Cape Town 120331- Hassan'adas backup dancer (closest to camera) Wendy Thoane performing at Manenberg stage during the Cape Town Jazz Festival .Picture Cindy waxa

To be honest, I don’t think I ever anticipated that it would grow to the stature it holds today, writes Rashid Lombard.

Cape Town - In the 28 years I spent earning a living as a photojournalist from the late 1960s, I would retreat from the frontline of the political war South Africa was engaged in and find restorative solace in listening to, and even, at times, playing jazz.

The conflict of the apartheid years finally ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first democratically elected president. For me, personally, the year 1994 was a decisive moment, too; I stopped being a photojournalist.

I didn’t need to spend much time wondering what to do – I took the plunge and started the first community-based jazz and classical radio station in Cape Town.

Twenty years on, I am happy to see that jazz in South Africa has caught on, appealing to all cultures and generations, and is still attracting millions of listeners the world over. A telling representation of that growing audience is the 37 000 plus visitors who come to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival each year.

The story of this festival is in large measure a story of following a gut feeling, and sticking to the vision I have long had of making Cape Town the City of Jazz.

Before 1994, artists wouldn’t travel to South Africa because of the cultural boycott. But, following the dawning of our democracy, everything opened up and we could start inviting these musicians to our shores.

Where to start? I knew I wanted to do something big and something different. Having been to the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland as a photographer over a period of six years, I approached the then-director, Theo Van Den Hoek, and asked him to assist in staging a similar multistage festival in Cape Town.

It was important to me from the outset that we got the formula right, hence our initial partnership with the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Combining European expertise in the presentation of a jazz festival of this nature with African expertise in networking, building on relations and nurturing a sense of community was the best thing we could have done.

The vision of the festival was articulated in a way that it was clear what was intended from the start – to bring together music lovers from all over the country and indeed the world to participate communally in their love of the art form. In a sense, the festival offered itself as a metaphor for what South Africa and the Western Cape could be; in harmony with itself and the world.

But, in branding the event as the North Sea Jazz Festival, we caused a little confusion and when our four-year learning period came to an end, we changed the name to the one that is now internationally recognised: The Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Over the years, we have rigorously maintained the 50/50 split between African artists and musicians from the rest of the world. This has also ensured differentiation in the market.

We have also stuck to the formula according to which the festival brings together jazz and other jazz-related experimental genres. It has not been easy, especially as, when we started out, jazz in South Africa was very much an underground sound.

Our vision has always been to present something that is more than a music event.

The presentation on five stages over two days of 40 bands equally split between African and overseas artists has given festival-goers so much choice and has now evolved into a lifestyle experience.

To be honest, I don’t think I ever anticipated that it would grow to the stature it holds today, or the potential it holds for where we intend to go with it.

I have also followed my gut instinct and included a hefty training and development programme in the mix. It is vitally important for everyone involved in the festival that we plant the seeds for the future of musical talent and those who wish to be involved in the business of music in this country. For the past 12 years or more we have included workshops aimed at the full spectrum, kids with talent to professionals. Giving back guarantees that we can go forward.

I believe that the festival is as relevant today as it was when I first conceived it, and launched it 15 years ago. Music has always played a vital role in activism and in bringing social ills and contentious issues to the attention of more people than perhaps an isolated demonstration can do, or behind-the-scenes lobbying. This is no less pertinent today.

The festival provides a stage for musicians to share their voices on all manner of emotions and issues, a transcendent and transformative musical language that resonates with our audiences.

Fifteen years along our journey, the festival continues to give musicians a place to speak their minds and a growing following to hear the messages.

* Rashid Lombard is the founder and chief executive of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Cape Argus