By Charlie Hore
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Music Made for Dancing

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
Review of 'Soweto Blues', Gwen Ansell, Continuum £14.99
Issue 294

Jazz outside the US has always seemed a poor relation. However good individual musicians may be, Swedish, Dutch or British jazz bands have historically tried to sound as ‘American’ as possible, and all the fundamental innovations in jazz styles have come from the US. Django Reinhardt apart, it’s difficult to name a single really influential jazz musician who isn’t American.

The exception to this is South Africa, where jazz grew up in fundamentally different ways.

Originally ‘jazz’ was used to describe all varieties of urban music, but by the 1950s there was a generation of musicians inspired by American jazz musicians, who nevertheless had their own distinctive take on the music. There’s something recognisably different about South African jazz. The beat lilts rather than swings, and there’s a sweetness about the melodies that can become cloying if you listen too much. Most importantly, even with the most avant-garde players, it’s very obviously music made for dancing.

This enthralling book is the product of a radio series about South African jazz, and one of the themes that emerges is the fascinating parallels between American and South African black urban music.

Both grew out of racially oppressed working classes, forced together in cities where an enormous variety of musical heritages collided. Both grew at extraordinary speed, marked by, but defiant of, the changing nature of racial oppression. And both depended on a very close relationship with their audiences, who shared the experiences of the musicians. When Gwen Ansell describes the origins of the music, she might often be talking about New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century.

Yet the differences are more important. The South African musicians had a far wider palette to paint from – a great variety of southern African musical traditions, different European music, and of course jazz itself as well as other American styles. This grew up in particular in inner city areas such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg or District Six in Cape Town, which became seedbeds of the race mixing the South African state hated so much.

In South Africa the debate about art and politics was always about how they were linked – that the two were tied together was blindingly obvious. This was, after all, under a government which banned an utterly apolitical children’s book about horses solely because of its title – Black Beauty. And Ansell quotes a chilling document which talks of ‘combating the influence of jazz on the musical outlook of the African child’, whose author went on to become head of black broadcasting on the state-owned radio station.

Ansell’s history, much of it told through quotes from musicians, shows how the different styles came together from earlier folk music, and also how the increasing repression of apartheid brought radicalisation. Sydney Selepe, a painter, says of growing up in the 1970s: ‘When I was a kid, if it was not political, it was not art.’ One group of musicians joined a demo under the wonderful banner ‘Jazz for the struggle, and the struggle for jazz’.

By the 1980s, when South Africa was in a state of near insurrection, jazz was an integral part of the liberation movement. Ansell gives a good flavour of the debates this aroused, as well as the arguments around the cultural boycott of the 1980s. Throughout the book she weaves together history and politics with the music, though some readers will find her account glosses over some of the key political arguments of the 1980s and 1990s.

But she is very clear, as are the musicians she quotes, that the end of apartheid didn’t mean the end of the struggle for liberation. In particular, she cites the struggle against HIV/Aids and anti-globalisation protests as key issues. But what crucially exercises the musicians is the future of jazz in a very different climate.

This book is a record of a music whose time has passed. It opens with a funeral, and it ends with musicians bewailing the dominance of hip-hop and rap. But Ansell also cites numerous musicians who are, in different ways, taking the jazz tradition forward.

This is a long overdue account of a marginalised strand of jazz that deserves to be much better known. My only real complaint is that there isn’t a proper discography. So I’ll recommend two great compilation CDs to go with the book: try either The History of Township Music, which has some of the earliest recordings, or Freedom Blues, which mainly focuses on the bebop-influenced bands of the 1950s and the 1960s. Both provide a great introduction to some of the most joyous resistance music you’ll ever hear.

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