Tag Archives: protest

Apartheid and South African jazz in the 1960s

Blue Notes in exile from S Africa, c 1965Like the rest of the world, I have been thinking about Nelson Mandela. I remember, must’ve been early 1980s, joining the 24-hour protest outside the South African Embassy in London, as well as boycotting South African goods, and British companies that traded there during apartheid. In particular I’ve been thinking about the relation between South African music and politics, and anti-apartheid campaigning and the important place and power of popular music, of jazz music in it. In Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, there is lot about the musical, cultural and political impact of the South African musicians who came to London in the 1960s. Here is an extract, focussed on what they were escaping.

Also below is a video of Louis Moholo and Barbara Pukwana talking about their experiences of exile. And here, from LondonJazz, is a really good piece by Gwen Ansell about Mandela and musics of protest. And here also is Mike Fowler’s really interesting website dedicated to the Blue Notes, jazzers from South Africa.


… Apparently regardless of the extent to which they were as individuals ideologically articulate or politically active, by virtue of the music they played, their preferred cultural expression alone, South African jazz musicians were positioned politically, in opposition to the state. For white pianist Chris McGregor, playing in a mixed race band in Cape Town in the late 1950s—simply because they were ‘the best musicians I could find’—‘was already a quasi-political orientation’ on the part of all the musicians involved.

As a music student though, McGregor had been directly politicised by the authorities’ proposals to restrict access to the university for black students in 1957. Combined with the call for equal democratic rights articulated in the Freedom Charter of 1955 by the likes of Nelson Mandela, white and black jazz musicians began to play together for demonstrating crowds, education and dances in the townships, as well as at the limited bohemian white cultural spaces still available. Drummer Louis Moholo recalls some of the absurdities of musicians’ experiences of playing and socialising together in a multiracial band under apartheid, one more twist on minstrelsy, or Leonard Feather’s ‘white curtain’ closed again:

 sometimes Chris McGregor would have to play behind a curtain, and vice versa, I would have to play behind a curtain if we got hired by some white cats. And Chris McGregor used to come to this place where we would drink some beer, in the Zulu quarters, but white people were not allowed in here; Chris would paint his face with black polish to come in there.

McGregor, Moholo, and saxophonist Dudu Pukwana looked to jazz to move beyond the increasingly strict apartheid structure of racial classification and oppression that defined their whiteness and blackness. With the epiphany of Duke Ellington and his big bands, McGregor stated simply that he ‘heard in him [Ellington] a certain solution to the problem of black traditions in a white world’. Primarily this involved the invention of a social community—elsewhere he would talk of his big bands as the creation of ‘my own village’—a repertoire of joyous music based on African traditions, and the Ellingtonian generosity of offering in the written arrangements the style and a space to best meet the individual voice of the soloist.

In a country imposing a serious and violent racialised social classification—symbolised most shockingly at Sharpeville on March 21 1960 when 69 protestors against the pass laws were killed by the police (many shot in the back), and nearly 200 injured—such multiracial grouping, cultural celebration and sensitivity could only be political. Micropolitically, when band rehearsals were subsequently raided by police, it was essential to clear up the teacups, because socialising between blacks and whites was no longer permitted.

At the same time, when a small group began to form around one of the clusters of musicians in Johannesburg and they called themselves the Blue Notes, even the band’s name was a double coding: on the one hand it clearly signalled the music of black American jazz, on the other the very word blue was intended to camouflage the colour issue. The young white South African pianist Manfred Mann was himself then exploring jazz in Johannesburg, and being educated in the complex etiquette of apartheid-dominated multiracial relations.

When I shook hands with Lewis Nkosi in the street we were both very, very conscious of everyone looking at us. The simplest human action was a contrived gesture. On another occasion the brilliant saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi came to my house, I was 18 years old, now why would he do that? It was an enormous privilege for me, but my stepmother made him come into our house through the back door. It was a terribly shaming experience…: Kippie himself was so used to this kind of thing, he handled with a dignified resignation. In rehearsals it was even very difficult to argue with a black musician. So although music was a sort of space we could carve out, it was fraught with difficulty.

Share Button

Shakin’ All Over, number 6: Teddy Pendergrass, ‘Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand)’

If he sang from a wheelchair, it wouldn’t be the same…. Who’s going to be the next Teddy Pendergrass?—Music journalist Dennis Hunt, 1982

Now what about this for a comeback gig, your first public vocal performance since a serious car accident put you in a wheelchair, with paraplegia, three years earlier: Live Aid, 1985. Still, at least it was your home town crowd (of 90,000, in Philadelphia; plus the watching global multi-millions on television). That was a big thing to do. It still blows my mind when I think of it, the sheer bravado. And that combined with so almost being overwhelmed by the emotion of it when you roll on stage … a fantastically powerful and moving performance by Teddy Pendergrass.

Pendergrass remembers how his ‘spirit collapsed’ on reading those words: ‘If I sang from a wheelchair, it “wouldn’t be the same”. What the hell did that mean? I was stunned, enraged, hurt, devastated. To say this added insult to injury—literally—doesn’t even start to describe how diminished, worthless, and inhuman those words made me feel’. Pendergrass was able to draw some strength in transition from other disabled black male musicians, including Johnnie Wilder of 1970s disco band Heatwave, himself a man with quadriplegia following a 1979 car accident. It was important for Pendergrass to see that, ‘[d]espite what had happened to him,… Johnnie had continued to write and record his music’, not least because there were those in the music press doubting precisely that Pendergrass would himself be capable of carrying on.  In due course Stevie Wonder suggested to Pendergrass the title of a new album, but more, too: ‘I also found talking to Stevie inspiring in a way I didn’t appreciate as much before my accident. In addition to everything else we had in common, there was now a disability. Only he, Johnnie Wilder, and a few other people could understand the challenge of appearing and sounding confident when in fact you feel vulnerable, even helpless’….

It was really an astonishingly brave return to live singing, as he said in a later television interview, the big smile on his face an acknowledgement of the retrospective realisation of the size of the challenge he had set himself: ‘in front of ninety thousand people, and millions of people around the world, I decided to find out what was going to happen’, that is, what sort of reaction he would now elicit from a live audience, and even whether he could actually sing again professionally. He was anxious about the audience perception of the before-and-afterness of it all, and about the vocal and physical performance: ‘Would an audience hear and see me, Teddy Pendergrass the singer, or would they see that poor disabled guy who used to be Teddy Pendergrass? I played out every imaginable scenario, from my being unable to control my chair to missing notes’….

The Live Aid film of Pendergrass’s single song that momentous day (above. Watch it), the 1970 Diana Ross hit ballad ‘Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand)’, with the song’s writers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, is rather moving, because Pendergrass himself is clearly so very moved to be onstage in front of an audience. In fact, after his reception by the crowd as he has carefully manoeuvred himself in his powered wheelchair to his mark on the stage, he quietly cries centre-stage before he begins to sing. The film footage shows an aerial shot of the massive stadium crowd, and then focuses one of the large stadium screens in close-up on Pendergrass’s face as he wipes away the tears and the crowd erupts. The band vamps for a short while as Pendergrass composes himself. When he says to the audience, ‘I want you to know I feel your love’, it sounds not like a crowd-pleasing showbiz statement but a heartfelt recognition of support and validation: pop helping its own. The first note he sings is a little flat, and elicits a grimace from Pendergrass, but he soon tunes in. The choice of song resonated doubly: it was ‘the right message for the event, and the right message for me’.


Share Button