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The 1950s are remembered as the days of passive resistance against the Nationalist government's institutionalised racism, but the decade is also remembered as a great age of jazz development in South Africa.
South African jazz has had many elements contributing to its evolution and development, the most prominent and significant being the rich eclectic cultural diversity of the country's inhabitants and the influence of African-American culture upon it over the years. These two variants, coupled with an environment of legislated racism and gross human rights violations, created the unique artistic forge and mould responsible for the evolution of South African jazz.
The first informal contact the inhabitants of Cape Town had with African-Americans was during the American Civil War in 1862 when the confederate war ship Alabama came into the port of Cape Town to replenish its supplies. The Alabama patrolled the South Atlantic, where it would wait for Union ships to come around the Cape from the Far East on its way to the east coast ports of Philadelphia, New York, Newport and Boston. It would then attack, plunder and sink them. The Alabama was one of the most notorious and feared Southern commerce raiders on patrol in the South Atlantic, sending a total of fifty eight Union ships to the bottom of the ocean during her two year patrol.
Confederate captain Raphael Semmes commanded this British built steam powered schooner. A mixed crew of British mercenary and Southern white sailors manned the ship. On board was also a small contingent of African-American slaves who served as cleaners and mess stewards, and also provided some sort of musical entertainment for the crew. When the Alabama docked in Cape Town, the local population flocked to the waterfront to look at her. It was then that the African-Americans dressed in their minstrel outfits gave impromptu musical recitals at the dockside where the Alabama was moored.
Upon seeing this spectacle for the first time, some of the inhabitants of the city enquired from the white crew who the black entertainers were, and the reply was, " These are just our Coons!" Or more succinctly put, " Just our niggers!" The Alabama was finally tracked down and sunk off Cherbourg, France by the Union warship the U.S.S. Kearsarge on June 19, 1864.
South Africans had their first formal contact with African-Americans and African-American music on June 19, 1890, when the minstrel troupe of Orpheus Myron McAdoo's Virginia Jubilee Singers from Hampton, Virginia presented a series of concerts in Cape Town.
Orpheus McAdoo was born in 1858 in Greensborough, North Carolina. As a young man he attended the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where he studied and graduated as a teacher in 1876. Before turning to music as a professional career in 1886, he taught school in Pulaski and Accomack Counties in the state of Virginia for ten years. In 1886 he toured Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East after joining five members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Upon his return to the U.S. a year or two later McAdoo formed his own company by recruiting some ex-students and graduates from Hampton, amongst whom was his future wife Mattie Allen and his brother Eugene. With a newly formed troupe consisting of six women and four men, McAdoo set sail on a European tour in 1888. Two years later we found them arriving in Cape Town, South Africa. Their appearance was to create a significant impact upon the music scene, as it later influenced the creation and formation of the Kaapse Klopse, or Coon Carnival.
Since its inception at the turn of the century, the minstrel street carnival became an integral part of Cape Town's performing arts culture during New Year's celebrations. To use the derogatory term of the racist American South of the time, "coon" or "nigger" was the equivalent of the South African derogatory terms "kaffir," "boesman," "cooley," and "hottentot." If one looks back to the Alabama 's visits to Cape Town, one can now clearly see how the derogatory racist term "coon" came to be known and adopted in Cape Town. Given South Africa's colonial past, racism, class consciousness, and divide and rule tactics, there is little doubt for any speculation as to the name "coon" and its tenure, popularity and longevity amongst the working class coloured (Mixed Race) population of Cape Town. The popularity of the Coon Carnival, however, decreased as more and more young people became politised and the struggle for liberation intensified during the 1970s and 1980s.
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.