When jazz made us be­lieve that black was beau­ti­ful

CityPress - - Trending - Oyama Ma­bandla

Afew months ago, I was hang­ing out at a con­cert by the jazz bassist Lex Fut­shane at The Joburg Theatre. I had been in­vited by the im­pre­sario Stunki Vundla, a good friend who has for years been in the trenches, do­ing her bit for South African mu­sic. It’s tough to live by mu­sic. But Stunki does it with great love and panache. If I were the pres­i­dent of this coun­try, trea­sures like Stunki and other sis­ters of song such as Nothemba Mad­umo, Brenda Sisane, Nicky Bloom­field and Shado Twala would re­ceive the high­est hon­ours as ex­po­nents of the great South African song­book, which has kept our mojo in­tact, even as our pol­i­tics be­trays our prom­ise.

The mu­sic at the show was beau­ti­ful. But there was some­thing ele­giac and des­o­late in the air. Per­haps it was the singing by Zola Fut­shane, Lex’s nephew, of orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions from the group, most of which had in­flec­tions of the Cape folk­loric tra­di­tion. These songs re­minded me of the songs my mother used to sing to my two brothers and me as lit­tle boys. My mum does not sing those songs to me any longer. She no longer dances to Duke Ellington’s Take the “A” Train. I am no longer a lit­tle boy. And the o’lady’s groove has been cramped by old age. It was per­haps this re­al­i­sa­tion that made me a lit­tle maudlin. The ex­ca­va­tion of mem­ory, which trig­gered a sense of loss and long­ing. It could also have been a clam­our for some­thing more on­to­log­i­cal. I did not know.

On Scan­lan Street

Dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion I was busy talk­ing to Stunki about the fa­bled Scan­lan Street in Queen­stown. That was where her fam­ily had lived be­fore the Group Ar­eas Act showed its ugly fangs. Ac­cord­ing to Mark Ge­visser’s The Dream De­ferred, Scan­lan Street is where an eight-year-old Thabo Mbeki learnt to play the pi­ano and flute while re­sid­ing with his un­cle, the great com­poser Michael Mo­er­ane of Sylvia Mn­tak­wethu fame – the choral mas­ter­piece. It is where he en­coun­tered Mozart, ig­nit­ing a life­long ro­mance with clas­si­cal mu­sic. It is also where he was hipped to jazz, the genre favoured by the Mo­er­ane neigh­bours, the Mat­shik­izas, the fam­ily of the Drum-era sa­vant, Todd, the cre­ator of the land­mark jazz opera King Kong, which put us on the global artis­tic map and helped to launch the in­ter­na­tional ca­reers of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

In the midst of our ru­mi­na­tion on Scan­lan Street and the artis­tic her­itage of Queen­stown, which Mat­shik­iza had chris­tened “Jaz­ztown”, Bheki Mse­leku’s Home At Last wafted en­chant­ingly through the speak­ers. It pro­vided the back­drop to our cog­i­ta­tion about this her­itage, a her­itage that in­cludes such greats as Vic­tor Nd­lazil­wana, whose band, the Jazz Min­is­ters, had been the first combo from these shores to be in­vited to the fa­mous New­port Jazz Festival in the US; Pat Mat­shik­iza, Todd’s nephew, who to­gether with Kip­pie Moeketsi be­queathed us Tshona, that groovy an­them of the 1970s; the songstress Mar­garet Mcin­gana; and the trum­peter Mongezi Feza, a found­ing mem­ber of one of this coun­try’s finest jazz quin­tets, The Blue Notes, with Dudu Puk­wana on sax­o­phone, Johnny “Mbizo” Dyani on bass, Louis Mo­holo on drums and Chris McGre­gor on pi­ano. In its ex­ilic in­car­na­tion, this band would morph into the iconic Broth­er­hood of Breath and dom­i­nate the avant-garde jazz scene in Europe in the 1970s.

That’s Bheki Mse­leku, neh?

Dance With Me Tonight would alight on our con­ver­sa­tion. It com­man­deered our at­ten­tion. It started rather un­re­mark­ably; quo­tid­ian mbaqanga-sound­ing ca­coph­ony. And then Ezra Ngcukana broke through this clut­ter with some mel­liflu­ous riffs on the tenor sax­o­phone, in an an­tiphonal joust with the trum­peter Feya Faku. We were then as­sailed with some mes­meric licks from gui­tarist Eric Mtha­lane. Then came the voices, pri­mal and sub­dued, akin to the sonorous in­can­ta­tions of Ti­betan Bud­dhist monks, “come on, come on ... dance with me tonight”. I turned to Stunki and in­toned “That’s Bheki Mse­leku, neh?” She nod­ded and pro­ceeded to hum along. By this point the voices were in full flight, no longer sub­dued, and you could hear the smoky, unadorned voice of the bassist Her­bie Tsoaeli lev­i­tate as he sang and chanted Dance With Me Tonight in an in­tox­i­cat­ing in­ter­play with Ngcukana, as Mse­leku tore away with a dizzy­ing pi­ano strut. Stunki con­tin­ued hum­ming along, as if en­tranced. Some­thing deep in her had been stirred. Mem­o­ries of a long de­parted dude, per­haps.

