hop) star. We saw far fewer faces from music education, and from genres such as traditional music and gospel.

A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition

A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition

That was probably a pity, since both those genres are far larger than hip-hop – and gospel, nationally, is larger than all other genres of South African popular music rolled into one. Both traditional music and gospel have made necessity the mother of invention, developing their own highly effective professional networks, product outlets and performance circuits way below the radar of conventional industry commentators. They have much grassroots wisdom to share.

But what the dominance of youth did demonstrate is that digital savvy – at least at an individual level – is far higher in a roomful of musically-inclined young people than in a boardroom full of distinguished arts and culture bureaucrats. Everybody was wired into some kind of device, running the gamut from beat-up feature phone to shiny laptop; busily Tweeting, photographing, recording, taking notes, checking data. Nobody needed the power, speed and reach of the digitally-transmitted MP3 music file explained to them – they just wanted to learn how to use it better.

Nobody suggested that hunting down taxi-rank cassette vendors was still the industry’s most important battle. Indeed, Power FM’s Unathi Memela described how the Bree Street rank could be converted into an ally by the simple expedient of making drivers sales agents for CDs, “without even beating anybody up.”

But if there was a decent grasp of ‘how?’, the audience remained eager to debate ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ And there we began to see, starkly, the contradictions within the ‘creative industry’ paradigm for thinking about the music industry.

Often in the same address, contributors wrestled with the conundrum of being both the anomic, solipsistic, successful ideal-type capitalist entrepreneur, and staying a decent human being. Industry consultant Vusi Leeuw summed up the paradox perfectly, although he was by no means the only speaker to exist inside it. He urged the need for respect between industry players – but followed that up with “And respect money too. If you’re doing something for love, go to charity and stay there (…) That’s not a bad thing; it’s capitalism. Ubuntu has gone out of the window and I’m grateful for that.”

A little hard-headed self interest is perhaps understandable. South Africa experienced a long period of righteous cultural volunteerism in the service of the struggle. That was followed by an equally long period when politicians in a now- liberated South Africa continued to demand that musicians donate their services under some slogan or another. A little cynicism is likely to be added to the mix when it becomes apparent that some of those politicians were at the same time enthusiastically filling their own pockets.

The danger of talking about music within the music bubble is forgetting that many of the industry’s problems and challenges are not unique to the industry. They reflect the society around us. That society is shaped by political choices. And it doesn’t always have to be this way.

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Percy Mabandu - Writer

Percy Mabandu – Writer

Music is not only a commodity to be bought and sold; a thing of price rather than value. It is wholly legitimate that aspiring musicians learn to do business in a more structured and efficient way to pay the bills and feed their families. But music is also the expression of hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Writer Percy Mabandu reminded us, in his readings from his forthcoming book on Winston Mankunku Ngozi that marketability is not the only starting-point for making great music. Yakhal’Inkomo spoke to millions as the top-selling album of its year because it crystallised the shared agony and yearning of “the black man’s pain” – not how things go better with a Coke. Malone urged “You shouldn’t be in it for the money; your main goal should be the passion for music.” Stein, at the end of a wide-ranging set of reminiscences that began with listening to legendary radio DJ Alan Freed back in his childhood Brooklyn home in the 1950s, reflected “I love what I do…” and urged aspiring musicians not to seek glib formulae, but “have the courage of your convictions.”

Music is not only a commodity to be bought and sold; a thing of price rather than value. It is wholly legitimate that aspiring musicians learn to do business in a more structured and efficient way to pay the bills and feed their families. But music is also the expression of hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Writer Percy Mabandu reminded us, in his readings from his forthcoming book on Winston Mankunku Ngozi that marketability is not the only starting-point for making great music. Yakhal’Inkomo spoke to millions as the top-selling album of its year because it crystallised the shared agony and yearning of “the black man’s pain” – not how things go better with a Coke. Malone urged “You shouldn’t be in it for the money; your main goal should be the passion for music.” Stein, at the end of a wide-ranging set of reminiscences that began with listening to legendary radio DJ Alan Freed back in his childhood Brooklyn home in the 1950s, reflected “I love what I do…” and urged aspiring musicians not to seek glib formulae, but “have the courage of your convictions.”

Music organizer Akhio Kawahito reflected that the average life-span of a hip-hop artist in the market was “perhaps three years.” Mankunku began playing (piano) in 1950 aged seven. He was still playing (saxophone) more than half a century later, short months before his death. Maybe taking the longer musical view helps in getting a few priorities right?

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