2005 Cape Town International Jazz Festival: Africa's Grandest Gathering
Two days after my arrival in South Africa, things are still a blur. I planned this trip months ago and I did plenty of homework in advance, but nothing can adequately prepare you for the explosive cultural and human landscape of South Africa. Home to over 45 million people speaking eleven official languages, South Africa overflows with color. It's also a decade-old democracy, which still feels pretty young people seem genuinely excited about the possibilities that are finally being realized.
The activity on this trip officially centers around the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, held on Easter weekend in the rapidly growing, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town at the southern tip of the continent. Twenty performances over the course of a mere two days highlight local talenthalf the acts are African, with a good number from this country itselfand far beyond.
Time and space seem to paradoxically blow up in scale when you're sitting on an airplane for 24 hours, or maybe that's just the kind of mind-expanding thinking that allows you to cross ten time zones and sixty degrees of latitude without developing mental cramps. It was pitch black when I hurled my body out of bed for the flight from San Diego, night again when the connection left New York, and dark once more by the time we touched down in Johannesburg. The sun rose and set twice before I set foot on African soil for the first time.
All those hours on a packed flying bus take their toll, of course. I came prepared for the worst, with an entire second backpack full of books and reading material to pass the time. But the plane had a personal video console in front of every seat, with my choice of movies, TV shows, games, and a GPS- driven realtime map. All was well once I figured out how to zap the vicious dragonfly monster on the space invaders game.
South African Airways operates the only direct flights from the US to South Africa, and our Airbus was on only its second commercial flight, a virtual virgin in a decadent aviation world. I've never seen a plane that shiny and new beforedefinitely never will again. Apparently the South Africans aren't quite as paranoid as Americans have become, since they armed every passenger in the plane with a real metal fork and knife. Nobody attacked anything but their food, though. (Quite happily, I might add. The salmon was oustanding.)
South Africa quite proudly calls itself the Rainbow Nation, and what was once a polarized black- and-white regime is now a full-spectrum democracy. And while the economic extremes created by apartheid are apparent everywhere, political equality is finally a reality and there's a sense that people are really trying to work together. According to the people I spoke with, diversity is something to cultivate and explore, differences a source of curiosity and interest. They like to talk to visitors, share experiences, and share space.
The accumulation in one place of people from so many different backgrounds has resulted in an incredible diversity of culture, with far too many places to see and events to experience. (Can you sense the whirlwind effect?) Jazz, to touch on one topic dear to my heart, has been integral to South African musical culture since the '20s, with all sorts of local variants springing up in Johannesburg and Cape Town, among other places. It's still important here today.
The country faces huge hurdles: unemployment, HIV, housing and infrastructure shortages. But it's also the richest country in Africa, powered by huge mineral resources (gold, diamond, platinum), manufacturing, and more. The province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg is located) accounts for 10% of the GNP of Africa, as well as a number of other equally impressive statistics. The government takes a very practical and progressive approach to solving these problems, with a keen eye on corruption, and most people seem confident that the fast rate of change will continue.
Yet startling gaps between rich and poor in South Africa are an ever-present reminder of apartheid's legacy. In nicer neighborhoods (near the one in Johannesburg where I stayed) there are tall fences everywhere. In townships like Soweto, which saw electrification only twenty years ago, squatters are still packed densely together in makeshift structures. The government has a plan to build 350,000 new homes a year to help relieve the housing shortage, but it still hasn't caught up with demand.
You can't help but notice these things if you get out and check out your surroundings. Massive extraterrestrial-looking mountains around the area contain material extracted from mines, presenting full-sized reminders of the forces that drove this city, the youngest one of its size in the world, to grow so rapidly.
It helps to have a local on hand to get a balanced picture. As part of a group of visiting American journalists, I took a tour of Soweto (the SOuth WEstern TOwnship near Johannesburg), which was born of the massive urban expansion that took place after the discovery of gold and recruitment of black labor to mine it. It's now home for 1.5 million people, according to a local, though estimates vary widely.
