New Year's In Namibia

Mark Sabbatini By

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"I'm going to have my baby in Namibia. I don't care how long of a drive it is."
- Britney Spears

When most people go on an African safari, they probably aren't looking for penguins and pianos. Then again, Namibia was something less than a Holy Grail among tourists before it became a pilgrimage of celebrity parenthood.

Music fans generally go south to Capetown, and leisure travelers generally don't bother with the barren community of Luderitz. Most get off turboprop planes when they stop at Walvis Bay, a scenic seaside town popular for German architecture, bakeries and other ties to its founding ancestors.

Given my inherent dislike of heat and deserts, most of the continent didn't have much appeal as a vacation destination. So when I learned about the penguins of Luderitz, it became my destination (two seasons of working among researchers in Antarctica also had something to do with it). Getting there meant a stop in the capital of Windhoek, where I decided to spend New Year's Eve since my quest for jazz was far more likely to succeed.

Luderitz would be my rustic venture after a relatively lively New Year's Eve celebration in Windhoek, a city that is hardly the center of Africa's massively rich jazz scene.

"Namibian music is not even in its baby shoes," said Clive Plaatjie, manager of Universal Sounds record store in Windhoek, where roughly 20 albums by in-country musicians among the thousands from elsewhere were by far the most I found. "I'm grabbing any straw I can to promote the local music."

A Wall Street Journal article in late 2005 details how Namibia has few recordings and live performances because what little industry exists is exploitive of musicians. Nevertheless, some airfare lunacy when I was in New York—making a spur-of-the- moment foreign trip cheaper than a domestic one—resulted in the trip becoming part of my 18-month quest to seek out jazz in the most unlikely and remote places on Earth.

There were some successes, but nothing from locals worthy of high praise, which even those trying to make a living from the scene acknowledged. Hilton Villet, owner of the Blu Note jazz club in Windhoek, was less than boastful of the guitar/bass/drum house trio playing New Year's Eve, saying the inexperienced players are "not that polished because they play anything and everything because they need the money. Finding the bands is the hardest part, he said. "The listeners are there. There has been a major education process going on since we opened.

Prospects beyond the city were obviously dim. Not enough reason to abandon a quest.

Flying south over sand desert for another 40 minutes brings one to Luderitz, a town described by Lonely Planet as "a surreal colonial relic huddling against the barren, windswept Namib Desert Coast...scarcely touched by the 21st century."

If anyone owns a saxophone, it's a well-kept secret. "You can't even buy guitar strings here, said Bianca, a university student who works occasionally at her mother's hotel and acted as my informal guide. "You have to go to (the capital city of Windhoek) for that.

Luderitz's first commercial success came during the early 1800s as a rich source of guano. An overflow of Dutch entrepreneurs threw penguin eggs at each other while competing for the right to harvest tons of seabird droppings, later escalating the battle to include firearms. More refined and lucrative pickings came with the discovery of diamonds during the early 1900s, but that collapsed following richer finds elsewhere after World War I.

Now more a stop than a destination for those exploring the west coast of Africa by road, the fledgeling tourist industry seems largely oriented toward has-been attractions like the nearby ghost town of Kolmanskop, although there is a golf course with a disproportionate number of sand traps.

And penguins.

"I'm pretty sure this is the only part of the trip where we're going to be cold and wet," said a father holding his toddler-age son, both wrapped in borrowed blankets and raincoats, as waves from the rough sea regularly splashed over the deck during the two-and-a-half hour voyage to and from the island where the birds flock.

The pair, along with several other members of the family, were there for the more typical Namibia tour involving all-terrain vehicles crossing endless sandscapes in search of rhinos, elephants, lions and other wildlife, with prices largely determined by the fanciness of the host's tent. My closest encounter with zebras and crocodiles was eating them at an air-conditioned restaurant for tourists (the latter is richer and more tender in a vaguely seafood to beef kind of way).

As it turns out, large numbers of Namibians also go on vacation in early January, meaning a significant percentage of music stores and musicians weren't in harmony with my plans, and nearly everyone was going places I wasn't. In short, I was in the wrong place, on the wrong quest, at the wrong time of year.

Hitting sour notes from the start

Flights from the U.S. connect in Johannesburg, where there's a surprising lack of jazz clubs and performers. Only one show, featuring traditional Afro-jazz vocalist/guitarist Selaelo Selota, was mentioned for New Year's Eve. The Bass line Jazz Club, recommended by several people as the city's best, was closed for the holidays. A second club, Kippie's, a longtime establishment with a colorful history (Bill Clinton wanted to play there in 1998, but Hillary apparently didn't want to get out of the car) was also closed.

"Let's face it: Jo'burg pretty much closes down in December when the 'Vaalies hit the coastal resorts, declared a local newspaper article detailing events for New Year's Eve.

Still, Johannesburg hosts an annual summer jazz festival with a healthy lineup of famous players and a smaller one in mid-December emphasizing South African artists (although most seem to be from outside the city). The Bass line was a commercial and artistic success for nine years until 2003, when it closed in a landlord/tenant dispute, but club officials are hopeful for the future following its reopening as part of a large-scale cultural project resulting in the creation of the Newtown Music Centre.

"The re-opening of the Bass line will be one of the resolutions to the problem of lack of live music venues in South Africa, especially for the development of emerging artists, notes an essay by club owners detailing its history.


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