Let it be Told: a personal take on South African Jazz

Last October this website asked what’s the attraction of Township jazz ? The question was specifically aimed at British jazz fans drawn by the Township Comets, appearing at The Drum, courtesy of Birmingham Jazz. Later, in November, at the London Jazz Festival there was a significant South African jazz strand although this site had its qualms about the dearth of actual South Africans playing at it. I was interested in the views of British fans of South African jazz, and they don’t come more dedicated and enthusiastic than Brian Homer. Here’s his response:

By Brian Homer

As a long-time fan of SA jazz I was privileged to see Chris McGregor’s first Brotherhood of Breath in the early 1970s and later Dudu Pukwana’s Spear and Zila and then from the ’80s onwards I have seen Abdullah Ibrahim in many contexts including Ekaya, and trio and solo gigs. Plus Hugh Masekela on many occasions and all backed up by a pretty comprehensive collection of recordings from the ’40s right up to date.

Pinise Saul with Township Comets

Pinise Saul with Township Comets

And the last 12 months have been bookended by some great jazz influenced by the South African connection. In May I saw the great Loose Tubes’ reunion at Cheltenham – a band that was heavily influenced by the SA exiles. At Brecon I saw the Township Comets for the first time and as I write I have been listening to Julian Argüelles’ Let it be Told – re-workings of some of the great South African tunes by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

Basil 'Mannenberg' Coetzee

Basil ‘Mannenberg’ Coetzee

So where to start? For me I think the attraction of SA jazz comes from a wellspring of jazz that is partly classic US jazz, partly deeply African, and partly political and radical. Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee said “Something very strange, something incredibly beautiful happens to the sax when it reaches the point where it’s ‘Next Stop Soweto’ or ‘Next Stop Mannenberg.’ In the hands of a township player this horn starts to breathe with a different type of life, it fills out with all the dreams and all the pain we experience in the townships: then it’s no longer an American sax – it becomes our African Horn!”

The reason that we have such a strong SA influence on the British jazz scene and to a lesser extent on the US and European jazz scenes is because so many musicians were exiled because of the appalling apartheid regime in South Africa.

So if you were into jazz at all in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s it was hard to miss the meteoric effect the exiles had wherever they played on both audiences and on musicians. And both jazz audiences and musicians are were likely to be of a more radical persuasion than most.

So for me it was irresistible – jazz was already a brilliant find in the late ’60s and the SA influence just provided something straight from the heart – compelling call and response hooks and repeating figures that made it hard to keep your feet and body still with the feeling that you had some connection, albeit at a distance, with a struggle for freedom – reinforced by the Anti-Apartheid movement that disrupted sporting events and held rallies that included great music – like Clapham Common in the ’80s with Hugh Masekela and others. As Abdullah says: “Ours is the only revolution that happened in four-part harmony.”

And what music! The Brotherhood of Breath were just electric live, blending funky rhythms with the first free jazz I had ever heard – which held together – just. After gigs like the 100 Club or in the courtyard of the V&A (what a contrast between comparatively stuffy museum and joyous anarchic music) we’d walk away aping the band with mouth music. We all wanted to be in the brotherhood.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim

Thanks to Birmingham Jazz in the ’80s I first saw Abdullah Ibrahim at the Strathallan Hotel, literally a few hundred yards from where I was living at the time, and later at the Grand Hotel. I’ve seen him numerous times since including memorably at the Jazz Café reunited with Basil Coetzee not that long before Basil’s untimely death.

And death has stalked the exiles based on more than just time passing. So many have passed, like Basil, before their time. All but Louis Moholo-Moholo from The Blue Notes and numbers of others have gone. Perhaps like Kippie Moeketsi, sax player and “the father of South African music,” beaten into an early grave by a combination of being oppressed by apartheid, the pressures of exile and return, and the uncompromising music business?

Which brings us back to the legacy of the exiles. It is heartening to see that the influence and the music of the exiles is being recognized and carried on in the UK and Europe. So although Peter is right to question what it means to have a South African themed festival outside of SA and what proportion of SA musicians should be involved, I think it goes beyond this.

The fact that many of the musicians are not South African can be seen in a positive way – to me it means that the music of SA and the townships is now firmly part of the jazz pantheon, and the torch they are carrying means that the great originals’ music will be remembered and celebrated for a long time to come. But more than that it also means that jazz musicians, SA or not, are not using the wellspring for new versions and new arrangements. That’s one of the ways jazz (and traditional music) flourishes  – nourished by the past but renewed by new ideas.

Looking at it this way also puts some of the performances in last year’s London Jazz festival into perspective. I was lucky enough to attend one of the key days of the Festival – the first Saturday at the South Bank when the Dedication Orchestra played again after a long break, a tribute version of the Blue Notes performed and finally Abdullah Ibrahim closed the evening with solo, trio and band sets.

The UK critical response of particularly the first and last of those was that they missed the spirit or lacked the drive of the originals – this latter said mainly about Abdullah’s gig. I think the criticism misses the point. South African jazz then and now is not one thing – nobody judges US or UK or European jazz by one yardstick so why should SA jazz be any different?

Township jazz alone does not define the music, it’s made up of as many ingredients as there are people’s in Southern Africa. It’s part kwela, part marabi, part bop, part church music, part Islamic, part mbaqanga and part folk-singing with those just being some of the parts.