Two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, used to live in the same Soweto neighborhood in the '40s and '50s. We visited Mandela's very modest old house and paused by the window police used to break to get into his bedroom for many a rude awakening. (The Mandela family still takes out the trash, as the can in the back attested.) We also visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial, named after a child who was shot by police during a massive student protest in June of 1976. The serene silence of the rather modest memorial is in blunt contrast to the insane violence that took place here three decades ago. One can't visit the place without feeling that odd combination of tragedy and hope that seems to characterize the past and present, respectively, of Soweto.
All this history is pretty humbling, whatever your political orientation. Our guide, who introduced himself to us as Joe, admitted that he, too, had thrown a rock or two during his youth in Soweto. (In false modesty he also claimed to have terrible aim.) The arrival of democracy in 1994 has offered many young black people access to education and other opportunities previously denied to them, and while political equality has not yet translated into economic equality, Joe has hopes that there will one day be a strong black middle class in South Africa.
Cape Town's jazz festival, as is the trend these days, extends to many genres outside what is usually appreciated as jazz. Relatively mainstream instrumentalists like Yellowjackets and Dave Holland are matched by Afro-pop divas Suthukazi Arosi and Cesaria Evora, local heroes Johnny Clegg and Mahotella Queens, and youthful pop stars 340ml and Pitch Black Afro. Whatever your take on the global music scene, warm voices and propulsive rhythms are the heart of the action here.
A bit of history: the CTIJF, now in its sixth year, used to be called the North Sea Jazz Festival due to its affiliation with the one in the Netherlands. But, as we have been reminded time and time again, the event is now "proudly South African," under new management, and stronger than ever. Click on the image above to see the full- size program.
Sponsors include the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC, whose sports programs have faithfully put me to bed and woken me up); South African Airways (whose jets take me everywhere); Standard Bank; and mobile telecommunications company MTN. All sorts of other local organizations play a part in making this event independent and secure. ESP Afrika (headed by the un-CEO-like Rashid Lombard) takes care of everything behind the scenes, and except for a few video cameramen who have a bad habit of standing in front of performers, they've done their job here spectacularly.
It's sort of strange to experience a jazz festival in a convention center. (This particular one is enormous, and I'm told it's booked through 2007. Cape Town has apparently proven itself an attractive destination for the world at large.) Many thousands of people home in on the same building, music pouring out of each door along the way. Enormous cavernous spaces like Kippie's place a huge distance between listeners who want to sit down and performers on stage. (You can stand up front if you want, which is what I did.) Go to Rosie's or Moses Molelekwa Stages instead if you want to have a more intimate experience.
The planners had these things in mind when they decided who would perform where: when the music is made to move feet, space up front is available. When it's more for the head, you can usually sit and get comfortable. The sound varies from location to location, too, with volume and balance adjusted as appropriate for the musical setting. Certain performers, like Dave Holland, came through with crystalline clarity; only one, Suthukazi Arosi, really screwed things up, blasting nasty treble into my eardrums until I hastily ripped up a 10 rand note to crumple it into temporary ear plugs. But more on that later...
Audience members seem to appreciate the attention to detail, which includes live big-screen video closeups at Kippie's, for example. I've never seen such a pleasant bunch of people gather to enjoy musicwhatever the style.
Since half the artists at the CTIJF are African, it seemed appropriate that Tsepo "The Village Pope" Tshola, born in Lesotho, would get the action going on Kippie's Stage by greeting the audience in eight or ten different local languages. People shouted back (many of these salutations have a specific response in kind) and it became very clear that many colors of the Rainbow Nation were on hand. The moment provided a tangible reminder that people of vastly different cultures and backgrounds had come together for this musicand that's as good an excuse as any, as far as I'm concerned.
A veteran of the '80s Afrobeat group Sankomata, Tsepo Tshola has been around the block. Recently coming clean after years of addiction, he released A New Dawn with a message of recovery, renaissance, and celebration. Like much popular music in South Africa today, his current group bases its sound in the deep roots of gospel, with rich, resonant vocal harmonies as a launching pad for messages rich in emotion. His show started with a churchy keyboard solo, and only after everyone else had assembled on stage did Tshola personally step forward in song.
