What is the Role of Classic South African Jazz?

Or the better question to ask is what is our responsibility to classic South African Jazz?

Out with the old and in with the new, the saying says. But it’s our nature as Afropolitans to carry on where “the old” left off. Discarding all that came before is one way to get completely lost on any road. Our role as jazz lovers raised in the oral history tradition of African cultures is, surely, to constantly remember who and what came before.

Events such as the release of Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede (2016) invites us, jazz lovers, to examine and get reacquainted with Africa’s jazz history. More than provide us with new takes on beloved jazz songs, the existence of Belede has shown another side of African jazz.

Jazz and the spiritual are no strangers. Most jazz lovers know of the turn the music of the likes of Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington looked into jazz and their instruments and found their gods. With her rendition of the South African hymn “Warhazulwa,” Thandiswa Mazwai also serves to inform us that African jazz too, has been holy all along.

Innovation is an important part of growing but we need to be cautious that we don’t use it to erase all that came before it. As Africans, we are notorious for forgetting. Suddenly, everything under the sun is new to us and those we came from did nothing. It’s the residue of colonialism that’s taking far too long to wash off.

Beyond a public statue of Kippie Moeketsi, it should be the responsibility of jazz lovers to ensure that his name doesn’t fade. Each innovation and success in South African jazz, stands on the shoulders and work that was done decades ago.

That is our responsibility to classic South African jazz: to make sure it is never erased. The roots of South African jazz must be used as guidance. Sophiatown, a jazz community, was crushed to rubble for its spirit. South African jazz was touched by that and it should never be removed from that – or any other heritage – context.

Take, for instance, Percy Mabandu’s Yakhal’ Inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic: (2015), which, along from drawing from the author’s experiences of jazz in the township of Ga-Rankuwa, pays homage to jazz in the context of resisting apartheid.

It’s our obligation to keep this origin and origin alive be it through statues, song covers, books or just good old oral history telling.

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