SA piano wizard hits high note and all that swinging jazz

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Nduduzo Makhathini is head of the music department at Fort Hare University.
Nduduzo Makhathini is head of the music department at Fort Hare University.
Image: THULI DLAMINI

Today, my friend, let's walk away from the madding crowds. Leave the politicians to their bickering about who is the worst spouse abuser among them.

Let's leave them to FW de Klerk's half-hearted disavowal of apartheid.

Hand in hand, you and I, let's walk down memory lane. We're singing the blues.

Here we are, in 1952, smack in the middle of Sophiatown. The ghetto is swingin' and shakin' to the sounds of jazz.

The cats are in Brooks Brothers suits. Stetson hats. Florsheim shoes. The dames in floral dresses. Pillbox hats. White gloves. Stiletto shoes. Massive figure belts. Dig that.

Meet the Harlem Swingers. The Manhattan Brothers. The Black Inkspots. The Jazz Epistles. The names of the bands pay homage to America. Their sartorial elegance mirrors the African American musicians they've seen in movies such as Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Dig that.

Jazz music celebrates freedom. Hell, jazz is freedom. But here's the irony. This music of freedom is gaining root just as the National Party, which took power as SA's ruling party as recently as 1948, is about to officially take away whatever freedoms the people of SA have enjoyed thus far.

Away with freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom to love across the colour line. All imaginable freedoms. Dig it.

Ah, that past. But you know what? Jazz still could not be silenced. Not even after the apartheid government had got rid of Sophiatown, District Six and Cato Manor, and other neighbourhoods which defied apartheid with nonracial profiles.

Yes, the major proponents of local jazz, such as Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Todd Matshikiza and others fled into exile. But the seed had been planted.

Over many generations, SA musical forms came and went. Kwela, mbhaqanga, msakazo, Afro-disco, etc.

Battered but not beaten, what kept the music alive was that it was part of an international exchange.

While our musicians were fleeing to America, black Americans, inspired by the independence of many African countries in the 1950s and 1960s, started coming to Africa - generally through their music.

One thinks of Art Blakey's A Message from Kenya, Guy Warren's Africa Speaks, America Answers, John Coltrane's Liberia. After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Max Roach released Freedom Now Suite - We Insist. It's an angry, impassioned call for the end of apartheid.

The transnational conversation through jazz is a long-established reality.

My thoughts on this subject were sparked by a not-so-recent announcement relating to Nduduzo Makhathini. Our own jazz piano wizard has been signed with the prestigious US jazz record label Blue Note Records.

Many of our jazz cats spent years performing and living in the US. We have bought hundreds of thousands of albums by US jazz cats.

But Gxabhashe - his clan name - is the first South African to sign with this label which is home to such great dead and living artists as Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Blakey.

I've known Gxabhashe for many years, back to his days as a back-up pianist for the late saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. Together they toured the world.

Gxabhashe is now a band leader with numerous albums under his belt and the head of the music department at Fort Hare University. On April 3, he releases his new album Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds.

If you're hip to the fecundity of the SA jazz tradition, you can't help but celebrate the rise of this son of the soil. You dig?

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