South African Jazz: A New Generation with a fresh Perspective


South Africa is a country with a rich musical heritage and a unique history. However it is important to note that “African” music in and of itself is not a genre. Note the inverted comas, they are used to imply and indicate that the stereotypes associated with such an expression are dated and limited in their applicability. African music is all music. 

Later this year Dj Okapi and Shane Cooper will release a new compilation showcasing the diversity and variety of the rising South African Jazz scene. “New Horizons: Young Stars of South African Jazz” will showcase an array of up and coming musicians and artists, shining a light on their music and their experiences as individuals whilst reflecting on the cultural, social and political relevancy that jazz holds in South Africa. The compilation will feature Thandi Ntuli, Kyle Shepherd, Mabuta, Yonela Mnana, Zoë Modiga, Benjamin Jephta, Siya Makuzeni, Lwanda Gogwana, Mandisi Dyantyis, Reza Khota, Bokani Dyer and Vuma Levin as well as a number of other players and musicians. 

There is no one given narrative prescribed to Jazz, it is many things to many people and this collection of stories helps to cultivate and define the experience of a rising musician in South Africa. 

Describe your relationship with jazz music from a personal perspective – what drew you to the style and genre?

“I’m attracted to the energy you feel from playing the music live with other musicians.  It comes from a space of exploration, risk-taking, and the push-and-pull that the “conversation” amongst the musicians have on stage.  Also as a bass player I’m working in a space of rhythm constantly, and the variations on time feel and rhythm sensibility is entirely unique and dynamic from player to player – it’s the most life-affirming experience.” – Shane Cooper, Mabuta

“I got into improvised music and jazz through a mentor/guitar teacher in my teens. The allure was around the idea that it represented the highest achievement of the soul. I was also drawn to the seemingly endless depth of brilliant possibility. At a young age this was a world of real magic and freedom. All the musicians I was into were like shamans or dervishes to me. This early relationship to the music has continued to shape my approach, attitude and aesthetic. Music is for me a practical and demonstrable metaphor for becoming attuned to the sensory/perceptual feedback of self to the world. An ongoing play between self and environment that unlocks the practitioner to processes of internal refinement. A knowledge that can overflow into other areas of living.” – Reza Khota

Reza Khota credit Jacqui van Staden

“I love the impact that music has on peoples lives and how it is a soundtrack to life experiences for many. For me, jazz music has childhood nostalgia I can relive every time I listen to certain records. I think of my family and the very intimate memories that will live with me for a life time. I live that even with that nostalgia that art form is constantly evolving and growing.” – Zoe Modiga

“In terms of my exposure to jazz, on a subconscious level, it stems from the love for music that my father has and the music I remember hearing at home. I remember hearing the music of Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Earl Klugh, Miriam Makeba and many more at home. I also remember hearing the sounds of jazz blaring from our next door neighbour’s speakers every Sunday. I only became consciously aware of jazz as a musical direction I wanted to pursue in 2006. I was on a gap year after high school, staying in England, and I was exposed to the concept of improvisation through a pianist I met there. He was playing a beautiful piece of music without any music in front of him and being a classical musician, I thought he had just memorized a song he had learnt off sheet music. I asked him what song he was playing and he said he was improvising. Because I wanted to learn how to compose music, this ability to improvise and make such great music intrigued me. He advised me to study jazz and I haven’t looked back since.” – Thandi Ntuli

“I don’t think I was drawn to jazz as such, I think it’s just been something that I was born around.. and it was never really ‘jazz’. I was surrounded by a lot of black music, so lots of R&B, even at the time bubblegum disco – Brenda Fassie and whatever. All of those things also find their own presence in what people tend to understand as jazz…

As I grew, I got to hear stuff – from Mankunku, and Sibongile Khumalo (etc), from a friend of my mother, who I’d go to in my high school (years). And obviously eventually I got to be able to study it at varsity.  But that was an interesting form of what they understand as jazz, versus what I knew to be jazz, because the way it is taught, people sit at a desk and they tell you about the theoretical structure, which is kind of like something that I feel was moving the music away from what it is. I suppose that’s what analysis tends to do – it tends to have this kind of imperialistic outlook on something, and that any other thing that is other than what they prescribe is not the thing…

