Going ‘Native’ in Cape Town Brings Music back to the ‘Hoods

This article was published in the anthology of stories, “Writing My City: Ordinary Capetownians on Their Extraordinary Home”, by the City of Cape Town, 2019.  The book was launched at the Open Book Festival 2019 this September at the Fugard Theatre, with thanks for the collaboration with The Book Lounge and City of Capetown Libraries.


The smell of corn cobs and boerewors on the braai, from which oozes charcoal white smoke, meets the nose which points to sniff out other table stalls of second-hand books, and textile and ceramic craft items splashed with colourful designs. People are buzzing about the Kofififee mobile kiosk as ‘Thaps’ churns out cappuccinos or hot chocolates. There’s a slight warmth in this winter air as one saunters through the yard to enter the auditorium of Guga S’Thebe Community Center in the heart of Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township off the National Highway N2. The yard with mosaic wall art bustles with musicians and patrons rubbing shoulders as both place their drink or food orders at the auditorium’s ‘snack’ window. ..or buys an affordable late lunch of curried beef and veggies with fluffy rice from the ‘food pot’ table.

It’s 4 o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Once inside the auditorium, the high roof with a few art works on the walls frames the seating area for some 120 plus people. The ‘Wine Shaq’ table offers a variety of independently distributed wines from the Cape Winelands – always ‘local is lekker’ in attitude and taste. One carefully nurtured wineglass will last through the first set as patrons take their seats. The band numbers five well-seasoned musicians. A hush falls as the gig begins…and the experience continues…

This is Jazz in the Native Yards, bringing the music back to the ‘hood’. The Natives are at home! The patrons are also multi-cultural, coming from various demographics of the wider municipality. The home legends are being heard…and remembered.

The 2019 South African Music Awards (SAMA) voted ‘Neo-Native’ by pianist Bokani Dyer as the best jazz album. Dyer has been exploring what it means to be ‘native’, he coming from a mixed family of Botswana African and Zimbabwe European cultures but brought up and groomed in South Africa. Cape Town pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Hilton Schilder, brought out his ‘Alter Native’ album in 2017 as a statement about his musical and cultural roots combined with modern jazz influences. Another SAMA nominated pianist, Sibusiso Mashiloane, states in his newest album, ‘Closer to Home’, how ancestral and contemporary African musical traditions can wed nicely with contemporary improvisational styles in sound. The Native is back! These artists are examples of bringing their music back into those neighbourhoods from which they have learned much of their craft.

Jazz in the Native Yards, while proudly endorsing the otherwise unfortunate apartheid address for township communities resident in ‘NY’ numbered streets, is enthusiastically spreading its philosophy of taking those ‘hood musical styles to other ‘hoods. After all, Cape jazz and South African jazz emanated and developed their unique sounds from many back yards during apartheid restrictions on township residents’ movements. In turn, this provided relief – comic and musical – for both artists and patrons in weathering the debilitating effects of racial, economic, and political separation from the country’s wealth and opportunities.

Jazz in the Native Yards traces its ancestral footprints to the 1960s when impromptu live jazz sessions took place every weekend in Cape Town’s townships and elsewhere. Back then, jazz enthusiasts listened to Josh Sithole who made the penny whistle famous, even on street corners of major cities. The Nofemele brothers played The Manhattan Brothers covers with unsurpassed flair. The Ngcukana brothers from Gugulethu performed with their father Mra and the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, and became a regular feature in the community yards.

Then, a change in access evolved: Post-apartheid Jazz clubs moved more to town centers, requiring enthusiasts to leave their home areas, and find often expensive means of transport to evening events which also charged fees higher than what true jazz fans from marginalised communities could afford. This restrictive gap in access to the quality legendary music has now been revealed: many arts and culture promoters no longer wish to dominate live jazz through another form of exclusionary, middle class opportunity to hear quality music.

