Umthandazo weJazz (Jazz Prayer for Peace)

by Jul 20, 2021Amandla, Amandla! Online

Umthandazo weJazz (Jazz Prayer for Peace)

Dinga Sikwebu | Amandla Online | 20 July 2021

On 18 July 2021, Dinga Sikwebu gave an input to a gathering held at a restaurant in Sandton called eDikeni. The event was organised by Joburg-based jazz musicians, eDikeni and other people. It was also meant to mobilise support for Abahlai baseMjondolo, including the community of their national spokesperson Thapelo Mohapi.

Introduction

Let me first extend my gratitude to the organisers: The events of the last 8-days, and the death of 212 people have opened gaping wounds in our society. They demand deep soul-searching on what needs to be done. There is also too much pain around us.  As Ray Phiri & Nana Coyote said in their popular 1986 Stimela song, ‘Whispers in the Deep’:

We are all tributaries of that great of river of pain
Flowing into one ocean
There is only one ocean
All our pain flowing into it

Music, and jazz in particular are historically allied to mourning and commemoration. If on takes for instance Stanley Cowell’s ‘Prayer for Peace’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfmhe9UMLJc&t=156s written in the middle of the war in Vietnam, we can appreciate that what you have organised today is part of the jazz tradition. As a response to the Sharpeville massacre, US drummer Max Roach recorded ‘Tears for Johannesburg’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgNWYmgdO5Q in August 1960. ‘Our Prayer’ is a title that the Chris McGregor’s trio with Barre Phillips on bass and Louis Moholo on drums, gave to a song that the band recorded in 1969. Zim Ngqawana, also has his ‘Umthandazo (Prayer)’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8Qv-tM9hBo in his album, Zimology. Pianist Thandi Ntuli turns to ‘umthandazo’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad0Hg06Wdrk in her 2018 recording, Exile.

Indeed, jazz is a great contributor to a sub-genre called ‘musical retrospection’; rooted in prayer, commemoration and mourning. Sisonke Xonti’s composition ‘Minneapolis’ that was written in response to the killing in May 2020 of George Floyd by a white police officer from the Minneapolis Police Department, falls into this sub-genre.  

Secondly, let me also thank the people gathered at eDikeni. Many of us are longing for fellowship; being with people we love or share common interests with. Connectedness between people is being dismembered daily. Not spared is even connectedness to ourselves. Relations between people are being severed all round. Unfortunately, Zoom connections and MS-Teams meetings are unable to replace traditional ways of connecting. Thanks to Yonela Mnana’s Trio (with bassist Dalisu Ndlazi and drummer Siphiwe Shiburi) and the band’s guest saxophonist Sisonke Xonti for closing the first set of ‘Umthandazo we Jazz’ with John Coltrane’s ‘Lonnie’s Lament’. Known for his reluctance to vocalise his political views, Coltrane took to his horn and to record ‘Alabama’  and to express his anger triggered by the death of four girls who were killed when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a church that served as a venue for civil rights mass meetings in Birmingham, Alabama.

Dismembering connectedness:

There are many causes to the butchering of human connections. Firstly, the pandemic and associated lockdowns are barring what humans have done throughout their existence; that is to connect and gather. Secondly, in a world where personal relations are highly monetized, the absence of income and loss of jobs are a further strain to relations between people.

As we all know, watching and listening to live music as opposed to hearing  a recording are very much  part of the whole musical experience. Unfortunately, the pandemic robs us of this experience. Here, I am not referring to the so-called jazz festivals which are not about music, but are pilgrimages bathed in corporate pomp and commercial showmanship driven by sponsor demands.  What the pandemic takes away from us, are gatherings that normally occur when jazz appreciators meet to share music. As the slogan of these jazz appreciation societies reminds us: “ijazz ayinamona (jazz jettisons jealousy), ayinanzondo (grudge does not propel jazz) and ayifuni okunakwayo kodwa (jazz does not promote individualism). Jazz appreciators know: “Don’t listen alone. Jazz is there to be shared”. Unfortunately, the pandemic makes the gatherings where we share music difficult, if not impossible. In addition to being unable to gather, there is also too much death and loss within the jazz family. Just this morning, we woke up to the news of guitarist Lawrence Matshiza’s passing.

But it is not only jazz lovers who are experiencing loss and are unable to gather. People cannot go to their stokvels and societies to connect. People cannot worship together. We cannot bury those who abruptly and without notice leave us forever. We are also unable to comfort each other in times of bereavement. The inability to connect is leading to anxieties. We are definitely living in an ‘age of uncertainties’.

The events of the last few days, exacerbate anxiety. They have led to many people in the affected communities not being able to buy bread. Even those with money have been unable to withdraw cash because of the destruction of ATMs and closed banks. I hope through this ‘Umthandazo we Jazz’, we can figure out how to deal with the situation that is causing anxiety and uncertainty. We have to find ways to get out of the political and economic morass that led to the explosion that hit us last week. Serious thinking of how to get out of the socio-economic rut and the deep racialised furrows that we are in, is required. If we don’t find a map out, we will see a repeat of the volcano that engulfed us in the last 8-days. 

