No room for compromise

Performing Tananas covers is not such a crazy idea, considering Tananas is one of the country’s greatest bands. But in South Africa such a thing seldom happens because most musicians take their influence from abroad.

At a recent gig at the Alliance Française in Mitchell’s Plain, a talented group from the area, Idawo, found a distinctive sound, dipping between marching ghoema drum-lines and delicate Tananas-inspired melodies.

It may have been derivative, but it was local and the enthusiasm for the sound that comes from playing something because you identify with it was inspiring.

It was the honesty in the music that came out — a little like rugby player Breyton Paulse’s CD launch on July 4 at the SABC studios in Cape Town.

Breyton is not a musician. In fact, he can barely hold a note. His version of Go Breyton Go is about as rousing as the rugby players singing Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika. But this album is not about the music, it is about selling the music. And Breyton — the great South African role model with his sexy body and mass appeal — is the type of personality to break into the popular market. Who cares if the music is compromised?

And this is the line the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters nationwide talent search has to walk: it is caught between the joy of the Tananas cover band and the cold facts of commercialism.

Old Mutual is marketing its brand through the development of a music form that is essentially uncommercial and honest (jazz). A banner at a soccer match will get the brand to more people, but not the message. Jazz Encounters has opened the channels for real jazz by artists who otherwise may not have got that chance.

Since the project’s inception in 1999 some stirring musicians have been sourced, some of whom have gone on to record great albums, win international scholarships, tour abroad and become regular performers on the circuit. Where there’s talent being showcased, there’s an industry taking note.

At the final of the opening year of the talent search, Selaelo Selota brought an uncompromising African edge with his music. His sound was original, and this won him an award.

BMG records then signed him and the authenticity he exhibited became throttled by the label’s economic strategies. He recorded a mindless smooth jazz album, sold more than 20 000 copies, compromised the values he had preached before and became a star. And he’s not the only one whose expression has been distorted by the economics of the industry.

This is the sort of compromise the musicians have to face, but is not one that an important project like Jazz Encounters should entertain.

And that brings us to the launch of this year’s Jazz Encounters at the most soul-destroying venue in Cape Town — the Grand West casino. It is amazing how well the R&B of Ernie Smith and Gloria Bosman suited the venue. Where was the jazz? It had been replaced by consumerism, under the understandable belief that what is more popular attracts more people.

The industry is using mindless, smooth R&B to kill the expression and joy in jazz music.

What will happen to Idawo when the labels get hold of them? Like Selaelo they could well lose the delight in their music. And that’s a real danger. It might bring in the crowds today, but what will it do tomorrow?

Ironically, not many tickets were sold for the launch gig.

Perhaps audiences are expecting more, perhaps the audiences enjoy honesty in the music, and that tomorrow has already come. If there is a project with integrity, why not market it with integrity?

For information call 0800 201 410 or download entry forms from // The closing date for entries is August 8.

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