Africa 3.0: How a new society is revealed by the continent’s jazz music and writers

The soul-searching and questioning that happened in the anti-colonial and post-independence age in Africa gave birth to great literature.

I LISTEN to jazz music. A lot of it. And I like, especially the earlier material, of jazz musicians like South Africa’s Jonathan Butler. I am intrigued by the growth of jazz in East Africa, and have great admiration for the pioneering work the “leading men” of the current  generation of players like Kenya’s Chris Bittok have done.

Yet, when Jonathan Butler performed recently in Nairobi, I bought a ticket but didn’t make it to the show, in the end. Bittok had a show on the weekend not too far from where I live, but I didn’t get to see him as I had planned. In both cases, I was derailed by work.

Not too long ago, barring a serious crisis, I would have put everything else aside and attended, because I would have waited for the performances for years – and if I had missed them I wouldn’t have had a chance to see them for a long while again.

Not any more. I can catch a Butler or Bittok performance any time I want to in a major African city, or one of the several jazz festivals on the continent that didn’t exist until the last few years.

The point is that I am spoilt for choice these days when it comes to jazz by African musicians. I can decide to listen to Ugandan jazz musicians, and have my fill of Pragmo, Brian Mugenyi, and Isiah Katumwa.

I can do Kenya and have Aaron Rimbui, Joseph Hellon, Bittok…the list is endless.

I can dive into South Africa and, where do I start? Hugh Masekela doesn’t count. He is not mortal; he is up there with the gods. Jimmy Dludlu, Sipho Mabuse, and the younger pretenders to the throne Bokani Dyer, Tutu Puoane, and Simphiwe Dana.

South African jazz talent is so prodigious, my sense is that globally it probably ranks only second to the US in output. When I last read up on South African jazz, there were nearly 50 quality jazz musicians whose stuff I hadn’t listened to!

Even Mozambique has the inimitable Moreira Chonquica.

Beyond music

There is no African country that doesn’t have a notable jazz musician these days. Just 25 years ago, it wasn’t this way. But this is not a story about jazz, let alone music, though I will dwell on it.

I mostly bring up African jazz musicians to illustrate a bigger political point about Africa today – how yesterday created today. Sometimes we are too frenzied and overcome by distractions to read the signs.

When I think back, as kids our parents raised us on Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Reeves, and Louis Armstrong. But it was Armstrong who flummoxed me. I had no way of understanding what he was doing. His voice and trumpet were extremely strange to my child’s ears.

I suspect the quest to understand him, so that I wouldn’t be afraid listening to him when I was alone, is how I got lost into the jazz maze - and have never made any effort to find my way out.

Chinua Achebe. (Photo Angela Radulescu/flickr)

There were also the “Negro Spirituals and Slavery Songs”. My mother, a deeply godly and churchy-music adoring woman (may her soul rest in peace), loved them, but to this day I still find them to be too uncomfortable and sad. After many years, I played the ones I had collected only after she died, as a way of remembering her.

Those Americans on VOA

Later, there was Hugh Masekela - and Miriam Makeba of course.  As I entered my teen years, apart from Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim, I didn’t really get to hear much of any other African jazz musician.

In the Africa of the late 1970s and the 1980s, the main source of free jazz music was Voice of America (VOA).

I liked Yvonne Buckley, because she occasionally threw in the more accessible jazz sounds.

It was on her programme that I first heard Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Sadao Watanabe. Interestingly, Kenya’s national broadcaster Voice of Kenya (VOK) then, became a very influential shaper of jazz music for my generation in East Africa.

Its Sundowner programme, certainly among the best there will ever be on radio in Africa, always obliged with a Watanabe, Corea and, yes, Earl Klugh was also their favourite, especially when the programme was hosted by George Opio. 

A Saturday programme by Abdul Haq, or Mike Andrews “Mahamjam” explored as much alternative and avant-garde music as one could get away with in Africa at that time, although for reasons that remained mysterious, they all very much loved Sheila B Devotion, Trio Madjesi, and Osibisa.

And when jazz music began to be more available in music shops in Kampala and Nairobi, the offerings were still limited to Grover Washington, Michael Franks, George Benson, The Crusaders, and Quincy Jones when he was in a generous mood.

But once every week, we would go back to the jazz temple to be purified, with VOA jazz presenter Willis Conover. He was one of a kind. I was devastated when he died in 1996.

Still, at that point, Masekela and Ibrahim were the only major jazz homeboys in contention.

Incredible 30 years journey

Yet, here we are today, and if I chose to spend a year without listening to jazz by a non-African I would not suffer any loss.

It has taken just about 30 years. To understand how this happened, one needs to explore how Africa has changed in significant ways that we often don’t pay attention to.

In the coming months, Mail & Guardian Africa shall in a “Africa 3.0” series of articles try to make sense of these little-acknowledged, but significant, shifts.

A lot of these happened partly by accident, but also because the state-controlled economies, military and one-party dictatorships in Africa of the late 1960s to the end of the 20th century created four types of exiles and dissidents against the political order of the time.

There were those who stood up and were jailed or, more commonly, murdered. There were the ones who laid low and shut up. Others fled abroad and spoke up and organised against the tyrants back home from there. And, finally, there were those who stayed and found spaces where they could be creative without being found out.

They hid in football, and engineered the rise of club football on the continent; they took refuge in academia; in theatre and satire, and in music. A lot of introspection took place in Africa in this period, but no one had time then to think about how the activities driven underground or subterfuge would manifest themselves in future.

Nelson Mandela - AFP

The story has been long told how a similar soul-searching and questioning that happened in the anti-colonial and immediate post-independence age, became expressed in great literature, and gave birth to writers like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka; Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz; in the anti-apartheid context in South Africa, Nadine Gordimer, Ezekiel (later Es’kia) Mphahlele, to name a few. And, of course, Nigeria offered us the ultimate rebel – musician and polygamist extraordinaire Fela Kuti.

Then the Cold War ended, and capitalism triumphed. In South Africa in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. In 1994 the world was to be horrified by the Rwanda genocide in which a million people were slaughtered.

We were in for a rollercoaster ride of our lives, but we didn’t know it then. Those are the stories we are going to tell.

*To be continued.


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