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Press conference blues at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Press conferences, as a rule, should be avoided. If you are lucky, some old, wiser journalists will give you this piece of advice at the beginning of your career. Normally whoever is sitting up there on the podium/pulpit doesn’t want you to know the truth. The intention is usually to obscure so by the time you come out, the little that you knew for sure has been coloured by the propaganda that has just being forced down your throat.

But events like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival pose a particular challenge for the journalist who habitually skips the press conference. Every radio station, every newspaper, every television station in the land is represented (to be sure, in the interests of accuracy, I haven’t done a roll call to see who is here and who is not). So your chances – especially if you are a print journalist – of getting a one-on-one interview with the celebrity artist are as slim as Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma resolving their differences and the former’s sudden restoration to the ANC Youth League presidency (that’s an extreme analogy, but if you have been to a press conference you will realise how extreme and exaggerated they can be).    

On Thursday I sat through a marathon press conference in which musicians such as Ben Sharpa, Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, Jack de Johnette, Jimmy Dludlu, Chef’s Special were, every 15 minutes or so, shepherded into a large rectangular room at the Cape Sun hotel. Faced by an army of journalists, most of the artists sat impassively at the front fielding a variety of questions. Simultaneously revealing and banal, it showed the best and the worst about the press conference, perhaps journalism’s most self-conscious and self-referential exercise. You sit there and think, I am seeing news being made, literally, block by block (ok, line by line for us print journalists).

When Dludlu was asked by a sprightly young journalist a question along the lines of  “who is Jimmy Dludlu”, I thought I saw him tense and twitch at this ontological examination of the Jimmy Dludluness of Jimmy Dludlu. What was he supposed to say? I am a purveyor of smooth jazz? I can speak Portuguese and English, among other languages? I played with Miriam Makeba when I was barely out of my teens?

And then there was that bewildering response that was mouthed by no less than three artists. Every penetrating question, invariably, was greeted with: "That’s a good question". Is it an indictment of the state of journalism that a good question is met by that statement under which a host of other assumptions are submerged (“wow, I didn’t realise you are this informed”; “oh, so journalists know their stuff” etcetera)?

But even the most cynical of observers would not miss the beleaguered state of music – both local and international. Sitting there one could not help but feel a twang of pain for some of these people. They have put everything into learning their craft.

Now they are at the mercy of the internet, the whims of commerce and generations of people for whom music means exactly the opposite of what it meant 30 years ago. (It wasn’t long ago that a website for a musician was a quirky nice-to-have; today you won’t survive without the website and its mother, the internet).

There was everything at this press conference (ok, ok, not really): from Cape Town vocalist Claire Phillips’s soft entreaties about getting on to the playlists of the omnipotent and ubiquitous radio station; to Shihab’s laconic appeals for support from corporates (“All of us need support. We need the support of businesses to come forward and say ‘record an album’”) to De Johnette’s sage reminiscences of his long journey (the drummer played with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins and others).

I am rather glad I didn’t avoid this particular press conference. 

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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