I recently learnt about the concept of Ubuntu which I love. I’ve learnt I am what I am because of who we all are. This is a deep concept South Africans know well.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu referred to Ubuntu as “the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known.
“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
Jazz, at its best, is exactly like this.
It comes out of the African American experience and has its earliest beginnings in what’s often called “pre-jazz” and includes field hollers, ring shouts and the very earliest blues songs and chants. Before the 19th century, during the French and Spanish colonial era, Congo Square in New Orleans was one of many informal meeting places where enslaved Africans and free people of colour would gather on Sunday afternoons to socialise, trade, sing, dance and play music.
This tradition continued when the US purchased Louisiana from France at the beginning of the 19th century. However, in 1817 the New Orleans city council along with the mayor at that time designated Congo Square as the only acceptable place where slaves were allowed to gather. It soon became widely known that these musical celebrations were held on Sundays and they attracted visitors from across the country.
Several first-hand accounts of white observers of the ring shouts and dances that enslaved Africans and free people of colour practised when they were able, exist today and interestingly, these accounts often treat the music and dance as frivolous party activities or terrifyingly bizarre. However, at least one observer, New Orleans historian Ned Sublette has called it “tremendous act of will, memory, and resistance”.
This cultivation and retention of Africanness is essential to understanding the formation of jazz, and the co-mingling of free and enslaved people of colour is as central to the formation of jazz as is the blending of African and European harmonic languages, instruments, and rhythmic properties.
So it was literally in Congo Square on Sundays that black people came together and affirmed and reinforced their respective humanity and personhood. And they reinforced their Africanness in the face of its denial. Remember that most other southern states strictly prohibited the interactions of enslaved people and free people of colour and tried to limit all expressions of anything remotely African.
It was in Congo Square that European brass bands met the groove of west Africa and produced the rhythmic complexity central to New Orleans music and foundational to what we now call jazz.
This period early in the 19th century is what historian Ted Gioia calls the beginning of “the Africanisation of American music” and involved an “actual transfer of totally African ritual to the native soil of the New World”.
As an expression of hope and humanity, loss and longing and perseverance and patience, the music that emerged during this time reflected the past and future. It was an aural and physical expression of the profound humanity of a people who were caught in a truly horrific and dehumanising experience. Movement was fundamental to the music and the seamless relationship between performer and participant was what sometimes startled white onlookers who were more accustomed to audiences being passive consumers of what they heard and solitary in the experience.
The music would continue to develop over the 19th century and would meld with other African-based music forms,within the context of an American experience. Thus, work songs, field hollers, street cries, and levee camp hollers, all would get added to the mix of what would become jazz as we know it.
Another essential ingredient primarily associated with the rural south is the blues. While there is some debate over whether or not the blues is strictly an African-American invention or indeed has direct roots in Africa, particularly in Ghana, the importance of the music form to jazz is unquestioned.
The expressiveness that the blues form, captured the experience of a people in a horrific situation and simultaneously captivated many of the people responsible for that situation.
And when we talk about the development of this music in the 20th century, we always link it to the social, political, economic or technological landscape, or perhaps to all of these. All great art is linked both to the time of its creation and yet it is also timeless. But jazz in particular has been inextricably linked to the specific experiences of a people and the landscapes in which they found themselves.
Thus, each major period of jazz is closely linked to the social, political and economic landscape of the time whether the abolition of slavery and the economic opportunities that followed, the industrial revolution, the growth of urban centres, the migration in search of jobs, the post-war boom, the civil rights movement, the black power movement and other ’60s activism, the Reagan years or the post-civil rights, post-Obama period. The music that was created during these periods is precisely in and of each particular time. The best music of each of these periods is still relevant and impactful today.
I believe this is also true for South Africa.
Jazz, like Ubuntu, affirms and is dependent on the collective as much as the individual. It exemplifies the notion of the interplay between the individual and the collective, the soloist and the group. At its best, jazz searches for an equilibrium between individual and collective expression.
Jazz requires of its practitioners a deep attention to history and tradition, alongside a willingness to move past both and even challenge them, albeit thoughtfully.
It requires practice, diligence, commitment, and a willingness to admit and learn from past mistakes.
It asks that we consider others as much as we might consider ourselves, that we treat the shared goal as seriously as we treat our personal ones; and that we sometimes support the other soloist and stay in the background.
I believe right now, our world needs lot of different people working hard together to create beauty in an open, collective manner. It needs all of you, it needs jazz, and it needs Ubuntu.
* Winborne is the executive director of The Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark. He addressed The Ubuntu Global Network Conference at Cornerstone Institute.