Billy Domingo sings a sweet tune for the jazz festival’s future

Billy Domingo, director of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. (David Harrison, M&G)

Billy Domingo, director of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. (David Harrison, M&G)

The recent appointment of Billy Domingo as director of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival is one more notch on his impressive resumé in the music industry. Having started in theatre as a young man in the late 1960s, Domingo finessed his craft in the music industry while working behind the scenes for music productions and as a tour manager for one of the country’s biggest music exports: Lucky Dube.

“I toured with Lucky Dube for many years around Africa. And I was a part of the artistic direction of Faranani theatre production in 2002, which Mandela attended [at the Royal Carre Theatre in Amsterdam],” he says.

With plans to extend the event from a two-day festival into a two-weekend spectacle and to focus more on South African acts, Domingo spoke of his 16-year journey with the show dubbed “Africa’s grandest gathering” and of its future.

How did you come to establish the jazz festival with Rashid Lombard in 1999? I had been at Sun City for almost 20 years, until 1997. I started in 1979 as the senior assistant stage manager and I left as the entertainment manager. I then came back to Cape Town to retire, but Rashid came to find me to tell me that he had this vision of doing the jazz festival and he wanted to start an events festival called espAfrika [Events Social Marketing and Productions Afrika]. And he asked if I would consider joining with my production skills and theatre management style. So we hooked up in the late 1990s and the rest is history.
Today, we’re both still shareholders in the company and I think in three or four years’ time we’ll meet up again and do something in Angola or Morocco or somewhere. That’s just our madness.

How are things going at espAfrika after Rashid’s resignation from the jazz festival last year? Rashid and I started the festival but now he’s moved on, I’m carrying on and the show’s going on. So it’s no big deal. The team is stronger than both of us. I’ve been directing festivals for nearly four decades. We’ve sold out tickets for this year’s show, so things are looking good

There’s a wide range of musicians performing this year. How does the festival select who performs? We have five stages, so our talent director, Lindsay-Ann Rhoda, sits together with the team and we collectively look at who has achieved what and then showcase that. I don’t ­influence the team, but as festival director, I do say: “These are the people that should be recognised.” And for the real, pure jazz on Rosies stage, we have people who talk to us and say: “Hi guys, these are the opinions of the people out there.” And we listen to them. We’re not always going to get it right, but maybe in the next few years we’ll get closer to what people want.

What has been your greatest lesson when it comes to putting on the jazz festival? From my experience of working and producing shows, I’ve learnt that it’s time we recognised South African music. After hearing that the Mahotella Queens were celebrating their 50th anniversary [in 2014], I decided to stage the show, which will be the headlining act on Friday. So the focus is going to be tremendous because I think there are a lot of Mahotella Queens-type acts out there that need to be recognised before they pass on. I’d like it if we actually had more African acts; I want to give some more South Africans an opportunity to play.

What are your highlights for this year’s festival? I grew up in Ottery in Cape Town, and the first band I ever saw and danced to was Pacific Express. That is such an amazing band – it featured the late Robbie Jansen – so I thought: “Why don’t I put that band back together?” And again, on that idea of “while they’re still alive and kicking”, why not get them together to perform?
And because Basil Coetzee was one of the band’s original members, one of the jazz festival’s stages is named after him, I thought that would be an apt space for them to play on. And I got hold of Zayne Adams [who died in February], and Issy [Ariefdien] and Jack [Momple], and we put it together. 
And the other highlight for me is [Cape Town rap group] Prophets of da City, whom I saw perform at the Berlin Wall during the apartheid regime. They were part of the revolutionary sound.

The line-up for this year features music genres besides jazz, and it incorporates other aspects, such as a fashion showcase and a photography exhibition. Does the name “Cape Town Jazz Festival” really represent the event? It’s not really a jazz festival anymore; it’s a lifestyle festival now because people take ownership of it. The festival has to be the conduit that allows us to create jobs.
We have the focus schools [programme]. What we do is start about an eight-week programme where we bring together schools that have facilities in music and arts and get the top students from these schools to attend workshops given by us.
So all these catch phrases like “jazz festival” are fine, but it has to result in something. And my love for the last 25 to 30 years has been a transfer of skills. Also, we hire about 2700 people across the board. We employ staff over the two to six months leading up to the festival. So this is great for tourism, it’s great for the Western Cape and South Africa. 

Can you explain the music genre choices on the line-up? I’ve got all types of people coming; I have the younger and the older generation. So I think that boils down to having respect for the genres and the different types of music in our country.
We got asked recently in an ­interview: “Why did you bring Beatenberg?” Because they’re a band and they have a sound and an audience. I think it’s great that we can educate people about jazz. Plus, the different genres of music at the festival allow families to go and listen to what they want to.


People also asked: “Why are you putting Bra Hugh [Masekela] on again?” And I think, why not. Bra Hugh is a legend and he represents what we want on stage.

Any learning curves? Timing is always a problem for me, and the overrunning of shows. So what I’ve done is shortened the set-up time and will be making artists aware that they have X amount of time left to perform – to avoid the overrun.
The other thing is that last year people complained that they couldn’t get tickets. I’ve rectified that by selling tickets in November. I’m still sold out. We also had toilet [shortages] in the past and we’ve put more toilets in the back yard. We can’t address every issue and this event is never going to be easy to programme but I’m proud that the team is strong.

What can audiences look forward to in upcoming years? I think we’ve been sold out for six years, so by next year we will definitely be running [the festival] over two weekends and making it a bit longer. I’m also looking to see if I can bring in some people from the film side.
There are so many beautiful music videos to be made and it’s important for young emerging artists to ­understand that genre. It’s part of the entertainment and it’s part of the music. We will start classes soon.
We are also expanding and looking at doing three if not four events in South Africa – one every three months. We are now just looking at timeframes.

The Cape Town International Jazz Festival takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on March 27 & 28. Visit for more information.

stefanie jason

stefanie jason

Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&G's arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isn't relaxing, traveling or checking out Jo'burg's many art galleries. Read more from stefanie jason

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