Friday, July 18, 2008

Sometimes you can't make it on your own

Sometimes I don't blog because I feel like there's nothing new. Well, here's some news for you:

Last night, between the hours of midnight and 10 a.m., some individual or group of persons stole the carburetor, air cleaner, spark plugs, and metal plates (parts together valued at approximately $500) from the engine of my Beetle. Now, I am trying to appreciate the absurdity of the situation, but it hurts to laugh. I feel poor, powerless, and absolutely furious. I would go home early, but I don't have the money. Funny.

12 days.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

One of these mornings I'm gonna rise up singing

I broke out of my funk last week and took a bus out to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. I was really impressed. The sheer quantity, not to mention diversity, of events was overwhelming. I mostly hung out around the jazz festival and associated jam sessions, but I also checked out photography exhibitions, street theater, dance shows, spoken-word poetry, and lectures. Then there was the atmosphere. Walk around the streets and you are confronted at every corner with little boys standing stock still, faces smattered with white dust, waiting for - what? A tip? A touch? The Spirit? Marimba music moves the ground from early morning to late night. Campers in the courtyard trade herbs and secrets. Overheard: "I think I tried that the last time I was in Ethiopia." "Chew this, it will bring you strength and good things." Strength for what? To keep from falling of the edge? From losing your grip? Or will it push you over instead, to fall, only to be caught again?

I went to Grahamstown to see three things: Jo'burg avant-garde bassist Carlo Mombelli leading his group Prisoners of Strange, Mark Fransman's newly composed Suite, and the Kouga Jazz Band from Port Elizabeth. Prisoners of Strange was certainly refreshing, especially in the haunting vocals of trombonist Siya Makuzeni. Mombelli is a remarkable composer - so confident, so creative, and so good at what he does. There is nothing standard about this group. They performed a piece scored for six squeaky toys and a kazoo. All of the musicians make frequent use of loops and effects, but always with the determined aim of surprising and creating something new. I interviewed Mombelli, who told me he does think his music is South Africa, as it came out of this environment, although that does not necessarily include township jazz. But he said he prefers to think "intergalactically," rather than nationally.

But the highlight of my festival experience was Mark Fransman's Suite. The concert was advertised as jazz plus a classical string quartet and two bassists with nods to Bartok and Shostakovich, but what actually transpired was much more unusual: an hour of music of heartbreaking beauty. Perhaps it was Fransman's choice of subjects that made the pieces so moving; he dedicated one to Martin Luther King, Jr., another to his mother, and one to his first-born daughter, "At First Sight." Fransman did use two bassists, one plucking bass lines, the other playing harmony with the bow. And the string quartet provided swelling, closely-written harmonies of strange simplicity and beauty, though the avant was not explicitly in evidence. Fransman actually only performed one movement - "North" - from his Suite, a title appropriate for the first movement of a work in progress, indicating very little but the certainty of direction and perhaps the urge to travel.

But my words cannot tell you what it was like to experience this concert. How could you write with such passion, such love, such control? It gets to the heart of matter: people's lives are full of real extremes of emotion - longing, disaster, hope, triumph. Not necessarily always so dramatic, but we are human in these moments. Fransman's pieces stared this reality in the face and screamed and moaned for it. Cried out in passion. I left the hall exhausted, having reached every height and depth of love and pain, any objectivity blown wide open. I want to write music like that.

I realized that, before coming to the festival, I had begun to believe what mainstream society wants you to believe - that works of art are acts of personal expression only, not avenues for serious employment, and certainly not anything worth getting all tingly about. While listening to Fransman's Suite, I found myself reacting to the sounds and images in a way I have not in a long time; I think it is fair to say that it renewed my faith. I was reminded with a jolt that expression is always a two-way street; the music goes out and actually affects people's lives.

The group most directly related to my project was the Kouga Jazz Band, which takes traditional Xhosa music from the Eastern Cape and combines it with jazz, certainly not the first group to do such a thing, but maybe one of the first in the generation of South Africans considering itself "Born Free." The music itself is evolving, the various elements are still finding their place in their compositions. I talked to trumpeter and leader Xolani Faku, nephew of Feya Faku, who, along with Abdullah Ibrahim, was part of the Xhosa-jazz fusion during the African Renaissance back in the day. The younger Faku started out playing jazz in Port Elizabeth, but was also exposed to the music of the traditional Xhosa cultures in the Eastern Cape, especially along the Wild Coast. I asked him about his piece "Ntsikane," written for a Xhosa warrior who was also a gospel composer. Does Faku see his music as political? "We cannot detach ourselves from our environment. As a performer, you have to reflect the situation of the time," he said. "We are more like prophets. The struggle is still on. And music is the only language we have to express these things."

I began to understand that for people like Faku, the jazz-traditional fusion is as much about the urban-rural dynamic as about any politics. He is from the city, but, like many young South Africans, harbors a certain nostalgia for rural life and culture. He explained that he sees a real need for his music to be connected with the revitalization of African culture and its roots. "Detaching ourselves from Africa creates a problem," he said. "By doing this, we could even detach ourselves from who we are." The invasion of homogenized Western culture has been responsible for some of the erasure, he said, but jazz is a bridge - something that links Africa with the diaspora, and should be part of the conversation.

It's easy to forget that, under apartheid, black South Africans were essentially forced to conceive their identity as cut off from the rest of Africa. This mentality has left some ugly scars below the surface. Though the new South Africa is supposedly founded on the principles of ubuntu - that the individual exists because of, for, and in cooperation with the larger group - that "I am because we are" - recent events like the xenophobic attacks reveal that this message sounds deafly to the mindset that accompanies ongoing, debilitating poverty. Can South Africa really be a part of the African community if its leadership continues to operate on a level of increasing materialism and self-preservation?

Sitting in the International Library of African Music, listening to the strange, bluesy sounds of '50s era Zimbabwean guitarists, my research questions suddenly take on a very political tone. To ask about South Africa's relationship with the African diaspora is to breach a subject with its tendrils buried deep in the fabric of this country. There have been actual efforts, conscious or no, to wipe out the evidence of what once existed here. Excavating these roots is nearly impossible, and there are a fair number of musicologists here who are knee-deep in the Sysiphan process. Who was here first? Even the San, Xhosa, and Zulus migrated to South Africa shortly before the first European explorers arrived. Here, at what has begun to feel like the end of the world, claims to land and identity have been contested for hundreds of years.

The natural process for reconciling these differences is through syncretized culture. As Vincent Kolbe told me, "This whole mess got started with culture, and I think that will have to be the way it ends, too." To separate and divide is a colonial mindset. I am beginning to see my project for what it is: a study in post-colonialism. It is about music, yes, but it is really about globalization, about identity in a world that grows ever-smaller, in a world full of multiplying copies and fading originals. It is about how to live on earth.

Now I am back in Cape Town, staring in disbelief as one rainy day follows impossibly after the next. Doesn't globalization capture the essence of my journey? I trip, I fall onto the stage as a global citizen, and only with time am I able to grasp the largeness of what goes on around me. I am older than before, tired, harder, thinner. To go out is one thing, but to come back, changed, to effect changes, is quite another. Is this what I wanted, to grow up? I have a real urge to redress my experience, to rewrite the rules, to own myself. I long to transform, to build myself a cocoon and emerge clothed in radiant color. Though my wings are wet and heavy now, the time is coming when I will learn how to use them.