/ 16 November 2012

Jazzing up a historical record

The Manhattan Brothers.
The Manhattan Brothers.


Musician-philosopher Anthony Braxton argues that the study of culture is meaningful only when it deals with the "composite realness of creativity". With music, for example, how it began, what it is becoming, and what it means to those who make it and experience it all contribute more to real understanding than any constructed categories of origin such as genre or race.

If the reissue of Chris Ballantine's Marabi Nights after almost 20 years had not a comma changed from the 1993 original, it would still be worth owning for the contribution it makes to that project.

Ballantine's book was always more than an account of a genre. Although pinpoint accurate about which players recorded which track on what date, it never — as many older works of jazz musicology do — made discography the point of the exercise. Instead, it created other things: a narrative of people crafting beauty under intolerable circumstances, a work of historiography that unpicks how genres have been anatomised and dissected by scholars and commentators, and an intellectual history of a milieu and a music. None of that has been lost (and some of its force has been amplified) by a reissue that includes significant new material.

For those who do not yet know the book, it tells the story of the growth of urban black popular music over the 40 years (1920-1960) when vaudeville, marabi and other strands wove themselves together into a new cloth that has been labelled South African jazz.

Ballantine is understandably careful, in that era and context, to clarify (and enclose in quotes) his use of the term "race". He might justifiably have done the same for "jazz", a term no less constructed, contested and ­misused. His narrative, however, does make it clear that the "jazz" label (with its imported connotations) did not always line up neatly with what South African players contributed and learned during the jazz process, although both played a role in the music's ­creation.

This disjuncture often provokes chicken-and-egg debates about "African" versus "American" elements in the popular music of the period and declarations of (in)authenticity rooted in a sterile essentialism.

One of Ballantine's new chapters, on the Manhattan Brothers and male-voice, close-harmony singing, provides a beautifully nuanced account of the complex currents between Africa and the United States: it was never a one-way traffic and globalisation has been around a lot longer than the term that now describes it.

The other new chapter deals with gender, migrancy and the music. Again, Braxton provides an unexpected parallel. In volume three of the Tri-Axium Writings, Braxton describes how what he calls the musical "source-shift transfer" of bebop moved much production of African-American music not only away from the church, but also away from women, whose role as musical creators had enjoyed recognition and power in the church.

Ballantine describes a similar displacement of women's previously significant musical agency during the 1950s in South Africa. Then, the commercialisation of music performance, alongside the disruptive brutality of the migrant labour system, forced changes in women's roles and in their depiction.

The chapter is a superb, profound piece of analysis, relating socioeconomic conditions to aesthetics without eliding any of the complex and contradictory flows in that ­relationship.

The first edition of Marabi Nights came with a cassette (I still have mine). In 2012 we get a CD, a collection of 25 early and rare tracks, including what has been called "the first South African jazz recording": Solomon "Zuluboy" Cele and the Jazz Maniacs in 1939 performing Tsaba Tsaba and Izikhalo Zika Zuluboy.

Concluding such a powerful and inspiring book, it is a pity that Ballantine's afterword expresses only what are almost the ritual negative words about current music. Indeed, most of what major South African record labels showcase and peddle is bland, formulaic, off-key and over-hyped — as in the rest of the world. Emerging from the bizarre deformations of apartheid, we now endure merely the usual deformations of capitalism, including its music industry.

But look outside commercial channels and you will also hear a great deal of skilful, joyful, conscious and distinctively South African jazz: live and recorded. Honouring past creativity is vital, but those creating beauty today need acknowledgment too, while they still live.