South Africa’s Sound in Jazz? SAJE 2018 Conference Explains

April is Jazz Appreciation Month worldwide. April in Capetown met with unfortunate drought (rain) for the bi-annual South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE) Conference 2018 at the University of Capetown`s School of Music Recital Hall.

There was nothing drought about this conference, however, which bustled with robust discussions, performances, panel presentations, papers, and general comradery amongst the enthusiastic jazz geeks. It concluded on 29 April with a whopping concert in one of Capetown’s original homes for South African jazz, Gugulethu. There, in a small cozy friendly venue, called Kwa Sec, Jazz in the Native Yards (JNY), a neighbourhood initiative, brought the sounds to the ‘hood’ in homey style. Capetown continues to be proud of its jazz by respecting its various venues which bring contemporary and more traditional South African jazz sounds to eager audiences. In fact, that was this year’s Conference theme, “The South African Sound in Jazz Today”.

Not all was clear, however; several conference presenters expressed their ‘confusion’ about what is ‘South African jazz’? Issues arose that queried meaning, context, cultural identity, and indigenous sounds in ‘jazz’. Significantly, to help out were jazz students performing their versions of the SA sound, coming from Eastern Cape’s Fort Hare University, an institution notable in producing South African’s Black intelligentsia during Apartheid years. Another performance group were Italian and South African students who had collaborated in their training with jazz education institutions in Italy and South Africa. They required little rehearsal time to present a tight and crisp performance.

Jazz in a spiritual context came up among such presenters as pianist Nduduzo Makhathini who admitted, as a healer himself, that music, spirituality, and healing were all integrated. Spirit essentially speaks through sound, referring to sangoma influences from South Africa’s Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku, and guitarist Philip Tabane. Makhathini and pianist Sibusiso Mashiloane challenged how
terminologies and theoretical frameworks of the West were articulating African music. For Mashiloane, his music is about his African identity with improvisation viewed as scales and colours that change with various melodic patterns, tones, and rhythms.

SAJE’s President, Dr. Mageshen Naidoo, demonstrated with his guitar techniques that produce the African sounds. For instance, specific styles of sounds of the 5 to 1 chordal notes are found in South Africa’s indigenous music, particularly in marabi and kwela, and these styles have been fused with an American swing (heard throughout the country during Apartheid years) to create a South African sound.

Sounds of place led to robust discussions about how South African jazz has retreated and reasserted itself, over time, in various urban centers. Art critic and jazz scholar Gwen Ansell stressed how jazz clubs come and go, depending on the politics of the day, and on the expansion of urban centers, as `jazz` was increasingly commoditized by opportunists.

The business of producing and spreading the SA sound of jazz today unfortunately repeats refrains for better gender inclusion, more effective audience development, and conservation. The Lady Day Big Band, a stunning 18-member, Capetown-based collective, proved that professional female instrumentalists were alive and well, as did vocalist, Ernestine Deane`s all-female DUB4MAMA band performance. A robust discussion challenged persistent, discriminatory views held by the less aware public that females appeared better able as vocalists than as instrumentalists. To counter these erroneous beliefs and build on Ansell`s point that jazz should reach communities accessibly, one panel of venue promoters discussed the neighborhood approach to hosting quality bands. Venues in townships, along with social media advocacy, video streaming, online sites including internet and local radio, all must play a part in building appreciative audiences.

Another question: Which SA jazz should be played now? Professor Mike Rossi warned that teachers and promoters should not limit the jazz repertoire to those notable past artists who popularized SA jazz to the world earlier, but highlight the current wave of new expressions being explored by the younger trained artists.

In this respect, trumpeter composer Mandisi Dyantyis spoke about the harmonic complementarity between influences on SA jazz, namely the fusion being explored between African hymns, western classical, and African American jazz connections. These have, he admits, rhythmically and melodically extended SA jazz sounds into exciting musical spaces.

The Conference may not have answered heady questions that remain, but the debates have already spinned minds and hearts to further support that never-ending search for qualifying What is South African jazz?`

For information on SAJE details, see

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