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Africa’s largest music gathering

CAPE TOWN JAZZ FESTIVAL: The event was held last weekend in South Africa.   Henry H. Ssali picks lessons for the Ugandan music scene.

It was billed “Africa’s Grandest Gathering” and calling the 16th Cape Town International Jazz Festival that, was not far from the truth. Two days, five stages, more than 40 acts and thousands of “music lovers” in one place.
Well, “music lovers” not “jazz lovers” because it was a fusion of different musical genres from traditional South African music that the Mahotella Queens who celebrated 50 years doing music to Afro pop from Chaka Chaka whose music is very popular in Uganda to urban youthful Rn’B music from South Africa’s Donald and Grammy nominee Amel Larriuex. Of course there were jazz legends like Hugh Masekela, and US’s seven time grammy award winner Al Jarreau who has been performing since the 1960s crowned the two day event.

Has jazz been diluted?
I must admit I am not the traditional jazz fan, little wonder I skipped a few of the annual Jazz Safaris back home in Kampala. I attended the first event more because Miriam Makeba (R.I.P) was a headliner and I skipped other events where the likes of Chuck Loeb and Gerald Butler were on the cards.
I attended the last two Jazz Safaris because they were more Rn’B than jazz. In 2013, Keith Sweat was one of the headliners and last year, Joe Thomas was the big performer of the night. Jazz purists have criticised our Jazz Safari for “diluting” the genre by lining up non-jazz performers as headliners, but as we were to find out in South Africa, the situation is not much different. It was more of a celebration of music from all over the world than a typically jazz festival. There was afro pop, hip hop, Rn’B, reggae and other genres.
In fact Jason Miles a performer from the US pointed out that it is the same situation in his home country.
“We have jazz festivals headlined by Cool and the Gang ahead of those who invented soul music and jazz. They are more interested in Selena Gomez and jazz performers are usually on the bottom of the list,” said the jazz musician who has worked with jazz greats like Miles Davis (though they are not related).
Miles points out that this is due to commercial pressure to fill concert venues, yet young people constitute the bulk of big show audiences. He however believes that young people can be interested in jazz if they are exposed to it as opposed to show promoters who believe jazz is for old people.
“I teach music students back in the US and when I give them this jazz music, they keep asking me for more of it,” he says.
He also believes the jazz music makers themselves should “keep their ears on the streets” to make music that resonates with the younger audience.
Talvin Singh, a performer from India pointed out a similar predicament where “Bollywood music” has swallowed up their Indian classical music that he said has a lot in common with jazz.
“There is a big struggle in India between live music and programmed electronic music that you see in Bollywood movies,” he said.
He notes that jazz musicians play second fiddle to the Bollywood musicians. “You have to pay your dues as a live performer. They still play free in jazz clubs.”
As a result, their jazz is also being “diluted” as musicians are beginning to assimilate jazz influences with main stream music to appeal to the audience.
But jazz, a genre that originated from African American communities in the US in the 19th century is very difficult to define. It is not distinct like reggae as it is a fusion of many music elements. Anyone or any group that play the saxophone, piano, guitar or trumpet live and sing can call themselves jazz musicians and it could be hard to fault them as doing something else. In fact several genres like soul, Rn’B and reggae originated from jazz, so show organisers can get away with booking artistes who do different kinds of music for a jazz festival.

Regardless of the genres at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, one thing that stood out was that quality music is timeless. Many of the performers were elderly musicians who have made music for decades and the relatively young crowd couldn’t have enough of them.
While performing, Yvonne Chaka Chaka announced that 2015 is a multiple anniversary year for her as she is celebrating several milestones. She is making 50 this year as well as celebrating 30 years since she started doing music and 10 years since she became a UN goodwill ambassador.
But at 50, she had just as enough energy and passion as she did when she had just started perfoming in 1985. She performed her classics like Umqombothi, I’m In Love With A DJ, I’m Burning Up and Motherland during her one hour set.
When Sipho Hotstix Mabuse got onto stage, his grey beard was manifestation of how long he has been around, but not his mellow voice, smooth dance moves and the finesse with which he blew his sax.  At 65, Mabuse has been doing music since the 1970s but he is still a darling of the South African music lovers. And just like Ugandan musicians who drop out of school to pursue music, Mabuse also dropped out of school in the 1960s, but at 60, he returned and completed his matric (South African equivalent of Uganda’s A-Level).
76-year-old “Bra” Hugh Masekela blew his trumpet with childlike glee and the venue was filled to capacity during his performance.
Al Jarreau is also in his mid 70s but he had the audience singing along to his timeless classics. It got me thinking about how many of our Ugandan musicians will still be relevant and bring down the house in their 70s. I had to take a moment to respect Afrigo Band that has stuck to doing good music for decades despite the ups and downs.
The septuagenarians list also had the Mahotella Queens, who have been doing South African traditional music for 50 years. For women above 70, it is surprising that they danced with the agility of teenagers. Unfortunately, one of the original three members was taken ill a while back and she was advised by doctors to stop performing but she has been replaced by 29-year-old Amanda Nkosi, who will ensure continuity of the group.
The youthful member said she grew up watching the Queens and it was beyond her wildest dreams that she would one day be part of them.
But for group leader Nobethusu Mbadu, it is time South Africans and Africans in general paid attention to the gold that our traditional music is. In comparison to Uganda, the Mahotella Queens are to South Africa what Annet Nandujja is to local Ganda music, a dancer and vocalist who has done traditional music for a while. But just like Nandujja won’t be looked at as “cool” and you won’t find her at the average urban concert, the queens also feel neglected.
“We were invited by the Queen of England to perform at her anniversary. We have performed for George Bush and other world leaders. In fact we spend more time performing outside South Africa. Our young people should pick interest in this traditional music before it becomes extinct,” she said.
But the stages were not only a preserve of old people as Andrea Motis,  a 19-year-old performer from Italy wowed the audience with her trumpet. Together with her mentor Joan Chamorro, they are billed as one of Europes best jazz outfits and they didn’t disappoint.

Event management  
The jazz festival helped me appreciate the high level of organisation that goes into putting shows together. Our own bivulu promoters should invest some of their proceeds in attending such shows, to pick a leaf.
Issues like time management at shows are still a big problem in Uganda. The Cape Town Jazz Festival had more than 40 performers over two days and they fitted into the programme seamlessly. Friday’s show started at 7pm and Saturday’s show started at 5pm. It is not that these were all-day performances and they were wrapped by 1am.  There was a time table that was well adhered to and all you had to do was look at who is performing at which stage, at what time. It is something that can be adopted in Uganda for better time management and also as a deterrent to  artistes who “launch albums” when they are given 15 minutes to perform. If the schedule is made public, we shall avoid debacles like the Club Mega Fest last year where Mafikizolo refused to perform because they had waited too long back stage – over two hours past their scheduled time.
It will also help us avoid scenarios like the R. Kelly concert in 2012 when some people turned up after he had wrapped his performance and others complained about “beeping” them, singing for just 45 minutes, yet that was his scheduled performance.

The Cape Town Jazz Festival
Now in its 16th year, the Cape Town Jazz Festival is now billed as Africa’s Grandest Gathering. The event has grown over the years and it now considered the fourth largest Jazz festival in the world attracting performers and revellers from all over the world. South African president Jacob Zuma attended this year’s festival that was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre last weekend.

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