/ 9 May 2008

Don’t judge a song by its genre

One thing that is for certain about this year’s best traditional jazz album Sama is that it was always going to be won by a jazz artist.

McCoy Mrubata won the category this year, beating a host of accomplished musicians, including Carlo Mombelli (I Stared Into My Head), Dan Wilson (Mark Hugget Project), Johnny Fourie (Once Upon a Time) and Wessel van Rensburg (Happy@Empty).

There must be something satisfying for a musician to lose to a peer rather than somebody you were not in competition with in the first place. I hope that even his opponents will concede that in Brasskap Sessions Vol 1 (Sheer Sound) Mrubata has produced one of his best works.

Jazz has the unfortunate burden that it has to accommodate everybody. Anybody can come along and call his or her music jazz.

When jazz fans complain about this, they are accused of being haughty.

Simphiwe Dana, ‘the defending champion” of the category, does not call herself a jazz artist. Neither does the beautiful Lira who has won the award previously.

With due respect to Dana, it was a bit of a travesty that her win last year was at the expense of Estelle Kokot, who in my opinion is out there with the best jazz vocalists in the world.

Dana and Lira are excellent artists and don’t need the jazz tag to justify their music. Think Anita Baker or Roberta Flack — divas, both with soulful voices they could have used (and have at times done so) on the jazz scene. But they are not jazz artists and don’t pretend to be.

We love them or hate them because we understand what Duke Ellington meant when he said there are two kinds of music, ‘good or bad”.

Ellington, as we are reminded in the ‘sermon” narrated by the controversial Jeremiah Wright in Wynton Marsalis’s Premature Autopsies (The Majesty of The Blues), never sold out what jazz stood for.

It is assumed that the categorisation is there to help music shop owners to know where to place their stock.

But it is more important than that.

Labelling music is a process by which the album and artist will be measured. It is also about the artist being bold enough to declare where his or her heart lies.

When someone says he is a hip-hop artist, you know what to expect — rhymes and some proof of street cred — we expect gospel musicians to say something about God and we rightly get scandalised when they sing about their intimate bedroom details.

Music, like all other artistic pursuits, cannot be everything to everyone.

I cannot imagine any right-thinking person enjoying a song and then, on discovering that it belongs to the ‘wrong genre”, changing his or her mind about it.

It is not just a jazz thing. Nominating and awarding a musician for something he or she did not intend suggests that the artist and the audience did not find each other.

McCoy Mrubata shares the stage with Paul Hanmer at Levi’s Vintage Sundays on May 11 at the Backroom, Shop 20 Pimville Square, Soweto. The show starts at 7.30pm. Entrance is free. Tel: 011 938 9388 for more information