Soweto Blues—Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa
Continuum Intl Pub Group, 2004
Reviewed by Bernard Cros
Politics influence culture. This assertion finds a brilliant illustration in Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues—Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa. The enjoyable narrative derives from a radio show, Ubuyile (Coming Home), based upon 80 hours of interviews with popular music and jazz artists, set against historical and political facts. It runs along chronological lines, 7 of the 8 chapters dealing with a specific period, and describes the development of jazz, the most noble and representative sibling of South African music, but also of other popular styles—from the 1930s marabi to the choral isicathamiya and mbube (named after a 1939 song adapted later as The Lion Sleeps Tonight), kwela, the 1950s street-music, the urban mbaqanga and the 1990s kwaito, house music with rap lyrics, and hip-hop-inspired pantsula—and the artists that brought them about. All of them emerged from particular political circumstances.
Chapters 1 & 2 sum up South Africa’s music’s history from the late 1800s to the early 1940s, insisting on larger historical developments—the swift urbanisation and industrialisation, the expansion of railways (many tunes imitated the engine’s syncopated sound, while the train taking the men away to work in the mines was recurrent in lyrics)— but also the arrival of American singers, dancers and jazz records. From the onset, Ansell insists on a recurrent feature: hybridity—exchange between diverse people, interpenetration of ideas and sounds, mix of instruments, facilitated by the growth of urban areas, which brought thousands of black men in closed compounds near the mines where one of the rare forms of collective leisure was music. Mutual borrowings have ensured the constant reinvention of musical tradition in this land of extraordinary diversity.
The title (imposed by the American publisher) is deceiving. Though Soweto is essential, South African music has thrived across the whole land. Take Cape Town, the Mother City, where it all began, not just for the country, but also for music. The port of entry for foreign sound and musicians, liberal Cape Town was the crucible where external and native elements welded. Jazz music also got to a land with a very rich musical life. Traditional rural music with choral a cappella singing, rhythmic patterns, religious hymns and musical discipline brought by missionaries, Western (piano, brass and reed instruments) and local instruments were features of early modern South African music. American music always had privileged access. Various jazz styles were regularly incorporated: ragtime, swing, be-bop, hard bop, later still free jazz; but so were other styles—vaudeville, cowboy songs, tap-dancing, rap music, all found their way into local music at some point, in combination with African tunes and rhythms, thus contributing to an original cultural expression.
The central chapters deal with the interaction of the segregation policies and music. They show how a culture can be thoroughly suppressed by an adverse ideology supported by ruthless coercive forces, and how it can resist and adapt to even the worst circumstances. In the early 1940s, forced removals of blacks in suburban areas virtually killed marabi, which belonged to “the culture of a non-tribal working-class in formation” , exactly what government always thought South Africa was not about. The situation worsened when the Afrikaner nationalist party was elected to run the country in 1948. In keeping with apartheid tenets, authorities considered that jazz was “too sophisticated” for black people. So, white musicians played to audiences on stage miming the pieces, while behind the curtain a black musician actually performed . Black, coloured and even certain Jewish musicians had to sport English names if they wanted to get airtime on the radio.
Resistance organised. It is described in the beautiful pages dedicated to Sophiatown, the “Athens on the Reef,” a rare freehold area west of Johannesburg, which remained a centre for artistic creation, racial mixing and liberal politics until the late 1950s. American influence was at its apex. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, were big, Jonas Gwangwa learned to handle his trombone by watching a Glenn Miller picture, and all bands took on English names (the famous be-bop Jazz Epistles recorded the first ever South African jazz record in 1959). This was where modern South African jazz was moulded by the likes of Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand or Miriam Makeba, whose pictures filled the pages of Drum, the magazine which reported on South Africa’s “real” cultural life. Naturally, the government decided to raze this symbol of the fertility of cultural crossover, a “black spot” (like District 6 in Cape Town) that was in contradiction with its separatist policies. Despite active opposition, in which artists played no mean part, Sophiatown had ceased to exist by 1964 and was replaced by a white suburb christened Triomf.
