Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity
AAJ: So how does that work when you're playing for an audience? How do you connect with the people you're with?
ZN: I am surprised. In South Africa at the moment we are experiencing a wonderful revival of this art form. It's well received. People have been reminded about the art form. They are taking to it easilythey have no problems, if it's presented to them correctly. It is not something foreign to them. That's why, as an artist, I've managed to earn a living in South Africa by playing this music. You know, it's interesting. So that is not a problem. We are communicating with the people at the heart level.
AAJ: Is there some sort of isolation or stratification there, from township jazz, and the culture that grew up around that? Perhaps that's not something you can apply to the community as a whole.
ZN: Jazz in South Africa has never been viewed as a foreign art form. We have always had access to it. I think South Africa is the only place outside the US that has managed to produce this caliber of jazz. I've seen the power of it when I visited the States, you know. The power in the culture. How people live, how people speak the language. Everything: the food, the whole thinking. The power! I'm amazed. The thinking.
Also, we had access to these records from the visitorssailorsbecause we have lots of ports here, harbors. There was a serious interaction between the sailors and the prostitutes... actually, that's where I learned the music.
The best jam sessions I went to was the... we didn't know because we were young then... we were caught up in the music... we didn't know those were whorehouses. You'd go out toit's called in South Africa a "shebeen," where they sell alcohol illegally. And the people who patronized these places were the kids who were listening to the music, as well as the prostitutes who were there to hook up with the sailors, and the sailors would be hooked up with the prostitutes... and in the interim we'd get to hear the music. The sailors would bring the music, you know. The kids were looking for the music. And what's happening is that the guy who holds the whole thing is selling the booze... so we were caught up in that thing without knowingthank God! We didn't realize that. It's the same thing that happened to the kids like... the music they would play in these whorehouses. The hits of American jazzthe things that we had here!
So that sensibility has always been there, you know. It's interesting observing these parallels. I also think the American visitors feel comfortable when they come here. Just recently we had a gig somewhere in Johannesburg and Donald Harrison came around, and said he'd like to play a few tunes, and he played the whole gig! Yeah, a lot of cats have come through and had the same experience. It's enjoyable. We love it that way.
3. Bringing Jazz Back Into Context: Folk Music
AAJ: It's hard for people in this country to support themselves from jazz. Only about 3% of record sales are jazz, and most of that is made up by a small number of records. So there's not much left for the rest...
ZN: It's amazing that it's that way, because jazz for me is the most contemporary music that addresses the issues of the present day. The present day issues with the music that is always around and moved and accepted and dealt with... but again, we leave that up to the record companies and the marketers. It's their decision. But I believe jazz is the same as other forms, such as Western classical forms are received. It will occupy the position that it ought to occupy.
AAJ: It sounds like South Africa has adopted jazz in various hybrid forms that are popular, whereas in this country it tends to stay separate. It's something special, it's something different.
ZN: Something will happen in the near future. I think this progress between South Africa and the US will bear some results in the near future. And that will come out of collaborations with the musicians over there and here. I feel that coming. We have successfully collaborated in Europe, but I think it's changing now, it's going to the US. I work on this movement. I also believe that we can add value to jazz. The level of technique and other assets within jazz that have been established in the US are going to have to move our music forward.
This interaction is necessary in the 21st century nowto redefine the art form and bring it back to its context. It becomes the music of the people again! At some point it has really gone out to another domain, where it addresses an intellectual aspect. So it needs to be brought back now into the domain where the folks can enjoy it. This music is supposed to be that. All music is folk music! [laughs] We have to become folk music once again, in order to move forward. Yeah.
It can as well become a serious business now, with the recording industry booming. That has always been there from the very beginning of it. And now with the academic institutions and all the other support systems in place, it should really move. We shouldn't be complaining. Especially now within the context of globalization. I read a certain article... why is it that European musicians are not looking to American jazz for inspiration, and the whole attention there has been paid to so-called "world music"? You know, what music is "world music"? We're all operating within this world! So I think the answer for that is to stay close to the practitioners in the US and work on the music. So that again the music can have all of those elements that moved the people in the beginning. Yeah. And the closer it stays to the folk, the more expressive it remains.