Sounds of South Africa come to the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival

In the country’s apartheid past, interracial jazz bands helped to break down barriers and unite people

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      Louis Moholo-Moholo has a curious but plausible explanation for why he became a drummer, and it involves Brits in sailor suits. It’s not the garb that’s the oddity here, though. Cape Town, South Africa, where he grew up, was home to a significant portion of the British navy in the years following the Second World War. It’s a well-known fact that off-duty seamen have an endless appetite for drinking and dancing, and at the time their music of choice was jazz.

      And who was the biggest star in jazz at the time? Louis Armstrong, often accompanied on drums by the extroverted yet ever-tasteful Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett.

      “I fell in love with this Big Sid Catlett cat,” Moholo-Moholo recalls, reached at his home in Cape Town. “And, fortunately, my parents had a radio, so we were listening to that as well. I remember listening to cats like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, so I also got some inspiration from them, initially. I just liked this music as kids would do—you know, I’d just jump about to it—but it interested me a lot. I didn’t know where it came from, but I really liked it. I really liked it, and little did I know that I was going to do the same thing once I grew up.”

      In an odd parallel to what would happen a decade later in Liverpool, the British sailors and merchant seamen who passed through Cape Town were a major source of coveted 78-rpm records. But while the rockabilly and R & B discs that filtered into the Mersey port would spur the formation of the Beatles and, arguably, the youth movement of the 1960s, the impact of jazz on South Africa rarely gets more than a glance in the history books.

      There’s a good chance, though, that the country as we know it today would not exist without those fragile Armstrong and Duke Ellington sides, and the interracial bands that soon learned to play the music of their American idols.

      “In South Africa, music was something that broke down barriers, jazz music especially,” says R & B and electronica singer Zaki Ibrahim, who like Moholo-Moholo is one of the artists who’ll be featured in the Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s five-concert South Africa Now! series. The daughter of underground broadcaster and anti-apartheid activist Zane Ibrahim, she’s still using music to bring people together, although more to party than to protest.

      “The jazz clubs were the place where there were interracial couples, and a lot of freedom-fighter meetings were held in music circles,” Ibrahim continues, in a phone interview from her Canadian mother’s Nanaimo home. “The thing is that music, like broadcasting, is a powerful tool to unite people and to really go against the grain.”

      While anything recognizable as protest music was heavily censored by the South African authorities, as a primarily instrumental form jazz initially slipped past their scrutiny.

      “Jazz music’s got that obscurity going on,” Ibrahim notes. “You can’t really say much about it, but you know that it’s saying something. It’s got a cryptic message encoded in it.

      “Abdullah Ibrahim is a really good example, with his song ‘Mannenberg’,” she adds, citing the veteran pianist and author of South Africa’s unofficial anthem, who is also booked for South Africa Now! (Ibrahim is a common South African name; the two are not related.) “He learned that tune in the streets of Kensington and District Six and the Cape Flats: it was a tune for the people, if you know what I mean. And it’s just a tune. It doesn’t say ‘Rise up’ or ‘Fight apartheid,’ but it was so powerful, that repeated tune.

      “I’ve seen people my dad’s age and older burst into tears when they hear certain tunes like that. It might sound like the kind of happy-go-lucky, jolly tune that you could whistle, but they would burst into tears and start swaying and look at each other knowingly. Those tunes were anthems.”

      Eventually, the apartheid state caught on and cracked down. Interracial fraternization became impossible, jazz gigs dried up, and many of the country’s activists and musicians went into exile, self-imposed or otherwise. Abdullah Ibrahim moved to Zurich. Zaki Ibrahim’s father went to Vancouver Island—where, the now Cape Town–based artist says with a laugh, she was conceived. Moholo-Moholo and his near-legendary band the Blue Notes went to London—and this is where the musical side of the story gets even more interesting.