In the meantime, 69 blacks had been ruthlessly killed at Sharpeville (March 1960). South Africa became a nation under siege. Chapter 4 recounts how the government increased its repression of opponents, particularly of artists, who bore the brunt as symbols of defiance. Like sports, music had been a way out of poverty, but life had now become almost impossible for jazz artists [95-96]. They were persecuted, as were a small group of venue owners, mostly dedicated white individuals. All jazz venues were closed down. Musicians explain in their own moving words some of the lengths they had to go to so as to bypass apartheid laws. Beating the Special Branch officers who intimidated them, the passes, the curfews or the insufficient means of transportation to reach clandestine venues, was a daily headache. Victims of what is improperly called “petty apartheid” (its concrete effects made it all but petty), musicians often ended in jail for breaking one of the innumerable statutes designed to restrict racial contacts. Ansell doesn’t shy away from a sad consequence of the times, heavy drinking. As one musician puts it, besides prison or exile, “the only other option was to drink yourself to death” . The government-controlled SABC radio limited the amount of jazz, especially when played by South Africans, preferring to broadcast traditional tribal music which illustrated cultural purity and authenticity (jazz being a foreign style adulterated by countless borrowings. (87, 110]). Accepted styles, like the a cappella isicathamiya, which developed in the 1960s, were not necessarily subservient to the authorities. Some authors doctored their lyrics to fool the censors and convey political messages .
Whether they wanted it or not, artists were drawn into politics by their sheer trade, which made them flirt with the limits of apartheid. Jazz was thus almost destroyed by apartheid. Some artists chose to stay and accept whatever little work was available within the limits of the law, sometimes compromising their artistic integrity in the process; others tried to continue to work undercover; others still preferred to go into exile rather than suffer the humiliation of having to be like castaways in their own land. Chapter 7 describes how a generation of talented artists were forced out of the country, a genuine “flood” , and continued the history of South African jazz outside the borders of the country (Masekela, Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, etc.). Ironically, some of them took part in South Africa’s first jazz opera King Kong (1959), which the government thought would be good propaganda for the regime. They gave them passports for a world tour—most artists never returned. Ansell quickly dispels the myth of a golden exile. It was hard, especially for those who wanted to make it in jazz’s own country. In the United States, Miriam Makeba won a Grammy Award in 1965, but she and her husband, Hugh Masekela, who had become prominent anti-apartheid activists and tried to awaken Western consciousnesses, were watched by the FBI at a time when the US was a firm ally of the South African government in its anti-Communist crusade. Professionally, the US jazz scene was tough for foreigners who claimed to play a music that had been invented there. Europe was more open, while trips to Africa allowed some artists to explore their Africanity.
The late 1960s and 1970s (Chapter 5) were a time of local revival, in the wake of the Black Consciousness movement, led by Steve Biko, itself inspired by the radical struggle for civic rights of Black Americans. Musically, soul music and rhythm and blues made their way into South Africa and contributed to the emergence of “socially aware music” , which ran against the stream of fixed rural ethnic sound. This movement remained largely underground and unofficial venues were regularly raided. The 1970s saw the development of local “pop”, to fill the void created by the persecution of jazz, but repression was still high by virtue of censorship laws—a homemade cassette containing one track of the Miriam Makeba-Harry Belafonte album earned its owner a five year jail sentence .
Ansell also explores the cases of foreign artists coming to South Africa and their relationship to the racial situation. (More could probably have been said, but the issue is not at the heart of her book.) For them, as for others, the 1976 Soweto rising was a watershed. Before, it was not necessarily shameful to perform in South Africa; after, it became much more complex. Ansell thus opposes Percy Sledge—a black soul singer— who only wanted to cash in and “let my fans see me” , and French conductor Maurice Jarre who wanted to play with black musicians and managed to get bass player Victor Ntoni to fly to the United States and take classes at the Berklee School of Music. Dizzy Gillespie was another high-profile musician to get actively involved in the cultural struggle which now made front-page news.
