South African Jazz and the Anti-Apartheid Movement

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I. Prehistory of South-African Jazz

         The establishment of urban centers in South Africa upon the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1870s resulted in the internal migration of black South Africans to those centers and the assertion of both European and African-American mission culture there (Muller, 2007, p.1066). This provided the groundwork necessary for a long-standing history of mutual cultural diffusion between Black South African and African-American cultures. Black South-Africans especially identified with African-American culture, because African-Americans faced similar circumstances of racial discrimination.  Lastly, before jazz became the prevailing musical style amongst Black South-Africans other American musicals styles like the minstrelsy, sheet music, and vaudeville enjoyed their own respective periods of popularity (Muller, 2007, p.1066; Ballantine, 1991, p. 129-130).

II. The Rise of Jazz

Jazz emerged in many of the great cities of South Africa including, but not limited to: Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Bloemfontein (Muller, 2007 p. 1069), however for the intensive purposes of this paper Johannesburg and Cape-Town will be the only two South African cities discussed.  Rearing back to the rise of jazz in South Africa, the first explicit mention of ‘jazz’ in South Africa was reported in South African newspapers in 1913 (Muller, 2007, p. 1066). The South African musician Jimmy Adams is often credited as a pivotal figure leading to the development of Cape-Tonian and Johannesburg jazz scene, as he established the first colored big band in South Africa (Muller, 2008, p. 188; Rasmussen, 2003).

The early Jazz period in South Africa is often referred to collectively as the ‘Marabi Nights’, which emerged as a consequence of the lively shebeen (speak easy) night-life of Johannesburg’s growing working class (Ballantine, 1991). It is here during the nascent stages of the ‘Marabi Nights’ that the unique characteristics and song structure of South African jazz and its hybrid variants (kwela and vocal jive), emerged. Allen (2006) describes the characteristics and song structure of South African jazz and its hybrid variants (kwela and vocal jive) in the following quote,

[South African jazz is] melodically…built from repetition (with small variations) and alteration of two or three short melodic motifs (the length of the chord progression) interspersed with solo improvisations.  There is usually a rough sequence to the order in which motifs and variations are repeated. By the mid-1950’s these characteristics—along with swing rhythm and call-and-response between soloists and choruses—were typical of much vocal jive and other contemporary urban hybrid styles such as kwela. (p. 233)

While Allen (2003) uses a description given the Bantu World magazine to describe S South African jazz, “…‘a new kind of record has burst upon the market….’ with a ‘monotonous solid beat, [and] crazy ad-lib solos,’ the music ‘rocked like mad—and sales started to jump like mad too.’  “ (p. 228)

South African jazz history much like American jazz history has been intensely molded by the availability of new technologies for recording and playing back of music. In the case of South African jazz the playback of American as well as British jazz was crucial to its’ development (Muller, 2007, p. 1071). For much of the 20th century technology such as imported sound recordings, sheet music, radio programs, and quicker transportation methods like the plane and automobile assisted greatly in the rapid circulation of jazz throughout South Africa (Nixon 1994). Without these new technological innovations jazz and other forms of American music arguably would not have not been able to become so popular in such a short period of time as result of accessibility issue.  Muller (2007) stresses the importance of European artists as an intermediary medium for the transmittance of American culture to Black South Africans,

Few big name American jazz musicians actually traveled to South Africa until the early 1990s, however there was a constant flow of British and European musicians who came to play gigs with white bands in the 1950s. It was mostly South Africans who met up with African American musicians when they left the country [for Europe] in the early 1960s. (p. 1071)

It is also important to acknowledge the development of jazz in South Africa as a direct result of World War II. After World War II many South Africans (black, white, and colored) who enlisted to assist, entertain, and raise funds for the Allies in Egypt and Europe came back to South Africa with brass/wind instruments.  As it turned out, World War II was critical in transforming the instruments used by South Africans to make their music, no longer did they play on string instruments, most in fact opted for the use of brass/wind instruments. (Muller, 2007, p. 1066).

         Retrospectively, many South Africans nostalgically remember the 1950s as a period of political optimism and conspicuous ‘Americanization’ of the South African performing arts (Muller, 2007, p. 1066).  During this era many South African popular jazz musicians (many of whom would leave the country in the early 1960s) came to prominence.  Astoundingly, in the mid to late 1950s for a brief period of time ‘Colored’ musicians reined supreme and were hired more frequently than white musicians in Cape Town clubs (Muller, 2008, p. 189).  This was mainly because club owners found ‘Colored’ musicians to be cheaper and more dependable (Muller, 2008, p.189). It is important to stress that jazz was not only consumed and performed by Black South Africans, but also by a range of South Africans across all racial and ethnic categories (Muller, 2007, p. 1066).

         Lastly, Sophiatown (Kafifi) an interracial community of the working class and the poor, located on the outskirts of Johannesburg, embodied the enthusiasm and escapism found in black South African jazz of the 1950s. Residents of Kafifi admired African-Americans culture and took to dressing in latest American fashions like the zoot suits for men and flapper attire for women (Nixon, 1994).

