A Jazz Extravaganza

Written by: Tiisetso Tlelima
Pictures: Tiisetso Tlelima

If you had asked me to accompany you to a jazz concert a few years ago, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. Why go listen to a dull pianist or an excruciating, high-pitched saxophone when I can boogie to Sean Paul’s sultry tunes all night long? I would have thought. I always thought jazz musicians took themselves way too seriously, as if they had invented music which seemed silly considering jazz music only originated at the beginning of the 20th century in New Orleans. No doubt, it influenced other music genres such as bebop, pop, rock and funk. But surely, other forms of music existed before the geat explosion of jazz in the 1920s? What irritated me even more, however, were not the musicians themselves but their eccentric fans who behaved as though they belonged to an exclusive gentlemen’s club.

My recent fixation with jazz music is a bit like the feeling one gets when falling in-love for the first time: unexpected and overwhelming yet revitalizing. I first warmed up to jazz at the 2008 Cape Town International Jazz festival, and I guess you could say that’s when I got bitten by the jazz bug. Perhaps it’s true what they say; the best way to introduce a young person to jazz is through a live jazz experience.

When it comes to jazz music, however, I have what most jazz devotees would call an untrained ear. I am intrigued by people who can instantly identify intricate elements of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis’ music in contemporary jazz. I’m constantly trying to understand what this thing they call jazz is, and so you can imagine how pleased I was to find out I wasn’t the only person grappling with the definition of jazz when I attended the Joy Of Jazz festival last month. “What is jazz?” said saxophonist and former Kippies owner, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse during his performance. Unhappy with the idea of being placed within the confines of jazz he said: “It’s what we call music that we don’t know what to do with.” Mabuse is not the first jazz musician reluctant to define his music. One of the pioneers of jazz music, Duke Ellington, once said “It’s all just music”.

I had never seen Sipho Mabuse live before. He looked different in person. Well, different from old photographs I had seen of him when I was growing up. He no longer wears cheeky tight leather pants; he wore a fine suit instead. And that charming 1980s Chico hairstyle, a South African version of the French Cut, had been replaced with a flat haircut and a trendy hat. “This is a stand-up stage isn’t it?” he shouted. “You wanna dance?” And the crowd yelled: “Yeah!” He started his set with smooth, melodic jazz and slowly warmed up the party by playing more upbeat tunes. By the time he played what he called township jazz, the audience was euphoric.

Of course, his performance would not have been complete if he didn’t play the groovy, disco tune “Burn-out”. But half-way through the song he crushed my hopes of singing along by inviting Speedy and Stoan, who have re-mixed this classic jam into another boring afro-pop song, onto the stage. Judging from the audience’s reaction, it was clear I was the only one who thought the re-mix was atrocious. “Burn-out” was written in 1985 after he split from the group Harari and is by far, Mabuse’s most popular record. He later performed another 80s hit, “Shikisha” before leaving the stage. I saw him again, after the show, exchanging a few words with a fan. He had changed his attire wearing a pair of All Stars, denims and a soft-blue cardigan over his shirt. He reminded me of a hip old man from ekasi.

Next up, on the Mbira stage, was Malian traditional music songstress, Oumou Sangare, affectionately known as “The Songbird of Wassoulou”. World music critics regard her as an ambassador of Wassoulou music - West African music performed by women who live south of the Niger River. I had only learned of Sangare on YouTube a few months before the Joy of Jazz festival. Singing in Bambara, a lingua franca in Mali, her music has a strong Arabic feel and is accompanied by the deep, resonating and jittery sound of the Kora.

She has a strong alto voice and often comes across as a storyteller in her songs. She waltzed onto the stage spinning a calabash strung with cowry shells in the air, in sync with the music, delivering potent call-and-response jams. Dropping contagious tunes from her recent album, Seya, such as the kora-driven and lively “Seya” and the somber “Iyo Djeli”, Sangare’s set was electrifying. She also paid tribute to Malian blues guitarist, Ali “Farka” Toure who died in 2006 after a long battle with cancer. Her show was interactive despite her inability to speak proper English. “I want to speak to you, but I can’t speak English,” she said. At the end of the show she invited amateur drummers from the audience to try their hand at playing djembe drums.

After Sangare’s performance I decided to explore other festival stages. Outside, Newtown was festive, buzzing with activity. Nikki Oasis and Sophiatown restaurants were hosting free live jazz performances for those who couldn’t afford the steep R330 charged to get into each of the four main stages. Performances at these eateries included those of upcoming jazz bands such as Taiwa Jazz Band, afro-jazz fusion band, Wafa Wafa Sound System and Juxtaposed Virtue.

At the Dinaledi stage contemporary American jazz quartet, Fourplay, sent the crowd into a frenzy with its smooth, sing-along love ballads. Fourplay is well-known for its ability to woo a broad mainstream audience that wouldn’t necessarily listen to jazz. So, it was no surprise to see that the band attracted a younger crowd. Dinaledi stage had also been host to afro-soul and neo-soul musos such as Brian Themba, Lalah Hathaway, Putuma and Rahsaan Patterson, who most jazz enthusiasts believe aren’t real jazz musicians.

The crowd that flocked to the Baseline were the exact opposite to the ones at Dinaledi: older, more mature jazz listener who takes notes during a performance. New Orleans violinist, Michael Ward, delivered fiery melodies accompanied by a powerful percussion. If there was any doubt that the violin had a place in jazz Ward certainly removed that doubt.

Back at the Mbira stage, Latin jazz musician and composer Poncho Sanchez was setting the dance floor on fire with Salsa music and his rhythmic conga drum.

By the time I settled down for the last performance for the night, I was exhausted from running around trying to catch all the action. The final performance was from influential Japanese saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe plays alto and soprano saxophones and the flute. Now 77 years old, Watanabe has had the pleasure of playing with various artists from Africa, Latin America, Europe and the U.S.

“He’s blowing the vuvuzela! He’s blowing the vuvuzela!” exclaimed the 40something year-old Japanese man sitting next to me. Playing with a team of youngsters, all under 21, Watanabe played both experimental jazz and mainstream jazz, accommodating a new jazz listener but without alienating existing hardcore jazz fanatics. “He’s getting better with age,” explained the Japanese guy. “In jazz you get better the older you get.” My new friend went on to tell me what a perfectionist Watanabe is. I nodded in agreement. Indeed. His performance was flawless.

On my way home that night, I realized that jazz can be whatever you want it to be. Like all music you can feel it in your chest and sometimes your body tingles. ‘It’s all just music’, as Duke Ellington said.

The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival took place from 26 to 28 August in Newtown.