Improvising the Future of Decolonized Jazz: New Frame

American master saxophonist Salim Washington, who lives in South Africa and teaches music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, did not fare well in a recent PenSA podcast. Discussing a common ground between American and South African jazz experiences, he described a big surprise upon arriving here: “When I ask people I play with, ‘Who do you like, who do you listen to?’ the first name is a European – and sometimes the second name too.

His view was reinforced in the same forum by South African reed man Linda Sikhakhane: “In South Africa, the school curriculum barely includes our culture. There’s so much going on in our jazz, but that’s out.

Discuss college jazz studies with other South African players and you’ll hear a melodious chorus of support. On the pages of New frame Single-handedly, pianist Sibu Mashiloane emphasizes that musical studies should — but don’t — begin with what speaks best to students, and with consideration of feel as well as technique. Composer Cara Stacey calls for practical steps to reform “which instruments are valued or who can teach music”.

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Bassist Jesse Mogale says, “Our heritage should be the starting point of our musical education. He describes the impact on the game when this is not the case: “The college guys had problems working with the late Jonas Gwangwa because he told them, ‘You’re expressing the chords badly. We don’t express our chords like that. They had never studied South African voicings. Something is wrong with this equation.

Regarding the impact change can have, trombonist Malcolm Jiyane describes how discovering Gwangwa, a South African rather than American trombonist, during his musical training “blew my soul away”.

It is therefore fitting that the Wits University Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) has just launched a new one-year research project, After decolonization. It aims to think beyond what the institute calls the “endless present of decolonization” to what African universities and their programs might be like and how they might be researched, and includes consideration of the arts, but not specifically jazz.

Extend the conversation

Wiser historian and Wits Art Museum board member Hlonipha Mokoena, working on restitution in the visual arts for the research project, suggests that “much of the debate about South African decoloniality centers on a North-South conversation [as if] the future of the university in Africa is almost the same as its future in America… The teaching models imported into South Africa are largely models imported from Europe and North America. Is the function of universities here simply to replicate debates taking place elsewhere? This much larger conversation about what an African university is for has gone unheard.

As Mokoena implies, the decolonization of African university structures has multiple dimensions: not only what is learned, but who teaches, in what type of context and how. Changing the face behind the desk may change little if the prescribed content remains intact. Changing the content goes further, but leaves the desk and its associated purpose and process models unchallenged.

The University of Cape Town task force set up in 2018 after #Rhodes Must Fall concluded that the primacy of the Western conservatory model of music education, the emphasis on a deficit model (“what is missing students rather than what they bring”) and privileging genres and narratives from the Global North made his South African College of Music feel exclusionary for many black and working-class students. The changes since then have, among other things, certainly added more South African repertoire to what is studied.

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But accretive reform has limits: unless some of the old is removed to make way for much more of the new, there is simply no time or space in a college curriculum. Meanwhile, the removal of legacy cultural content from tertiary courses has proven far more controversial everywhere than updating science education by abandoning outdated theory – something that happens regularly, sometimes almost unnoticed.

Furthermore, changing curriculum elements does not decolonize learning processes and, as Mokoena observes, carries the risk that “instead of decolonizing, you end up with localization.” Simply discovering a local musician, she points out, does not, on its own, amount to doing “something decolonial.”

Decolonial outcomes require holistic change, not just to objects of study. In jazz, this means recognizing that musical conversations in the development of the genre were and remain two-way, and that jazz students also need access to African voices.

freedom of identity

It’s something Cape Town-based jazz drummer Claude Cozens experienced – ironically – in Norway. He completed a performance-based master’s degree at the University of Bergen, producing a sequence of recordings designed by himself to analyze and provide insight into his musical development. South African jazz education, he observed, often appears pedagogically “stuck in the 1970s”.

Shaking up American hegemony was key to shaping alternative models, he said. “Because Norway has identified that American culture is not its culture, it has brought freedom in what matters and new ways of doing artistic research.”

Jazz, according to Mokoena, represents something of the outward-looking thinking that is central to decolonial change. “It’s much more of an intra-African and intra-diasporic conversation. If you put a musical score to After Decolonization, it would have to be this kind of afro-futuristic sound.

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His colleague, Wiser director Sarah Nuttall, observes that “the very notion of improvisation implies an orientation towards the future”. Both allude to the work of historian Robin Kelley, who traces the lineage of decolonization as a formative force in modern jazz.

For Nuttall, the decolonized African university must “find a new language”, moving away from what she calls “the kind of flat, deflated language of the neoliberal university”. [that makes] decolonization an empty number for pedestrian processes”. Mechanically ticking boxes on “access,” she argues, narrows more forward-looking considerations about “how the university distributes itself, intellectually and in other ways.”

Mokoena adds the need to question the historical boundaries of disciplines. “In addition to teaching music, how about teaching with music, in a discipline like literature? The overall context could be enriched, for example, by what we offer in terms of lunchtime concerts.

The lack of relevant resources remains a persistent problem. According to Mokoena, the pervasive myth that Google has everything students need to research Africa is hard to dispel, “and the lack of information means students don’t have the vocabulary to know what to look for”. Technology, she says, offers new options. “For example, here we have digitized the music of native African instruments to make this resource more easily accessible.”

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Music, says Nuttall, indeed has the potential to be “another kind of archive.”

Other aspects of change may be trickier. It is unclear how academic processes might adapt to the way jazz and traditional African music thrive in informal sites of learning, often embodying lived experience, organic intellectual assessment and through peers, community relationships and spirituality – the very ingredients that fuel guitarist Billy Monama’s assertion that “in Southern African jazz, it’s feel before range”.

For Nuttall, “bringing together the expertise of high-level African peers…to reconnect around intellectual projects” starts the process of thinking about these questions. Nevertheless, they ask an implicit but very jazzy question for After decolonization“I wonder,” says Nuttall, “how open has decolonization been to improvisation in recent years?”

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