This review is a modest response to an ambitious project. It is not all that concerned with the minutiae of every entry in Sam Mathe’s broad ranging anthology of South African jazz, folk and pop musicians. It considers, instead, how From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond reads alongside books that also provide biographies of musicians readers might encounter, but from authors who are chasing other tales. Struan Douglas’s The Story of South African Jazz – Volume One (Bookbinders, 2013) comes immediately to mind. This is not a happy recollection, nor is it necessarily an appropriate comparison. Douglas’ book has one too many factual inaccuracies; it has one too many bizarre typos, and it casts its net far too narrowly to justify its title. It is not our focus here.
Mathe’s book builds on the useful biographical snapshots provided by Gwen Ansell in her Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa (Continuum, 2004). Ansell’s Appendix does not pretend to be comprehensive; rather, the reader is provided with the human backstories of the characters that populate her narrative. Mathe’s glossary also continues the tradition set in David Coplan’s In Township Tonight: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre (Ravan, 1985 and Jacana, 2007), and of course in Ansell’s Soweto Blues. Where Christopher Ballantine’s Marabi Nights: Jazz, ‘Race’ and Society in Early Apartheid South Africa (Scottsville, 2012) creates its own discography because of its tight focus, Mathe’s discography is interlaced with his various entries. How Mathe builds on Ansell, Ballantine and Coplan – whom I unapologetically call ‘the A B C of South African jazz history’ – is in his inclusion of documentaries on South African jazz and some of its musicians. This addition immediately makes From Kippie to Kippies a different kind of book: one that is rigorous but is also sensitive to the various ways in which knowledge on South African jazz cultures is imbibed these days. This makes it an especially invaluable tool for teaching in these Covid times of online and ‘blended’ learning. A fair number of the doccies Mathe lists are available on YouTube, and will enable students to view the broader stories about our jazz cultures beyond the physical classroom.
Having situated the book in this way, it cannot be overstated that Mathe is the first Black writer to offer this kind of work to scholars, students and aficionados of South African jazz cultures and its pioneers. In this way, his work may be fruitfully read alongside Max Mojapelo and Sello Galane’s Beyond Memory: Recording the History, Moments and Memories of South African Music (African Minds, 2008). Mathe helpfully includes this book in his list of recommended readings, and therefore encourages this dialogical reading. In both offerings, one is confronted with a very different narrative voice or register for the recounting of this cultural past. Our A-B-C writers forged close bonds of intimacy, commitment and solidarity with their subjects and with the subject of South African jazz and popular music (and theatre in Coplan’s case). For Mojapelo and Mathe however, who seem less concerned with the strictures of academic writing, what Galane terms Mojapelo’s “very personalised style” (Beyond Memory, iv) is as sustained as Mathe’s seemingly more distanced ‘group portraits’. Again, this is useful for teaching: some Black music students who do not hail from former Model-C or private schools tend to speak in such registers when referencing the musical legends that they know personally. This reviewer, for example, can never bring herself to say ‘Bra Hugh [Masekela]’ or ‘Bra Tete [Mbambisa]’ or ‘Bra Louis [Moholo]’ or ‘Bra Ndikho [Xaba]’ or ‘Bra Khaya [Mahlangu] – ironically because, for her, this would sound too familiar (so I make do with ‘uncle’ or ‘malume’ … if I feel like it).
This distinction in the register of address is, undoubtedly, also gendered, and these are overwhelmingly masculine texts (editors, co-editors, blurb writers, are all male). Mathe’s book concedes as much as its Back Cover reads:
While men dominate the narrative for obvious reasons, there’s however a number of female voices that challenge the patriarchal slant. They range from Miriam Makeba to Thandiswa Mazwai … illustrious sultry queens of torch songs.
Here, I acknowledge and sympathise with the writer’s plight, as information on South African jazz and popular women musicians is sketchy. Any serious historian of South African jazz at some point begins to resemble a character in A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990). Some points, however. First, I direct the reader to note the absences of their ‘favourite’; for example, I see no entry on Pinise Saul, which is regrettable as the author has written on Saul prior to the book’s publication.
