Book review

Struan Douglas – The Story Of South African Jazz: Volume One

Struan Douglas – The Story Of South African Jazz: Volume One
(Afribeat.com Pbk 344pp Book review by Andy Hamilton)

Struan Douglas is a jazz journalist and trumpeter, born in Durban. This second edition of his self-produced title is obscure outside South Africa – and indeed in it too, including in its author’s hometown. I was lucky to notice some copies while visiting at KwaZulu Natal Society of the Arts. It’s essentially a collection of interviews, including major figures the author has spoken with over the years, such as Miriam Makeba, Louis Moholo, Hugh Masekela, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Carlo Mombelli, Claude Deppa, Lucky Ranku, Abdullah Ibrahim, Feya Faku, Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt.

South African jazz remains – uniquely in jazz internationally, I reckon – a popular as opposed to niche music. Its relation to American jazz is unobvious – it’s not subservient as European jazz was, at least in the latter’s earlier decades. As Gwen Ansell, author of Soweto Blues, explains, this urban music addressed a non-racial urban working class that apartheid refused to acknowledge: “[The music’s] deliberate cosmopolitanism was part of black self-assertion”. South African jazz was inescapably anti-apartheid.

As Valmont Layne and Colin Miller, Cape Town jazz researchers, explain in their interview, in the era of high apartheid in the 1960s, Cape Town was “one of the last places where [a] multi-racial nation-building jazz idiom could survive”. Jazz has a mythic connection with the city’s District Six, bulldozed as a result of the notorious Group Areas Act – though Layne comments that this connection has been over-stated.

As Layne and Miller explain, Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes “took African sounds and… blended it with the free movement that was happening in the UK” – to gloriously potent effect. All the Blue Notes save Louis Moholo died in exile. Douglas comments that McGregor’s wife Maxine “witnessed the death of them all, Mongezi [Feza] age 27, Dudu [Pukwana], Johnny [Dyani] and Chris [McGregor]: ‘Musicians are like sensitive flowers. When their muse dries up, they die’, she said”. In the case of these wonderful players, however, their muse was cruelly oppressed by the insane system that victimised them.
As Vince Kolbe says, in the townships there was not a single music school, or music shop: “The apartheid system was not designed to produce black musicians but black labourers”. Or as the creator and apostle of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, notoriously put it, the black African population would be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Despite huge disadvantages, a musical culture evolved nonetheless.

The interviews explore the role of various South African styles – marabi, mbaqanga, goema, kwela – in the development and evolution of South African jazz. For instance, Dennis-Constant Martin, a French writer, comments that Abdullah Ibrahim was playing mainstream modern jazz, but when he returned to South Africa in 1971 he recorded Manenberg, which is based on marabi – the South African equivalent of the blues. The author interviewed Ibrahim on his 70th birthday, at the short-lived music school he set up in District Six. The pianist not unexpectedly proved a prickly subject, but he did make a heartfelt tribute to saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, one of the elders of the music: “We owe everything to Kippie. He gave us everything we know”.

The book really needs editing and proof reading – Dave Holdsworth appears as “Halsworth”, for instance, and there are many typos. It’s not a scholarly work, compared to Ansell’s Soweto Blues, let alone Chris Ballantine’s magisterial Marabi Nights. But there are some great photos, and a quantity of gold to be found in the interviews. The power of this perpetually underrated music shines through.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s