But at the end of the day I like it because I find that it is the best way that people can actually find expression and expand themselves both physically and spiritually.” – Yonela Mnana

“I had a very late start to Jazz. Growing up my dad used to play records like A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue around the house but I never consciously registered the experience. The first jazz recording I consciously listened to was charlie parker playing a night in tunisia, I must have been about 14 years old and I really really did not like it. I remember being rather bemused by the seemingly atonal improvisations and confusing harmonies. In my teenage years I listened to a lot of early Coldplay stuff and Radiohead. Through this I transitioned into listening to Portishead, Morcheeba and Massive Attack. The harmonic and sometimes melodic language that these bands used often resonated with various strands of jazz music (Beth Gibbons is famously influenced by Billie Holiday for example) and it was through the love of this language that I gravitated towards jazz.

I fell in love with Jazz guitar after watching a Woody Allen movie called Sweet and Lowdown about a fictitious Jazz guitar player, Emmert Ray. This movie along with me hearing important jazz records just as I left high school convinced me that I wanted to devote my life to the study of this music. Watching stalwarts of South African Jazz such as Marcus Wyatt, Herbie Tsoeli, Carlo Mombelli, Feya Faku and so many more was also important to my development. I went on to study with the great Johnny Fourie then in Amsterdam with got lessons and received masterclasses from guitarists such as Jesse van Ruller, Lage Lund, Kurt Rosenkwinkel and Peter Bernstein among others.

Despite the importance Jazz occupies in my life it only informs a part of my own compositional process (and hence relationship to this music). I consider my music making to be the sum of my social and by extension musical history. In the act of creation, I attempt to summarise and abstract upon myself as an existential and political actor. To this end, it is unavoidable that I draw on every piece of music that has been meaningful to me throughout my development – jazz, yes but also Radiohead, The Pharcyde, Portishead, Messaien, The Strokes, Dr Dre and so much more.” – Vuma Levin

Jazz has often been deemed political in its nature and style. Is this something which you can relate to? Do you seek to use jazz as a means of political expression?

“I think my writing has usually been more about creating imaginary worlds for the listener and the player to explore.  However I think the fact that most jazz artists are independent and uncompromising in their artistic vision is in itself a political act, where art and process is still given the value it deserves without being subject to capitalist validation.  Also the fact that the borders created by genres are broken down in jazz music, I think this is critical in the arts.” – Shane Cooper, Mabuta

“Indeed! We are privileged to be awakened to metaphysical and epistemological questions. Artists who have put in sincere time and effort are natural philosophers. It is then our duty to speak out on injustice and to share our thoughts on the more difficult questions and contradictions of our time.” – Reza Khota

“I think music is a reflection of life and with that being said, it is then quite necessary for it to exist in all spectrums of life. Political views and opinions are an important part of this.I feel my music wishes to exist in all spaces and evoke emotion, challenge certain constructs and document the times.” – Zoe Modiga

Zoe Modiga credit Tatenda Chidora

“Music for me is a form of self-expression that helps me express things that often I find it hard to do normally. I’ve always turned to music to try and express deeper feelings or perspectives that I had. Even when I was a young writer, fiddling with rudimentary ideas on the piano in high school. I don’t generally write with the intention of “being political” in my message, but many times I do tell stories that are personal to me and/ or that move me. As a black woman from South Africa, politics affects so much of my day to day experience and so when that comes through in the music I write, it is not from a fictitious perspective but quite simply biographical. Like the band Skunk Anansie say, “everything’s politikal!”.  I think that, and not being political for the sake of being political, is the true expression of the innovators of this music we call Jazz. The music cannot be separated from the life experiences of those who used it as a means of expression.” – Thandi Ntuli

“I believe jazz has always been in a way a political thing, but I don’t think it’s an exclusive identity of what jazz is. I think that would be very – what do you call it in English? – reductionist, it would really reduce its value and its intention in itself. But yes I think just the act of deciding to play jazz is really a political posture – in different ways.