The need for ‘an aesthetics of hope’

To move forward, I suggest that one of the things that we desperately need, is what Sophia A. McClennen calls ‘an aesthetics of hope’. Based on a study of the work of Chilean activist and literary giant Ariel Dorfman, McClennen defines ‘an aesthetics of hope’ as artistic expressions and literary practices “dedicated to the conviction that art plays an essential role in how we remember the past and imagine the future”. McClennen identifies the following as the core features of ‘an aesthetics of hope’:

  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ is based on a belief that hope brings together desire and expectation, and that both these phenomena are products of past and present experiences. Because hope emerges out of individual and communal experiences, it is therefore not some airy-fairy notion. It is concrete and real.
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ is an approach that sees art as having the ability to reach back to the past, give a diagnosis of the present and project a future. In this way, ‘an aesthetics of hope’ connects and is a bridge to the past, the present and the future.
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ is a perspective that sees hope as based on both reason/rationality and emotion, and sees no binaries between knowledge and feelings, and between mental and sensual.  
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ believes that hope enables us to “imagine the impossible, to see beyond the given, and to propose concrete alternatives visions”. This utopian nature of ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is necessary for resistance, struggle and political agency.
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ works on the basis that hope is not just a solitary or individual desire. For realisation of hope, collective agency is required. “An aesthetics of hope speaks to an individual within a collective”. 
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ believes that hope does not eliminate doubt, questioning and skepticism. There are therefore, differences between hope and ‘banal or blind optimism’. 
  • Art that is inspired by ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is not some form of individual and mental catharsis. Art that is inspired by ‘an aesthetics of hope’ seeks collective solutions to social dilemmas and “depends on the intersection of the self, an external reality and imagination”.  Again, there is no separation between mind and body.
  • To qualify, art that is inspired by ‘an aesthetics of hope’ must forge provocative connections with audiences, eschew the aesthetic of individualism, and support the association of the individual and the community.
  • ‘An aesthetic of hope’ assumes an allied relationship between art and social rebellion. Art that is framed by ‘an aesthetic of hope’ orientates to protest and struggle.
  • Art inspired by ‘an aesthetic of hope’ must all the time reflect on both “brutal reality and a hopeful future”.

Centring hope in the period that we are going through is vital. It is my strong belief that however justifiable and necessary anger is, rage is inherently unable to sustain emancipatory politics and build broad movements for change. Rage-centred politics may be powerful in their critique of the present but are weak on sketching alternative futures. Given their overemphasis on critique and their eagerness to destroy the status quo, rage-centred politics are unable to win concrete demands that movements are generally built on.

To catalyse change, we need hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Today’s miseries must never block us from dreaming of a better future. As it is always said from the pulpit: Indlala nentshutshiso yakaloku nje, azinakuthelekiswa nentlutha ezayo (Today’s misery, hunger and persecution must not take away our ability to dream of possibilities to reap bountifully in the future).  We must always tell oppressors and exploiters as well as their hangers-on that they can take everything that we have, but we will not let them rob us of our ability to dream about freedom, emancipation and an alternative future. The ‘dreams of freedom’ are what inspired slaves to resist enslavement, to fight inside slave ships, to revolt in plantations and seek refuge in maroon settlements. The ‘dreams of a different and better future’ kept colonised people hopeful and gave them an appreciation of their power to change oppressive conditions.

As an activist, I can identify moments where jazz provided us ‘an aesthetics of hope’. The first example I want to share involves Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Soweto is where it’s at’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FF03w6Pajlg. The tune is on Side B of the pianist’s 1975 African Herbs LP and features bassist Sipho Gumede, drummer Peter Morake, alto saxophonist Barney Rachabane, tenor saxophonist Basil Coetzee, saxophonist Duku Makasi and trumpeter Dennis Mpale. When the album came out, it was an era of ‘bump dance’ and I suspect that by releasing the recording Rashid Vally’s As-Shams/The Sun recording company was keen to capitalise on the commercial success of an earlier release, ‘Mannenberg’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-irE1AEH8Qg. A while back and in an interview with one of that era’s musicians, I was made aware that after the release of ‘Mannenberg’ in 1974, every jazz artist tried to come up with a long enough tune that could get a party going, sustain the get-together, keep the ‘bump dancers’ at it, and on the floor through the night.  ‘Soweto is where it’s at’ was not different to the songs of the time, until June 16 exploded a few months after its release. The title of the track proved prophetic, and literally and in a painful way, Soweto is where things were happening.

