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26 May 2014

THANKS FOR THE MUSIC!

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A personal retrospective of 10 years on-air, [and before]

“When the music changes, so does the dance”
– African Proverb

After an intense period of labour, at precisely 6am on 1st August 1997, a group of pioneering staff packed into a virgin studio, and putting aside their exhaustion, toasted a truly momentous occasion!

An historical birth – heralded in by the smooth delivery of Lawrence Dube’s familiar voice. This esteemed jock had been there since conception; and with a proven passion for radio and a belief in unlimited possibilities, he’d been instrumental in seeding the station.

In a newspaper interview on the day of the launch, he said:

“Chase your dreams. If you start there, you never know where you may end up.”

So with an unswerving commitment to the future of African broadcasting, illuminating the way, he researched, recruited, networked; and in joining forces with others, found the finance to support this new vision.

In a recently liberated country, with a fraught broadcasting background, one cannot underestimate the layered significance of launching the first black-owned independent radio station.

And as I witnessed this hugely symbolic moment, I was overwhelmed with humility and gratitude – for I had been granted a part in the process of redefining our collective reality.

As an artist, committed to public art; a teacher with a love for exchanging information, and a researcher – it was almost inconceivable that I’d been given this opportunity. Besides few artists, even the most revered masters, can lay claim to a weekly audience of thousands.

A decade has passed, I’m still here, and Kaya’s obviously retained the lead role in this unfolding dream. But in the greater scheme of radio history, her contribution would be equivalent to the energetic arrival of a newly appointed host on the breakfast show.

Her excitement is understandable; because in this ego-driven industry, strong characters reach into the imaginations of even the most intimate environments. It’s an addictive experience – not just for loyal listeners, but mainly for almost anyyone who has ever worked in radio – so it’s easy to get carried away.

But in realizing that at some point, she too will reach her sell-by date, we are humbly reminded that this is not entirely her story, neither yours nor mine. We are simply players that step in and out of a single act, in the timeless tale of Africa’s of oral tradition.

Most of us enter this epic without a birthright, unlike the griots of West Africa – the “keepers of collective consciousness”, who historically traveled from village to village informing, educating and entertaining through storytelling, music and dance.

In Mali, they are called the ‘jeliya’ [transmission by blood], or ‘djeli’ [blood], affirming that they carry the legend through cellular memory.

But this does not diminish the richness of being part of the urban radio experience – the on-air high, and the exhilarating offshoots – out of which many stories arise. So in this spirit, I offer some of mine, stepping in at a point in time, to a place called Yeoville in 1990.

For me it was a beginning, but some are known to begrudgingly say:
“…it ended with Rumours!”

Which wasn’t hearsay – rather, the reference here is to a legendary jazz club that graced a colourful strip called Rockey St – offering the last of the ‘live’ music scene.

And right beside this bastion of the blues, where each night silver-haired artists like Art Blakey could be found besides the cool blowing of Barney Rachabane, was an Indian restaurant and music venue. Called Tandoor, it was run by a barefoot hippie filmmaker who heard my sounds at a Bez Valley party, and invited me to play. So, one Saturday night, straight after Tananas, I started spinning African and Acid Jazz…

I might have been one of first DJs there, but I wasn’t to blame when the bands dissipated amidst an increasingly electronic age.

We filled the gap with gigs at abandoned venues, and house parties – which was where I hooked up with some like-minded brothers doing a similar thing. Together we mixed a mini-revolution – armed with inspiration, expectancy, and a touch of arrogance, we united the divided.

Out of the darkest despair of the late ‘80’s, we could suddenly see the light of a new dawn – and with fun having long been forbidden by the paranoid oppressors, there was added reason to celebrate!

Politically it was also an interim period – freedom fighters were released, exiles returned jubilantly, and the floodgates opened for refugees, who sought solace amid the artists, in the melting-pot of this bohemian suburb renowned for an age-old tolerance of immigrants.

And as academics sat in the subsidized safety of the suburbs, theorizing about ethnic assimilation and the ethics of aesthetics; at street level, it was as always, evolution in action – affirming that culture defines itself.

There were signs of decay in the hood, but there was also a creative gathering. Thinking people educated by institutions, Umkhonto, or life itself, who merged against an exotic soundtrack that blended Abdullah with Salif, Caiphus with Miles, Marley and Dennis Mpale…

The atmosphere was, if you like, Afropolitan!

Though this word’s been credited to a certain Taiye Tuakli Wosornu – an African, Yale-graduate artist living in New York, I’d heard it long before. And while her essay of 2005, explained the concept, it actually began way back…

Think Miriam Makeba – her afro-chic, inherent grace and sensual rebellion. Exiled in the sixties, she never forgot languages from home, but also sang fluently in French, Maninka, Kikongo, Arabic and other dialects.

And the courage of Fela Kuti – a humanitarian with a horn, whose infectious grooves, loaded lyrics, universal spirituality and undying vision of African unity, sparked a revolution.