III. Jazz as a Medium of Resistance

      American ideals promoted by American Jazz, along with its’ local South African variants (kwela, mbaqanga, and vocal jive) were instrumental in the initial success of anti-apartheid resistance movement lead by the ANC (African National Congress) and PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) political parties. Furthermore, the tearing down and the forced relocation of residents of Sophiatown (Kafifi) to Soweto from 1955-1959 amplified resistance and resentment of Black and Colored South Africans towards the White Apartheid government (Ansell, 2004).  The political optimism mentioned earlier served as the driving force for the use of jazz by Black Africans as a subversive means of political opposition even in the face of possible prosecution by the government. Jazz began to be used as a code for warning other Black Africans when police (authority) were near, as a way of keeping Black Africans updated on the latest news pertaining to apartheid, and of expressing political agendas.  As Schumann best puts it, “The songs of the time reflected (‘mirrored’…) social reality and presented an effective way of acknowledging and protesting against an unjust political system.” (Schumann, 2008, p. 23).

Let us first begin with a very brief examination of jazz usage as a code for warning other Black Africans when police (authority) were near. Often owners of shebeen queens would higher a lookout boy to watch for the police.  If the lookout boy spotted the police he would then whistle or sing an agreed upon jazz tune to notify the owner discretely of the police’s presence (Muller, 2001). An example of a song used by lookout boys is the recording ‘Udumo Lwamaphoysia’ (A Strong Police Force) (Allen, 2003, p. 235).

Next let us focus our attention on the use of jazz to keep Black Africans updated on the latest news pertaining to apartheid. It is important to mention Troubadour Records, the record company responsible for close to 75% of the records for the time period (Allen, 2003, p. 228-229). Katz and Fagan (the owners of Troubadour records) were relatively liberal in their manners toward and treatment of their black employees, which is highly unusually for the era (Allen, 2003, 2003 p. 231). Furthermore, contrary to the practices of competing record companies who paid black artists a flat fee per side recorded, “Troubadour maintained a staff of core musicians who were full-time employees drawing weekly salaries.   Troubadour musician salaries placed these musicians in the top 2% of African wage- earners.” (Allen, 2003, p. 231).  The rise of the mass media created new domains of cultural production through which township people could create, interpret, and understand their world.  The relative ease in the accessibility of mass media (radio and jazz records) were essential to keeping up to date on current events. The lyrics of South African jazz songs of the period generally state the subject without providing commentary, explanation, or narration.  Furthermore,

Music recordings could be particularly effective politically because….of easy access, in that the ability of township people to enjoy recorded music, unlike consumption of newspapers, was not impeded by low levels of literacy; nor was access to recorded music limited to those able to attend a show, as was the case for stage performances. (Allen, 2003, p.239).

In 1956-7, for instance, Mabel Mafuya produced several hits about bus boycotts.  Both the resistance movement and the Apartheid government at one point of time or the other have tried to manipulate the public through control of mass media.  However, in the case of resistance movement manipulation had to be done much more overtly.

Finally, let us analyze the cryptic political agendas found in South African jazz music of the time period. The continual police harassment of musicians along with the overall maltreatment of Black South Africans provided added incentive for musicians to cleverly write song laden with their political agendas of resistance.  Nancy Jabobs launched her career with her recording of “Meadowlands,” which commented on the forced removal of Sophiatown residents to a section of Soweto. The effectiveness of “… the lyricist’s skill lies in the ability to imply layers of significance in a few lines, leaving audiences the challenge of deciphering deeper meanings—a poetic strategy typical of South African musical styles. “(Allen, 2003, p. 234-235). The ability of enigmatic lyrics to accommodate multiple interpretations is useful in a repressive political climate.  On occasion, a song’s surface meaning thinly veils a code message, which can be reinforced by the performance context. For example a majority of the vocal jive jazz lyrics do not directly address political issues; more often they contain a cunningly disguised subversive message through reference to the individual struggles of ordinary people, which were understood to result from political injustice (Allen, 2003, p. 237).  Another observation of noteworthy mention is that the dynamics of group singing in South Africa, which allowed for texts to be slightly altered according to the circumstances.  For example Yvonne Chaka Chaka recorded a song which she initially named ‘Winnie Mandela’, however with the SABC (South African Broadcasting Company’s) refusal to play the song on the national radio she modified the lyrics and the name of the song to ‘winning my dear love’. But at live shows the audience would sing Winnie Mandela instead (Schumann, 2008, p. 27). Similarly, Lucky Dube explains the word play in his song ‘Slave’, “I spoke there about someone who was a liquor slave.  When we did live shows, people were singing the song as ‘legal slave’” (Schumann, 2008, p. 27)

 IV. Conclusion

         Though jazz was an effective means of resistance the Apartheid government realized this in the 1960s and began to censor radio stations, threaten artists, and ban songs, hence marking the beginning of an era of repression that lasted for 30 years (Ansell, 2004).  The Sharpeville massacre on 21st March 1960, where sixty-nine unarmed protesters against the pass laws were shot and many more wounded, The ANC and the PAC were outlawed, and 169 black political leaders were put on trial for treason (Schumann, 2008, p. 25).  The Sharpeville massacre and the imprisonment of the political leadership left the populace shaken, as the removal of the creative seat Sophiatown and the following jazz exile…hushed the musical community. “ (Schumann, 2008, p. 25).  It was not until the 1994 when power was officially handed over to Nelson Mandela that this era of repression was finally lifted from South Africa.

Thanks for reading,  you can follow me on  Twitter at DemelioU or  you can subscribe  to my RSS feed the little orange button in the left hand menu.

Demelio U.

Signing OFF


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