And some of the music has come about organically, in a folk style tradition – tunes that are played at shebeens and parties, that are passed down from musician to musician – but there is a large part of composition and arrangement. As well as distilling the diverse influences of the Cape, Abdullah studied in New York with Hall Overton, the classical music academic who also played jazz and who famously occupied one of the lofts in the Flower District where all the jazz greats of the late ’50s and early ’60s rehearsed and where Eugene Smith, the driven photojournalist, went to live and where he recorded the bands and shot many, many photographs – recently re-discovered and published as the Jazz Loft Project.

Abdullah himself refers to the composition aspect in an ’80s documentary A Brother with Perfect Timing: “We are sound scientists, we constantly take our music and analyse it, contrary to the idea that in Africa we just take up our saxophones and play. We put in a lot of time, study and analysis.” Taken with his studies in the US this is an important point to consider when you listen to his music. It is no accident that one of his most affecting pieces is called Water From An Ancient Well. So what he is always doing is synthesising from many deep sources.

And nothing he does is by accident. So what those who left early from his South Bank show and those who thought it disappointing were missing (apart from a fantastic performance) was that he was not there to be an entertainer – to provide a jolly Township time. As my South African friend whom I went to the gig with said: “He is his own man – he says what he wants to say. He plays what he wants to play.”

The fact that this was a major concert hall and that Abdullah and all his musicians were in dinner jackets should have been the clue apart from anything else. Here was an African composer – perhaps the major African composer making a musical statement – and a gorgeous one at that – here is my music, here are my influences – here is ME. That fact that this was not a driving performance but a deeper more meaningful one, for me did not detract from it. Far from it – I drank it in. His most recent CD , containing some of the music also played on that South Bank evening, is called The Song is My Story. Amen to that brother.

Louis Moholo-Moholo

Louis Moholo-Moholo

If you look at the Dedication Orchestra gig from the same perspective then the criticisms of it also dissolve. Here is a dedicated group of musicians keeping the spirit of the exiles alive: Dudu, Johnny, Louis, Nick, Mongezi, Chris and all the others who lit up the jazz world and brought South Africa to us.

They are not playing it exactly the way The Blue Notes or The Brotherhood of Breath played it. They have deep respect for the music and the compositions and they are keeping the music alive and vibrant and changing. My South African friend did not know what to expect, he didn’t think he would enjoy it that much.  But after the first few chords a steady smile came to his face and he was in. That’s good enough for me.

So it’s nearly a year since the Loose Tubes gig (they are playing as I write at The Sage in Gateshead – wish I could have been there) and back to the Argüelles CD. Julian was another Loose Tubes alumnus who also played in latter iterations of The Brotherhood of Breath and who knows the music inside out. And it shows.

This is an absolutely consummate recording which takes some of the classic tunes and re-works them with stunning arrangements for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. The band is joined by Argüeles himself on sax and conducting, his brother Steve on percussion and Django Bates on keys.

Each time you listen there is something new to admire in the brass and wood wind arrangements. It’s Gil Evans meets Mike Gibbs meets Chris McGregor in a very good way.

Dudu’s Mra Khali and Diamond Express are given suitably hot but controlled arrangements with that essential Brotherhood call-and-response feel. Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song is little played and I only knew her and the Manhattan Brothers’ versions – here it is done beautifully with a dancing swinging first section that changes pace and gives way to a harder, freer ending that suits the Zulu stick-fighting theme of the original lyrics.

All the tracks are great but Abdullah’s The Wedding and Amabutho (Trad/Joseph Shabalala) stand out for me with gorgeous phrasing and arrangements. On The Wedding Rainer Heute (bass clarinet) plays an unbelievably breathy solo followed by Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn stating the theme lovingly on alto. There are no stated solists on Amabutho, just lovely ensemble playing.

All the feelings and influences are in there with almost a hymnal feel in places and it’s hard to keep still just like it was listening to the Brotherhood. Brilliant stuff and I’d love to hear this live. One of the best interpretations of the SA sound.

So I think we can say that the SA influence on jazz is in rude health and long may it continue. As Abdullah Ibrahim says: “The sound of the song forms a link between those who went into exile and those who stayed behind. Hopefully, Inshallah, after the revolution it will serve as a rallying point.”

  • Look out for thejazzbreakfast’s review of Julian Argüelles’ Let It Be Told, coming soon…

Categories: Opinion

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2 replies

  1. Great post. As one who was critical, in writing and in discussion, of both the Dedication Orchestra and the Abdullah Ibrahim concerts at last year’s London Jazz Festival, I welcome and accept the points made here. But I also agree with Peter that it would be good to have some of the current SA players over. If they are as good as Bokani Dyer, we’ll be in for a treat.

    Interesting that Brian links his enjoyment of South African music with a feeling that somehow he was supporting the anti-apartheid cause by listening to the music. When I first got into jazz, it was the time of the anti-segregation marches in the southern states of USA and one had the same feeling of empathy with those movements through following jazz.

    I like the point about the influence of South African music on that of Loose Tubes; this is an aspect of their music that is sometimes forgotten. Django Bates played in Dudu Pukwana’s band in his young days.

  2. Thanks Tony – wouldn’t it be great to get an SA jazz weekend or something in Brum?

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