In South Africa, to play jazz was a discouraged effort because jazz to the white people that were living in South Africa at that time (historically), was a form of high art. And to be able to regard black players as people that are capable of doing that type of art form, would be going against the grain of apartheid and colonialism that regarded a black man as somebody that was really incapable of – or at least close to subhuman, somebody that was devoid of intellect … And that explains also why corporates were very reluctant to record and invest in a lot of jazz at that time.

Jazz is political also in America in different way, while South African white people discouraged it, white American corporates exploited it, in a way that the companies were able to actually profit from their management of the art that was dominant at that time, which is something that is more analogous to…” – Yonela Mnana

“I can definitely relate to this. I think that so many others have written about Jazz’s status as a political music, that it represents the rehearsal and performance of an ideal, as yet unrealised self actualised Black American self and truly egalitarian American state. In a South African context South African Jazz functioned in a similar fashion. Technically, being a musician was not an occupation reserved for people of colour during Apartheid, furthermore it offered a means of self definition and self assertion during in the face of white minority rule and brutality. In this way, whether wittingly or unwittingly, being a musician became an act of defiance. Later Abdullah Ibrahims seminal recording which featured Mannenburg not only represented a political undertaking for the above reasons but also an exercise in Black Existentialism: An attempt to create a cultural common denominator that reified an as yet unrealised black South African self. It is in this vein that I think most contemporary Jazz operates. It is an exercise in negotiating identity. An attempt to create hybrid forms that bring together various cultural signifiers in the composers orbit at the time of creation. In doing so, the performers and composers are involved in rehearsing and performing as yet unrealised post – apartheid South African selves in the language of affect and abstraction without the burden of words. This is both a deeply existential and political act.” – Vuma Levin

Vuma Levin credit Natasha Laurent

From a cultural perspective, do you feel the music lends itself to your own political and cultural struggles?

“Yes, jazz music is a very sophisticated artform built on the common ground of many cultures.  It is borne first out of various African musical roots. I believe music connects time and history to the present and has immense power, in some ways more than languages of the tongue.  If you don’t have true respect for the roots of this music, you will not be able to play it – it will wrestle you to the ground.  Those that play it with respect for the roots, can use it as a force for change in this era of extreme divisiveness and oppression.” – Shane Cooper, Mabuta

“Absolutely. I’d like to feel that music has created a space for me to freely express my political and cultural realities. Cementing this is important.” – Zoe Modiga

“Of course I think the music lends itself to my political and cultural struggles, in many ways. One is the fact that to play jazz, it is a situation where you are able to claim your freedom and make use of it to say whatever that you want to say, so it’s beautiful to have that sort of tabula rasa (bank slate). And in my case (as someone who is visually impaired), firstly I find that as opposed to classical music, which actually required me to play the written note, jazz serves much more for me as a signposting, a guiding principal to be able to explore and find out what I want to say.  

And when you mention sociological things, in fact jazz has many positions in South Africa, in the sense that to date, jazz has now become part of the ‘high arts’. It has become very inaccessible, which is something that is very strange, because it was the music of the common man. Now people dress up to (see) it, and people have to pay lots and lots of money. And people that study it have to actually pay more money to institutions and to people to teach them, which renders the art almost as something that is extinct, and I feel from it that it is actually our prerogative to bring it closer to the people, or to figure out how relevant it can be to the people.” – Yonela Mnana

