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Honour jazz greats who played apartheid blues away

Published Sep 17, 2015

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Sandile Dikeni

It is a bit sad, but it has to be said. As an artist, it is not really possible to dodge it. It is uncomfortable but unaffordable. It has to be said.

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September as a month with cultural vibes is not a comfortable month for this journalist with poetic tendencies. Culture and the artistic vibe does, for me, remind of the Eighties. Remember the Bassline? I remember Winston Mankunku Ngozi there. So do you, if you heard him play his tenor saxophone. The likes of Mankunku were for me a tremendous moment in my jazz education.

I grew up with the jazz vibes from the likes of John Patton, Eric Gale, Crusaders, Lou Donaldson, Hank Crawford and more. But these were artists from overseas, although brilliant musicians remained an LP reality at the time. The first meeting with jazz was when my uncle Mongezi Manong introduced us to these artists in Victoria West. But that was in the 1970s, and he had to leave then to join Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC.

I remember thinking then that there might be something revolutionary about jazz. In 1976, I was still ten, but it is not impossible to connect jazz with revolutionary tendency. Growing up in Victoria West and listening to Lou Donaldson on a track saying, “say it loud. I am black and I am proud” was difficult not to hear or see jazz as subtly carrying a political message.

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At home after listening to his collection, we understood why my uncle left South Africa for exile. And listening to Mankunku on Yakhal’ Inkomo, it is not difficult to see the anti-apartheid vibe in jazz. Mankunku was more blatant in his anti-apartheid standing with a song called Asiyi eKhayelitsha(we are not going to stay in Khayelitsha) – a song that was against the apartheid government’s agenda to settle black people in that place.

I remember Mankunku’s laughter when later (early 2000s) he was reminded that many progressive people were living in Khayelitsha. It was a brilliant song in rhythms and tenor saxophone vibes, and probably also lyrically touching in the 1980s. I have not recently heard that song played in Khayelitsha, and I think I know why. So do you.

Point is that jazz was not merely a musical thing; It was also social commentary. I think it is fair to say that Manenberg, the township, has much of its foreign and even local visitors, as tourists, explained by a song composed by Abdullah that carried the same name.

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Imagine then my concern when noting that the 2000s in the Cape had been marked by a sad reality when it comes to jazz. It is a sad rhythm that demands a lyrical ear to make sense of the current blues in Cape Town.

I have sadly noticed that big jazz musicians of the Cape have been dying in the 2000s. It is not flattering. It is concerning. I have just mentioned Winston Mankunku Ngozi, but do you still remember Duke Ngcukana? He was a trumpeter. Remember his brother Ezra’s saxophone?

What about Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee, whose tenor saxophone would make you think that the tenor saxophone was invented in that township. Listening to him, one wonders if he was not maybe related to the Ngcukana guys. I still can not relax recollecting the breath of Robbie Jansen.

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How can one? It is not possible! This reality is for me an uncomfortable consideration especially during the cultural month. Still remember Uluntu Centre in Gugulethu?

It is not for me understandable why these artists can be forgotten. Is it not fair to ask the government’s cultural infrastructure to get involved here? I honestly can not see why, in September, these artists can be forgotten.

Sad is the moment when one recalls that during apartheid, these artists were fundamental (in song) in reminding this country about the beautiful essences carried in breath. Okay, many of the musicians blew the wind instruments with boozed breath. But that in many instances was a way to deal with apartheid blues!

I also remember that a saxophone or trumpet blown with a breath in brandy was magnificent, to be modest. It is modest to demand the new state to remember that legislation blown through some horn is less boring than the current silence. It is also vital that current artistry that probably the best anti-apartheid vibe was carried in song.

Okay, Mankunku’s Khayelitsha song might not have been the highest point in Struggle messaging, but even Dostoevsky had down moments. The point here is that we should not forget that the AK-47 was the only instrument in the fight against injustice. Many of the combatants thought that there was something beautiful in its rattling and the only reason they carried it had to do with the musicality. I don’t necessarily think so, nor did the guys who formed Mapp (Musical Action for People’s Power).

See, the apartheid preachers did not really understand the role that the arts could play in preaching a beautiful notion like non-racialism. And now that we are free, we are running the risk of doing the same. I am pleading that we do not.

Also, I do not see why the SABC does not present us with a programme that exhibits the dynamism of the San. Something tells me that we will be delighted to hear the rhythms of those human beings. I am also certain that the New South African kid would be grateful to see the social depths of these people exhibited in song.

Firstly, I am suggesting that we honour our artists for the roles they have played in creating the now that we live. It will, for instance, be wonderful to see Uluntu Centre as a venue that reminds us and motivate us to celebrate the roles played by the musicians who helped to liberate this country. Secondly, besides the national anthem, won’t it be something to honour Enoch Sontonga at Artscape with a statue?

I am proposing that we deepen our artistic understanding by asking the state to stop seeing our anti-apartheid musicality as a mere jol. It is also my feeling that doing that, the state will be encouraging many of the young people who end up as robbers to choose music as a song for life. It is not a tactical suggestion.

It is a plea that we teach our people that the beauties of song can deepen our human consciousness to contribute to the world a view that admires life. It is not merely something that can be done.

No. It is something that must be done. My demand is that the government in the Western Cape be encouraged to see this area as possessing more than seawater.

We need to appreciate that the absence of mineral wealth is a discomfort that can be sung away. I am not ashamed to say I know it can be done. I also know that it must be done. You are asking if it can be done, and I am answering saying Yes. It is just a matter of when shall be it done. I am also pleading that I be invited to the meeting that seeks to resolve this issue.

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