The story of South African jazz has been told in venues across New York City since the ’60s, when the likes of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba came to the town as exiles from Johannesburg. The part of the story that came after the country found democracy hasn’t had as much stage time as fans of the genre would say it deserves. It’s this part of the story that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new series of concerts, the South African Songbook, chose to spotlight to kick off its 2019-2020 season.
On Friday night (Sept. 13), the second night of the series, Wynton Marsalis and his 15-piece big band paid homage to some of the artists who make up South Africa’s post-liberation jazz scene, and at the venue where the late Masekela celebrated his 75th birthday in 2014.
“The story of South African jazz did not end in 1994, but rather, it became even richer and more nuanced,” writes Seton Hawkins, Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the program notes. Indeed, the first democratic elections, where the late Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president, became a point of inflection in many jazz artists’ careers. The resulting political and socio-economic challenges the country has had and continues to face have left their mark on jazz, creating a canon of work that has wrestled with themes of identity, freedom and what-comes-next.
In the years following Mandela’s election, jazz musicians have worked to reinforce local traditions while still being open to the influences of the world around them. The genre has moved from being a prolific tool of resistance to a blueprint of hope and reconciliation.
Saxophonist McCoy Mrubata played his 2002 South African Music Award-winning track “Face the Music,” which captures the rich tenor saxophone tradition he has drawn on to explore new paths of expression within jazz. A leading figure in contemporary South African jazz, Mrubata has worked with musicians across all genres to reinterpret tunes from the African and Afrikaans communities, bringing familiar melodies from the Xhosa and Zulu cultures together with Afrikaans folk music to bridge the gaps that once existed.
Mrubtata and the big band played “Qula Kwedini,” from Mrubata’s fellow saxophonist, the late Zim Ngqawana, who poured his own Xhosa traditions into his music in the ‘90s and 2000s. Through him, Ngqawana’s version of the traditional song, affiliated with the rite of passage into manhood that Xhosa men undergo, became a model jazz masterpiece.
Like Ngqawana, the self-taught multi-instrumentalist and composer Bheki Mseleku is no longer alive, having died a decade ago following a long struggle with diabetes. Heralded for his classic rhythm structures, Mseleku created “Mbizo,” arranged for Friday evening’s performance by Ted Nash and performed by Nduduzo Makhathini. Inspired by both Mseleku and Ngqawana, the younger Makhathini wears the influences of both artists proudly, using them as springboard for his own meditations on home and spirituality. Seeing his work as offerings or rituals, Makhathini, a practicing sangoma, gave to the evening’s performance his composition of hope, titled “Ithemba.”
Makhathini embodies the new coming of South African jazz in a way that the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa had begun to, before he cut his life short when he committed suicide at the age of 27 in 2001. Molelekwa, who was considered the brightest hope for a renaissance of South Africa’s jazz culture, synthesized African and western idioms, both traditional and contemporary, and looked to infuse jazz with global music trends. “Rapela,” off Molelekwa’s award-winning album Genes and Spirits, arranged by Carlos Henriquez, showed how the infectious rhythms of Cameroon, West Africa influenced the pianist.
Other highlights of the evening included Thandi Ntuli, who hails from the capital of South Africa, Pretoria, playing “Abyssinia,” a tune she composed on the piano that reflects her cross-cultural mix of America and African traditional music, and vocalist Melanie Scholtz, who grew up in Cape Town, drawing on poet James Matthews for “Weave Me A Fantasy, Child,” which speaks to the possibilities for the country’s future.
Youngers vocalists like Nonhlanhla Kheswa, a former member of The Lion King cast, and Vuyo Sotashe, who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship, are part of a new generation that pick up the diverse strands of South African jazz and take it in new directions.
But, as the compositions selected for the event show, within the variations and styles that South African jazz has come to incorporate, it continues to be a genre of transformation. The evening’s final song, Masekela’s “Send Me (Thuma mina),” was performed by the entire ensemble and captured this. With its popular traditional church chorus highlighting themes of self-sacrifice and individual responsibility, the tune is so evocative and was used by current president Cyril Ramaphosa in his inauguration speech last year as a call to action for all South Africans, jazz musicians and non.
Marsalis and his 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will open this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg later this month, on Sept. 26.