Yonela Mnana credit Rangoato Hlasane

“Yes and No. Music definitely operates as a semiotic system and it’s signifying power lends itself towards being tied into non-musical struggles. Having said that, in the absence of words (instrumental music) meaning in instrumental music  is complex, emergent and slippery. Of course words suffer from the same issues but the added layers of abstraction in music do complicate matters. When words ARE involved however, things change. From my personal perspective, my own music is deeply political and speaks directly to my own struggles for self actualisation. I am a half black, half jewish, swazi born South African. I have a deeply hybrid identity. Issues around home, belonging and the identification of a self with respect to a collective other has been very difficult for me. As I said before my music is an attempt to bring together the various musical signs and signifiers that have informed who and what I am. The syncretic forms birthed by this process are in turn an attempt to rehearse and perform a viable post apartheid South African self all in the service of trying to find a spiritual home and space of belonging.” – Vuma Levin

How would you define those struggles at present? How do you feel as a young musician growing up in South Africa?

“Being a performing jazz musician in South Africa is practically unviable and unsustainable as a result of the bad economic landscape.  In a country where the people have been (and continue to be) so violated economically, access to live music has been removed from the majority of people’s lives.  So in a country with such a large population there are almost no venues to perform this music.  Touring within the country is super expensive and almost never viable.  We try to tour abroad but face immense challenges having to jump through endless hoops to apply for visas, and struggle with a weak currency for logistics costs.  Often artists from SA trying to play in Europe or USA are scrutinised first by a “Western gaze” – of what represents their version of “African” or “World Music”. – only those that are deemed “African enough” are allowed through the gates. It’s a form of cultural colonialism… However, despite these struggles the musicians continue to create art on a high level.  Why? There is something profound about this music when you know it’s not built on the music industry’s model.  It is art that is made because it contains stories that need to be told.” – Shane Cooper, Mabuta

“Today’s struggles are exponential. The cognitive and ethical mistakes that were at the root of slavery and colonialism came back to Europe to bite in the form of nazism and fascism. In other words, these violent aberrations were already seeded within the duplicity of (European) enlightenment thinking in its borders versus the colonies. Our concept of the human remains broken still today, as a result of this cognitive disjuncture. Fascism is again on the rise globally. This time it’s weapons of coercion, surveillance, terrorism and oppression are enhanced through the techno-digital interface and the unhindered rise of oligarchies. Our task in the arts and humanities is to think of a new concept of the human. One in which, fascism, inequality and structural violence are not possible. As a young brown musician growing up in SA. I have always had to work harder and prove myself in contexts where the old racial hierarchy reared it’s ugly head. Even if you are at the top of your game, there’s always going to be some idiot who undermines you because of your skin colour. Fortunately I don’t give an F anymore! We will make the racists irrelevant and show their stupidity for what it is.” – Reza Khota

“At the core if everything, I feel my place in the world is something to engage and heal. Being a young, black, African woman means something and I feel a lot that I identify as has been demeaned and defaced throughout history. Reclaiming this journey from my perspective and in my expression is an important part of being able to confront my realities and take to task all the systems put in place to create my reality and the reality of my people.

My experience is layered and takes on many shapes, with that being said, I’d need the world to create space for people like me and challenge all the social, economic constructs that make me a shadow in this world.” – Zoe Modiga

“Well that’s a loaded question. I think the music I write can speak to that best. As a young musician growing up in South Africa I feel overwhelmed with pride for the rich and beautiful cultural heritage we have here and in the continent at large.” – Thandi Ntuli

Thandi Ntuli credit Victor Dlamini

“I feel that it is possible that the South Africans that I live among could have taken advantage and enjoyed jazz as a way of expression, and as an art form, but I feel that my people in the townships and in the outskirts of suburbia are the victims of consumerism, and capitalism, that sells them a source of outlet that is really not quite rewarding, that is very much marginal, I think maybe similar to all the other intoxicating things, that tend to propagated as much as some of the contemporary musical works are sold… The fact that their access to the internet and all the other information sources are limited, with the barriers of money and marginal information, our people have not really discovered it in that way, so there lies again another kind of struggle, where we have to return the music to the people and the people to the music. That’s one struggle.

