Jazz is back in the South African townships – and it sounds good | Arts and culture
Cape Town, South Africa – Wine glasses clink and friends share laughs as the sun beats down on the backyard of No.52, Kwa Sec on a Sunday afternoon.
As the hubbub subsides, McCoy Mrubata plays a smooth solo on the saxophone before the double bass and drums kick in a few bars later. A wave of applause ensued and soon after, the people in the front row stood up and were dancing.
It’s Jazz In The Native Yards (JiNY), a regular concert that sees some of South Africa’s best musicians take to the stage in Gugulethu, one of Cape Town’s largest townships. After a strict COVID-19 lockdown during the winter months of June and July in South Africa, the jazz event resumes Sunday with local singer-songwriter Tankiso Mamabolo.
Mrubata, meanwhile, had traveled from Johannesburg to play in his hometown in May. He grew up in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township, just six kilometers (four miles) northwest of Gugulethu.
Some of the best jazz musicians in the country grew up in these areas, but until JiNY arrived, music was not very accessible to people living here. Today, young local musicians are reclaiming the space and fitting into Cape Town’s musical narrative which, for decades, has been adapted to the upper and middle classes.
During the apartheid years, the system of oppression that racially separated white and non-white South African citizens, blacks were forced to settle on the outskirts of the city, in new settlements that would become townships.
In the 1960s, impromptu jazz sessions were held on weekends in these communities, often in people’s living rooms and backyards. But performing under an apartheid regime was a challenge, and many South Africans couldn’t enter Cape Town concert halls if they weren’t white.
“The musicians of the time were big victims of the police. The police raided them at night, picked them up and locked them up because they were in town after 9 p.m., ”said Majaja Mdingi, 73, a longtime veteran of the stage who attends concerts in Paris. jazz for over 50 years.
Born in 1973, Gloria Bosman, jazz and soul singer from Mofolo, Johannesburg, was only three years old during the Soweto uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. But she knew how difficult it was for black musicians thanks to her father, Fox, who played in the underground jazz scene in Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg, in the 1960s.
“My family talked about how difficult it was to get into venues, even using venues for music, especially jazz,” said Bosman, who has performed at JiNY twice, including the month last. “It was mostly underground because most of the musicians who were in the foreground were in exile at that time. So you couldn’t even get a lot of people to create performance spaces because the people with the financial strength to do it were in exile.
Gugulethu’s Ngcukana brothers and legendary Abdullah Ibrahim were among the musicians who performed regularly in Cape Town’s townships. These artists spoke of the struggle, and although their music resonated with the oppressed, it was often censored by the state.
Those who went into exile often feared for their safety and wanted to introduce South African music to an international audience. Singers such as Thandi Klaasen and Dolly Rathebe remained in South Africa, although other greats like Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba went abroad.
When apartheid ended in the mid-1990s, many of the best jazz concerts left the townships for the city centers. But with the economic legacy of apartheid remaining, many black South Africans found themselves poor and marginalized. Jazz concerts became less accessible for these communities, especially in Cape Town, as transport and concert tickets were not affordable.
In 2013, Luvuyo Kakaza, who worked as a music journalist in Johannesburg, saw jazz being much more accessible there than in Cape Town. Kakaza filled this gap by founding JiNY with social entrepreneur Koko Nkalashe, allowing township musicians to perform in front of their audiences in Cape Town. They first started giving concerts in Khayelitsha, the city’s largest township, before later performing at community centers and concert halls such as Guga S’Thebe in Langa and Kwa Sec.
“We kind of had the impression that everything was happening in the upscale neighborhoods and that the musicians and the audience from the townships didn’t really have the opportunity to perform in these places. Some of the sites weren’t cheap to buy a ticket or stay overnight. The idea was therefore to bring the music back to the canton where it really started. “
JiNY grew up to also organize concerts in the city center and elsewhere in the Western Cape. The shows, which typically cost 120 South African Rand ($ 8) and half that price for students and retirees, bring together people from all over Cape Town, as well as an international audience. Some South African townships receive negative press for gang crime, but Kakaza says the events never had incidents of criminal activity.
Besides South African musicians such as Bosman and Mrubtata, JiNY has hosted international artists including British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and American pianist Nat Adderley Jr. At the Mrubata show in May, he performed with some of the most promising musicians. from Cape Town. .
“We don’t have the budget to bring a whole band from Johannesburg here, so we always encourage the best musicians like McCoy to come to Cape Town, and interact and play with the youngsters, so that they are also exposed and perform. also with great musicians, ”said Kakaza.
Asked about the atmosphere of the events, Mrubata told Al Jazeera: “It’s very alive and reminds me of the early days of jazz in the Langa Hall, community centers and the stadium. The township audiences are very dynamic – they even interact with groups at times. “
It’s much easier for young township musicians to connect with older musicians these days thanks to social media, workshops and initiatives like JiNY, according to the saxophonist.
Mdingi says these young musicians have more resources at their disposal than ever before, and there are plenty of concerts in Cape Town, Johannesburg and East London.
“In terms of exposure and training of people, there is much, much more volume than 30 years ago,” said the boss.
Navigating the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for Kakaza, who calls for financial support to help the arts.
“The more people are vaccinated, the less people will panic. And I think we should release jazz now. We should use our parks, ”he said.
“The arts give the city its identity through its people, not only through the musicians who play, but also through the people who attend these events. This is the only way for the city to create a happy, peaceful social cohesion, through the arts and music.