Dispatch 10:
Cape Town Jazz

The itinerary of my cultural exploration of South Africa was designed by Judy Pillay, South Africa Tourism’s operations manager, to build to a thundering climax with the Cape Town Jazz Festival at the Cape Town Convention Center on March 30-31.

As the festival was billed, it consisted of two nights, 40 acts in five performance venues all operating at once, but with staggered schedules so you could see part of one performance and move on to catch part of another one, theoretically as many as five, if you wanted to go crazy.

The festival organizers were expecting 14,000 attendees, they got 15,000. Seeing 15,000 manically charged music fans engaged in rapid locomotion through the arterial pathways of the multi-level convention center was an amazing experience in itself. It was akin to watching a massive, seething natural force like a hurricane or a volcano.

The acts were “International and African,” according to the promotional material, including big name American musicians like Joe Sample and Randy Crawford, Jack DeJohnette, Lee Konitz, Darius Brubeck (now a resident of South Africa), and the Geri Allen Trio, with Jimmy Cobb, who played drums on what is said to be the all-time bestselling jazz album, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis.

For me the festival was a golden opportunity to be exposed to many African acts that were new to me, including a big group called Stimela, led by Ray Phiri, who gained international fame when he played on Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” I had been passing through the festival’s largest venue on my way to another stage as Phiri was giving an introduction to what was to be his finale. His speech, urging people to get involved in the political issues surrounding education, water and to “help our young democracy,” was so riveting I had to change my planned route to stop and listen.

When Stimela finished, I passed through to the outdoor stage and caught Lira, a smooth, graceful South African pop/r & b singer who instantly became my current favorite. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, eight guys, no instruments, performed. There was a fascinating jazz band from Egypt called Yehya Khalil and the Egyptian Jazz Fusion. The styles of music ranged far, from jazz, to funk, to pop, to blues, r & b and hip hop from a variety of different countries and cultures.

But to get a feel for what was really happening, you have to look beyond the content of the program and place the event in the context of a sociopolitical renaissance as glorious as any to be recalled. It is a democracy still in its birth throes, a society only recently opened to the world after generations of being cut off by a system of oppression that has had few, if any peers.

The oppressive system was in part a reaction against the mixing of races, nationalities and cultures that had been in progress on the southern coast of Africa since the 1600s. Apartheid was a doomed attempt to hold back history, to stop the mixing from taking place. But it took place anyway, and as a result, South Africa developed a kind of multicultural richness that is arguably unsurpassed anywhere in the world. For decades that culture simmered under the oppressive apartheid regime, but now has burst forth in an explosion that felt a lot like pure joy during those nights at the festival.

Joe Sample at a press conference said that it was only his second trip to South Africa, because for so many years it embargoed by the rest of the world in protest of apartheid. But now that he was experiencing the country, he said, he was finding out for himself how important music has been to South Africans through all of its hard times.

“There seems to be in the South African culture a trait of loving music,” he said. “Music is very important in the lives of all South Africans. I don’t find that everywhere. In the U.S. we sometimes go places where people could care less about music, or they only know what they hear on Top 40.”

Sample was referring to a quality in South African culture that must be experienced, cannot be evoked by words, but is at the heart of what makes a South African cultural experience today something I recommend so heartily.

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