It used to be said in African-American folklore that if you want to get a head start on the blues, you must be born in Chicago, Illinois. Similarly, in South Africa, it used to be said that if you wanted to get a head start on Malombo jazz – that proud sound steeped in healers’ drumming called malopo, poetic chants and improvised reed, flute or string melodies – you must be born in Tshwane. Here I must hasten to say that although Waterkloof is also part of Azania, it belongs to a parallel part of the city’s systems of values. This is why we say Tshwane as opposed to Pretoria. But, that’s a story with a different trajectory.
This confluence of a Tshwane birth and beat affinity is illustrated nicely in the album cover of Mamelodi-based jazz guitarist Moss Mogale’s 2008 album, Forget Me Not. It includes a picture of Mogale sitting on a stoep with his nephew, Jesse, who was three years old at the time, and is now a grown jazz bassist. Mogale is pictured polishing and shining his shoes while the future bassist watches on. They are accompanied by a record player that invariably blasts some tunes. As per this longstanding Sunday morning jazz and shoe-shining tradition, the mothers would either be out at church or in the kitchen cooking. It’s a tradition through which uncles, fathers and older brothers have inducted siblings, nephews and sons into the great custom of collecting jazz records for generations.
Here, boys are weaned into appreciating what the departed Amiri Baraka learned while studying at Howard University in Washington, DC. Baraka and his friends were taken in by a man named Sterling Brown, a poet and teacher who revealed his collection of blues records to them and declared: “That’s your history, the story of your people.” About this encounter with Brown’s record collection, Baraka often shared an anecdote of how he and his friends thought they knew so much. That was until one day, when they went to Brown’s house and discovered Brown’s wall full of records. They were organised chronologically and by genre. It took Baraka a decade to find that those records told a story − as he says, “Every voice, every title is telling you the story of Afro-American history. I really latched on to that idea, and I went back and started listening to the blues.”
In this way, in South Africa too, records took on the form of alternative carrier of memory for a people struggling against the racist apartheid state’s systems of erasure. The record collection becomes a vessel containment for what African-American writer Greg Tate called, “our abstract-truth medium, the one charged with breaking the silence about the culture of the black poor, our ethnic accent in its most pristine folkloric form … charged with speaking the unspeakable, how the human spirit needs more than the spoils of global capitalism”.
All jazz records are connected, just like the lives and stories they contain. All albums are plugged into one another through an infinite web of band memberships, themes and composition revisitations.
Consider, for instance, that moment you first encountered the name of the great jazz bassist Johnny Dyani through a poem by Keorapetse Kgositsile off Tumi and the Volume’s eponymous album. Your curiosity whet, you type Dyani’s name into Google. The search engine returns a number of his albums, including the 1978 SteepleChase release Song for Biko. Snagged by that revolutionary’s familiar name, you check out that album to discover a tune titled Joburg – New York. While listing to it, you might be struck by a trumpeter called Don Cherry. His searing horn teaches you that beauty could be more complex that roses and sunsets. His bold, ebullient blowing leads you to consider that perhaps the bassist and his bros, by braving bullets, blood and barbed wire at the border en route to exile, are beautiful too. In fact, their flight and this collaboration with an African-American trumpeter in Europe best illustrates the global reach of a common black experience, an experience that connects both Aunt Jemima and S’dumo through minstrelsy, and Malangatana Ngwenya and Aaron Douglas through high art.
The excesses of Kgositsile’s poem and your curiosity about Cherry might lead you on to a further search as you uncover news of the free jazz movement. The trail of Cherry’s work uncovers a record called The Shape of Jazz to Come, one of four records made in 1959 that went on to change the future of recorded music. The title is a fascinating one. It opens you up to jazz music’s conversations with atomic science and abstract expressionism in visual arts through a composition called Lonely Woman. The composition connects you to other musicians who covered it over the years. Like Miroslav Vitouš, the Czech jazzman whose life and 2009 rendition on his ECM release, Remembering Weather Report, which opens you up to a whole world of European jazz. You might even find out that South Africa’s own Kesivan Naidoo and the Lights reworked Lonely Woman in 2010. This discovery brings you back to the home circuit, where more records sustain the elaborate network and economy of meaning.
I started collecting records before I entered my teens. Back then my collection comprised my favourite hip-hop tracks dubbed on to cassette tapes from radio broadcasts. The first original records I owned were Sade’s 1985 classic, Promise, and MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. They were gifts from an aunt. These joined a horde of TDK tapes of everything from Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), I’ve Got the Power by Snap!, Dr Alban’s Hello Africa, Bob Marley, KRS-One and Snoop Dogg.
