Who would have thought that something so good as South African jazz would be born from the darker days of apartheid?
Well the likes of ntate Hugh Masekela, ntate Jonas Gwagwa, ntate Abdullah Abrahim, and mama Dolly Rathebe, mama Dorothy Masuka and mama Mirriam Makeba, didn’t let what the apartheid government and its oppressing laws silence their voices.
One can’t begin to tell the story of jazz icons or its history without going back to the past, a place which most of us are comfortable with it being erased from our minds.
Jazz music in South Africa came at a time when the then government was really making life difficult for many people, mostly black, coloured, and Indian, difficult. It was a nightmare for artists to freely express their minds and talk about how things were in South Africa.
There were oppressive laws that made it hard for omama Makeba and obaba Masekela to paint pictures of what was happening in the townships.
I had the privilege to meet and hear ntate Sipho ‘Hotsix’ Mabuse speak at the Democracy Works Foundation discussion that was held at the Constitution Hill about the impact jazz music had in people’s lives.
Many musicians during those years sang songs that portrayed the apartheid in bad light and which seeked to highlight black people’s hard and traumatic experiences under that government, something which they didn’t want to happen.
Some of these artists like mama Makeba spoke out against the evil acts that were done against people of colour, especially black South Africans, including police brutality, racial segregation and unfair policies that kept many black people under oppression.
“Musicians, visual, performing, spoken word artists used their talents to weaken and topple the apartheid government in South Africa but the government wouldn’t back down easily,” Mabuse said.
Harsh ‘punishment’ like banning of their work would be made possible by the officials, who would later banish some of these artists who were not willing to keep their mouths shut.
They didn’t fear persecution and prosecution, even if it meant having their homes petrol bombed or being killed.
Mabuse said throughout his music life, all he wanted was to change people’s lives through music, which in my own opinion, he and the old school jazz school generation managed to do so well.
Passing on the jazz baton
Ntate Masekela, who was affectionately known as bra Hugh, collaborated with many young South African musicians, including Thandiswa Mazwai, on a song that speaks about violence perpetrated on non-South Africans by locals, a topic that is currently grabbing news headlines in the country.
Bra Hugh believed in mentoring young people and we can see young musicians like Bokani Dyer, Mandla Mlangeni, the late Lulu Dikana, Nomfundo Xaluva following in their footsteps.The baton has surely been passed on as we are seeing more and more young musicians like Zoe Modiga, Langa Mavuso, Ami Faku and Kesivan Naidoo contributing to new school jazz that IS sometimes referred to as afro soul or afro-jazz.
Even though we are fighting new battles as a country, old one’s racism and crime are still making us turn against each instead of being unified as tata Mandela wanted.
Jazz lives on
Through initiatives like the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, which takes place every September, jazz artists and producers have been supported for the past 21 years, many of them are gaining international recognition just by performing at the stage.
New notable voices in the jazz scene are given a platform to showcase their talents at the Showcase Stage.
The Showcase stage has been unearthing new and raw talent for the past few years, while the On the Road to the official Joy of Jazz Festival also looks at shinning the spotlight on new jazz artists like the Karabo Mohlala Quartet, Thabang Tabane Quartet, Zano, aus’ Tebza, Sobantwana and Nelisiwe.
Some of these artists have been in the music scene for years now, but it would be the first time for them to perform at the festival. This would introduce them to new audiences, who, some, would be traveling from overseas countries to perform at the event.