The Pope's definitely into sharing space, allowing his much younger mates plenty of opportunity to solo. Trumpeter Philpot Nqikela took some sweet ones, hovering in middle and lower registers and preferring a quiet, softspoken approach to complement the soulful vibe. Unfortunately the mix was pretty poor (horns down, keys up, vocals buried) and as a consequence the material lost some shine and clarity. But that didn't interfere one bit with the audience singing along, clearly well aware of the lyrics and enthusiastic to join their man on stage. You have to remember that while this event attracts a lot of international visitors, the locals make up most of those present, and this guy is pretty well known here.
Having heard Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef's mesmerizing Digital Prophesy (Enja, 2004), I was curious to see how he would put together his electronic compositions in live performance. So I cut out of Tsepo Tshola's show and headed over to the Bass line Stage, an aptly named place where lower frequencies are boosted to levels where they make your chest vibrate and hum with every note. (That's good.) Bass line hosted high-powered, electric, youth-oriented acts, as opposed to the more traditional acoustic material predominant elsewhere.
Youssef started his show with a prolonged melismatic vocal solo, then brought in guitarist Eivind Aarset, who sat in front of a massive collection of electronics connected by a spaghetti of wires, periodically leaning over to twist or tweak something. Eventually drummer Rune Arnesen and bassist Audun Arlien joined in. These three Norwegians are all very capable musicians, attuned to the altered realities of electronic music and aware of the need to balance the expansive potential of electronic composition with in-the- moment spontaneity only available through live interaction. Their countryman Bugge Wesseltoft, who appeared on Digital Prophecy, was not present.
Most of the people who came to see Dhafer Youssef weren't expecting to see him backed by a bunch of Norwegians, and when he introduced his mates and stated their origins, heads rose to inspect them more carefully. Then, when prompted by an audience member, he said his own name. Prompted again, simply "Africa." Massive cheers all around. Then right back into Youssef's personal brand of spiritually aware improvised electronica.
Arnesen used brushes to complement the subtle textures of the music, coaxing a range of colors from his cymbals and finding unexpected subtlety in his snare. It wasn't clear what exactly he was doing with the Powerbook tucked away below his drum set, but the analog motion of hands and feet brought the rhythms, often of the square, shifty North African type, to vibrant life.
Sticking around at Bass line, I noticed that the average age dropped precipitously when 340ml took the stage. The quartet has a strong following with the young ladies, several of whom clustered around me in the front row giggling in anticipation. I couldn't help but admire the way they had each sculpted their hair into impossible three-dimensional formations. South African women do some truly amazing things with their hair, creating styles straight out of fantasy.
Ahem. Anyway, back to the band. 340ml crosses musical borders in a really fresh way, combining reggae, funk, hip-hop, ska, and improvisation. The group's debut album, Moving, got a lot of airplay and attracted a substantial local following, though it's pretty much unknown internationally. The basic instrumentation is the standard rock quartet of vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, but not without some mischievous energy and various other odd instruments along the way. Intermittent trombone riffing by a female guest introduced some color and spontaneity (and sparked a young man behind me to shout "Gimme the trombonist!!" when the band prompted some audience participation toward the end of the show).
While its material is relatively simple, this band had a nice vibe and balanced energy with mobility. Other than an early outburst from drummer Paulo Jorge Chibanga about the "fucking terrible" sound cleared up after some consultation a few minutes after the show startedthey were friendly, outgoing, and cool. Those audience members who didn't already know the words well enough to sing along didn't have too much trouble learning them along the way.
It's no surprise that this band sold out its rack in the CD Wherehouse booth at the convention center, with its combination of infectious grooves, dynamic on-stage presence, and involving interaction with the audience. Look for 340ml to break out internationally if it keeps up this kind of momentum.
A lot of time has passed since the UK house/hip-hop/global collective Trans-Global Underground made in big the early '90s, and the group has gone through some major changes in personnel through the ensuing years. But it's retained a pretty strong core audience because it offers a refreshing alternative to the usual club formula. I took International Times (Epic, 1994) with me on the flight, and it brought back memories.
On stage the group included a minimum of two drummers, and while the rhythms were focused around a very sturdy backbeat, they did a good job of interlocking beats in evolving, unpredictable ways. But you were never very far from the four-to-the-floor pounding bass hits that kept bodies moving all around. A young man next to me took the opportunity to spend almost the whole show doing a bump and grind with his lady friend from behind, which seemed to make both of them happy.
