Tuesday 26 August 2008

Jazz: The African Sound

“The African Sound … spells out clearly the character and direction of South African jazz towards its own territorial identity – a vigorous, lively, good-humoured swing which you will not find anywhere else on earth, North America included.” So wrote the Johannesburg Star’s critic Richard McNeill of the original release of this album.

This album of original South African jazz is unique in many ways – it was the first album of South African jazz composed, arranged and played by an all-South African big band. At the time of its release in 1963 it was unique also in that the band members were both white and Black. At the time this was almost unthinkable in South Africa.

The uniqueness also came from the fact that the band which made it had a very circumscribed life – the band was together for a total of three weeks, during which time they rehearsed, did a number of concerts and the recording.

In September of 1963 there was a jazz festival at the Moroka-Jabavu Stadium in Soweto. This festival was underwritten by the brewers of Castle Lager Beer, South African Breweries (now SABMiller). All the best-known names in South African jazz were there and, although the festival itself was not a great success, some great music emerged from it.

Maxine McGregor, widow of Chris McGregor, who was responsible for the arrangements on the album, writes in her book Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath:

“Chris took advantage of the proximity of all the best jazz musicians in the country to persuade the breweries to back him in another venture – a big (17-piece) band with the musicians of his choice. They gave him a week to arrange, teach and rehearse with the band, and during that time he did not sleep at all. Chris was not given to arranging music very fast; he gave a lot of thought and time to his work, but once done he rarely had to amend anything. He would sit up all night writing the arrangements and during the days set about teaching each musician his part and trying them out together. Not all the musicians could read music which was an added complication, but as they were used to playing by ear they were astonishingly quick to pick up the arrangements. Twenty-four hours for each song, seven by the end of the first week; then they played several concerts in the townships round Johannesburg and in Benoni and Boksburg.”

The result was a band that, in spite of their different backgrounds and experience, came together in an amazing way to make some truly original and beautiful music, a classic in South African jazz.

It was a project that pianist, composer and arranger Chris McGregor had been dreaming of for some time: “I have waited for years to hear a band composed of the brightest stars in South African jazz and my note-books are full of projected personnel and worthwhile compositions for such a venture, the fruits of listening to and being involved with this lovely thing, jazz music in South Africa,” he wrote in the liner notes to the album.

As McGregor would say in an interview with Graham Lock some 20 years later: “I’m an absolute nut for big bands. I love the colours and the energy flow of big groups. I’ve always been ultra-attracted by that organisation and putting-together capacity that was so uniquely Duke’s. I love playing, arranging, composing – the lot!”

McGregor’s love for “playing, arranging, composing” certainly comes through on this album: two of the six numbers are his own compositions, all the arrangements and of course he is leading the whole enterprise from the piano. The other four compositions on the album are two each from Kippie Morolong Moeketsi and Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim).

The album opens with Kippie’s song “Switch” which McGregor arranged “to showcase his alto playing.” It’s a medium-tempo number which McGregor writes “has no real key but has a feeling of departure and return through the riff used as introduction and coda.”At just more than six minutes it is the longest track on the album.

Next up is Dollar Brand’s “Kippie” which, as McGregor writes, “was composed by Dollar to express the way he feels about Kippie and I have arranged to express the way I feel about both of them.” After a short ensemble opening, there follows a long passage of piano, bass and drums, setting the generally reflective tone of the piece. The bridge before Kippie enters on clarinet is carried by two tenors and another alto (Nikele Moyake, Ronnie Beer and Dudu Pukwana). Kippie’s clarinet solo is simply stunning, and at its end I keep wishing for more. The somewhat Ellingtonian climax with all the horns leads into Kippie’s soulful ending.

The mood changes abruptly with the energetic opening bars of Brand’s “Eclipse at Dawn”, in which the theme is laid down by Kippie on clarinet, accompanied by Dudu Pukwana on alto and Mongezi Feza on muted trumpet, before an understated but swinging piano solo by McGregor before Kippie gets down with his clarinet again, swinging like crazy! Kippie’s solo is followed by a great tenor solo by Nikele Moyake. Some great trombone sounds in the bridge and then it’s back to the theme with Kippie, Dudu and Mongezi.

