Rashid Lombard isn't your average musical festival director.
Rashid Lombard, a struggle photographer turned DJ and TV presenter, an old-school jazz cat.
A dying breed. A hustler. ‘Clean as a broke dick dog,” Miles Davis would have rasped. He’s a fan. A trainspotter. He smokes Camel filters. He’s also the chief executive officer of events management company espAfrika and founder of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. For the past 12 years he’s played a pivotal role in conceptualising, strategising and implementing what’s now dubbed ‘Africa’s grandest gathering”.
You started your career as a political photojournalist. Since the 1970s you’ve also been photographing jazz. Why did it take so long to publish your debut collection, Jazz Rocks?
We had resistance from a business point of view. I walked all the publishers. A respected one said: ‘Why would someone buy a photographic book of musicians when they can buy a CD of the Beatles?” But I always thought one day I’m going to do it when I have money.
As South Africans we don’t really archive our cultural heritage, do we?
Absolutely. We have all these great documentary photographers, but we don’t have a culture of photography. What we do captures history. Music played an important role in the struggle. When we were banned during the state of emergency, how did we get things going? We had a jol, we had a gumba — that was our rally.
You take Heinemann in the United Kingdom, they wrote the history of African writers and [photographer] George Hallett did a lot of the covers. There is such a huge market out there. Ask Jurgen Schadeberg. His book Jazz, Blues & Swing, which was really going back in the past, not contemporary, had a third print run. But nobody comes to you with money. You’re always hustling.
Starting the jazz fest must’ve taken some serious hustling.
Abdullah Ibrahim always told me: ‘Don’t forget TCB: take care of business.” I saw how he operated. He was always his own manager. He had agents, but he made the final deal. I learned a lot from him. For the first few years it was hard to break into the international festival scene. For some artists it was like ‘Who the fuck are you?”
How did you get legends like McCoy Tyner or Philip Tabane to take you seriously?
Trust is very critical. I inculcate that culture with my staff. From day one the musician is your ambassador. You fuck with them, you’re dead. So we treat both South African and international artists the same. We chauffeur them in the same cars, book them into the same hotels.
So that 50-50 split of international and homegrown artists is more than a sales pitch — it sets the tone of the festival?
There’s no other festival that can programme like this. 50-50 is sexy, you know? Brenda Fassie could’ve written a song called 50-50. It also means when an artist comes they’re not aggro. I mean sure, we’ve had people like India Arie who insisted: ‘No cameras, only one song!” [But] when they got on stage her boyfriend — she was going out with a Mali boy — came running and said: ‘Switch on the cameras, film everything!” George Benson was initially also strict: three songs, two nights. We thought six songs, it’s fine for broadcast. Afterwards he went berserk.
He was like: ‘How could you guys have missed the opportunity to film my African experience?”
The festival bills itself as Africa’s Grandest Gathering, but how African is it really?
This year we’ve got Youssou N’Dour. We’re also introducing audiences to Angolan singer Sandra Cordeiro. So it’s only natural now that we open up. It’s also about us creating a sustainable African
circuit. But you know, if I could I would just play all-African music. There is so much on this continent.
How do you respond to critics who claim African music isn’t jazz?
‘Jazz” is a sexy word. Everything derives from that. Take Tortured Soul. Serious jazz fundies were asking: ‘Hey Rashid, what’s up with these thin white boys from the States?” They’re jazz, they’re hip-hop, they’re alternative. Even Dave Love, chairman of Heads Up, said ‘Where did you find these guys?” And he discovered Esperanza
Spalding! She’s playing jazz, but she’s actually classical. But that doesn’t matter. The music’s taking a whole new headspace and it’s touching diffe-rent people differently.
You’ve managed to pull off a couple of curatorial coups this year, haven’t you?
Absolutely. Hugh Masekela is precious. He can perform his Soul Train every year and people will love it. But I knew that there were these two journalists, geezers who said: ‘That’s not jazz, it’s Afro-pop”. And that Hugh always wanted to do some jazz standards. So I sat down with him and he said: ‘Let’s do it.” It’s going to be fucking amazing — him playing that quiet jazz set with [pianist] Larry Willis!
Paying homage to legends is a pivotal part of the programming, isn’t it?
There is that nostalgia. Earth Wind & Fire are celebrating their 40th anniversary. People say ‘Oh, they’re old”. But musicians never get old. It took me five years to get Wayne Shorter. He doesn’t have to perform any longer. He’ll occasionally do something with a philharmonic orchestra. We’ve got him for two nights with his acoustic quartet. So that nostalgia is very important, especially on the serious jazz stage.
Yes, there’s the ‘serious” stuff, but what about the rest of the fest?
There’re a lot of people who come to listen to music. There are a lot of people who come to chill out, meet people, sit in restaurants. A lot just hang out at the Duotone Gallery. We didn’t have to have the photographic exhibition. We didn’t have to have the crafters. It’s nog las and nog las [more work]. And it’s more budget. But it’s important that we set some kind of benchmark. You can go anywhere and there’s a group of people sitting and networking. So it’s become a ‘lifestyle” event, which is great. Even more so since the president spoke about the creative industries in his State of the Nation address. After talking about tourism he mentioned the festival’s creation of 2 000 jobs and more than R400-million GDP.
And yet you still call yourself a socialist. Is this why you keep admission costs so affordable?
Thank you! That’s very important. As much as people say jazz is elitist, I know there are jazz stokvels every week where people get together. It’s that beautiful. A two-day pass for under R500 is critical. If we were serious capitalists we’d charge more. So how do we do it? Are we crazy? Maybe, but we’ve got to develop something in this country. Thank God I believe in socialism because we’ve got to come in with things like workshops. It took me fucking years to get Berklee [College of Music] to come on board!
Music workshops are one thing, but jazz cats say that sitting in with other musos is the best way to hone your chops.
Absolutely. The collaborations happen outside the festival in the bars and afterparties. That’s very healthy, we’re setting that openness. That’s why it’s important they all stay together in the same hotels. That’s where the exchange of numbers happen. Everyone wants to get into our sound. The hip-hop guys love the kwaito sound. How do they merge? There might be a whole new sound that’ll emerge!
Click here for more from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival