/ 22 May 2009

Washington comes to Jo’burg

Salim Washington chats to Percy Mabandu about South Africa's creative wealth.

New York saxophonist and jazz academic Salim Washington has the demeanour of the proverbial gentle giant. The softly spoken musician wears a jutting beard, has a sturdy figure and slouches when he walks.

He is on a Fulbright scholarship researching South African jazz and teaching at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He’s also giving a number of performances. The Mail & Guardian became part of his Johannesburg schedule.

We arrive to a lingering whiff of tobacco in his quarters at a guest house in Houghton. His horn and two flutes share space with music sheets and other papers everywhere. So he makes room and offers an apology: “I was busy practising,” he says.

Washington confesses finding the South African experience “very complicated”. For him it’s hard to understand how “English is the language of power” and not the “more popularly spoken languages”. He says none of the whites and Indians he knows “bother to learn Zulu”, the language spoken by the majority in Durban.

Nevertheless Washington is captivated by the creative wealth of South African jazz, so he’s spending eight months researching the art form. The project entails interviewing musicians, other players in the music business and some “everyday people with stories to tell”. His focus is what the end of apartheid has meant for jazz. He says with the exception of Cuba and Brazil, South Africa is the only country outside the United States with a coherent jazz tradition and a unique sound. But he laments that the jazz press has tended to downplay or even ignore it.

In the same way we speak of Afro-Cuban and Bosa Nova, it is possible to talk about a South African jazz idiom. Of the elder local jazz musicians, Washington has “fallen in love” with the music of Winston Mankunku, the Cape Town saxophonist. He says he heard Mankunku’s classic composition Yakhal’ inkomo, loosely translated “the bellowing bull”, and recognised “something powerful about it”.

“He reminded me of John Coltrane,” he says, adding that in 1961, when Yakhal’ inkomo came out, everyone wanted to sound like Coltrane but couldn’t — except for Wayne Shorter in the US and of course Mankunku. He says “it’s a shame” that Mankunku wasn’t heard in New York at the time, then explodes and asks: “Can you imagine what would have happened if they’d heard him in America? Wow!” Unlike Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and other artists, Mankunku didn’t go into exile.

Washington has tremendous creative debts to Pharaoh Sanders and Eric Dolphy. Much more fundamentally, he is a Coltrane devotee. “Coltrane is my patron saint,” he says and testifies that Coltrane “is the one person who set me on this [musical] cause”.

He wrote his Harvard doctoral thesis on Coltrane’s legacy and regularly contributes to magazines on the subject. In 2008 he co-wrote a book with Farah Jasmine Griffin titled Clawing at the Limits of Cool, about the musical and socio-cultural ramifications Coltrane’s partnership with giant trumpeter Miles Davis had for Afro-American life.

He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved to “black-bottom Detroit” at the age of eight. That’s where he started engaging with music, first playing a trumpet then changing to the saxophone. He holds a professorship at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of music. He has led his own band, The Ruxbery Blues Aesthetic, with whom he released his debut album, Love in Exile, in 1997. Living in New York resulted in the 2006 album, Harlem Homecoming, with the Harlem Arts ensemble.

Washington will perform at Barringtons in Killarney Mall, Johannesburg, on Saturday May 23. He’s put together a superb band that includes trumpeter Faya Faku, Herbie Tsoaeli on the bass, drummer Ayanda Sikhadi and Brenda Joyce on vocals. The gig will also function as a live recording.