When jazz made us believe that black was beautiful
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