Life in Jazz Notes and Rhythm: New Frame
“My encounter with [John] Coltrane was political. The 1970s were also an intense period in African liberation struggles… supreme love and John Coltrane became a healing force; a manifesto for the cultural revolution; the spiritual needs of African revolutionary struggles. – Nii Noi Nortey, Anyaa Arts Quartet.
When talking about jazz, “space” and “time” can have several meanings. There are physical spaces – the stage, the venue, the scene, the city – where musicians perform, and the spiritual and intellectual spaces that their music draws from and speaks to. There are beats in time (the time signature), the temporal patterns that the dancers’ feet and the notes of the players make around them, and the moment in the story where the music comes from or to which it speak. Louis Armstrong didn’t exaggerate when he said, “What we play is life.
It is this power of jazz to bridge and transcend all kinds of spatio-temporal – and political – boundaries that inspired the Cosmology concert and mini-festival, an action-research project presented by the Wits School of Arts in recent years. October days.
Building on the work of Santa Fe-based music scholar and musician Steven Feld with the Ghana-based Anyaa Arts Quartet, the event was originally conceived last year as a live collaboration.
Johannesburg and Accra share a history of musical cosmopolitanism. Both were ‘places of gold’ and because of this, migrant workers, largely internal migrants in Accra but from across southern Africa in Joburg, shaped the cities’ urban musical cultures. In both cases, the earliest popular forms of jazzy dance music – highlife in Ghana and marabi in Joburg – emerged to form, affirm and challenge identity against colonial oppression. And in both cases, new sounds are still part of that same discourse today, meaning elements of national musical traditions and international sources, and sharing those sonic innovations with anyone, anywhere, who has the ears for them.
Nii Noi Nortey, the leader of the Accra quartet, played saxophone in London – he features on the album Misty in Roots, Earth – and studied mbira in Zimbabwe. Back in Ghana, he takes the music of Coltrane – what the saxophonist offered to Africa, and the inspiration he clearly drew from it – as a spark to develop an innovative cultural practice around sound, sculpture and building new instruments that fit and combined traditional and modern parts. These initiatives have come together in the Anyaa Arts Library, founded in 1990 as a center for musical research, instrument-making, debate, performance and exhibition.
Propelled by Wits School of Arts director Brett Pyper and the festival study group he leads, the university planned to bring the quartet, including Feld, to Joburg to develop and present collaborative work at the start. of 2020. The aim was to explore how, said Pyper, “Jazz cosmopolitanism has manifested itself in Southern Africa”. They did not expect the sudden closure, just then, of the barriers linked to Covid-19 to travel and experience sociality.
The event was therefore rescheduled, redesigned in shape and form, and eventually renamed Cosmology in part as a tribute to other jazz pioneers, including sonic space traveler Sun Ra and Zim Ngqawana, and his album Zimology. Student videographers and other student staff behind the scenes and in the room contained the event in terms of public health and ensured that the project advanced skills development.
- Isaac Zavale’s visual ode to the multiplicity of Joburg
The cosmopolitanism that Feld found and documented in Accra has clear parallels throughout the history of South African jazz. Listening to American jazz recordings, the late trumpeter Johnny Mekoa immediately identified that “this is our music…the beats are more like our mbaqanga”. When the young German photographer Jürgen Schadeberg arrived for a job at drumming magazine in the 1950s, he found that “Sophiatown was like a Mediterranean town…The Africans of Sophiatown were modern people”.
Feld first struck common ground with Nortey when he said he was from Philadelphia, to which Nortey immediately replied, “The city of John Coltrane.” In the Eastern Cape, Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi recorded Yakhal’Inkomo as a lamentation over the death of Coltrane and, simultaneously, a silent protest against “the pain of the black man”. He claimed that he sometimes felt Coltrane as a spiritual presence by his side when he played.
Nortey describes his time in London as one where many South African musicians “lit a torch” for their British and Caribbean co-players and “the context in which I formulated my music”. For everyone, these fractures experienced within the limits of time, geography and corporeity were springboards for innovation, not for imitation. Nortey places his invented instruments, which he calls Afrifons, in the context of “the need to constantly redefine the creative process”.