He also had humour and a unique African style – just like Manu Dibango, the quintessential Afropolitan! His remarkable career spans over 50 years, and his Soul Makossa of ‘72, was the first African planetary hit!

His homeboy, the late HYPERLINK “http://africanmusic.org/artists/bebey.html” Francis Bebey, who helped put him on the map, was less outspoken, but equally Afropolitan. This multi-talented musician, musicologist, writer, composer, story-teller, and film-maker; was an honorary cultural ambassador to the world.

There are innumerable others – those that stood before, alongside and after these greats – artists, thinkers and activists whose actions whether closely felt or far-reaching, have inspired and affirmed others.

Lawrence Dube defines Afropolitan as :
“the culture of somebody very proud of his roots as an African, but also with an international outlook to life….It’s pride as opposed to ego!”

This quality I saw in the musicians, who ironically were the first to come when I found myself spinning for the underground. Amidst the already famous and future players, I sometimes saw a solitary figure in the shadows, surrounded by a swirl of cigarette smoke… almost an apparition observing…

I found that this unsung hero, Peter Makurube, was actually a radio-man, originally from radio Bop. Amongst other cultural contributions, he started Monday Blues in Hillbrow in 1991 – a forum for performers, from which stars like Jimmy Dludlu, E-Smile and Simphiwe Dana grew.

Inherently Afropolitan, he says it’s:
“.. an attitude that goes with the love of self, and one’s environment… the beauty of the African continent…. you have to be.totally immersed in it… you can’t be one half in and another not…..and the only way to reflect that really is through the many arts that Africa has.”

Which leads me back to Kaya, because this mentor of many [including the likes of Bob Mabena, Ben Dikobe and Lawrence Dube], was how I got there.

On Makurube’s recommendation, I was interviewed and got the part. I won’t elaborate on the details of the pre-launch build-up, suffice to say that at some point, I found myself blowing out imaginary candles and addressing photos of friends – a part of the training that I have to admit, has to this day proved fruitless.

With time running out, we were all called in to contribute tracks to the computer – the preferred programming system of contemporary radio – a modern-age deity that I believe, insensitively spurts out songs.

Apparently governed by the human hand of the music compiler, it has its benefits – but too often it obeys orders defiantly, offering the illogical mix of an inanimate.

So thankfully it wasn’t ready to roll when we went on-air, giving me the gap to select my sounds – a liberty [I am told], which I have since vehemently defended.

It also gave me the space to stop trying to convince my imported-American expert boss, that African music needed to be played at this “R&B station” called “Kaya’ – I mean really, I’d seen joy on peoples faces when it played in the clubs, and besides, even the press releases sold it as such:

In the Star on the 1st August 1997:
“…. Managing director Pat Dambe says the station targets mature people who consider themselves to be African. But she considers “African” a more complex term than simply relating to colour.
“African for us does not mean exclusively black, but people who identify themselves as being from Africa, part of an African tradition within a modern economy,” she said.”

So I boarded the airwaves breathlessly, running and wracked with a fear that surely affirmed me as the world’s worst presenter ever! The music carried me and there were invaluable advisors along the way, but essentially it was through experience that I evolved.

[And credit is due to the same programme manager, who later returned to the US, as a firm follower of African sounds].

Instinctively I was following a route, which in my thread probably began with the diversity of music I’d been exposed to since birth.

From my father came classical music and operas; with soul, jazz and Bossa of my mom. And from my late nanny, I was nourished by the Mbaqanga, Maskandi and Iscathamiya of Radio Bantu.

This brings to mind a certain documentary, which at first offended me, but later became a significant tool, when I found myself involved in education again. This time I was tasked with teaching radio – specifically “African Radio”.

I facilitated a series of 2 week courses, each with 20 community radio representatives invited from all over the country; and I always ended the introductory day with this video, called “Bands Apart”.

Made for a BBC2 series called ‘Black Britian’, it’s described as a 40 minute documentary “about the black music that emerged from under Apartheid”.

Shot in South Africa in 2000, it was essentially about the Radio Bantu days, and it was presented by Courtney Pine, the cutting-edge jazz saxophonist.

But I was unaware of all this, when while working with ‘The General’ at one of those aforementioned house parties; I met the ‘Admiral’ who informed me that he’d recommended me as a researcher. With only 3 years of media industry experience behind me, I was overjoyed… and for the BBC I thought, imagine where that might lead?!

Well, imagine on… because it was strange from the start…

I called the UK, and the director Amir Amirani, explained that in a shop in London, he’d found a series of CD’s from the SABC archives. These contained tracks which inspired him, and he wanted a researcher who could access these artists for interviews.

Instantly, alarm bells rang, because here at home, the issue of the SABC archives was the hottest topic amongst artists at that time. So imagine hearing this when the very archives themselves; their accessibility and ownership were being questioned, and their availability investigated.