Ironically, as these town ‘clubs’ started closing down for various management and financial reasons in the past 10 years, the call from communities became loud and clear: ‘We want the music here, with us!” Thus, live jazz started brewing again in Native Yards and communities throughout Cape Town’s metropolis; in restaurants, in a bakery, at an artisanal ginnery or beer brewery, at cultural centers , like Langa’s Guga S’Thebe, and even in musicians’ homes. Those opportunities to preserve the proven legacies of jazz giants like Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen and Cups Nkanuka, were taking hold, partly thanks to appreciative and discerning younger musicians who saw value and integrity in preserving musical histories. These well-trained musicians also wanted live platforms to strut their stuff.

Since the Native Land Act of 1913 defined separate development with the later enforcement of the Group Areas Act in 1950, non-white South African citizens found themselves in unattractive and unsustainable economic and social conditions, unable to break out of their township confines to pursue a more progressive life. Instead, undesirable forms of behaviour plunged them into gangsterism, drug peddling and alcoholism.

In contemporary times, Jazz in the Native Yards seeks to avoid a downward spiral by grooming human creativity, especially among the youth from marginalised communities. Its projects were born in 2015 and JiNY developed a social movement that encourages the use of live jazz performances as platforms for diverse musical voices to be heard and seen. Young and older musicians can ‘meet and greet’ each other on these platforms. For instance, Marimba specialist, Bongani Shotsoananda from Gugulethu, often comes to afternoon concerts at the homey ‘Kwa Sec’ house where weekend gigs feature a variety of South African and international bands. Another legendary jazz pianist, Tete Mbambisa, and Langa singer Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa, pop in to see what the younger ones are doing. Sometimes, these venues hold workshops before the live performances, further adding to the artistic excitement.

It’s about ‘Experience’, says Koko Nkalashe, one of the founders of JiNY. “We want to create spaces and opportunities for more social cohesion for Western Cape residents, a positive ambience of backyard performance venues for residents and visitors alike to get to know and understand South Africa’s diversity, rather than just focus on its marginalised communities. “ These spaces, safe but simple, grow paying audiences who thereby offer opportunities whereby artists can actually earn an income rather than rely on free or sponsored concerts.

So where does one ‘catch’ these audiences? JiNY has ‘Routes’: musicians can perform at centers which have sizeable data bases of patrons, like the annual Stellenbosch Woordfeest as part of the musical program; then a Sunday afternoon at the Delheim Wine Estate pulling in residents from Franschoek and surroundings, then continue on to Khayalitsha’s Isivivanda Center ; then on to Mitchells Plain’s Alliance Francaise Cultural Center (still in progress). That’s the ‘Eastern Route’. Patrons and fans who live along the way can catch quality performances and be able to afford paying for the experience.

The ‘Central Route’ comprises of Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec which is a private home space for smaller crowds; then to Nyanga Arts Center (still in progress) which receives supports by the Belgium government….. then on to Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center for larger crowds, and continue on to the Alliance Francaise in central Cape Town CBD or to an arts and culture gallery on Bree Street.

All of these routes seek to engage the moneyed class and less economically endowed residents in experiencing together the fruits of musical achievements of the younger and older legends coming from these communities. Adding to the Experience are people’s video snippets on social media, selfies with musicians, and other pictorial stories which show patrons’ excitement. Clinking wine glasses, rattling coffee cups, audience members dancing, and an inside fire roaring to keyboard runs – people experience joyful fun and amusement in the vibey arena. And when the experience is good, you sure will want to return and find your new-found friends at the next gig….and on and on it goes. Socializing, appreciating, learning, seeing, asking questions, understanding, liking, tasting, telling others – the experiences expand.

Performing in ‘Native Yards’ does not benefit just local musicians and local patrons. Word spreads, rippling through social media, radio, print media outlets, and country Embassies. When South African musicians work on projects overseas, namely in Europe and seldom in USA, international visitors, musicians, and music business promoters hear about the ‘hood happenings, and know where to go. Fundors like ConcertsSA, the Italian Consulate, Swiss promoters, and others, enable music students and their teachers to collaborate and spread music in the ‘Hoods.

Indeed, the Legends listen from their ancestral heights in pure delight!

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