Jazz is jazz. You can talk about serious jazz: it’s an American music.
You get traditional jazz, you get Dixieland jazz, you get West Coast jazz, you get East Coast jazz, you get Latin jazz.
But jazz is just jazz.”
Typical. Ask a hip cat a question of definition, and he bursts out with a musicology lesson. “With Cape jazz, we didn’t choose the name, it just came out that way. It’s the sound of the Cape, the sound coming out of Cape Town.” For the serious jazz cat, it’s all about flavour. “I don’t know what the different spices are, but it’s probably because it’s written by Capetonian musicians.”
Whatever Cape jazz is, saxophonist Robbie Jansen is as close as one gets to being a specialist. Nicknamed the Cape Doctor because he blows like Cape Town’s wretched southeaster, one might think he has a PhD in goema. But then Cape jazz is no academic thing. If you want to see the failure of apartheid’s rigid racial barriers, sift through the entangled genealogies of our popular music forms. In his youth, Jansen would hang out on the cusp of the coloured and black townships in Elsies River, listening in to the kwela, marabi and mbaqanga played on 78s at Friday afternoon braais.
Jansen would also avidly follow the popular penny whistle trio, the Kwela Kids. The Sithole brothers would traipse between townships, like pied pipers always drawing an enchanted crowd alongside, except of course when they were running from the police. “I have up in my room one of the Tretchikoff paintings of Robert Sithole playing,” Jansen laughs.
The point is, Cape jazz is rooted not only in the goema rhythms of the Cape’s carnival, but also in the Golden City’s traditions of Spokes Mashiyane, and the marabi that Abdullah Ibrahim would make his own.
Jansen is staying at his mother’s house in Goedemoed. It’s one of those strange places on the outskirts of Cape Town where one can pass smallholdings, farmstalls, as if one has already left the city—and then suddenly a patch of neatly laid out suburbia, with office block and shopping complex, appears. It feels far from Elsies River with its Halt Street bustle. “It’s nice here,” he says with a smile that is only slightly mischievous. “It’s very peaceful.”
Placing the sleeves of Jansen’s three albums next to each other, one can trace a trajectory of musical and political change. On 1989’s Vastrap Island, a young, bare-chested Jansen leans forward towards the camera, his hand beckoning in what could be either the daring gesture of the skollie (bandit) or the “come join us” of the protester. The music itself is the sound of Eighties rebellion. A good 10 years later, The Cape Doctor has Jansen looking meditative, face painted with ochre, facing skyward and eyes shut as if listening. The album is a heady mix of hip-hop, Khoisan symphonies and goema-samba hybrids, Jansen’s band kicking up the jol that those in high-up places call the “African renaissance”.
On the cover of the new album, Nomad JÃªz, Jansen has an altogether more stately presence. He is dressed as if for a Christmas Band, crisp white shirt and black hat replete with jewelled buckle and feather. The music too is respectful, measured. The arrangements have exchanged adventure and surprise for a more restrained, classic take on the Cape jazz sound. It’s not simply that Jansen is older. In 2005 jazz has taken its place as South Africa’s anthemic music. It is no longer the irrepressible rhythm of rebellion, but the music of liberation past: proud, nostalgic and respectable.
Yet, if there is one moment in South African jazz history that has cemented Jansen’s reputation it is that first solo on Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1976 classic, Mannenberg. Jansen’s alto sits next to Basil Coetzee and Morris Goldberg, the three legends swinging, singing of freedom. Despite a solid pedigree as a popular entertainer, having formed part of the lineups of Cape Town pop phenomena like Pacific Express and the Rockets, Jansen has always played revolutionary soul singer. Vastrap Islands’s, How I’d Love to Feel Free is just one well known example.
An awareness of Khoisan heritage is also never far. On the new album, however, Jansen has a decidely more mellow take on this musical activism, covering Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On with a gruff, almost wistful voice.
Neither age nor illness have stopped the Cape Doctor’s blowing. Earlier this year Jansen was in intensive care with a collapsed lung. Yet he has made a miraculous recovery, one that he attributes to his fans’ prayers. Perhaps he has fans in high places. He certainly has fans in the government. Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rassool made sure that the musician’s medical bills were taken care of and that he was moved to a private ward. “I got special attention,” he remembers. “I was treated like royalty. I wish they treated everybody like that.”
Other musicians have not been so lucky. Jansen’s childhood hero, Robert Sithole, is forgotten in illness, despite his incredible compositional and technical advances in recent years. “It would be so much of a pleasure if our artists and musicians were appreciated in their lifetime,” says Jansen. “A lot of us have died or passed away, or just live as paupers, not recognised for what we have contributed.”
Another world is possible. The 2003 documentary Casa Dela Musica shows Jansen and oral historian Vince Kolbe on a trip to Havana, Cuba, where they exchange songs with local virtuosos and experience the effects of a different economic system. “You know everybody’s poor, but there’s no actual poverty. Unlike here.”
Robbie Jansen plays songs from Nomad JÃªz at the Nassau Centre, Cape Town, on October 7 and 8. For bookings Tel: (021) 447 1358