Jazz Column: Jazz On the Fringes of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

Written by: Themba Ziphilele Moyake, Joburg

Themba Ziphilele Moyake is an African Literature student based in Joburg.
In an article titled The Jazz Side of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, Don Albert writes: “Long before Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was translated into the 13 official languages of South Africa, Charlie Haden and Carla Bley rendered it to the language of jazz.”

My initial anxiety which led to the culmination of this article rested on why jazz, despite its international status as a distinct and dominant genre of music, was not being celebrated at World Events such as the World Cup. Apart from making the usual score in a melancholic documentary or a soundtrack in Schindler’s List and so on; jazz seems to have been etched into the confines of particular milieus and therefore, by virtue of a preconceived, biased, historical artistic association, rendered ‘automatically’ incompatible to suit the mood of the blatantly ‘euphoric’ World Cup. However, a large part of my anxiety was appeased by Don Albert’s preamble to this article.

Now Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje and Frederick Douglass are analogous in that both are writers who penned the ‘sorrows’ and inequalities wrought onto Blacks by systems of segregation and oppression. Both writers were concerned with the political liberation of dehumanized Blacks. The popular nomenclature for these types of oppressed peoples is ‘slaves’. Beyond writing, another method for evading and subverting the existing forms of slavery was through music. The songs of black people provided a ‘spiritual’ escape from systems that oppressed them. In America these songs later developed into the ‘blues’ or jazz as we now know it; the music of those in woes hoping for freedom. Like in America “Christianity would affect the development of a musical South African identity in many ways: an emphasis on literacy, the regular performance of hymns and spirituals, the use of the organ and harmonium, and the freedom to perform music and dance on Sundays.” In 1909, Reuben Caluza, a South African musical artist who once studied music in America ‘introduced the organ and piano to larger audiences, popularizing the instruments that dominated early marabi music and incorporated early elements of the American ragtime tradition.’

The blending of musical sounds was already taking place and the old links of the diaspora were being tapped into for a musical development here at home: South Africa.

Now, the National Anthem: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, written and composed by, the now posthumously glorified Xhosa teacher, photographer, and choir master, Enoch Mankayi Sontonga; is written for reasons congruent to reasons of why slaves in America sang.

In this regard, the motifs of jazz and the music of South African ‘spirituals’ neighbour each other. This and more musical relationships indicate the ‘subtle’ blends between American ragtime and African choral music which also signifies the jazz inflected profiles embedded in African choral music. And, by extension: the jazz playing on the fringes of the South African National Anthem.

Although Sontonga’s biography, like Sylvia Colenso’s: the lady who provided piano for the anthem, is dubious largely due to the inadequate documentation of his and her life. One, in trying to establish whether or not there was a direct ‘jazz’ link to the anthem, cannot draw any extensive life narrative from neither Mankayi nor Colenso.

The musical aura of the time though, allows us to creatively tease out clairvoyant deductions from ghost biographies which certainly, at least as far as my observations are concerned, relate the national anthem to jazz. In any case, as Don Albert further emphasizes; “From a jazz point of view jazz musicians are always on the look-out for something to set off an inspirational spark. They will draw on anything that will get their artistic juices flowing. Even national anthems are not off limits.”

Following the mnemonics of both Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi and Moses Mphahlele, who respectively added both the Zulu and Sotho versions of the National Anthem, I also, with the assurance of Don Albert’s attuned vista, add a contemporary variation to the historical, often narrowing consumptions of jazz. The lead jazz gave to me this time around led me into a quagmire. A quagmire revealing: history, glory, music, identity, mystery, and jazz playing on the fringes of the national anthem.