There have been few innovative contributions that have sparked such polemical responses as the tussle over the categorisation of malombo as jazz, or just malombo.
One such innovation that South Africa and the world witnessed and embraced over seven decades is the work of Philip Nchipi Tabane.
His selfless contribution to humanity — his handing down of his intellectual property to us with such integrity, humility, jealous protection and patriotic ownership — has imbued this nation with a unique identity since 1940.
This conversation about Tabane’s work is an attempt to assess the effect that the innovative energy in his works has had on the finest minds among us. They include Aggrey Klaaste, Sipho Sepamla, Ray Nkwe and Elliot Makhaya. Heated debates ensued among these writers on how best to name and define what Tabane so selflessly and generously offered to humanity.
The wider world has long woken up to the reclamation of and the right to their own heritage, as evidenced in the statement made by D Joan Rhodes in a 2009 interview on Morning Live on behalf of the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Foundation.
Rhodes said: “Jazz is the only music indigenous to America, and the whole world has embraced it.”
This statement was made on the morning of the opening of the Joy of Jazz festival and nobody — the festival organisers, radio and television presenters as well as South African jazz lovers and jazz musicians — dared to challenge Rhodes’s statement.
Consensus seemed to prevail about this cultural and intellectual property reclamation by the United States from Africa. The statement cannot be historically contested because the concept of jazz came into being in the US after Louis Armstrong’s release of his West End Blues.
What then becomes necessary is for South Africans to introspect. Our task as a nation is to take stock of our own heritage, document it and repackage it in coherent, digestible chunks so that we can share it with the world as our own. The aim is not to try to extricate ourselves from the cultural village the world has become but to contribute to the huge cultural quilt that all nations weave. The question is not whether we participate or not, but whether we retain our integrity as a nation as we give and take.
Rhodes’s reclamation is a sign of great patriotism and ownership of American heritage. Let us embark on a brief introspection about who we are, so that we do not collaborate with either colonial or neocolonial acts of subtle epistemicide. A nation that does not take stock of its own tangible and intangible heritage stands the risk of citing other nations’ heritage as its own, or bequeathing its own to other nations.
Between 1920 and 1960, marabi, mbaqanga, mqashio and kwela were the top-selling indigenous genres in South Africa. Jazz jive, avant-garde, and swing became the other popular styles played by the high-browed Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa, Gideon Nxumalo, Chris McGregor and the Elite Swingsters. This is the group that was erroneously associated with Western influences.
It was in 1959, when John Mehegan came to South Africa to work with Moeketsi, Masekela, Gwangwa and Todd Matshikiza that the term “jazz” became one of the tags put on South African music.
It divided South African musicians into those who were avowed African musicians and those who became musicians fascinated by American jazz and wanting to emulate it.
This contest rubbed off on to music appreciation societies too. The argument was that jazz changed the South African music landscape, created a sense of inadequacy among some black musicians and made them believe that their own sounds were insignificant and simplistic.
Although it is appreciated that the novelty of jazz sounds were bound to be fascinating to the African ear at the time, striving for originality in the way Tabane did resulted in him developing his own unique voice amid the dominant discourses in the music world at the time.
As a nation, how do we respond to the honest questions that Tabane put to us over about 60 years, that we must not be “a bunch of copycats”?
Have composers and music arrangers heeded his brotherly words of caution? Have record companies encouraged innovation or merely replicated existing styles, thereby creating extensions of the diaspora and of the colonial master’s heritage? Have the organs of state, in their various tiers of legislative obligation, “respected, protected, and fulfilled” the rights of African composers enshrined in the Bill of Rights through tangible programmes and vibrant institutions? Do we take the trouble to appreciate who we are or who we have become? Are we ready to defend any epistemic violence nuanced as “conduct necessary for successful participation in the global village”?
As we summon the energy to decolonise, are we able to discern the links between Tabane’s defence of the ontological being of African uniqueness and integrity of its genres throughout his life? Are we able to appreciate the resilience he demonstrated when he spent the larger part of his life on world stages in the midst of various cultures and still emerged as, in the words of Es’kia Mphahlele, “Westernised, detribalised, but still an African”?
Do all these points of critical inquiry really matter, or do they amount to vanity and wanton wordplay? Take it any way you choose.
For Tabane, these remained questions that still constitute the essence of his critical enquiry. These have shaped the responses he provided through his music and spiritual conduct on stage and at home.
What would have happened had Tabane given in to various appropriations of his work that were contrary to his conviction? Was his fight for the name and the integrity of the concept of malombo a pursuit of personal grandeur or did he fight it out to the end for all of us? How did he manage to keep Miles Davis and Duke Ellington in their creative lanes and yet remain friends with them? How did he perform with such consummate African spirituality at festivals whose branding contradicted the purpose of his toil?
He successfully maintained the integrity of this now world-renowned genre of musical and intellectual practice. Tabane’s organic intellectualism is the reason he could achieve this level of resilience and natural creative energy. It was his knowledge of self and the acknowledgement of his ancestral links that were the source of his creative energy. He realised that the world consists of related elements that are nevertheless different. He understood that the pursuit of all noble human endeavour is to achieve true humanity.
He perceived difference as trivial, and sameness as sublime. He knew how to maintain this precarious balance required in the sustenance of human sanity. He understood that embracing others’ energy does not mean abandoning your own. He saw nothing wrong in writing such a huge body of work in the different languages of Africa; he performed them on world stages with absolute comfort.
He did not change the free structure of his compositions, thereby achieving great success in weaving a patchwork of new and diverse composition structures. This was an invaluable contribution to the world of music and its language.
The most potent aspect of his disposition as a creative spirit is that he did not regard the aural skill and methodology of composition as inferior when juxtaposed with the written musical texts of other cultures. Rather, he sharpened his oral-aural skills and understood that music transcription is but one of many forms of sonic representation.
He understood that music can be preserved through audio recording, audiovisual representation or in graphic forms through transcriptions. He knew that the most invaluable form of emotional intelligence, even as we brave the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is the management and preservation of memory. Memory can be bequeathed to posterity by sharing and exposing the youth to everyday lived musical experience, then by exposing them to the different forms of documentation.
Tabane lived his life fully. He made friends and critical friends with his resilience. Like him or dislike him. He took all this in his stride.
One thing he left us remains definite: that it is possible to influence others as much as it is possible to learn from them. In this iterative reality, learn to bless this life with the intangible heritage that can serve as a beacon of the path homeward, as we meander the labyrinths of other knowledge systems.
May Africa ponder over these lessons Tabane left for us. May Africa grow in strength and wisdom. May such reflections spur us to introspect and know that Tabane left us a template that is a model for our own new ones in our own lifetimes.
May his soul rest in posterity. Pula!