I would hope, however, that those with information on the women (and on other) musicians contact Mathe because, for me, this is a communal text even though it is single authored. It is up to all of us who have a stake in the telling of our South African jazz histories to collaborate rather than castigate. Mathe’s Acknowledgements, which hail individual musicians as much as musicians’ families for their contribution to this work, testify to this communal building of a South African jazz, folk and popular music narrative.
My second point is, perhaps, less generous: I am disturbed by the book’s statement that female voices “challenge the patriarchal slant” (Back Cover). Women musicians do not become musicians in order to challenge – their existence becomes challenging because of the extant circumstances of a (here) South African society structured in patriarchal dominance. For ‘challenge’ to become an engendering factor, the “obvious reasons” to which the Back Cover alludes would have to be fleshed out beyond, as he writes, jazz being “primarily an instrumental sound” (Mathe, 3). Do folk and pop work in similar ways, we may ask. To his credit, Mathe in his Introduction “plead[s] guilty as charged for the regrettable omission of Emily Kwenane and Dolly Rathebe” (3), and would presumably do the same on the omissions of other women musicians.
My third concern is related to the first. As much as women musicians do not become musicians to challenge patriarchal slants, it is concerning that the book’s Back Cover describes those included as “illustrious sultry queens of torch songs” and, in the Introduction, such musicians are described as “sultry sirens” (3). Drawing attention to this kind of designation is not, I fear, merely an academic concern. Black Feminist scholarship, not least in South Africa, has drawn enough attention to its consequences: for women on the bandstand, to how they are spoken about in the press, and even to how women jazz scholars – such as this reviewer – struggle to create and maintain their positions as scholars in intimate discursive situations such as interviews with male jazz musicians (something that is exacerbated also by age difference). Moreover, the domestication of women jazz musicians to singers of “torch songs” is a disservice to the incredible and indelible roles women vocalists played in the shaping of South African jazz, folk and popular musics. Oddly, Mathe acknowledges these roles trenchantly in his profiles of women musicians. Framing, however, is crucial.
Mathe’s From Kippie to Kippies is partially redeemed from these issues by the obvious care and palpable love with which he writes about our artists. Not for him is a Wikipedia-like entry. Here is his opening paragraph on Letta Mbulu, for example:
Letta Mbulu has transcended the confines of her township upbringing to become one of the world’s celebrated singers and performers. America’s leading music producer, Quincy Jones, once described Letta Mbulu’s music as a gift to humanity that expresses joy, hope and resilience of the human spirit against all odds.(Mathe, 203)
His entry on Johnny Mbizo Dyani plonks us straight into the break. The entry’s heading tells us where and when Dyani was born, when and where he died, and the clinical causes of his death – “a throat haemorrhage” (Mathe, 50). Mathe deposits the reader into the choppy waters of Dyani’s life, however, beyond the certainties of scientific, forensic, autopsy:
When Johnny Dyani collapsed backstage after a concert in Germany and died days later in 1986, the jazz world mourned the loss of arguably free jazz movement’s greatest bassist. He was only 39 – at the peak of his creative powers; a hectic lifestyle of tours and living on the fast lane having taken its toll on the slender built maestro. The Eastern Cape-born artist has been an exile in Europe for 23 years – having left his native land as a teenager.(Mathe, 50, my emphasis)
Rather than a ‘neutral’ encyclopaedia entry, Mathe’s language moves so we can be moved – a linguistic sleight resonant of Dyani’s musicality. Dyani’s musicality is, to a significant degree, a kind of sonic confrontation for us as listeners with our dreadful past; his scorn of compromise framed by harmonic platitudes or tamed by neat endings disturbs our desired rainbows – for the storm is not over – and our fantasies of African rebirth – for disturbing narratives of tribalism, xenophobia and other intolerances are renascent, including in South African jazz.