Around the same time, like many of my peers, I would learn to arm wrestle my father for the family hi-fi system. He would insist on Malombo and other jazz forms and I on rap as the soundtrack to our Saturday afternoons. Only later, as I approached my 20s and he the end of his earthly days, would I discover his music in my own records. An example is how Digable Planet’s Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) led me to discover my father’s love for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, specifically a track called Stretchin’ from their 1978 LP, Reflections in Blue. As the basis for my favourite rap trio’s hit single, Stretchin’ was a lush entry point into a rich tradition I champion today.
Since inheriting my old man’s record collection, and combined with the records I have bought myself, I now oversee a treasure trove that comprises thousands of titles of black music. I remember moving out of my mother’s house to rent a flat on the eastern edge of Sunnyside, Tshwane. It was while living there that I witnessed the joy of watching the new friends I was making discover the magic of that growing collection. This custom of collecting records grew that circle of new acquaintances into a guard of jazz appreciators. Some were discovering the classic jazz albums that were becoming our staple cultural diets from the thumping prism of house music – another sound that enjoys high purchase in Tshwane. This type of fellowship, this brotherhood bound by the need to buy records, has a longstanding precedence. Jazz appreciation clubs function with an efficiency of political organs with branches in every township and region of the country. Chairman of the South African Jazz Appreciation Society, Ray Nkwe, for instance, was central to ensuring the recording of one of South Africa’s most important jazz albums, Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s Yakhal’ Inkomo in 1968. Nkwe even wrote its historic liner notes.
As my collection grew large and spilled out of the closet and on to other parts of my living space, the records bewildered visitors outside the tradition before they were inducted as devoted collectors, too. Once, a fellow who was studying law and had recently discovered jazz music visited my place. As he learnt of the extent and breadth of what was becoming a private music library − which at that moment included two new purchases perched on a chair − he exclaimed: “Ah, ah, this is a pathology! So many albums?”
Records have a way of imploring us to collect them, sometimes not to be played immediately but to have them occupy parts of our homes with a kind of mystic presence. Records tend to live with us for stretches of time without ever finding their way to the turntable or hi-fi to be heard. They share this object condition with books, and, just like books, they too are up against the onslaught of digitisation. The mp3 is to record collectors what the e-book is to book lovers.
A friend of mine, Shonisani Lethole, recently returned from Norway where he says he struggles to find CDs of local music to play. Norwegians, he tells me, have taken to online music-streaming services with an enthusiasm that has left only novelty record shops in business. The rest seems condemned to follow the trajectory of the dinosaurs, it seems. However, records also show evidence of their resilience. I recently compiled a rough list of 10 best independent record shops in the country, and just moments after its publication on the City Press website, it received more than 200 likes on Facebook and was enthusiastically shared and tweeted by record lovers and collectors. Similar lists have been put together by cultural writers and collectors across the world.
Moss and Jesse Mogale, along with millions of South African collectors, look back to the Sunday morning shoe-shine and jazz ritual as their communion with their favourite records. Similarly, other communities have devised customs to commemorate and indulge their records, too.
Bill Cosby, for instance, speaks of how he played Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue every morning while he was studying at Temple University. Each sunrise, the alarm clock would go off and he would respond by stretching his hand out from under the blanket to press play on his record player. The needle would drop and Davis’ horn blew So What? into the morning.
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a record that has held a particular allure for American saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Apart from recording Coltrane’s masterpiece twice and performing and playing it countless times, Marsalis remembers how he listened to the record insistently: over breakfast, dinner, while working, driving − every opportunity he got. His brother Wynton also couldn’t resist its appeal. He revisited and recorded it with a big band, Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.
In a similar vein, following Ngozi’s death in 2010, a string of South African jazz musicians found themselves caught by a hex to revisit his most spectacular recording, Yakhal’ Inkomo. The title can be loosely translated as “the bull (or cow) bellows”. It’s a song about a metaphorical cow that cries as it witnesses the slaughter of its kin by humans. Think here of Ngozi, with his saxophone or horn bellowing note upon blue note of horror as the racist South African state murdered his kin during apartheid. Again here, the record carries more meaning than the notes it’s meant to sell. Incidentally, Yakhal’ Inkomo was recorded the same year as Malombo Jazz Makers’ Maroping. It means the source or place of origin. Here, the record is conceived as a collectable object, like a map, to guide us on the path back to places of origin. To collect records is in a way to collect maps. It’s to preserve a pathway to sources. That’s why I fuck with every record.