Sunday, 6 May 2012


Deep inside me are the rhythms and cadences of South African Jazz.  I grew up in South Africa in the depths of the apartheid era, and I have very early memories of hearing the music from the "black" radio stations (even radio was segregated).  Only much later did I discover the genius and subtlety of much of this music, the distinction between kwela and marabi and mbaqanga and the rest, and learn about the heroes of SA Jazz (Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, et al).  Even now my knowledge is only sketchy. But however much or little I have learned, the foundation on which this later knowledge has been built is that deep emotional "feel" of the local jazz:  the relaxed, easy, sprung rhythms, and the yearning quality of the melodies.

It's difficult to write about this stuff: it's so close that it is hard to see in the round.  Like so many others, I left South Africa a few years after I finished university.  And like so many others, my experience is that Africa clings to you in surprising ways: tastes, smells, colours, but especially music.

To hear an iconic piece like Abdullah Ibrahim's Mannenberg is to undergo an internal shift.  Go on: click the link and start listening:  when I hear those opening piano phrases it takes me to a different place.  Those easy rolling rhythms become the rhythms of walking down a gently curving road, in the cool of the early evening, with home waiting at the end of the day's work.  The call and response of the piano and sax are saying "it's ok - life is hard, but this is a time for peace, this is home".  There is deep sadness but also joy: the music is a solace.

I feel that this music has a "rightness" about it.  It has a quality of inevitability.  Perhaps it's just familiarity, but for me, every phrase in that sax solo seems irreplaceable: gently building, telling a story, drawing you in.

Now, no one could say that my life was hard: I have comfort and luxury and  opportunities that would be unthinkable to 90% of the world, and unimaginable to someone even 50 years ago, at the time when those rhythms and sounds were imprinting themselves on me.  My life is easy. And yet...

And yet there are feelings of loss, and regret, and sadness, and a sense of time passing and things passing from one's grasp and one's view.  And there is anger, at time wasted, and opportunities missed, and moments that have slipped by with insufficient appreciation.  And these are some of the feelings that come when "Mannenberg" starts to play.  There is the ache of being away from home, from a time and place long gone and out of reach.  But the music seems to say "it's ok, this is your  home, this music".  And maybe it is ok.  Maybe if that music calls and resonates so strongly within one, it really is ok.

All this reflection is prompted by the arrival in the post yesterday of "Cape Jazz Collection" a book of sheet music of original tunes by South African composers.  I've been picking out some of the tunes on my alto, searching for that quality that draws out these strong emotions.  And it's unmistakeably there: "Bo Kaap" by McCoy Mburatha, "Umlazi" by Basil Coetzee, "Cape Town" by Merton Barrow are the pieces I will start with.  In each of these, I find that hook, that pull that says "homecoming".  Perhaps intellectually I will learn what it is, perhaps it will remain elusive.   All I know, for now, is that my musical adventure has taken another step, I feel the bittersweet emotions of that music: hardship, yearning, and yet filled with joy and acceptance.