Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse opened his arms wide, and reached out, Christ-like, as if to embrace the crowd of about 170 people gathered on the lawns at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
The musician and his band had just taken the gathered congregation through an encore that had included Burn-out, his hit from the 1980s and Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special. Ma Brrr’s dance classic was undergirded by the infectious bass line created by David Mabaso, the last surviving member of Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes, who was turning out for Mabuse’s band.
The crowd, small but frenzied, had responded with adoration and celebration. The emotion Hotstix was feeling was palpable: “We’ve been starving for this — being on stage and playing again for you,” he said.
The crowd cheered. Hostix beamed. The communion between musicians and audience gathered itself into a huge metaphysical hug that confirmed the sense of survival being celebrated — a sense of relief, too. That feeling of post-apocalypse; of emerging, blinking, disorientated, from the darkness of a pandemic lockdown; of taking a few tentative steps away from death’s relentless reaping and towards the need to celebrate life with other people … and with music, that “food of love”.
As if to reiterate the point that life was fragile and precarious and the present demanded to be lived in, Mabuse started to purr: “We’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow? Let’s make it last. Let’s find a way. Turn out the light, come take my hand now … We’ve got tonight, why don’t you stay?”
He was joined in the duet made famous by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
by his “protege” Thembeka Khumalo, whose voice lifted the moment into
the dark night with a sublime poignancy.
The Bob Seger hit was part of a set-list that had included reinterpretations of songs like The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and John Coltrane’s Afro Blue alongside Mabuse originals like Thabo Bosiu.
October 16. Lockdown level one. The Jazz Expressions concert at the National School of the Arts was an attempted return to the lives we lived before masks and forced separations from the people we love. It was a day of reacquaintance with the multitude of things that defines us as human — music, jazz photography (of Siphiwe Mhlambi, which was being exhibited along the school’s walkways), connecting with people one had not seen in a year or two.
It was a celebration of survival and life and the best that humanity can come up with in terms of (artistic and cultural) expression, introspection and understanding — despite our worst attempts at reinforcing dangerous inequality on a burning planet. It was about holding the moment as close to one’s heart as possible. These were themes which weaved their way through the various artists’ sets.
Trumpet player Mandla Mlangeni was returning to his alma mater with a band that included bassist Ariel Zamonsky and a brass section comprising students from the National School of the Arts — a set that was part entertainment and part mentorship, and a reminder that time moves on, regardless of lockdowns and social distance.
There was laughter when Mlangeni recounted the disbelief his young band-members expressed when he had told them that he had studied at the school in the early 2000s — before many of them were born. A reminder that today’s hot young guns become tomorrow’s elders quicker than a shift to double-time.
A point reiterated during the set by McCoy Mrubata and his quartet which was launching the multi-instrumentalist’s new album, Quiet Please.
During the set, Mrubata paid tribute to his mentor, Mabuse, who had, decades earlier, facilitated his relocation from Cape Town to Jo’burg to continue his musical growth.
And reinforced during a magical set by guitarists Billy Monama and Themba Mokoena, a giant of South African guitarship, who weaves together the various musical threads, from kwela to maskandi.
As Monama pointed out, theirs was a musical journey “down memory lane”, into “the music that kept black people going during the darkness of the past”.
“It should not be that we only celebrate our people when they are in the fridge, there in the funeral parlour … we are here to celebrate our people and our music when we are still alive,” observed Monama.
October 16 was a day to revisit the past by living in the present, in the moment. Earlier that morning I had gone to Yeoville with photographer Rafs Mayet to visit Neefa McKenzie. Three days earlier we had remembered the fourth anniversary of the death of her partner, a dear comrade and friend, the photographer and activist Peter McKenzie.
Mayet and I were back at the Yeoville flat to sift through McKenzie’s books, to pick what we wanted as Neefa sought to finally clear them out. It was another journey of reacquaintance. Of remembering a friend through the books that had made him, the works that informed the politics of his photography and the multiple layers of an extraordinary artist, documentarian, intellectual and hooligan.
The conversations we had — about “making pictures” rather than “taking” them, of the things we loved but sometimes left behind, of being black in a country that legislated hatred against you — were all resurrected by the books that informed McKenzie.
Jacques Ranciere and Jon Berger sat alongside Robert Mapplethorpe and Man Ray. Crime novels set in Marseilles, a port city McKenzie loved almost as much as his own, Durban, nestled next to Omar Badsha’s Letter to Farzanah and Alf Kumalo’s back catalogue.
I found a hard copy of McKenzie’s Bringing the Struggle into Focus. The keynote address he delivered at the Culture and Resistance Conference in Gaborone in 1982, and later published in StaffRider, was a strident call to arms for photographers to use their cameras as their metaphorical AK-47s against the apartheid state. My friend came alive again.
The questions and conversations triggered by a morning spent with McKenzie and his books seeped into the rest of the day’s music. The Jazz Expressions gig was organised by Mhlambi and Aymeric Peguillan (formerly of The Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein) of the PEGS Music Project and, in recognition of the exhibition, there appeared to be more photographers present than at a library burning during a protest.
As with photographers at a live event, there was an ebb and flow to their movements. Sometimes a single photographer would start shooting and, the fear of missing out apparently weighing heavily, caused a clutch of them to be drawn into that moment. At others, a solo here or a weaving conversation between instruments there, brought the photographers forward to capture the moment.
How different were the moments when they revealed themselves to the individual photographer during the editing process? How did they capture and rearticulate these moments in idiosyncratic and singular manners? How does one avoid the repetition of the camera-clicks surrounding one in concept, vision and the presentation of a final photograph? Were they all getting the same picture at the same moment?
Unanswerable questions which nevertheless reinforces the idea that there is both a sameness and a separation in what we share. Yet these are questions that also reinforce the urgent need to continue creating and documenting the things we do — destructive, constructive or otherwise — as human beings.
The coronavirus pandemic is a provocation for society to act differently from the death-wish tendencies of the decades that preceded this one. In South Africa it has gone unheeded by the powerful who continued to pillage the state’s emergency budgets meant to protect citizens, to secure their bodily protection oblivious to the anti-poor nature of both public and private sector responses to Covid-19, of the return to business-as-usual greed that has seen price-gouging while hunger and unemployment wreak desperation and death in society.
The powerful have not changed their ways. What the Jazz Expressions concert made clear is that we punters — through our shared histories with different perspectives on each moment and our love for each other — must force them to do so. For this we must create music and books and art that matters — that deepens our understanding of the present and each other — so that the powerful are held accountable.
We must make and support music that we can contemplate, dance and march to. For in doing that, we remain on our feet, not our knees.