The drumming is probably the most obviously African aspect of TGU; other threads lead off into Indian music and hip-hop, manifested in Sheema Mukherjee's sitar playing and a regular emphasis on vocal gymnastics. I've never heard Sheema (as she's known) before, and I'm not sure sitar purists would approve of her decidedly reductionist approach to the instrument. She plays the sitar like an electric guitar, adapting minor-key riffs and repeating them in a rhythmic fashion. We were warned in advance by the MC that we were "about to astro-plane to a new level" right before she took her one extended solo, but the astro-planing didn't transport me very far. The riffing works much better.
Doreen Thobekile, a South African native who grew up in Durban, joined TGU for the latter part of the set. It was hard to get over her big hair and retro leather outfit, but I guess that was sort of the point. Her act was more about striking a pose and working the stage than delivering any particularly virtuosic vocal performance. That said, she raised the energy level a couple of notches by strutting around and engaging the audience. The gratuitous titty shakes didn't do much for me, and neither did repeated vocals like "yeah baby" and "ooh ooh ooh," but I guess to each her own.
The most comfortable venue I encountered at the Cape Town jazz fest is Rosie's Stage, a relatively intimate auditorium where you can sit down in soft seats and get involved with the performers. You need a special ticket (a few more rand) to get in, which helps keep the audience under control since there's no standing room available.
I got to Rosie's half an hour early, which yielded the unexpected pleasure of being able to listen to a sound check jam between Dave Holland, Steve Nelson, and Nate Smith almost on my own. These guys cooked up the most intricate, mindblowing improvisation seemingly without effort. It didn't hurt that the crew was fully organized and the sound quality fine-tuned to crisp perfection. But the guys on the stage offered on-the-spot proof that jazz lives in the moment, whether the cameras are on or not.
This was the last show of the night and the room was a quarter full when the full quintet assembled on stage, which surprised me, but more people came in later. I was in the front row, like I was at every event I attended, so I sat tight. Holland introduced the show with a dedication to the many South African expatriates he met in London, including Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and others, after they left SA and fired up a whole wave of European free jazz.
One of the things Dave Holland has perfected with his quintet is a natural, free-flowing groove where each member contributes some aspect to a vibrantly polyrhythmic whole. You don't need to intellectualize these rhythms to appreciate them, because they have an intuitive resonance. But if you pay attention to who's playing what, you can get caught up in all sorts of interesting nuances. To me, it's an illustrative example of the best kind of jazz, which shouldn't require rocket science to understand but ought to reward close listening.
Nate Smith is a very groove-oriented drummer, to the extent he knows how to work the backbeat in a flowing way, but his ears are wide open to what's going on around him. And watching Smith go at it, you can't help but get caught up in the action. His face contorts wildly, almost out of control as he bobs and weaves in his seat. He kept solid control over his instruments, exhibiting restraint and respect for dynamics.
Dave Holland's latest act on record is his big band, which has received lots of favorable press for its brand new record, Overtime (Dare2, 2005). The big band really does not excite me at all, because all those instruments seem to close out the spaces and subtract the spontaneity that his quintet (and many other smaller configurations through the years) have cultivated. But the quintet continues to inspire.
Robin Eubanks opened "Global Citizen" (a tune written by him, from Not for Nothin') offering pulsing counterpoint on the cowbell. Later on he picked up his main instrument, the trombone, which he plays with a deep tone that has a lot of voice-like features, especially when he colors it with overtones. Much of his playing consisted of harmony and counterpoint in combination with Chris Potter, mostly featured in this performance on soprano saxophone. Echoes of New Orleans came through in some of the bluesy harmonies, but equally often you'd hear them come together at odd, unexpected intervals.
By the end of the show the audience was just getting warmed up. Despite a standing ovation and plenty of enthusiastic applause, the quintet left the stage and did not return. Holland and his quintet come back the second day of the festival for a repeat performance, which ought to be encore enough for the enthusiastic. Me, I'm going to listen to Cesaria Evora instead. Stay tuned...
Visit AAJ: South Africa for more on the country's history, culture, and great music.