If you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know. Those are not my words, however much I wish they were. I doubt I have come across a more poignant statement. And, as an artisan of a type of jazz myself, I know and understand this more than most. You see, this thing we do is about the feeling. We don’t necessarily come to the art form trying to make a statement. We come to it with the desire to share the groove, the beat, the melody, the song, the feeling. That’s why they say music moves you.
That’s why you dance at weddings, you dance when you are in love and you dance when you want to change your life and you dance while a government falls. Sometime it’s your tear ducts that dance, accompanied by your lips. There’s no cry like a cry inspired by a song. When the quivering of lips follows the time set by the drummer’s every note on the hi hat. And when the bass line is resonating deep down in your soul. It’s that sincere cry. The one with the deep throaty sounds and long deep breaths and eventually takes your breath away. At least this is what happens to me when music moves me. I feel it deep in my soul. Because even when music is sad, hard hitting, seditious and sparking revolutions, it comes with dancing.
And so when the man they call the father of afro jazz, blew that brass, and in his scruffy baritone demanded that the world needs to “bring back Nelson Mandela” it’s my opinion that this was not just heard and written. Hugh Masekela and his music went down into people’s hearts. It made them feel things. Same way that it is said that when the King of Benga (emeritus) declared that the “spectators had run away with the trophy” he was arrested and delivered to State House, Nairobi to explain his words. Legend has it that he, the indefatigable Joseph Kamaru, walked the words back. But in reality, the feeling that he was right has never left. It has lingered on like a bad smell even to date.
I know that this second name I have mentioned is not usually mentioned in the lists of Jazz greats. However to refuse to include such people in the lists, at least in my opinion, is to misunderstand the meaning of jazz. Because jazz has always been more than just the notes on the score, or the current melody. Merriam-Webster will talk about “propulsive and syncopated rhythms” because English words can sometimes be inadequate like that.
I believe it was Wynton Marsalis who made the comment that “Jazz is not just ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study”. And for me this is a little better a definition. However, music and especially music described as “jazz” is even much deeper than a feeling. It can be an embodiment of life itself. In fact Kurt Vonnegut described Jazz as “safe sex of the highest order” and this for me is the best way to describe the journey that African musicians have taken in taking their place in the space jazz music.
You see it has always been difficult for African musicians to break into what is the global music space properly, safely, and profitably. It takes a lot for the Western audience to discover and consume mbalax, kwaito, highlife, sungura and Benga. Mostly because the rhythms are too foreign, and the meaning of each musical phrase is too often wrapped and steeped in years and years of culture. This makes is hard to quickly translate.
Except of course if you call it jazz. Because “jazz” by definition is complex, steeped in culture, footloose and adventurous. It’s freedom, autonomy, and predictable ensemble play all at once. Jazz is a platform more than it is a musical genre. This is something the pioneers who took African music to America quickly discovered. If you call it soul makossa, you confuse the audience, but if you say that it’s a new kind of exotic jazz then you are welcomed with open arms. And so jazz music became the first channel for the Western audience to discover and consume African music. And a lot of African music styles became jazz by name.
I have read many times how the first wave of African musicians tried to enter the Western market and what challenges they had. I have also read the legends about the logistics struggle, that famously ended in the president of the Kalakuta Republic, having to declare half his band to be wives in order to process visas. Fela Kuti was a god, and if you think his activism and ability to push social norms as he did by marrying an entire village went too far, then you should listen to Shakara and understand why the jazz scene can never forget that man.
May his memory live long.
But even with all these stories, nothing can replace the feeling that Mama Africa communicated as she belted out Pata Pata, and for no reason at all, swooshed her waist like that onstage at the Apollo that day in 1968. The audience was spellbound. With every note that she sang, her charisma, her poise and the tone of her voice, the music was taking the audience further and further into a place they had never been. And they loved it. But most importantly, the US audience on that day was learning more about the music of Africa than any book would ever teach.
