Gwen Ansell: Soweto Blues
Gwen Ansell's Soweto Blues is the book South African jazz lovers have been praying for. Originally conceived as a radio show entitled "Ubuyile, the book is the result of over 80 hours of interviews with multiple generations of South African jazz artists; from earlier pioneers of the style to the new artists; from the exiled musicians to those who stayed to carry the torch during apartheid. To accompany the book, the South African label Sheer Sound has issued a companion CD of the same name.
The book is conceived to be a useful resource to anyone interested in South African jazzin South Africa and abroadwith varying levels of knowledge about the music. Consequently, the first two chapters function to bring people who don't know South African history up to speed, providing a summary of key points of 19th to early 20th Century South African history. While covering 100+ years of history in about 60 pages obviously does not give a fantastic account of South Africa, it provides a solid enough base for anyone who doesn't know the history to be able to better understand the context of South African jazz-making. That said, if you want a more full account of South African history, have a look at the recommended reading list below.
However, it's from Chapter Three onwards that the book truly takes off. Rather than have the book read like a "history of jazz, Ansell places the focus on the musicians, using their interviews to directly tell the story of performing jazz in South Africa through the decades. At many points, Ansell acts as little more than a catalyst, adding some short commentary in between long stretches of the musicians talking. The impact of this on the readers' understanding can't be overstated. While any book could discuss the impact of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre on jazz musicians' ability to perform in various venues and records in dry, factual terms, Ansell's book throws the problems into sharper relief, with direct testimony. This different focus makes the book all the more extraordinary.
Ultimately, however, the book does not, and cannot cover every aspect of South African jazz's history, nor does Ansell suggest that it should. Rather, this book is at its most effective when it is used as a launching point for the reader into deeper exploration of the music. Ansell covers the history of musicians who remained in South Africa; she covers the stories of musicians who left South Africa; and she devotes a large portion of the book to the new generation of South African jazz. However, all of these categories of musicians deserve even deeper research and attentionthis book can act for many people as the first step towards that.
Soweto Blues was a long time in the making. With luck, it will inspire more people to explore the incredible jazz that has come out of South Africa.
Further Recommended Reading on South African Music:
Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa
Louise Meintjes, Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio
David Coplan, In Township Tonight!
Carol Muller, South African Music: A Century of Traditions in Transformation
Veit Erlmann, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination
Christopher Ballantine, Marabi Nights
Lars Rasmussen, Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963
In the hands of a lesser record label, Sheer Sound's Soweto Blues companion CD could well have turned out to be a banal "Best Of designed to pander to American and European audiences in an attempt to gain extra sales. "Mannenberg, "Pata Pata, "Grazing in the Grass and the like would all make appearances (granted, they're great songs, but does anyone really need any further help in tracking them down?).
Instead, Sheer avoids this issue completely, opting to treat the CD as a more of a sampler of South African jazz that can serve as a starting point for exploring a broader reach of the music.
A quick scan of the track lists shows a selection of music that, while not terribly difficult to find, is certainly not prominent on the international radar. Artists like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, and Chris McGregor are entirely absent, replaced by artists such as Sankomota, Dedication Orchestra, Carlo Mombelli's Abstractions, and Pacific Express. Added to this good mix a set of nicely written liner notes (as well as good companion discussions in the book), and this makes for an excellent entrance into the music.