      In 1965, when Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Dyani, and pianist Chris McGregor landed in the British capital, it was in a state of extreme cultural ferment—in art, in fashion, and most definitely in music. Radicals like saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey were developing a new and extreme version of the “free jazz” coming out of the U.S., and while the Blue Notes and their colleagues never lost their fondness for hummable township melodies, they were beginning to explode those structures in a similarly creative manner. The influx of their charisma, intensity, and superlative technique validated the British musicians’ efforts: all of a sudden, not only was it possible to make new forms of jazz that were distinct from the American model, it was necessary.

      “Coming from the political situation they did, the South Africans had a very unique and very pressing perspective on what it means to be free,” says the British pianist Alexander Hawkins, a serious student of improv history who’ll appear here as part of Moholo-Moholo’s quartet. “Whereas in the U.K. there tended to be a doctrinal understanding—we had to be free from harmony, free from metre, free from these kinds of bourgeois constructs—I think the South Africans had a different conception of freedom: this idea of being free to do things, rather than freedom from things. Of course, they were happy collaborating with [avant-gardists] Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, John Stevens, and Keith Tippett, but they were also free to play tunes. They played these South African melodies and formed groups like the Afro-rock band Assagai and so on. They’re very interesting in how they bear out this idea of freedom.”

      Hawkins points out that Moholo-Moholo and Dyani were the rhythm section on what’s arguably the first recording of completely free improvisation, Steve Lacy’s The Forest and the Zoo, from 1967. “I think they’re an absolutely integral part of not only the British scene but also the European scene,” he adds. “The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood [of Breath, McGregor’s later band] were absolute linchpins of European festival programming, and they were right at the forefront of European consciousness.”

      Without them, many Vancouver International Jazz Festival staples—the musicians of the English scene, with their acute avoidance of obvious form, and those from Scandinavia, who often perform radical surgery on folk-inflected structures—would sound very different today. None of this much impresses Moholo-Moholo, however. Even at 75, he’s a man of action, as his hyperkinetic performances continue to prove.

      “We didn’t plan this thing like composing a song,” he says. “Like, it just goes whichever way it goes. You don’t really sit down and think, ‘One day, I’m going to match jazz with South African music.’ It’s just what’s in your heart. There are other people who judge us in this way, saying that we mixed jazz with music from Europe and South African music, but that feeling is not really there when you compose. You just write, and then you realize what you’ve done from people telling you this, that, and the other—people who like to analyze things and put them in pigeon boxes, you know.

      “Because you are a good citizen and a good fellow and all that, a good person, you tend to agree sometimes to what people suggest,” he adds, chuckling. “You’re a servant of the people, anyway.”

      What’s more significant than the music’s historical importance, he stresses, is its emotional content. “You know what? When Mongezi died, we were so messed up—so fucked up, right?—but we went steadily into the studio,” he explains, citing the recording sessions for the classic Blue Notes for Mongezi album as an example of music’s transformative power. “So you’re sitting at the drums, in the studio, two days after your friend has died, your dear, dear, dearest friend. And you carry this with you, and it’s like ‘Let’s play.’ So we play and, like, joy comes in. Sadness comes in. A lot of other things come in, and two hours go by, and then you’re listening to the record that you’ve just done and it’s amazing, man!

      “You wonder how you did it,” he continues. “You carry this sadness and all this sorrow with you, yet it’s a joy to play. Some people will say it’s a joy to cry as well. You know what I mean? And music, man, it just has this magic about it. The god of music will always cool you out.”

      South Africa has cooled out considerably since winning its freedom: the country is no paradise, but it’s far from the racist hell that it was during the 1960s and ’70s. And it’s once again becoming the cultural hub that Moholo-Moholo and Abdullah Ibrahim experienced when they were growing up. This time, though, the “sailors” are the globetrotting producers of the EDM scene, who are seeking out South Africa Now! artists like Zaki Ibrahim, the Afro-pop band Freshly Ground, and pianist Kyle Shepherd to create new forms of African funk.

      “It may seem like it’s at the edge of the world, but South Africa is also this interesting port of creativity,” Zaki Ibrahim says. “A lot of very interesting things are born there, or move through there—and everything is connected.”

      For the full South Africa Now! schedule, see the Coastal Jazz website.