Indeed as his ‘homegirl,’ albeit from East London’s leafy suburbs, when driving past where Tete Mbambisa, Pinise Saul and Dyani grew up, there is no justifiable ethical space for such platitudes. Throughout the book, Sam Mathe erects a mirror to the places where jazz was nurtured in this country, and from where post-apartheid capitalism has ripped it as it has persisted on cannibalising the Black township’s economies and soul (i.e. don’t enhance what’s going on there, implant an American fast food outlet and call it entrepreneurship). As Professor Kgomotso Masemola prefaces the book, “not once does this book, From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond, show an inclination to yield to the embellishments of nostalgia” (in Mathe, 2). Rather than nostalgia, we are riveted to consider the ‘when’: when Johnny Dyani collapsed, when Miriam Makeba collapsed, when Moses Molelekwa killed himself, when Moses Khumalo killed himself, and when Gito Baloi was murdered. In media res is also the site of an ending. It is for this reason, in my view, that the grammatical anomaly in the Dyani entry – “The Eastern Cape-born artist has been an exile in Europe for 23 years” – strangely works. We are so catapulted back to that moment ‘when‘, to that event, that the normative ‘had been’ would, perhaps, have been more jarring.
These tragic stories are also, perhaps counter-intuitively, resources of hope as Raymond Williams might put it. Christopher Ballantine suggests something similar in the introduction to his interview with Chris McGregor, echoing Walter Benjamin’s words that:
Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.(1970, 257). (Ballantine 2013, 31)
For Ballantine, writing as an historian, protecting even the dead from the forces of defeat means “fanning the spark of hope that glows” (ibid.) from our musical ancestors’ still warm footprints, which spark has kindled Sam Mathe’s book.
Mathe goes further than this, because he also pays diligent attention to younger post-apartheid musicians. These musicians’ biographies are revealing in many different ways: there are more women instrumentalists, the musicians are involved in a wider array of musicking, and their stories show how jazz is being taught in our educational institutions even while jazz knowledge cannot be contained in ivory towers. It is my hope here that readers take from these portraits the continuing importance of our country’s jazz narratives as intergenerational dialogues – as the late and much mourned Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson would have put it. As the younger musician students and scholars continue to transcribe this music (and they should if they want) and as we receive more theoretical/analytic texts and as ‘real books’ of South African jazz are being published, Mathe’s book is a timely reminder that there are people behind those notes, rests, cycles, charts and scores. Sam’s book enjoins us to pay attention to the ‘terms and conditions’ that attend the translating or bearing across of the human stories of these artists into a form of signification that is supposedly ‘mutually intelligible’ to those who are able to read staff notation. As he writes, this is why he has “chosen biography as the vehicle to tell this story [From Kippie to Kippies And Beyond] precisely because it is in this area of local jazz scholarship that the neglect is more pronounced” (Mathe, 3). As I recently argued elsewhere, the inscription or entextualization of South African jazz must not be at the cost of its socio-historical complexity.
The manner in which Mathe keeps this socio-historical complexity in view has regal precedents, namely: Alain Locke’s capturing of the New Negro’s “folk spirit” in his The New Negro: An Interpretation (Albert and Charles Boni, 1925) and T. D. Mweli Skota’s The African Who’s Who: An Illustrated Classified Register and National Biographical Dictionary of the Africans in the Transvaal (Central News Agency, 1936). The latter was, of course, an ‘interpretation’ of those who considered themselves, and would soon be known as, the New Africans. When I first read Mathe’s book, Skota’s invaluable intervention came to mind. Both Locke and Skota paid attention to individual and group portraits and, despite the New Negro’s and the New African’s so-called (and over-emphasised) antipathy to jazz and folk/popular music, they featured musicians who were at times unlikely vanguards in these realms. In all three books, the charting of black intellectual histories is key. For Masemola, Mathe’s work “breathes life to otherwise moribund or trivialised histories of South African musicians at home and abroad” (in Mathe, 2), and Professor Njabulo Ndebele lauds it for similar reasons on the book’s Back Cover. Echoing Ndebele’s writing elsewhere (specifically his essay ‘Rediscovery of the Ordinary’), I confess to enjoying the absence of photographs in this book.
