I consider the current state of jazz in South Africa in response to the formation of the nation-state in the 1990s. I argue that while there is a recurring sense of the precarity of jazz in South Africa as measured by the short lives of jazz venues, there is nevertheless a vibrant jazz culture in which musicians are using their own studios to experiment with new ways of being South African through the freedom of association of people and styles forming a music that sounds both local and comfortable in its sense of place in the global community. This essay uses the words of several South African musicians and concludes by situating the artistic process of South African artist William Kentridge in parallel to jazz improvisation.
It’s been really incredible to be an ambassador of South Africa and South African music when you go abroad. I feel like our heritage and culture has nothing to do with a skin tone. I really feel like it’s got to do with South Africa and being South African, really trying to hold the flag very high, singing the national anthem, singing a lot of South African jazz repertoire, it’s always very nice, and a very proud moment when you are overseas and you can say this is my culture, this is where I come from.
–Vocalist Melanie Scholtz, 2010
I spent winter break 2018–2019 with University of Pennsylvania undergraduates in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria. We visited a series of newly built or reconceptualized museums in the three cities, entities that had been created or reimagined in the post-apartheid era to reflect on South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past and to move its peoples toward reconciliation and national unity in the present and future. We visited Cape Town’s Slave Lodge, the District Six Museum, the Bo-Kaap neighborhood; we spent time climbing Table Mountain, Lions Head, and then rested in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens; we listened to live music in the Mojo Hotel Food and Drink Market in Sea Point every evening; we watched the Goema festival musicians parading through the city center. At Mzansi Restaurant in Langa township, we heard and watched a marimba group perform while we ate. At the Amazink theater-restaurant in Kayamandi Township outside of Stellenbosch, we experienced an amazing musical theater production that resonated with the strands of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s isicathamiya and Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina musical theater style but focused on personal stories. That was Cape Town. Then we flew to Johannesburg: visiting the Apartheid Museum and the Wits University Museum of Human Origins. Then onto a township tour of Soweto: stopping at Regina Mundi, a township restaurant, and the Hector Peterson Museum. On our final day, we traveled to Pretoria: first to the Afrikaans Taal (Language) Monument and then . . .