The thing about that performance, as you can see when you watch the grainy YouTube video, is that Miriam was not there to make a statement. She went there to sing a song. Her song. To share the feeling of being in Jo’burg. But the music was doing the thing that music does. Like a well-cooked plate of food, it was taking over the bodies of those that were watching. This effortlessness, this truth and well-rootedness. this Africanness had arrived in jazz music circles in a way they were least expecting.
“I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realizing.’’ – Mariam Makeba
And by the time François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi arrives in Nashville, to record that famous album, there was a lot of water under the bridge. Every band worth its salt, that had dreams of leaving a mark, added the word jazz to their name. It was to not just TPOK. It was TPOK JAZZ. So even when the patterns that Simaro Lutumba and Papa Franco were playing on the guitar were mesmerizing the Nashville engineers, and the live groove of Mpudi Deka on the bass was convincing people who made bass guitars to design new models, it was allowed and accepted because it was easier to describe it as jazz, than to try and explain the difference between rhumba proper, soukous and sebene.
Then there is the story of those that never managed to go to the West. Those that stayed and created the soundtrack to the emancipation. The ones that sang us past the dictatorships and that created a good life at home. The ones that defined an entire generation and that brought us that feeling. But brought it to us in the tongues of our mothers. You see back home, the game had changed too. Because, we needed to mount a defence against the influx of all that rock and roll that was being pushed by the national broadcasters (controlled by the imperialists). We needed champions. Like the ones that rebranded to African Mokili Mobimba Jazz band because the radio stations had a slot for jazz but nothing for Mobimba style or Kupe de kale.
African Twist was all the rave. Daudi Kabaka had started a wildfire in Kenya. Another man from Kakamega, with a homemade guitar had created a new guitar picking style that nobody could replicate. He had created a smash hit, had a huge love scandal, and then died under tragic circumstances. But the legend of George Mukabi and his omutibo guitar had already achieved immortality.
Paco Sery. Colella Mazee and the Victoria Jazz band. Africa Heritage. Jabali Afrika. Cheick Tidiane Seck. Youssouf Ndóur who elevated mbalax. Manu Dibango and his Soul Makossa that managed to improve the music of a person who the world considered a god – Michael Jackson. These were the warriors at the vanguard of this army we now Afro Jazz.
Later still, Slim Ali and Hodi Boys band. Them Mushrooms who created the soundtrack to African tourism and also the most famous Swahili song in history; Jambo bwana, Hakuna Matata.
These are the guys that set the stage. The ones that wrote the first lines. The guys and girls that created the bracket that we now use. Even that phrase Afro jazz was created for and by this generation of musicians. And of course, the etymology of that phrase can be confusing. But its meaning is clear. The platform is clear. It’s also undeniable that this phrase has created a wonderful space for the expression of African music in ways that nothing else ever could.
Tomorrow happens to be the International Day of Jazz. 30th April is the day set aside to celebrate this genre of music so venerated even by people who do not know what it really is. And as the rest of the world celebrates their musical legends, so should Africans do theirs. That is why this coming edition of Safaricom Jazz festival (scheduled for Wednesday 1st of May it is a holiday in Kenya), will have an all African line up. It is expected to be a delicious assembly of jazz talents; Paco Sery (Cote d’Ivore), Mandla Mlangeni (South Africa) and Cheick Tidiane Seck (Mali) … as well as Kenyan acts like Ghetto Classics, Nairobi Horns Project, Shamsi Music, Kato Change and the Change Experience and Jacob and Kavutha Asiyo.
I do not know about you, but on this day, I intend to celebrate the resistance, the expansion, the expression and most of all the opportunity that the genre has allowed African music. Jazz is the trojan horse than Benga shall use to take over the world. And there shall now be, officially, Benga jazz.
Well, there has always been anyways.
And if we must argue about that then I shall remind you (again) of the words of Fela “The music of Africa is big sound: it’s the sound of a community.”