Jazz provides prayers for peace in hard times: Dinga Sikwebu reflects

All Jazz Radio publishes excerpts presented by unionist, social activist, and jazz lover, Dinga Sikwebu* on his Facebook page of 18 July 2021 which he entitled, ‘Umthandazo weJazz ‘ (Jazz Prayer for Peace) and from his article published in Amandla Online Issue 77, August 2021 https://aidc.org.za/umthandazo-wejazz-jazz-prayer-for-peace/. On 18 July 2021, Dinga Sikwebu spoke to a gathering at eDikeni restaurant in Sandton, Johannesburg, in response to the recent violence in South Africa’s two Provinces and covid-related deaths. Jazzmen Yonela Mnana and Sisonki Xonti expressed concern about what musicians could do to bring more peace to the Nation. Sikwebu’s talk was also meant to mobilise support for Abahlai base Mjondolo, including the community of their national spokesperson, Thapelo Mohapi.

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Dinga Sikwebu – credit OIL.co.za


Let me first extend my gratitude to the organisers: The events of the last 8-days, and the death of 212 people have opened gaping wounds in our society. There is too much pain around us.

Ray Phiri

As Ray Phiri & Nana Coyote said in their popular 1986 Stimela song, ‘Whispers in the Deep’:

We are all tributaries of that great river of pain
Flowing into one ocean
There is only one ocean
All our pain flowing into it

Music, and jazz in particular are historically allied to mourning and commemoration. If one takes, for instance, Stanley Cowell’s ‘Prayer for Peace’ in his album, Musa, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfmhe9UMLJc&t=156s (starts at minute 8.51) written in the middle of the Vietnam war, we can see that what you have organised today is part of the jazz tradition. As a response to the Sharpeville massacre, US drummer Max Roach recorded ‘Tears for Johannesburg’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgNWYmgdO5Q in his album, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in August 1960. ‘Our Prayer’ is a song recorded by Chris McGregor’s trio with Barre Phillips on bass and Louis Moholo on drums in 1969. Zim Ngqawana has his ‘Umthandazo (Prayer)’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8Qv-tM9hBo in his album, Zimology. Pianist Thandi Ntuli turns to ‘umthandazo’ (prayer) in her 2014 recording, The Offering. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad0Hg06Wdrk

Jazz is a great contributor to a sub-genre called ‘musical retrospection’ rooted in prayer, commemoration and mourning. On example is Sisonke Xonti’s composition ‘Minneapolis’, in his album uGaba the Migration, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QWqcxfnDXM – starts in minute 34:08) which was written in response to the killing in May 2020 of George Floyd by a white police officer from the Minneapolis Police Department.

Sisonke Xonti

Sikwebu goes on to thank the people gathered at eDikeni: Many of us are longing for fellowship, being with people we love or share common interests with. Connectedness between people is being dismembered daily. Not spared is even connectedness to ourselves. Relations between people are being severed all round. Zoom connections and MS Teams meetings are unable to replace traditional ways of connecting.

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Thanks go to Yonela Mnana’s Trio and its saxophonist guest, Sisonke Xonti, for closing the first set of ‘Umthandazo we Jazz’ with John Coltrane’s ‘Lonnie’s Lament’. Known for his reluctance to vocalise his political views, Coltrane took to his horn to record ‘Alabama’ and to express his anger triggered by the death of four girls who were killed when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, a church that served as a venue for civil rights mass meetings in that city.

Dismembering Connectedness:

There are many causes to the butchering of human connections. Firstly, the pandemic and associated lockdowns are barring what humans have done throughout their existence; that is to connect and gather. Secondly, in a world where personal relations are highly monetized, the absence of income and loss of jobs are a further strain to relations between people. As we all know, watching and listening to live music as opposed to hearing a recording is very much part of the whole musical experience. Unfortunately, the pandemic has robbed us of this experience. Here, I am not referring to the so-called jazz festivals which are mainly not about music but pilgrimages bathed in corporate pomp and commercial showmanship driven by sponsor demands. What the pandemic has taken away from us are gatherings that normally occur when jazz appreciators meet on Sundays to share music. As the slogan of these jazz appreciation societies reminds us “ijazz ayinamona (jazz jettisons jealousy), ayinanzondo (grudge does not propel jazz) and ayifuni okunakwayo kodwa (jazz does not promote individualism). Jazz appreciators know: “Don’t listen alone. Jazz is to be shared”. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made difficult, if not impossible, these gatherings where we can share music. In addition to being unable to gather, there is also too much death and loss around us. Just this morning, we woke up to the news of guitarist Lawrence Matshiza’s passing.

