Jazz beat takes root and blossoms in South Africa

The jazz beat. These days, it is the most popular sound in South Africa. File

Africa has entertaining cultural experiences it will put on display any day. On a scale of 10, jazz could be somewhere below two in most of Africa. But not in South Africa that has found a way of dancing to the genre, making it a juicy item on their cultural offering.

Every April since 2000 the country, currently led by President Jacob Zuma (a man with superb dancing skills), hosts the Cape Town International Jazz Festival; shebeens in the townships play regular doses of the genre as do other glowing festivals across the rainbow nation. It is a country always celebrating jazz culture, the South African way.

In Cape Town this April, the trumpets were sounded, guitars plucked and shakers and other non-traditional jazz instruments played. It was a feast of sounds and steps witnessed by thousands. As a mark of its popularity, tickets sold out several days ahead of the two days event.

For over a decade, the event has staged what is easily an international musical experience: best of international artistes playing alongside African counterparts, some already on the international list of the famous, others on their way up there.

The country’s spirit reverberates here: the stomping beat, the traditional moves and messages that easily blend. South Africa is a diverse country with a long history of interaction with the rest of the world, especially due to her position in Africa. Down in Jo’burg and other South African cities, jazz is one of the most popular sounds shaped over years. This has a lot to do with the country’s liberation history and interactions with the outside world.

“The festival is helping to cultivate a unique new brand of South African tourism, which affords us yet another tool to market the country’s veritable diversity and unique combinations of tourism offerings,” said Ms January McLean, the CEO South African Tourism.

Tourism promotion

This is the statutory body mandated with the promotion of the country’s tourism sector. It is therefore no coincidence that South Africa enjoys rhythms of jazz and has managed to mainstream what has traditionally been a very exclusive sound.

Prof HotepIdrisGaleta, a music historian, says that South African jazz was given its wide audience by the liberation struggle that lasted for years.

In the beginning were Africans uprooted from their homelands to America where they absorbed a bit of European and other cultural influences that were to infect their traditional music, and thus conceiving the jazz beat.

Back in South Africa, the diverse peoples that make up the population have immensely contributed to the growth of the jazz beat over the years, to a level where you can easily trace the idiosyncratic beat wherever it is played. But there are different shades in between. As early as June 30, 1889, the Virginia Jubilee Singers from Hampton, Virginia, staged a concert in Cape Town. In the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa choral tradition that has existed over the years, influenced the performing culture in a great way.

After the First World War, a White Orleans band called The Original New Orleans Dixieland Band, recorded the first jazz album in South Africa. Through Cape Town, the album entered South Africa. Then, it was still a white affair, but when the radio and gramophone finally found their way into the black townships, a truly South African jazz beat started to form.

It was in Queenstown in Eastern Cape where jazz took on the South African character, a region with black South Africans who had benefited from the British missionary education. In the 20s, Queenstown was named South Africa’s little jazz town.

Years later, Johannesburg became the experimental ground for the country’s artistes, bringing in the different sounds like Marabi and Mbaqanga to the traditionally non-conformist genre. When Sophiatown and other black settlements around the country were destroyed and residents moved to black settlements, artistes were denied multiracial audiences they once played for.

Workshop of ideas

In some instances, black artistes would sneak into white entertainment joints to play alongside their white counterparts. Throughout the struggle, jazz became a big player, introducing the marching, stomping and all manner of sounds that are easily associated with the music in the country. It also endeared itself to the masses as a democratic sound, earning the prestigious position that it currently enjoys in the country.

These days, it is the most popular sound in South Africa. Several jazz festivals, including Cape Town Jazz festival, are held every year to celebrate it; diverse styles have their place in the arena.

“With this two-day local lifestyle event creating such a spectacular potential, it is plain to see why South African Tourism and the Department of Arts and Culture have been long time supporters,” said Ms Thandiswe. The festival also becomes an interaction point offering South African artistes a chance to bring out their colours.

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