Playing it safe

Rashid Lombard, the chief executive of ESP Afrika and the festival director of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, which takes place on March 30 and 31, deserves some credit.

Unlike most of us hacks who, when our tongues are greased with grown-up juices, talk up our plans at the time we should be asleep, Lombard’s talk didn’t stay that way. This former photojournalist has turned this annual festival, which he started in 2000, into a huge success. It draws more than 34?000 tourists to Cape Town, according to the festival’s website.

Last year’s event contributed R498-million to the Western Cape’s economy and created 2?700 jobs, according to Billy Domingo, the chief operating officer of ESP Afrika, also on the website.

In the same press release Alan Winde, the MEC for finance, economic development and tourism, gives a different figure of R463-million, but points out that “it has become the stage upon which the business world meets Cape Town, a place where international deals are brokered to the sounds of jazz ­saxophonists”.

It is perhaps understandable that the hard-working folk at the festival and their public relations people did not take too kindly to an opinion piece I wrote for the Mail & ­Guardian Online last weekend in which I compared this 13-year-old money-spinning festival unkindly with the upstart, “A Taste of Sónar”, an experimental and
electronic music evening at the Design Indaba.

The latter show, a mind-blast on Friday night at the gorgeous Cape Town City Hall, is linked to Sónar, an international electronic music festival that has been taking place in Barcelona in Spain since 1994.

The cutting edge
I have lusted over Sónar’s programmes since the beginning and read many reviews over the years and, for once, you can believe the propaganda you find on its website: “Sónar is an exceptional combination of entertainment, the cutting edge and experimentation and at each event its programme features major names in modern music, with an extensive international line-up of emerging artists.”

This formula of not compromising on the type of music that is highlighted has worked amazingly well for Sónar. It attracts an average of 80?000 visitors from across the world to its festival every year.

It has become so successful, that since 2002, it has been exporting “A Taste of Sónar” to London, Chicago, New York, Washington, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Seoul, Lyón, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Lisbon, Rome and Tokyo. And now Cape Town.

Last Friday night’s thrilling show featured awe-inspiring sets from Modeselektor and Byetone from Germany, a too populist for my liking DJ set from the United Kingdom’s Massive Attack, and from home, our best avant-rock band, the BLK JKS, plus Das Kapital, Killer Robot and Fletcher in Dub.

When comparing the 13th Cape Town International Jazz Festival in my online opinion piece with “A Taste of Sónar”, I looked at the festival’s programme and called it “the freebie fest of the year, where elites ‘network’ with some jazz lite and other forms of bland music as a backdrop”, where we’ll be “treated to international has-beens dishing up blandness”.

“It has been watered down so much that anyone and any genre now fits under this huge, money-making umbrella: R&B, rap, Afropop, pop, yawn ... ! I know I am generalising—Jill Scott and ­Pharoahe Monch are worth the ticket to the show, but not an airline ticket from Jo’burg, in my view—but that is the general trend.

Same old, same old
“I am glad it is offering South African artists an opportunity to play on these stages, but it remains the predictable ones, the ones you see at every festival across the country. It snubs other more adventurous artists.”

I even had some advice for the festival, based on this year’s programme: “Live up to your name and at least bring in some real jazz musicians. How about Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Matthew Shipp, Keith Jarrett, Pharoah Sanders, William Parker and many more? That’s real jazz. I would be there in a flash, as would be jazz fans from around the world.

“Otherwise, as a colleague said, change your name to the Cape Town International Easy Listening ­Festival. It would be more honest about what you are serving.”

Understandably, that didn’t endear me to the festival folk.

“So you are angry with me,” I began my telephone interview with Lombard earlier this week. “Nooo,” he said in the same tone my wife uses to the same question the morning after coming home late from a jol and snoring throughout the night.

“Saying I am angry is not true. Any news, positive or negative, is good news.”

There is a programme committee, consisting of people in music and culture, that decides which 40 artists come. They base it on the artists the fans suggest at the previous festival—300 of them—as well as “what is popular on the radio and in print, for example Zahara”.

“We never repeat except when there is demand from the fans, like for Hugh Masekela,” Lombard said. “We also look at who is fresh in Europe.”

A lifestyle event
The festival works on a 50% international, 50% African (mainly South African) basis.

Lombard pointed out that my two heroes, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, were almost prohibitively expensive. I would not mind more left-field musicians like Matthew Herbert, who played early on, but for many fans it is a “lifestyle event”. “One guy told me he met so many people here and that he saw [only] two or three musicians.”

After the interview, I saw a letter about my opinion piece Lombard had sent before we spoke. There, he pointed out that three of the musicians I mentioned that I would have loved to see on this year’s programme: Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter and Archie Shepp, had played on previous occasions.

“Freebies are for those that support the festival financially [sponsors] and for the over-accredited 400 media [a two-day pass valued at R550 in the media centre includes free food and beverages and communication facilities],” Lombard wrote.

“While we as promoters are trying to build sustainable events in South Africa, comparison is for those journalists who should stay in their little musical ‘Oranje’ (sic) and leave us to confront the future in a manner that will make our children proud.”

One must be prepared to take it if you want to hand it out, but I maintain that overall, this year’s programme has little to excite me as a fan of adventurous jazz.

Trumpeter Lester Bowie said in a different context—a 2003 article in the Guardian about neoclassicist Wynton Marsalis—but applicable here: “What about the innovation? If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.”

Charles Leonard

Charles Leonard

Charles Leonard was news editor at the Mail & Guardian for four years before joining The Conversation Africa. As a reporter, producer, news editor and executive producer with 29 years of experience, he has worked at a variety of South African publications and broadcasters including Business Day, the SABC TV, SAfm, Vrye Weekblad and the Sunday Times. He has also worked for the UK's Channel Four News. He has written extensively on arts, culture, politics and sport. Read more from Charles Leonard