Alongside that kind of struggle is the fact that if the people, such as people in my family and my friends, as they are, if they’re used to these other kinds of art forms, it is hard for them to actually understand what I am actually working towards, or to actually enjoy those things. And the worst part, more especially in South Africa, is that because a lot of patronage in terms of jazz is from white people, most of our performances tend to be played in places that are far removed from our people. And because of the infrastructure, such as transport, and money, most of them are not able to enjoy it, which is something that is very strange, because the development of jazz actually thrived in the communities where the musicians (come from).” – Yonela Mnana

“I think the broader struggle in South Africa lies in the death of the first incarnation of the post Apartheid South African dream: Rainbow Nationism. Since the turn of the millenium we are increasingly becoming aware of ourselves as a nation that is not built upon some kind of geo genetic ancestry but rather on the basis of what Bhabha described as a set of shared mutually antagonistic histories. The trauma of these histories and the tensions and contradictions they have spawned upon racial, ethnic, gendered, class, national etc. lines is what South Africa is trying to grapple with in the creation of a viable post-Apartheid South African State. On a personal level we all suffer from these same tensions and contradictions and it presents itself in our art as well. For this reason, it is a good time to be a young musician in South Africa because there is a lot to say at both a personal and broader, social level. We are actively contributing to the creation of new cultural role models for Black South Africa but also to the mythology around which a new conception of the South African national subject can coalesce.” – Vuma Levin

What would you like to see change within the South African music community?

“I would like to see more government support for sustainable music venues across the country.  With the funds controlled by the right people, and a constant shifting of those in control to keep it diverse, and to weed out corruption.”  – Shane Cooper, Mabuta

Mabuta credit Aidan Tobias

“The music community that I’m part of is great. The governmental support for and knowledge of the arts leaves much to be desired. Worse still, real music is overshadowed by the hyper production of formula based music who’s longevity resembles that of a cheap plastic toy designed to break. That’s a global issue though, as is the devastation caused by the major streaming platforms. I would like to see real musicians get the acknowledgement and support that they deserve.” – Reza Khota

“I’d like us as Africans and the African diaspora to see each other and relate as a music community. I’d like more laws put in place by our leaders to successfully establish an interconnectedness and sense of family among us. I’d love us to be respected and appreciated by our global community too.” – Zoe Modiga

“I’d love to see music programs in townships and rural areas where learning music is really a privilege because of inaccessibility. I’d love the curriculum of music in schools and universities to reflect this part of the world and not just the Western perspective much more. I’d love for music to be taught to all children in school, regardless of their intention of making a career out of it. I am richer because of having learnt how to play music, as a human being. To add I’d love the world view of what African music is or isn’t to be expanded immensely.” –  Thandi Ntuli

“I think what I’d like to see change is the different kinds of opportunities (available) to musicians. By that I mean that perhaps jazz artists, real musicianship, has been marginalized, to this day. Maybe we need to – I don’t know, through education or through corporate interests, as government – maybe jazz musicians can be guided to be able to influential in other avenues of people’s lives – in hospitals where people are sick, in churches, all over. That would also make sure that the musicians wouldn’t squabble amongst themselves, because they think or because they’re trying to get the minimum opportunities that are granted. So that jazz musicians also would understand that they are not just working hard to be able to get awards and to be able to record albums only, that they have the opportunity to make a difference… and a difference to other people in general…

Perhaps also the direction of the music should be changed. I find, I know amongst my friends, that people find when they explain what they’re doing in English, and in big words, that they feel that they’re actually explaining that music. It is very bizarre that, at least in South Africa, a person understands themselves to be a professional musician if they attain a semblance of western music, and ignore the wealth that is laid down by all the South African artists that came before us. Quite bizarre that someone intends to come from other places to lecture on South African music. I think if we are able to change that kind of thinking…” – Yonela Mnana

“We need a much greater deal of empowerment in formal spaces for people of colour – universities etc. More initiatives to set up performance venues and festivals. More corporate support for the arts.”  – Vuma Levin

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