5 Minutes That Will Make You Love South African Jazz

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love South African Jazz

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“Life Esidimeni,” from trombonist Malcolm Jiyane’s debut album, “Umdali,” weaves together a story of those forgotten and sometimes neglected by society. With its hauntingly lyrical trumpet improvisation, the piece laments an often neglected part of our recent history, the Life Esidimeni tragedy, which left 144 people dead at psychiatric facilities in the Gauteng province. Malcolm’s musical arrangement is both a reminder and an ode to the voiceless and dispossessed. Part of the pervasive beauty of South African jazz is that it recounts histories that we sometimes choose to forget or set aside. It is a clarion call to spare a thought for the sick and weary. Malcolm’s music holds a mirror to society to look at and listen to the plight of the unknown patients who died from starvation and neglect in the hands of the “government of the people.”

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In 1960, trying to go home to South Africa to attend her mother’s funeral, Miriam Makeba learned that her passport had been revoked. She would not get home for 30 years. If the circumstances around Makeba’s life and work were often constrained by the uncertainties of exile, she also seemed to have the antidote: some inner sense of clarity and drive. That feeling is all over her work, and you can imagine how indispensable it was for her. While living abroad, mingling with artists and activists and diplomats, she discovered that the loneliness of exile also contained its opposite: solidarity. Musically, Makeba put the vocal traditions of South Africa into conversation with sounds from across the world, perhaps most excitingly after moving to Guinea in the later 1960s. She became close with the country’s political and cultural leaders; met her husband Kwame Ture; and of course put together a killer local band. In this 1977 performance, a twinkling West African lattice of guitars, percussion and bass fortify the old South African melody of “Jolinkomo,” a song that might originally have been sung without any instruments.

It can feel hard to categorize Makeba as ultimately a “jazz” musician. But suffice it to say that she carried a heritage of songs into a cosmopolitan mode, expanded listeners’ imaginations, and proved herself an ambassador for something more than music. Does that count?

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The pianist Kyle Shepherd’s 2012 album, “South African History !X,” interrogates Cape Town history, the South African past, and — considering what DNA technology tells us about the origins of humanity — our shared global history, through the sounds of the musical bow and Khoisan “click” languages. The track on “South African History !X” that best speaks to us in the present moment is “Cape Genesis: Slave Labor.” It opens with the fundamental pitches of Shepherd’s mouth bow, its overtones shaped into a high-pitched melody and then enveloped in the improvisations of Zim Ngqawana’s tenor saxophone, the drummer Jono Sweetman’s percussive timbral sounding, and Shane Cooper’s tender bass lines. The album connects back to the historic sounds of the pianist and bow player Hilton Schilder (of Goema Club); the free improvisation of Garth Erasmus; and the sounds we now call “Cape jazz,” created by many, including Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Robbie Jansen, Muneeb Hermans and Ramon Alexander. Decolonizing South African history begins with listening closely to the contours of its improvised music, as it takes us back into a deep African past.

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The first reason I chose this song is that I wanted to avoid artists that many people gravitate toward, particularly those who became quite popular overseas, especially during the period of apartheid. For me, this song has a very distinct South African jazz sound. It’s much more modern and harmonically extended than the typical I-IV-V progression that many people are used to. I love hearing Andile Yenana’s contributions as a piano player, his texture and touch. Additionally, it features the beautiful arrangement styles and harmonic voicings of that particular period, which I’m really into. He worked with artists from the generation ahead of us, artists who stayed in South Africa and didn’t necessarily go into exile. During that era, a distinct sound developed, strongly influenced by American music yet deeply rooted in the South African music they grew up with. I feel so much relation to that.

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Barney Rachabane was South Africa’s premier alto player and featured on many S.A. jazz recordings from the 1960s onward. After appearing on Paul Simon’s 1986 “Graceland” album, he toured the world with Simon’s ensembles and with Afro-Cool Concept (a band I helped lead). His playing on this 1989 track is virtually a summation of S.A. jazz up to this point, at its most idiomatic. Listen to his cadenza-like introduction, ranging from screeching high-register glissandi to honking low notes to midrange, lightning-fast fills between phrases. His choruses veer between Township jive and bebop virtuosity. Yes, he is showing off, but his expressive intensity is as dazzling as his command of the alto saxophone: You can feel his pride, rapture, tenderness, humor and exultation at unleashing his volcanic prowess on the world. The track is a bit long; you can take it off after five minutes — but I bet you won’t.

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