Music festivals are for the vibe (as in more than just the music), say the more sophisticated among us. But for as long as I can remember, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival’s saving grace has always been its music programming and little else.
Sure, the Cape Town International Convention Centre has its uses. It has relatively large-capacity indoor venues such as the Rosies and Moses Molelekwa stages, shows that start on time because each stage has breathing space in between sets, and nooks and crannies to set up lounges for those there for networking and the proverbial vibe.
But the outdoors Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee stage can be a bit of a sonic nightmare, which can take time for the engineers to rectify. For example, The Rudimentals’ high energy mix of ska and dancehall on Saturday night was mostly cacophonous, and yet The Internet (a band I was not looking forward to seeing thanks to the dismal failings of Syd’s voice in shows I had seen online), had a set characterised by clarity and a charismatic warmth.
As with Meshell Ndegeocello last year, the stage was also used by Laura Mvula, the festival’s triumphant closing set, as a reclamation of a sonic tradition that adheres to its own parameters. With a keytar slung across her chest, Mvula was in punk mode, aiming for driving songs as well as floaty orchestral pieces, a switch she achieved by merely turning the instrument on to its back.
But at Rosies, the mood could change dramatically in between acts. The Tune Recreation Committee (TRC) — which for some reason made very little use of Zoë Modiga — mostly played the repertoire of band leader Mandla Mlangeni’s other project, Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s Bhekisizwe.
TRC played under relatively relaxed conditions, but by the time Skyjack came on, the temperature of the room had changed. I made the mistake of filming about 30 seconds of Skyjack footage from my seat, a couple of rows removed from the front, for which I received a stern warning from a green-shirted media liaison. But two more even sterner warnings came, one for me and another for my neighbour (who hadn’t done anything).
By this time, an entire team of photographers had been marched out of the show, about 20 minutes into it, save for official festival staff. I wondered whether this was perhaps under the premise that photographers aren’t that into Skyjack’s mix of precision and brashness.
At some point I saw the logic. I flicked through the festival’s official twitter account and saw that the festival was perhaps trying to keep the best coverage of its acts to itself.
What made this seeming zeal to clamp down on copyright infringement even more strange was that in some venues this was barely policed. Cell phone production houses were the order of the day, as was the case when Digable Planets were trying to translate their relatively low-bpm, sample music into a consistently absorbing set.
While Digable brought the old school heads out to play, it was hard to listen to their music without feeling like time had lessened its swaggering cool, especially in the wake of the much more inventive Shabazz Palaces, which also features Digable band members Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire.
While the #CITJF is still the place to go to get turned on to something you probably don’t know about (I must admit I was sleeping on Jameszoo’s free-flowing, experimental electronic jazz), I got the slight sense that the festival’s hyperpolyglotism has probably been pushed to breaking point. While trying to make my way to The Rudimentals, via Kippies, I ran into the human tsunami that was Judith Sephuma’s fan base and had to collect myself for a second. It was a little too late to turn around and make a run for it past the Bassline and back around to the “Manenberg” stage. I had to brave the tide.
My last memory of this year’s festival was watching Siya Makuzeni marshall Saturday night’s jam session into effect with her trusty vocal pedal, Taylor McFerrin, Marcus Gilmore and the bassist in Laura Mvula’s band in tow. Makuzeni built an entire song off just an interesting scatting phrase, underpinned by heavy bass and a one-drop like strut from Gilmore, before stepping back to the set the soloing into motion.
It was as if she had successfully blocked off the madding crowd, not to mention the maddening politics of the country. For a moment, I was reminded that if nothing else, the music had brought me here and to it I must pay homage.