/ 16 April 2014

Music is my saviour

Charles Leonard ready to preach the power of music in Vosloorus.
Charles Leonard ready to preach the power of music in Vosloorus.

You could see our eyes glow even in the dark, enraptured by the sound coming from the four priests enrobed in the orange spotlight on their elevated pulpit.

They preach in a universal language: the ecstatic trumpet, the celestial piano, the entrancing bass and the thunderous bam-boom-bang-crash on the drums exorcising all evil spirits.

They call, we respond. They blow up a helluva storm, we profess, our feet a-tapping, the pews a-shaking. "Yeah!" we holler. But we don't talk while they're playing, and those who do don't belong here.

This is the Church of Jazz.

Our jazz is a communal thing. We are unified, black and white, all classes and genders, as we worship together at the altar of improvisation, swing, syncopation.

And later, much later, and long after the last blue notes have faded we spill on to the Braamfontein street and disappear into the fuzzy night back to our dreary lives. But we take with us the Spirit of Jazz.

And we remember why music can still sometimes be sacred.

'Flap of an angel's wing'
As music psychologist Heiner Gembris rather poetically told Deutsche Welle: "Music is like the flap of an angel's wing. It touches us and lets us sense the momentary presence of something that transcends the boundaries of our captivity in the world."

I never wanted to be a priest when I was a kid. I always wanted to be a rock star. That has changed now that I'm on the northern side of 50.

Back in the early 1970s, when my escapist obsession with music started, I could even tell you who was responsible for the "art direction" on my favourite band Roxy Music's LPs (it was artist Nick de Ville who later became head of arts at Goldsmith College in London).

On my pocket money I could only afford two, maybe three records a year. I didn't only play them to scratchy bits, but also studied every word, every photograph, in fact every square centimetre of their artfully designed sleeves.

As a young teenager in South Africa, those sleeves meant something more to me than just holding my liberating music. For heaven's sake, I wanted to be Roxy's leader Bryan Ferry – arty, suave, cool, talented and able to attract gorgeous, interesting and mysterious women!

Beat junkie
Forty years later with a lot of technology in between, I find myself almost helplessly consuming music. I'm concerned: Have I become a late capitalist man on a soulless chase?

Like Kenneth Goldsmith, the founder of the website UbuWeb (it gives away for free avant garde art, music and film), who controversially wrote in the Wire in April 2011 that "it's all about quantity".

"Just like you, I'm drowning in my riches," he wrote. "I've got more music on my drives than I'll ever be able to listen to in the next 10 lifetimes. As a matter of fact, records that I've been craving for years are languishing unlistened-to. I'll never get to them either because I'm more interested in the hunt than I am in the prey.

"The minute I get something, I just crave more. And so something has really changed – and I think this is the real epiphany: the ways in which culture is distributed have become profoundly more intriguing than the cultural artifact itself. What we've experienced is an inversion of consumption, one in which we've come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring, the bottles over the wine."

Have I become like Goldsmith? According to iTunes it will take me – at the time of writing – 135 days, 18 hours, 54 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to all the music on my laptop. Add a very rough estimate of 250 days of non-stop listening for my records and CDs.

Bucket list
What I once religiously pored over now causes me anxiety. It is not only to do with the just-press-the-button easiness of the consumption, though.

It is to do with time – time to listen, but also time left to listen. It is an acute sense of my own mortality that brings me that much closer to my church.

Jimi Hendrix's remark that "Music is my religion" is an echo of human experience across preceding centuries and beyond – music has a played an integral part in religion and vice versa over the ages.

Many contemporary genres have their roots in the church: jazz, soul, funk, country, rock, blues.

Free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, who died in 1970 (his body was discovered in New York's East River and it remains a mystery whether it was a suicide or not), "saw himself as a jazz missionary", John Fordham wrote in the Guardian. "Sometimes his work reflected the mix of exultation and terror expressed by the possessed in religious rituals."

The beautiful, lavish retrospective box set that was released in 2004 was called Holy Ghost, referencing Ayler's comment in an interview that John Coltrane "was the father, Pharoah [Sanders] was the son. I was the Holy Ghost."

Dreams of sainthood
In 1966 saxophonist Coltrane was asked by a Japanese journalist what he wanted to be in five years. "A saint," he replied.

His wish came true, posthumously though (he died the next year at the age of 41). In San Francisco at the St John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, the saxophonist is their canonised saint.

Every Sunday they celebrate the "Risen 'Trane" – the post-1957, off-drugs Coltrane. It is a Christian church with a difference.

The "sound praise" part of their three-hour-long Sunday service consists of "the Coltrane Liturgy, which combines the Divine Liturgy of the African Orthodox Church, and the Twenty-third Psalm, with the melodies, harmonies and rhythms of Saint John Coltrane's masterpiece: A Love Supreme."

A Love Supreme is Coltrane's sublime 1964 album. The church's founder, Archbishop Franzo King, saw Coltrane perform in 1965, and King, who was brought up in the Pentecostal Church, knew 'Trane's "sound that night was that familiar feeling he knew since childhood. It was the presence of God," he says on the church's website. He refers to it as a "sound baptism", on which the church was founded.

Amateur disc spinner
About 13 years ago I decided to move from being not only a musical congregant to also dabbling a bit in the "priesthood" of music when I started DJing. Maybe it will be more accurate to say I am the musical equivalent of a lay preacher: an amateur disc spinner who should not give up the day job, who always has lots of fun and who occasionally gets it so right in sharing the music with the audience that it is almost spiritual, transcendental. Like that one night in an East Rand township three years ago.

It is a gorgeous early Friday evening in the late summer of 2011. I am standing alone on a rooftop in the middle of Vosloorus and I feel alive. The streetlights are a hazy orange. High up in the clear sky a plane is hovering nose in the air, ready to land at OR Tambo airport. Another makes an elegant bow in the opposite direction.

I'm here to DJ my first reggae set in a township. My mates are downstairs getting beer. The crowd hasn't arrived yet.

I put on Johnny Clarke's King of the Arena, the dub version.

On a street corner below a bunch of young Rasta guys are assembled. They give me a thumbs-up and start dancing as the rat-ta-tam of the song's drums, its lazy bassline, the ker-ching ker-ching of its rhythm guitar and Clarke's echoed v-v-voice hit their ears.

They flirt with a young woman who walks past. An old white Merc slowly noses down the street.

Voices of people who know they've survived another week drift up to mix with the reggae. There's a sweet smell in the air.

The weekend has started in Vosloo.

Slowly people start arriving on the rooftop and I turn the volume up a notch.

Let the sermon begin …

Charles Leonard is the news editor of the Mail & Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @JCharlesLeonard.