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.

One troubling aspect is jazz and other club-related music has become more a diversion for the wealthy, with venues relocated to locations near hotels and redeveloped areas, said Rollems Tshepo, a driver and casual pianist I met at the airport. After learning about my quest, he spent a couple of days helping search for places where jazz might be performed, broadcast and recorded, but felt there was more potential in its future than current status. "In the '80s the music was by the city center, he said. "With the security (problems) and instability of the '80s with apartheid and fighting, that got suppressed.

Tshepo also provided a reality check about seeking out jazz in some of the lesser-known neighboring countries, which I was still considering. At some points there have been efforts to bring different cultural representatives from countries together, he said, but widespread calamity frequently means music is people's last priority. "In most worn-torn countries of Africa what you will not find is more than a struggle for survival, he added.

I had done little research about the music scene in Namibia beforehand and, in retrospect, regret the few details I absorbed. Travel literature focused largely on the dangers of robbery, disease and other problems for tourists, making me more wary and, sad to say, making me well aware of being one of the few skinny white guys there. I took the normal precautions for traveling in an unfamiliar area—such as avoiding empty streets after dark and not eating street-sold produce from I couldn't peel—and never felt in danger. Certainly as a whole the people were more welcoming and less menacing than what I, as a small-town dweller, had just experienced in New York City.

Whoopin' It Up In Windhoek

Notwithstanding some of the aforementioned disappointments, my time in Windhoek was not misspent. The century-old capital of 160,000 residents, located in the center of Namibia, is morepractical than scenic.

"While Windhoek provides about as much action as Namibia has to offer, "vibrant" probably isn't the best word to describe its surprisingly staid and orderly capital city," the Lonely Planet notes.

A front-page story in The Namibian daily newspaper revealed children in government-run schools were getting food illegally "doctored" with fillers by contractors seeking to increase their profit margin. On page three an article described an "uproar" about illegal booze/brothel establishments (shebeens) proliferating in Luberitz.

Visitors get accustomed to seeing lots of sand and low hills during the 25-mile ride from the international airport. Much of the city's architecture is German, reflecting that country's colonial occupation of Namibia during the late 19th and early 20th century, before falling under South African rule after World War I and gaining independence in 1990.

Windhoek has sights such as the sprawling outdoor Post Street Mall, various cathedrals and museums, the people and city-nurtured greenery in Zoo Park. But not being a huge fan of urbana, I was more amused by quirks such as the intersection of Castro Street and Independence Avenue next to Zoo Park.

Scoping out the local jazz scene meant a lot of walking in the stifling heat with few opportunities to escape into promising venues. A number of small music stores were selling mostly popular and South African albums, and much as the latter is full of intrigue they weren't Namibian or jazz.

"There are only four or five people I can think of who are interested in jazz, except for the tourists who are interested in African jazz," said Plaatjie, the manager of the record store where I found a handful of albums. The fledgling recording industry is still limited to small studios, although the professionalism of them is improving, Plaatjie said, adding that musicians are still paid too poorly to make a living, in part due to economic problems that go beyond the lack of political support. "When I started, it was just one or two albums that was on the shelf, he said. "The buying power of Namibia is so small, he continued. "It's because of our population. You cannot make money unless there is an international breakthrough.

The Namibian Music Awards' best songwriter and reggae artist for 2006 was Ras Sheehama, a native of the northern Oshivambo people, whose traditional music has strong Cuban influences. He went into exile in Angola during the late 1970s at age 13, started playing the guitar and reggae during subsequent moves to Zambia and Nigeria, and returned to Namibia in 1990. His long list of international performances, rare enough for a Namibian, include the 2005 Montreaux Jazz Festival, an ideal showcase since the event has become known for featuring music styles well beyond its namesake.

"That is a real breakthrough for Namibian music, Plaatjie said.


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