I came home that evening with my spirit be­stirred. The melan­choly feel­ing of loss and mem­ory that I had ex­pe­ri­enced with Fut­shane’s group yoked to some­thing ethe­real the chant by Mse­leku and Tsoaeli had evoked. I took out the Home At Last record­ing, and sat by my­self in darkness lis­ten­ing to it, med­i­ta­tively. I was filled with great sad­ness about Mse­leku’s lonely demise eight years ago, in Lon­don. Mse­leku was sui generis – a ge­nius. I re­mem­ber his con­cert at the first edi­tion of the Cape Town In­ter­na­tional Jazz Festival, in 2000, where he played the pi­ano and the sax­o­phone si­mul­ta­ne­ously, a feat only he could mas­ter. The place was packed to the rafters, stand­ing room only, with other cats like Zim Ngqawana and Moses Molelekwa, two beau­ti­ful souls whose un­timely de­par­ture haunts us still, agape with won­der­ment. The fol­low­ing year, he would play a con­cert at Kip­pies, the iconic jazz club in Jo­han­nes­burg, with Win­ston “Mankunku” Ngozi, the jazz de­ity and sax­o­phone supremo, to a feet-stomp­ing delir­ium. I am sure my big brother, Sipho “Hot­stix” Mabuse, the erst­while artis­tic di­rec­tor of Kip­pies, would agree that this con­cert marked the apoth­e­o­sis of this ven­er­a­ble joint.

Is black still beau­ti­ful?

All these folks have ex­ited the stage, leav­ing us bereft and for­lorn. I hear­kened back to a time when the quest for ex­cel­lence was our touch­stone. Mo­er­ane, Mat­shik­iza, Nd­lazil­wana, Ngozi, Molelekwa, Ngqawana and Mse­leku had de­fied and tran­scended the lim­i­ta­tions that our na­tional sub­ju­ga­tion had im­posed on us, to pro­vide us with a mu­si­cal bounty that con­tin­ues to nour­ish the soul. In the process, they vin­di­cated our es­sen­tial hu­man­ity. With their craft, they as­serted the in­du­bi­ta­ble fact that “black was beau­ti­ful”. It was this in­nate self­be­lief that had pow­ered our un­stint­ing quest for free­dom and dig­nity. That hard-won free­dom and dig­nity is now be­ing men­aced by the Zupta ma­lig­nancy, which has in­vaded and colonised vast swaths of our state, mak­ing one won­der if we are, in fact, still beau­ti­ful.

On De­cem­ber 17 last year, at the Umkhonto weSizwe Veter­ans’ Na­tional Coun­cil, this philo­soph­i­cal mus­ing about whether we were still ed­i­fy­ing to the eye was an­swered elo­quently in the af­fir­ma­tive. These death-de­fy­ing vol­un­teers for our free­dom had fi­nally awo­ken from their lengthy slum­ber and tor­por to once again an­swer the in­junc­tion of his­tory. An in­junc­tion to sad­dle up, al­lied with other de­fend­ers of our Con­sti­tu­tion, to con­front the mi­asma of malfea­sance and na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion that has been the hall­mark of the Zupta im­perium. The ma­lign sub­ver­sion of Madiba’s repub­lic will have its come­up­pance.

As Martin Luther King fa­mously ob­served, while the arc of the moral uni­verse may be long, it bends (in­eluctably and in­su­per­a­bly – my ad­di­tion) to­wards jus­tice. Karma af­ter all, is un­avoid­able. Ma­bandla is an ad­vo­cate and busi­ness leader

SAX AP­PEAL Self-taught jazz pi­anist, sax­o­phon­ist, gui­tarist, com­poser and ar­ranger Bheki Mse­leku, who died in Lon­don in 2008 PHOTO: RASHID LOMBARD

MAMA AFRICA Miriam Makeba at the RCA record­ing stu­dios in New York City, circa 1965 PHOTO: MICHAEL OCHS / GETTY IMAGES

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.