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Take a deep breath

This year’s Arts Alive festival opens with a big-band bang: a tribute to the work of South African jazzman Chris McGregor, who led the famous Blue Notes and later Brotherhood of Breath, from the former’s beginnings in South Africa in the early 1960s to his death in 1990. Conductor Kutlwano Masote will lead the Miagi Orchestra in renditions of McGregor pieces with added string arrangements by Denzil Weale, who will take the McGregor position at the piano for the concert on August 31 at Johannesburg’s City Hall.

Strings might be an unexpected addition to the arrangements of McGregor’s music — he and his cohorts played a very free and often wild kind of improvisatory jazz (brassy, percussive) that feels a world away from the rehearsed string sections of the classical-music orchestra. But his spirit would rejoice at the thought of his music expanding once more to accommodate further dimensions.

After all, McGregor’s music kept expanding throughout his career, even as the Blue Notes expanded, in exile in the late 1960s, to make space for a host of British and European jazz musicians excited by their innovative style. Brotherhood of Breath was formed around the nucleus of The Blue Notes to include such stars as British tenor-sax player Evan Miller and trumpeter Harry Beckett. In her marvellous book on South African music at home and in exile, Soweto Blues, Gwen Ansell quotes McGregor’s desire for a big band that functioned like a ”village”, one that ”transcended outdated concepts of national identity”.

The original Blue Notes stayed on, though, in that musical village, or came and went as they travelled the world. Alongside McGregor, and between their own projects, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo helped inject new energy into the British and European jazz music scene just as it began to respond to the revolutionary changes taking place in American jazz — the revolution of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Su Ra’s Arkestra. If such experimentalists felt a need, as they often did, to go back to the African roots of jazz, to poly­rhythms and non- diatonic harmonics, and to move away from a more commercial compositional tradition, the recipe was right there in the African jazz McGregor et al brought with them from the mother continent.

McGregor’s brother Tony writes that Chris’s ”music rhythmically and harmonically was rooted in the music of the amaXhosa people among whom he grew up [in Trans­kei], and the sounds of the Xhosa students singing, in their own inimitable way, the music of the Scottish Church. But his music was not in any way an exercise in nostalgia — he was passionately concerned about issues of the day, environmental degradation, the politics of exploitation, racism, the nuclear threat.”

Listen to the Chris McGregor Septet, playing at the first big jazz festival in South Africa in 1962, and you can hear even a relatively simple swinging blues (Blues Story) yearning to burst its banks. The Blue Notes’ last concert in this country, in 1964, ends with Pukwana’s Dorkay House, which seems to swirl outward, in search of new horizons. By the time of the great, heaving, propulsive pieces that Brotherhood of Breath produced, it feels like McGregor’s music has expanded to enclose every possibility from kwela to atonality. Perhaps, like many exiles, McGregor felt a need to create a musical world that was an all-inclusive universe unto itself. And he did.

Working off McGregor’s scores, in some cases original autographs, the Miagi Orchestra will build more bridges for the music. A 16-piece jazz band, including such luminaries as Marcus Wyatt, Prince Lengoasa and Ernest Motlhe (who played in Brotherhood), will be joined by a 22-piece string section for the August 31 concert. Conductor Masote learnt his musicianly craft in his father’s Soweto Youth Orchestra, as a cellist; later, having played for Yehudi Menuhin when he visited South Africa in 1995, he studied for two years at the International Menuhin Musical Academy in Switzerland, before returning to South Africa in 1998 to join the National Symphony Orchestra.

Over the years, McGregor’s bands accommodated generations of musicians, becoming what Motlhe describes in Soweto Blues as a musical university. As for this McGregor project (which follows last year’s Todd Matshikiza concert), Masote says, ”We as classical musicians get to learn a lot.”

The Arts Alive grand opening takes place at the Johannesburg City Hall on August 31 at 7pm. The evening features Omar Sosa from Cuba and the Miagi orchestra performing compositions by Chris McGregor. Tickets are R150. For the Arts Alive programme visit or call Tel: 011 838 4195

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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