But to us as activists of the time, what is interesting is how what was initially a ‘bump dance’ tune became a song not to forget the 1976 uprising. The wailing baby in the prelude of the song captured the pain and grief of the period. I recall ‘Soweto is where it’s at’ being played in commemoration services in 1977 and thereafter. With the tune in the background, a young Fitzroy Ngcukana recited Oswald Mtshali’s poem ‘Sounds of a Cowhide Drum’ and read Langston Hughes’ verses from the poem, Dreams,

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

The second example I want to share with you on the value of ‘an aesthetics of hope’ is when Hugh Masekela’s Give it up/District Six album landed in the country in 1980. This was a year of a nationwide schools boycott and intensifying workers’ struggles on the shopfloor. Like Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg is Where It’s Happening and African Herbs, Masekela’s recording had long enough tunes to keep a party going. Side 1 contains Masekela and Leo Chesson’s ‘Give it up’ and Side 2 has ‘District Six’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqQkWk4pT8 composed by the late South African pianist Hotep Galeta. The Cape Town-born pianist composed the song when he and Masekela were in exile in the US. Triggering Galeta to write the song were bulldozers that moved into District Six, flattening the multi-racial settlement in line with the segregationist Group Areas Act and forcefully moving more than 60 000 people to townships far away from the city centre. The chants ‘Sibuyele District Six’ in the song, in addition to reminding us of the callousness of the destruction of District Six, they captured the longing and hope to return to the site where the demolished settlement once stood.

At the time of the release of the album, the question of forced removals was not just a historical question. In August 1977, the government bulldozed a camp called Modderdam and other informal settlements in Cape Town. The ‘influx control’ noose was tightening and throughout the late 1970s, a new settlement in the peninsula called Crossroads was targeted for demolishment. These threats of demolishment and the resistance to them gave the song ‘District Six’ currency and immediate relevance.

‘Khawuphinde mzala’ and the urgency of repeated takes

I know that in jazz, recording a tune in ‘one take’ is a sign of originality and ingenuity. Unfortunately the walls of marginalisation that led to last week’s eruption are unlikely to collapse like those of Jericho as a result of sounds from trumpets of rams’ horns. Dealing with inequality in our country is not going to be easy, as musicians treat the musical arrangements of the spiritual, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyLjbMBpGDA.

Behind marginalisation, are strong vested interests. To deal with the deep levels of poverty and economic marginalisation that drove the multitudes to raid malls last week and made people vulnerable to manipulation by those with nefarious agendas, requires not ‘one take’ but ‘repeated takes’. In this regard, we must again take the cue from Stimela’s ‘Whispers in the Deep’ that the SABC immediately banned from the airwaves in 1986.

Dropping the tune in the middle of the second state of emergency that led to the occupation of the townships by the army and the detention of about 26 000 people between June 1986 and June 1987, Stimela’s chorus ‘Khawuphinde Mzala’ in the popular 1986 tune became a call to activists to persevere and to continue to campaign, despite the odds. To deal with the present situation, those who are interested in a different and better future must be prepared to make their contributions through different and ‘repeated takes’. Frankly, there are no shortcuts and chances of achieving what we want in ‘one take’ are very slim.

While supporting the call for ‘an aesthetics of hope’, we must avoid overburdening the arts and think that artistic expressions and practices can solve all our problems. Like the Palestinian activist and public intellectual Edward Said who himself was a pianist in the Western classical tradition recognised, we must appreciate the deeper paradox of music which he describes as “an art of expression without the capacity to say denotatively and concretely what is being expressed”.  Efforts to engender ‘a politics of hope’ and to build ‘a praxis of hope’ must accompany and complement calls for ‘an aesthetics of hope’.  Without a broader movement driven by hope, ‘an aesthetics of hope’ will miserably fail to deal with the challenges that confront South Africa. 

Coda

I don’t think that there is a better way to conclude these reflections than to play the chorus in Stimela’s ‘Whispers in the deep’ (3.00-3.47) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9QPjUkvvM and share with you the lyrics of the song:

Sleep right in your eye
This is tasty food for rat and flies
Call me angry, call me mad
Soul whispers in the deep
The echo!

All throughout the land
Reaches out to find, a head
But finds an amputated stomp
That tells the strong of the lonely

And beats the rhythm of the flame

I’m inspired

I cannot understand hate
(Khawuphinde, Khawuphinde mzala)

Whose songs are as truthful?
As dream flows as steady as a stream
A stream of knowledge and of pain
Of one whose stance begin to wane
Allow the sleep to retire
Because their love blows out the fire
I can see you pointed finger
Your eyes binoculars
Whispers in the deep
Bayahleba

We are all tributaries of that great of river of pain
Flowing into one ocean
There is only one ocean
All our pain flowing into it
But it did spill over
Spill over the wonders of love
Into one nation of love
Before we recognise that all the oceans
All the oceans are one

Khawuphinde mzala hmmm
Khawuphinde mzala hee!!
Khawuphinde mzala hmmm
Khawuphinde mzala whololo
Ungahlebi

Speak you mind
Don’t be afraid
Don’t whisper in the deep
Speak out your mind
Stand up! Wake up!
There’s still sleep right in your eye
Call me angry, call me mad
A soul that Whispers in the deep
I’m inspired
But I can’t understand hate
I’m inspired it I can’t understand it

*Dinga Sikwebu is a trade unionist based at the head office of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Dinga considers himself as a follower and appreciator of jazz music. Previously, he has written on jazz in publications such as Uhuru, Creative Feel, City Press, Business Day and Sunday Independent.

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