In the 1980s (chapter 6 Jazz for the Struggle), under the state of emergency (1984-90), music and culture came to centre stage again by fusing directly with the struggle against apartheid. Artists began to organise resistance groups (like Medu) inside and outside South Africa. Some took part in the political struggle by joining the United Democratic Front founded in 1983. Others performed at the Culture and Arts festival organized in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in 1982, which gathered thousands of delegates from across the planet just a few miles outside South Africa. In June 1985, the apartheid state, feeling under siege, intensified its repression, sending a commando to Gaborone to raid the houses of artists, seeking proofs of links with the banned ANC, stealing documents—and killing 15 (children among them). Ansell examines the worldwide cultural boycott that was established in the early 1980s a bit too rapidly, but she underlines its core contradiction. Most of the artists declared that the boycott was good for the cause and for their music, because by forcing local musicians to rely on their own strengths and resources, it helped to forge a “national popular sound” . Yet liberals violently denounced Paul Simon’s work with local musicians, which resulted in Graceland, the first “world music” LP in 1986, for breaking the boycott, but those musicians who took part in the recordings were grateful for an opening which allowed many of them to be known abroad, and brought an influx of Western sound and technique that was most fruitful (“a two-way traffic” as one of them says ). Thus music encapsulated an essential issue of South Africa in the 1980s. After 1985, more and more racially—and musically—mixed groups appeared (like Johnny Clegg and Savuka who had been there for almost ten years). Almost all styles were now criticising the regime, including an improbable… “Boerepunk”. It was now culture that was contributing to a change in politics. Apartheid was about to exit the stage.
The end of apartheid and the democratisation of the regime, covered in the final chapter, brought both freedom and new constraints for artists. Artists were avid for exchange and creative freedom, there was a rush to open venues for concerts, but foreign aid which helped sustain so many artists during the dark years dried up almost immediately after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As the state “did not pick up the bill”, musicians had to look out for themselves in the new global market-place of “cultural industries” . Ansell illustrates how hard it is today to come to terms with the new dispensation. With South Africa’s reinsertion into international networks, foreign music poured into the country while some musicians went for the profitable imitation of American sound, leaving aside the exploration of original creation and identity. “It’s so unfortunate that people here are trying to copy things like gangsta rap, based on a culture that’s about 2 millimetres deep, when we have a culture here that is measurelessly deep” (pianist Paul Hanmer 268). Jazz, a key symbol of resistance in the struggle but uneasy to market for a profit, has been reduced to a “niche music” . The local scene remains active, with internationally renowned festivals and musicians, but lack of funding is threatening. On a grimmer note, some modern pop musicians prefer to “highlight their ethnicity [Zulus especially] and downplay their urbanity”  to please a restricted audience instead of trying to appeal to urban youth at large. One lesson is that apartheid may have won in reifying ethnic differences, polluting the much-vaunted “nation-building process” and the emergence of a truly national identity. What music has not lost though is its capacity to comment on social and political life.
Ansell, a journalist, lets the protagonists do the storytelling; idiosyncrasies are reproduced directly from the recordings and it works well—but only up to a point, because the use of four or five consecutive excerpts to illustrate one point when one or two would have been enough tends to blur the larger picture. Finally, the author, like many enthusiast specialists, cannot always refrain from diving into very intricate details on certain subjects (like rhythms and arrangements) that are of little importance to the average reader. But that must not be a deterrent. Soweto Blues constitutes a comprehensive resource for all students of the subject, complete with an excellent index, a glossary listing the musical vocabulary specific to South Africa, a useful appendix with a short biography of the interviewees, and a bibliography with all the major writings on the subject for those willing to go deeper into the exploration of South African popular music.