The new jazz agenda

Last weekend Cape Town hosted its fifth North Sea Jazz Festival: as usual, an exciting, edifying, but often downright frustrating experience. Billed as “Africa’s grandest gathering”, two nights of NSJF 2004 saw 40 artists playing across five stages, and a mixture of styles ranging from bop and jazz fusion to spoken word and Afropop. This year the festival moved from the very unreformed architecture of the Good Hope Centre to the newly built and very joie glass and steel affair that is the Cape Town International Convention Centre. In many ways the venue was the star of the show, and begs for review alongside the festival performances.

At the start of proceedings on Saturday night, it seemed as if the festival had become a victim of its own success. Although a much bigger venue, the Convention Centre was bursting at the seams when the crowds began pulling in for soul diva and commercial drawcard Angie Stone. It became so difficult to negotiate the crowds between stages that a common complaint from festival-goers was that they simply weren’t seeing any music.

“This festival is no longer for us,” muttered one regular attendant, “us” apparently referring to the locals. The greatest influx was from Gauteng, making it clear that the fest is no longer Cape Town’s best-kept secret. Perhaps that weary festival-goer also meant the festival is no longer for music lovers, who had to endure abysmal sound, an annoying lack of cellphone etiquette, and hordes of Stone fans in ungainly high heels.

Last year’s Mother City Queer Project put doubt in my mind that the Cape Town International Convention Centre is perhaps not as all-purpose as its specs suggest, and that its cavernous hulk might not have the soul to carry off “Africa’s grandest gathering”. By Sunday, however, it became clear that the venue, while a little soul-less, is superbly functional. The crowds eased off and with it the moans about congestion and long distances between stages. Instead everyone was happy to get a beer without waiting, and get into and out of each area without having to scrum at the doors.

It would be dishonest to pretend to write an objective review of the performances. With 40 performances stretched over 13 hours, it was physically impossible to see, let alone digest, everything. Yet, perhaps I may suggest that some performances were unanimous hits. The crowd-pullers pleased, mostly. Stone was suitably soulful, and Al Di Meola virtuosic. Cassandra Wilson’s understated blues were as sultry and seductive as a Mississippi night, while Irakere’s Basilio Marquez dazzled with post-bop arrangements of Cuban classics and incendiary horn runs.

It was entirely appropriate that the token African artist from outside South Africa be given the finale performance. To say Femi Kuti was trance-inducing would sound hyperbolic. Kuti seemingly did put the audience into a trance, taking control of their mesmerised bodies and invoking the spirit of his late father Fela. Femi, with all his contradictions, is definitive of the times. He is sharply defined by his father’s shadow, as well as a set of conventions his father would never have acknowledged. Yet his sheer force and charisma made this performance an epiphany: something like seeing the Beatles for the first time.

Some highlights were less expected. Soweto Kinch, who alternated free bop and jazz hop, played twice, and by Sunday had drawn such a loyal following that he was rhyming impromptu about “those Cape Town honeys”. Raga Afrika, a collaboration by African and Indian classical musicians, filled the tiny Moses Molelekwa stage immediately, and those who did manage to get in were soon proselytising about their greatness.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kabelo had older generations wondering what the “jazz” in jazz festival means, but their performances were rousing enough to make one forget such turgid debates. Indeed, the appeal of the festival seems to be that it has transcended the anal retentiveness of jazz fanatics, while retaining a core programme of quality performances for those who prefer not to stray or mingle.

With the festival one of the brightest jewels in the Cape’s crown of great events, it is easy to imagine a more spectacular future for it. Perhaps it needs to escape the confines of just one building, and bring a true festival atmosphere to the surrounding streets and city nightlife.

Meanwhile, some minor changes would bring immediate goodwill: better crowd control, and better care of the loyal clientele in the Rosies auditorium who don’t want to be disturbed by cellphones and noisy exits during songs.

Unlike other efforts in Cape Town, the festival has transcended its “arts” appeal and captured the city’s imagination, perhaps even the national imagination. Patrons buy into the festival’s aspirational values, immediately feeling part of an international event as well as a network of African and European music festivals. Promoting our own culture happens best when it’s done in this way: abandoning the parochial and embracing the global.

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