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21 Jan 2016 16:43
The tragic events at Marikana prompted Salim Washington to record his latest work, Tears of Marikana. (Rogan Ward)
In 1962, the apartheid regime banned the
sale of the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln Freedom Now Suite: a direct response to the
track Tears for Johannesburg, dedicated to the victims of the Sharpeville
massacre. More than half a century later, tenor saxophonist Salim Washington is
about to premiere Tears of Marikana, invoking what he calls a deliberate
“poetic resonance” with the earlier work.
After the Marikana massacre, Washington,
for the past three years professor of music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
(UKZN), believes “the same old thing is not enough; hipness is not enough” any
“The prophetic voice is called for here.”
The three-movement Tears is one of two new
works Washington will present during his performances at the Orbit in
Johannesburg on January 22 and 23. Imlilo (Fires), a reflection on
xenophobia: “a dirge for what is lost in our collective souls when we allow the
horrible violence of burning a human being to happen”.
He’s working in a sextet (with pianist
Nduduzo Makhathini, altoist Leon Sharnick, trumpeter Sakhile Simani, bassist
Dalisu Ndlazi and drummer Ayanda Sikade) and the gig marks his first recording
project with a South African band.
The imperative of events was part of what
told Washington that now was the time to record. The other part, he says, is
“in four words: Dalisu Ndlazi, Nduduzo Makhathini. Dalisu is fearless and
always puts his hipness and emotions into the music; Nduduzo never sacrifices
soulfulness to show off his chops. They’ve both touched me musically and made
me more able to be me. I don’t have to explain; they can intuit how to make my
music better. That’s rare, and now that I’m experiencing it my music is coming
alive in ways that I need to document.”
Reedmen are rarely so explicit about the
debt they owe to rhythm players, but Washington is generous in acknowledging
colleagues and influencers, including many South Africans.
As well as accolades for his current band,
he recalls with admiration the legacy of the late saxophonist Duke Makasi. The
late Zim Ngqawana, in whose bands they played, bequeathed to altoist Sharnick
and drummer Sikade an understanding of “the connections between the consonant and dissonant sides of jazz
Working with trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni,
Washington says, “is shaping my resolve in the direction my music is heading”,
and drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s arrangements have influenced “the ways in which I’m
“My music needs the human voice to point us
more directly at the human dimensions of these events,” Washington says. As
well as singers, there’s guest poet Lesego Rampolokeng — presenting newly
commissioned words — who is “no derivative African-American wannabe but a true
artist using his talent fearlessly to tell the truth, combining high artistry
with his fire. Perfect for the project.”
It’s been a long journey for the tenorist
from Detroit to Durban. Though his father was a preacher, the young Washington
fell in with rather more streetwise peers around the age of 12, and was soon in
a band, playing pop music on trumpet for restaurants and parties.
Two things changed that. “Detroit being
what it was, someone jacked my brother and took my trumpet,” he reflects wryly.
That prompted a transition to piano and later flute, “which quickly led me to
the saxophone. It seemed able to bear the rather philosophical bent I was
developing. One of my main influences was Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose vision was
performative, compositional, spiritual and political all at the same time.”
It was also Kirk who influenced Washington’s
decision to play across the reed family: alongside saxophones, flute and oboe,
he’s now exploring the sound of the bass clarinet.
As for the journey from pop to jazz, “a
friend shared a John Coltrane LP. There was an example for me … Jazz allowed me
to have the funky soulfulness of vernacular musics, to try to be cool in the
nonsuperficial sense, but also to stretch intellectually and spiritually as
both a musician and a person.”
His college years took Washington to
Harvard, where he discovered his compositional muse, bassist Charles Mingus,
and a new long-time political and musical collaborator, the late baritone
saxophonist and composer Fred Ho, who died in 2014.
“We were political organisers on and off
campus and this let me express the consciousness my parents had woken when I
was still a boy. They always talked to us about our family’s history and the
racial and class oppression we’d suffered and were still suffering. They didn’t
have a Marxist analysis, but they were proud black people who taught us to be
proud and never cower before white people or anyone.”
During Washington’s doctoral years, he
taught and played music in church, schools and prisons and wrote for, played in
and led various bands around Boston. A professorship at the Conservatory of
Music at Brooklyn College brought him to New York and new collaborations. Work
as a Fulbright specialist, which has taken him to many places including
Colombia and China, the UKZN post and involvement with the Jazz Composers
Orchestra Initiative have followed more recently.
He’s still combining academics and
practical teaching. Founding the band Give It Horns with some of his students
in Durban represents “a decision to teach in the old-fashioned way, by
mentoring on the bandstand”. Bassist Ndlazi comes from that project.
Washington’s own sound and aesthetic thus
draw on many sources: family and its history; his travels and collaborations;
the playing of jazz radicals such as Coltrane, Kirk, Ho and more (“imagining
the needs and outcomes of revolution”, he calls their music); as well as the
traditions of popular African-American music and worship.
The reedman’s relish for collaboration with
other art forms such as painting (he recently completed a commission inspired
by painter Romare Bearden) and poetry “draws on the pageantry of the storefront
churches in which I grew up and found the meaning of music … In the black
pentecostal church, music was our world, our strength and our power. It presented
the opportunity to transform our being. It left an indelible imprint on me in terms of not
only what music is, but what it’s for.”
Because of this, Washington’s compositions
speak simultaneously of the political and the intensely personal.
“When I saw the xenophobia images on TV, I
couldn’t sleep,” he says. “The violence and carnage really bothered me. The
next day came and I still couldn’t sleep. So I took my horn and tried just to
let something out to allow me to come back to myself. That’s when the opening
horn lines of Imlilo came.”
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