But it is not only jazz lovers who are experiencing loss and are unable to gather. People cannot go to their stokvels and societies to connect. People cannot worship together. We cannot bury those who abruptly and without notice leave us forever. We are also unable to comfort each other in times of bereavement. The inability to connect is leading to anxieties. We are definitely living in an ‘age of uncertainties’.

The events of the last few days have led to many people in the affected communities not being able to buy bread. Even those with money have been unable to withdraw cash because of the destruction of ATMs and closed banks. I hope through this ‘Umthandazo we Jazz’, we can figure out how to deal with the situation that is causing anxiety and uncertainty.

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We have to find ways to get out of political and economic morass that led to the explosion that hit us last week. Serious thinking of how to get out of the socio-economic rut and the deep racialised furrows that we are in, is required. If we don’t find a map out, we will see a repeat of the volcano that engulfed us in the last 8-days.

The need for ‘an aesthetics of hope’

I suggest that ONE of the things we desperately need is what Sophia A. McClennen calls ‘an aesthetics of hope’. Based on a study of the work of Chilean activist and literary giant, Ariel Dorfman, McClennen defines ‘an aesthetics of hope’ as artistic expressions and literary practices “dedicated to the conviction that art plays an essential role in how we remember the past and imagine the future”.

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Dr. Sophia McClennen

McClennen identifies these core features:

• A belief that hope brings together desire and expectation, and that both these phenomena are products of past and present experiences. Because hope emerges out of individual and communal experiences, it is therefore not some airy-fairy notion. It is concrete and real.
• An approach that sees art as having the ability to reach back to the past, give a diagnosis of the present and project a future, and connect them.
• Hope is based on both reason/rationality and emotion, and sees no binaries between knowledge and feelings, and between mental and sensual.
• Hope enables us to “imagine the impossible, to see beyond the given, and to propose concrete alternatives visions”. This utopian nature of ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is necessary for resistance, struggle and political agency.
• Hope is not just a solitary or individual desire, but requires a collective agency. “An aesthetics of hope speaks to an individual within a collective”.
• Hope does not eliminate doubt, questioning and scepticism. There are therefore, differences between hope and ‘banal or blind optimism’.
• Art inspired by ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is not some form of individual and mental catharsis. Rather, that art seeks collective solutions to social dilemmas and “depends on the intersection of the self, an external reality and imagination”. Again, there is no separation between mind and body.
• Art must forge provocative connections with audiences, eschew the aesthetic of individualism, and support the association of the individual and the community.
• ‘An aesthetics of hope’ assumes an allied relationship between art and social rebellion. Art that is framed by ‘an aesthetic of hope’ orientates to protest and struggle.
• This art must all the time reflect on both “brutal reality and a hopeful future”.

Centring hope in the period that we are going through is vital. It is my strong belief that however justifiable and necessary anger is, rage is inherently unable to sustain an emancipatory project. Rage-centred politics may be powerful in its critique of the present but is weak on sketching an alternative future. We need HOPE that tomorrow will be better than today.

As it is always said from the pulpit: Indlala nentshutshiso yakaloku nje, azinakuthelekiswa nentlutha ezayo (Today’s misery, hunger and persecution must not take away our ability to dream of possibilities to reap bountifully in the future). We need to tell oppressors and exploiters as well as their hangers-on that we refuse to let them rob us of our ability to dream about freedom, emancipation and an alternative future, like what inspired slaves to resist enslavement, to revolt in plantations and seek refuge in maroon settlements. The ‘dreams of a better future’ gave colonised people an appreciation of their power to change oppressive conditions.

South African Jazz provides ‘an aesthetics of hope’

As an activist, I can identify moments where jazz provided ‘an aesthetics of hope’. The first example involves Abdullah Ibrahim’s tune, ‘Soweto is where it’s at’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FF03w6Pajlg on the pianist’s 1975 African Herbs LP and features bassist Sipho Gumede, drummer Peter Morake, alto saxophonist Barney Rachabane, tenor saxophonist Basil Coetzee, saxophonist Duku Makasi and trumpeter Dennis Mpale. When the album came out, it was an era of ‘bum dance’ and I suspect that by releasing the recording, Rashid Vally’s As-Shams/The Sun recording company was keen to capitalise on the commercial success of an earlier release, ‘Mannenberg’ in 1974. In an interview with one of that era’s musicians, I was made aware that after that release, every jazz artist tried to come up with a long enough tune that could get a party going, sustain the get-together, and keep the ‘bum dancers’ on the floor throughout the night. ‘Soweto is where it’s at’ was not different to the songs of the time, until June 16 Youth Day exploded in violence. That track title proved prophetic.