Much of South African music’s history has been mediated through photographs. While this is to be welcomed, those invested in this music’s stories must guard against their collapsing into spectacle. Mathe’s book forces us to read, so that we may see the photographs and hear the music differently.
Unlike Locke or Skota, this is a very specifically post-apartheid South African book. Musicians across South Africa’s ethnic spectrum are included. We can therefore draw new genealogies, ones that are not dictated by apartheid’s determined severing of our musical worlds and relations. Read carefully, Mathe’s book is to some degree also a southern African story, something that is appropriate when we consider the provenance of, say, the tune Skokiaan or the birthplace of a Dorothy Masuku in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), or a Gito Baloi in Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa).
Confronted with Mathe’s epic endeavour, perhaps the classy thing is for a deconstructionist and post-structuralist like myself to refrain from critiquing the project of constructing national biographies, musical or otherwise. Perhaps now is not the time to fire off about canons, to burrow into emplotments, or to ruminate on metanarratives. We now have a work that is lovingly presented as, “a reader-friendly text for everyone regardless of level of education” (Mathe, 4).
I am left to quibble nevertheless. The book’s pagination makes it difficult to find the musician one is looking up with ease. Furthermore, attributions to other scholars’ work could be more generously made – and this should be the case even if the author was aware of certain facts without other scholars’ input. I am also not certain why the book has been branded ‘Volume 1’ instead of ‘First Edition’? Surely, the book’s alphabetical listing as an organisational principle is more suited to the latter?
Everyone should look forward to volume 2 or, I hope, the 2nd edition of this book. For this reiteration, I can only urge the author’s prefatory introduction to rise even further to the occasion. Drawing on the historian Hayden White, who has influenced my reading of this book, I am urged to remind Mathe and us that:
[A] preface is, by its very nature, an instruction on how to read the text that follows it and, by the same token, an attempt to guard against certain misreadings of the text, in other words, an attempt at control. In his masterful meditation on the preface as genre in Western writing, [Jacques] Derrida notes that the preface is always a narcissistic enterprise, but a special kind, that in which a proud parent looks upon and praises, excuses, or otherwise prepares the way for his child, the text that he has at once sired and given birth to.Hayden White 1987, 201
The village welcomes this child.
Mathe, Sam. 2021. From Kippie to Kippies and Beyond: Group Portraits of SA Jazz, Folk & Pop Artists. Volume 1. Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo and London: Themba Books. ISBN: 978-0-620-84267-9. E ISBN: 979-8-463-45735-6. pp. i-v+399.
Ansell, Gwen. 2004. Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa. New York: Continuum.
Ballantine, Christopher. 2012. Marabi Nights: Jazz, ‘Race’ and Society in early Apartheid South Africa. Scottville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
_____. 2013. ‘Chris McGregor: Introduction and Interview’ SAMUS 33, 31-48.
Byatt, A. S. 1990. Possession: A Romance. London: Chatto & Windus.
Coplan, David B. 2007. In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. 2nd Edition. Auckland Park: Jacana.
Douglas, Struan. 2013. The Story of South African Jazz – Volume One. Durban: BK Bookbinders.
Kermode, Frank. 1967. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford University Press.
Locke, Alain (ed). 1925. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Albert and Charles Boni.
Mojapelo, Max. 2008. Beyond Memory: Recording the History, Moments and Memories of South African Music. Edited by Sello Galane. Somerset West: African Minds.
Skota, Mweli T. D. 1936. The African Who’s Who: An Illustrated Classified Register and National Biographical Dictionary of the Africans in the Transvaal. Johannesburg: Central News Agency.
White, Hayden. 1987. ‘The Context in the Text: Method and Ideology in Intellectual History’. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 185-213.
|1.||Any serious historian of South African jazz at some point begins to resemble a character in A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990).|