How SA jazz saved my spirituality

One Sunday morning, I commit the cardinal sin of switching the radio dial from Thuso Motaung’s booming, God-impersonating sermon to Brenda Sisane’s jazz show, The Art of Sunday. My mother comes into the dining room where I am cleaning. Bewildered, she demands that I switch the radio back to Ntate Thuso’s show. We have not made it to church this morning, and if there ever was an incarnation for ntate moruti (and I suspect God too), it was Thuso Motuang.

I want to tell her that trumpets are biblical instruments. And how John Coltrane was an American jazz artist so spiritual and lauded that he was granted sainthood in a San Francisco African Orthodox Church. But I keep quiet, and dutifully tune back to the controversial preacher man.

As with most of the jazz albums in my possession, I “borrowed” Zim Ngqawana’s Zimology from my father, after hearing him play Qula Kwedini countless times during my childhood. I didn’t anticipate the effect the album would have on me spiritually. The album’s folk songs, hard bop and hymn-like melodies beckoned me to find out more about Bra Zim and more about South African jazz and eventually, more too about myself.

Even Bra Zim would hint at the soul-expanding possibilities of jazz, and like all jazz pilgrims, he struggled to describe its meaning outside it being a genre of music. Beyond an album, a title and a stage name, Zimology was a philosophy, one that Bra Zim described once in a Mail & Guardian interview as “a study of self”.

Because South African jazz is so loaded with history, it is, for me, a reclamation as much as it is, and has been, a discovery.

Our jazz is the memory of my father and stylish Soweto grandfathers tapping their “Bishop” shoes on red stoeps. Our jazz is the church on the corner, for which we don our Sunday best. Something in the urgency of screeching trumpets and the agony of bellowing saxophones that resonates with the parts of us where logic and language cease to exist. Our jazz escapes the clutches of English, reimagines the past, and constantly searches for who we are and who we’ve been and who we might become.

Much has been written about South African jazz as a tool of resistance and advocacy, but less so on how it has also been a music of consciousness.

Reflecting on my own personal journey with spirituality, jazz helped me reconcile the colonial spiritual identity I inherited with a black spirituality that is blood deep. Jazz giants such as Bheki Mseleku, Nduduzo Makhathini, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Ndikho Xaba, Moses Molelekwa, Nono Nkoane and many more, ignited a fire that reconnected me with my identity and my spirituality.

Among the uncountable things that South African jazz is for me, is that it is a point of reference that has (to paraphrase Toni Morrison) gathered parts of me and handed them back to me.

Our jazz reminds me that calling upon and showing gratitude to your ancestors could not be reduced to words such as “witchcraft”, and it reminds me why healers are called izangoma, and that I am part of a lineage so ancient it is ahead of its time.

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