June 16, 1976 Youth uprising- Credit: Sam Nzima

But to us activists of the time, what is interesting is how the initial ‘bum dance’ tune became a song to not forget about the 1976 uprising. I recall ‘Soweto is where it’s at’ being played in commemoration services in 1977 and thereafter. With the tune in the background, a young Fitzroy Ngcukana recited Oswald Mtshali ‘s poem ‘Sounds of a Cowhide Drum’ and read Langston Hughes’ verses from the poem, Dreams:

Dreams Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

The second example on the value of ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is when Hugh Masekela’s Give it up/District Six album landed in the country in 1980. This was a year of nationwide schools boycott and intensifying workers’ struggles on the shopfloor. Like Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Mannenberg’ , Masekela’s tunes, ‘Where It’s Happening’ and ‘African Herbs’, could keep a party going. Other songs were ‘Give it up’ by Masekela and Leo Chesson’s, and ‘District Six’ composed by the late Cape Town-born pianist Hotep Galeta https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqQkWk4pT8 when he and Masekela were in exile in the USA .

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Triggering Galeta to write the song were bulldozers which moved into District Six, flattened the multi-racial settlement in line with the segregationist Group Areas Act and moved more than 60 000 people to townships far away from the city centre. The chants ‘Sibuyele District Six’ in the song, in addition to reminding us of the callousness of demolishing of District Six, expressed the longing and hope to return one day to the site where the demolished settlement once stood. In August 1977, the government bulldozed a camp called Modderdam and other informal settlements in Cape Town as it tightened influx control measures. These threats of demolishment, like in Crossroads throughout the late 1970s, and the resistance to them, gave the song ‘District Six’ currency and immediate relevance.

‘Khawuphinde mzala’ and the urgency of repeated takes

I know that in jazz, recording a tune in ‘one take’ is a sign of originality and ingenuity. Dealing with inequality in our country is not going to be easy as the musical arrangements of the spiritual, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ suggests. To deal with the deep levels of poverty and economic marginalisation that drove the multitude of people to raid the malls last week which, in turn, made them vulnerable to manipulation by those with nefarious agendas, requires not ‘one take’ but ‘repeated takes’. Take the cue from Stimela’s tune, ‘Whispers in the Deep’, which the SABC immediately banned from the airwaves in 1986 just as the army occupied townships and detained some 26 000 people, the chorus, ‘Khawuphinde Mzala’ (keep repeating) became a call to activists to keep at it despite the odds.

To deal with the present situation, those who are interested in a different and better future must be prepared to make their contributions through different and ‘repeated takes’. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts! While supporting the call for ‘an aesthetics of hope’, we must avoid overburdening the arts and think that artistic expressions and practices can solve all our problems. The Palestinian activist and public intellectual Edward Said, himself a pianist in the Western classical tradition, recognised that we must appreciate the deeper paradox of music which he described as “an art of expression without the capacity to say denotatively and concretely what is being expressed”. Efforts to engender ‘a politics of hope’ and build ‘a praxis of hope’ must accompany and complement calls for ‘an aesthetics of hope’. Without a broader movement driven by hope, ‘an aesthetics of hope’ will fail to deal with the challenges that we face.

I don’t think that there is a better way to conclude these reflections than to play the chorus in Stimela’s ‘Whispers in the deep’ (3.00-3.47) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9QPjUkvvM and share with you the lyrics of the song:

Sleep right in your eye
This is tasty food for rat and flies
Call me angry, call me mad
Soul whispers in the deep
The echo!
All throughout the land
Reaches out to find, a head
But finds an amputated stomp
That tells the strong of the lonely
And beats the rhythm of the flame
I’m inspired
I cannot understand hate
(Khawuphinde, Khawuphinde mzala)
Whose songs are as truthful?
As dream flows as steady as a stream
A stream of knowledge and of pain
Of one whose stance begin to wane
Allow the sleep to retire
Because their love blows out the fire
I can see you pointed finger
Your eyes binoculars
Whispers in the deep

We are all tributaries of that great of river of pain
Flowing into one ocean
There is only one ocean
All our pain flowing into it
But it did spill over
Spill over the wonders of love
Into one nation of love
Before we recognise that all the oceans
All the oceans are one
Khawuphinde mzala hmmm
Khawuphinde mzala hee!!
Khawuphinde mzala hmmm
Khawuphinde mzala whololo
Speak your mind
Don’t be afraid
Don’t whisper in the deep
Speak out your mind
Stand up! Wake up!
There’s still sleep right in your eye
Call me angry, call me mad
A soul that Whispers in the deep
I’m inspired
But I can’t understand hate
I’m inspired if I can’t understand it

*Dinga Sikwebu is a trade unionist based at the head office of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Dinga considers himself as a follower and appreciator of jazz music. Previously, he has written on jazz in publications such as Uhuru, Creative Feel, City Press, Business Day and Sunday Independent.

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