The Cape Town Jazz Scene

AAJ Staff By

Sign in to view read count
[Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba's] influences were quite different, whereas we in Cape Town, its a lot more like New Orleans.
By Sathima Bea Benjamin

Its jazz is both similar and different from American jazz. First of all, at the time—the late '40s-50s—we wouldn't even call it jazz if we didn't identify so completely with Black Americans, both in social and political ways. In South Africa and Cape Town especially, you've got the White people and African people and their tribes, but the Coloreds were like a buffer zone—we were never made to feel a sense of pride in our heritage. So I remember when I first heard that "colored folks lived in America—it made me feel good to know that somewhere else in the world there were people of mixed race called "colored .

Later, when we started going to movies and heard the music from musicals such as Cabin in the Sky and saw Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, that was thrilling as well, seeing the similarities on so many levels, not the differences.

Initially, the jazz musicians all started out emulating the musicians from the United States. For me it was Doris Day, when I was singing popular songs at the Bioscope movie theater during intermission. Most of the time, people would throw things at you if you didn't sing something like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow and things they had heard from the movies. The people would dictate to you - we didn't have any critics in our community. That came later, when we got our own newspapers. The audience, they were your critics and they could make you or break you - they could physically come onto the stage and grab you and put someone else who was good enough. And they'd yell at you what to sing.

All the musicians could emulate great American jazz musicians. For example, there was Kippie Moeketsi, who could play Charlie Parker riffs—if you closed your eyes, you'd think it was Parker playing.

Slowly we moved on to discover "the gold within ourselves —our own very rich mix of musicians and musics, like the goema rhythm, absorbed from different cultures that passed our way. Cape Town is singer country, guitar country and piano country. There are so many musicians—then and now, it's a place with a lot of musical talent. Musicians like Henry February, who was a marvelous pianist. He was also a great teacher and enthusiast of the artform and there are many whom he took under his wing, including myself. There was also the Schilder family—Richard, Chris, Anthony—all fantastic musicians, the pianist Vincent Colby, guitarist Harold Jefta and others, all playing in white nightclubs.

I first started singing jazz in the white nightclubs when a musician named Bernie Smith heard me and said, "we're having our first jazz concert in the town hall and you should come around. Colored musicians were allowed to play in the nightclubs. Basically the white folks dined and danced while we provided the music—during intermission we'd go into the kitchen to get food. After the nightclubs, we would head back to one of the guys' houses and listen to Charlie Parker, all the Black Americans. I loved it all so very much and I refer to this period as my "night school .

Johannesburg, where musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba come from, had it different—it's inland. Their influences were quite different, whereas we in Cape Town, it's a lot more like New Orleans. I can only talk from my own experience, but I think the musicians in Johannesburg latched onto Miles, Woody Herman, maybe Duke Ellington—they had another approach to the music and still do.

My husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, wrote a piece called "From Cape Town to Congo Square that emphasizes or brings to light the similarity of the musics from these two places. Each year, we still celebrate the "Minstrels from America who visited South Africa in the 19th Century with blackface parades. I believe this relates back to when American ships, going to the Far East, dropped off in Cape Town. Minstrels from onboard came and enjoyed Cape Town hospitality. In turn, Cape Town heard their music originally from New Orleans and the connection was made.

To me, Cape Town jazz means musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim, who taught us all to look within and find your very own original contribution to this music. He helped me much to realize my own originality and to be unafraid to express it and "throw all caution to the wind , as they say. The same is true of all the other Cape Town musicians I worked with—Jimmy Adams, the Schilders or Bernie Smith—who all helped find an original voice for Cape Town's jazz. Maybe the music's in the air in Cape Town. It's really a magical, beautiful, mystical place.


CD/LP/Track Review
CD/LP/Track Review
Read more articles
Sara Gazarek Sara Gazarek
Sony Holland Sony Holland
Amanda Carr Amanda Carr
Tierney Sutton Tierney Sutton
Sheila Jordan Sheila Jordan
Gail Pettis Gail Pettis
Dena DeRose Dena DeRose
Nnenna Freelon Nnenna Freelon
Kate McGarry Kate McGarry
Ilona Knopfler Ilona Knopfler

More Articles

Read The Creative Music Studio Goes To College! Megaphone The Creative Music Studio Goes To College!
by Karl Berger
Published: September 10, 2015
Read Wein, June & Jazz Megaphone Wein, June & Jazz
by AAJ Staff
Published: June 13, 2010
Read Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards Megaphone Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards
by Pedro Costa
Published: May 16, 2010
Read Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum Megaphone Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum
by Amir ElSaffar
Published: April 11, 2010
Read Either/Or (No More) Megaphone Either/Or (No More)
by Darcy James Argue
Published: February 28, 2010
Read The Power in Music Megaphone The Power in Music
by Steve Colson
Published: February 3, 2010
Read "Jakob Baekgaard's Best Releases Of 2016" Best of / Year End Jakob Baekgaard's Best Releases Of 2016
by Jakob Baekgaard
Published: December 28, 2016
Read "Cyrus Chestnut Trio at Duc des Lombards" Live Reviews Cyrus Chestnut Trio at Duc des Lombards
by Patricia Myers
Published: August 14, 2016
Read "Take Five With Roberta Piket" Take Five With... Take Five With Roberta Piket
by Roberta Piket
Published: June 17, 2016

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: Jazz Near You | GET IT  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!