A local counter-narrative
For South Africans under apartheid, borders were hard and tangible: pass laws, restrictions on travel and gatherings, and forced expulsions, with state-sanctioned killings for those who overstepped. In townships such as Mamelodi, but many others as well, dispersed people reforged community bonds through their own, often overlapping, political, social and cultural organizations, including jazz appreciation societies. LPs at home and abroad inspired a wider culture, including mutual assistance, smart dress, and a unique dance style that participated in and provided feedback on music creation, known as name of diga or digger dance.
In tribute to this, the poet and jazz lover Aubrey Motau opened the festival colloquium with a poem on the role of his parents in this scene: his mother “like a lion in the bush / she is a jazz collector / and quality clothes.
This still thriving and cosmopolitan working-class jazz culture offers a powerful counter to what Pyper describes as the “rather corporate, masculinist face of today.” [of jazz] which tends to be canonized and presented publicly”. The Cosmology concert, performed live and broadcast from the Wits Theater to destinations such as Accra, Santa Fe and Mamelodi, demonstrated the power of the South African counter-narrative. The concert was linked to the Mamelodi Arts and Culture Forum, which works to keep community cultural life strong and honor veterans such as Malombo founder Abbey Cindi, 82, who performs still today.
- Gilbert Matthews, SA jazz pioneer and visionary
The playlist was shaped by musical director, composer, bassist and teacher Chantal Willie-Petersen. Besides the works of Coltrane, Giant step co-arranged with Kgomotso Moshugi, it featured works by trumpeter Feya Faku and concert guests saxophonist Salim Washington and trumpeter Prince Lengoasa. She selected compositions, she says, “by female jazz composers who were influenced by the music of John Coltrane: Alice Coltrane, Miriam Makeba, Zap Mama, Sathima Benjamin.
“With Alice Coltrane Blue Nilefor example, a minor blues with a repetitive melody line similar to Coltrane’s EquinoxI have tried to reproduce the sounds of Alice’s harp by writing and arranging the vocal parts in a polyphonic structure that incorporates the sounds of bands such as Zap Mama, and African vocal techniques from yodeling sounds and production reed-like voice.
Willie-Petersen play, Building Dreams – For My Sissie, is rhythmically inspired by highlife music. Benjamin’s song The music was backed by goema rhythms to invoke Cape Town cosmopolitanism. She points out that women are ubiquitous in jazz, working “as lyricists, teachers, performers, entertainers, administrators, publicists, journalists, academics…”. This was underscored by the radio preview of the concert by TV channel Brenda Sisane, who interviewed jazz collectors Julia Ngwenya and Jennifer Mahlangu, and by the festival’s diga dance workshop the day before, led by Thabo Rapoo, where Mahlangu made important contributions.
Calls embodied in the choreography
During the concert, a succession of smartly dressed diga dancers – young and old, male and female – took to the stage of the Wits Theater at their whim, to dance their commentary to the sounds. Their solos drew on traditional movements, contemporary jazz and tap dancing, and inspired personal choreography, happily ignoring the boundaries of genre, genre and musical “professionalism”. A shiny jacket was topped with wings. The light from the jewelry bounced off the mirror-shiny shoes. Invisible specks of dust escaped from an immaculate tartan trouser leg. Scarlet block-heeled pumps traced the beating of Prince Lengoasa’s trumpet notes. Responding to these embodied calls, players aimed higher, faster and further. Lengoasa, usually a stage presence of some seriousness, even put down his horn to shake a very honorable leg.
In the 1950s, a young British saxophonist on tour in South Africa, Johnny Dankworth, was overheard in an erudite conversation about his music backstage at the Wits Great Hall with an older man in a brown coat, whom he assumed to be a maintenance worker. It was the pianist Sol Klaaste, one of the best jazzmen of his time, but “it’s the only way for a black man like me to come in to see you tonight”.
Those racist rules are gone, but downtown theaters are still often inaccessible or unwelcoming to township communities, even to passively sit in stalls, let alone proactively walk on stage and dance. Cosmology has demonstrated different possibilities, where sophisticated internationalism does not bow to the cultural steamroller of global capital. The festival showcased the jazz culture of a typically South African people who really have diamonds on the soles of their shoes.