To add insult, these albums, the ‘people’s property’ were openly available in the UK & Ireland, but not in South African!

I traced the source to an office in Sandton, who confirming he’d bought all the rights, including publishing, strongly stated that the featured artists would never be found.

An odd statement, since this is South Africa, an emerging industry, with only a small circle of sound makers. And since it was only 3 or 4 decades down the line, a few calls and a couple of connections later, easily unraveled the whereabouts of the ‘lost’ musicmakers.

But as the doors opened, so did the pain – of cultural corruption and exploitation. Censorship inflicted by broadcaster that “paid a 5-pound flat fee” for songs – which some still justify as legal – contractually this may be, but morally, isn’t there a price?

At least now, musicians are more enlightened – there are workshops, industry events such as MOSHITO, and management structures.

But is Jozi so cutting-edge, so the hippest city in Africa, when there are so few ‘live’ venues – try taking out a visitor on any given day of the week. We’ve also become festival-driven, which in churning out acts, is less about music and more about a family outing.

While our nation’s music awards may reflect urban culture, it’s distinctly not about music, but that’s fine because some seeps through. And we at least have our own ambassador, Zola… Hola thank you 7 times over… for being Afropolitan, and out there on ABC, CNN and the BBC…

…who arrived with equipment, entitlement, and the muffled sneer of those commissioned by an international network. Things began with the researchers, or rather the issue of the actual appointment of such – because it emerged that there were a few appointed, but in true South African style, none were contracted.

So in the end, no-one was remunerated, not even the artists, except Masekela of course – Hugh ‘must’ve got clever’ abroad – he insisted on payment for his interview.

This veteran was a longtime Afroplitan who since the ‘60’s had against all odds, pioneered a sound that reflected the African sensibility within an international context. He was also a part of Kaya at the start, when he co-hosted a show with Sibongile Khumalo.

Courtney Pine probably got paid well as a presenter, unlike “Big Voice” Jack Lerole who was actually the star. It was after all, his story, and at least for the closing shot, these two collaborated for a show at the Bassline.

Which back then, wasn’t the Mega-venue we know now, but rather the last of the intimate spaces for ‘live’ African sounds – where for a while I hosted a monthly event called “World Show – Live”.

It was an informal show and a kind of public interview, whereby the invited artists could directly answer questions posed by the audience.

This once again leads me to “Big Voice” Jack, who I’d been asked to interview about a school he’d set up in Soweto, for children of the nearby informal-settlement. While visiting, I saw them in action, so I invited him to perform together with the kids.

It was a magical moment in history, as they played in front of a packed audience. He’d been ill, so he could hardly blow his pennywhistle, but his pride was palpable; and he stayed on until 3am, with spirits high at the legacy that he left. The following morning, at 9am, my phone rang to say Big Voice was dead!

Then something more disturbing happened when he was honoured posthumously at the following SAMA. During his granddaughter’s tribute speech, an ignorant and impatient public audience boo-ed. This was the same year Mafikizolo won an award for a hit that’s authorship was disputable; which came off their album ‘Kwela’ – a pennywhistle style, of which Jack was considered a king!

So what does it say about the responsibility of the media? Perhaps it’s the endless, mindless music videos on TV, that are to blame, but that also doesn’t pardon the press, or relinquish the role of radio.

This brings me back to the documentary which I ritually used for the training sessions. In illustrating our radio history, it is the best multimedia resource I have come across. Also ironic, is that this invaluable course was initiated and largely funded by the French – who, like it or not, also contribute greatly to our city’s sense of Afropolitan. They bring us most of Francophone Africa’s shows; and create opportunities for our artists abroad.

But let me not digress now to Governmental support, to our place in the world, and to why we still adore ‘cultural colonists’. Rather, let me give gratitude to Kaya, for the journey across airwaves and for the experiences it’s enabled. Mostly I give thanks for all the Afropolitans I’ve encountered – some have helped along the way, others I’ve interviewed, and all who’ve changed my life… in turn allowing me to reach others.

After an unprecedented birth, the agony of teething and largely unstable formative years; I turn it on hoping to hear Baaba Maal, Lagbaja, Zim Ngqawana, Angelique or perhaps Busi Mhlongo – just some of the true Afropolitans.

Now, in approaching the ten year mark, I wonder… are those horns on the horizon, is that the sound of a marching band…are those African artists I hear moving towards Kaya’s first milestone?

While I may question whether this pre-pubescent is perhaps still struggling with identity, I’ll leave it for you to decide…
“Strange though it may seem there is a strength in the uncertain – in we who define ourselves based not on birth nor nation, but on principle and by choice. Sometimes when you’re not quite sure who you are and where you’re from, you have the opportunity to decide. Or perhaps more accurately, you perceive the opportunity to decide.”
Derrick N. Ashong [musician, actor, activist and scholar], writing in reference
to “Afropolitan”

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
– Chinese Proverb

NICKY BLUMENFELD – MARCH 2007

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