Eight years later McGregor would again record Eclipse at Dawn, this time with the Brotherhood of Breath at the 1971 Berliner Jazztage festival. This time the song becomes the springboard for an exuberant free blow, introduced by a long, slow introduction with a mostly bowed bass by Harry Miller leading interpolations from various instruments. In this version of the tune McGregor’s piano is hardly heard at all and the solos are taken by Nick Evans on trombone and Mike Osborne on alto. Altogether a very different take on the song showing what a difference exposure to the freer jazz atmosphere of Europe had made to both McGregor and Pukwana, who were in fact the only two musicians on this album who had also been part of The African Sound.

But back to The African Sound. The next track is the swinging, up-tempo “Early Bird” by McGregor, a tribute to drummer “Early Bird” Mabusa. It is marked by energetic ensemble playing by all the horns in dynamic exchanges with Mabusa’s drums, plus some great solo work by, among others, a young and up-coming alto player Barney Rachabane whose passion and exciting playing are already noticeable. An elegant solo by McGregor is also a feature of the track.

After all the energy of “Early Bird” comes Kippie’s reflective, beautiful ballad “I Remember Billy”, his clarinet leading into some wonderfully sonorous phrases from the whole band, with muted trumpets adding gentle highlights to the sonic landscape. The brass section really dominates for a few minutes before Kippie comes back with some soulful clarinet responses, before he signs off the whole thing.

Next up is another McGregor tune listed on the album as “Now” but more usually called “Manje” which is the Xhosa word for “now”. This is the only tune on this album apart from “Eclipse at Dawn” that McGregor recorded elsewhere. It was recorded twice by McGregor’s group The Blue Notes in the following year, 1964, on albums released many years later called respectively “Township Bop” and “The Blue Notes Legacy”. It was recorded twice again in 1971, this time by McGregor’s later big band the Brotherhood of Breath, on albums also released many years later: “Bremen to Bridgwater” and “Eclipse at Dawn”. Another version of the song was recorded in 1975 and also released on the “Bremen to Bridgewater” album. The Blue Notes came back to the song in 1977 on an album called “The Blue Notes in Concert Volume 1” released by Ogun in 1978.

As McGregor wrote in the liner notes this song was “about” Nikele Moyake, the great tenor player who does most of the soloing during this big band showcase number, with the rest of the horns roaring enthusiastically behind him. A fitting end to a great album of classic South African jazz.

The masters of this album were lost from the Gallo tape vaults and could not be found when the company wanted to re-release it as part of their “African Heritage” series. The re-release was made possible by a South African jazz who used to buy two copies of any South African jazz album he liked, and typically kept one of the copies sealed and unplayed. Luckily he had such a copy of this album and the CD was mastered from the sealed, unplayed vinyl. Fortunately the sound of the original album was so good that the re-mastering from vinyl was very successful and the CD sounds amazingly fresh and full.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Visionary Environment – Helen Martins and The Owl House of Nieu Bethesda

“On a cold winters' morning in 1976, at the age of seventy-eight, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing caustic soda.” (From the biography of Helen Martins on the official Owl House Foundation site http://www.owlhouse.co.za/)

So ended the tragic yet somehow beautiful life of a colourful character whose artistic vision and psychological depth went mostly unnoticed by her neighbours in the dusty, out-of-the-way Great Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda.

Helen Martins, who went on to create the fantastical sculptures and decorations of the Owl House, was born in 1897, the youngest of six children born to “Oom” (Uncle) Piet Martins and his wife.

Nieu Bethesda is a small village in the Great Karoo, founded by the Rev. Andrew Murray, in a valley of the Sneeuberge (Snow Mountains), in1875. It lies in the shadow of the Compassberg, which, at 2 540 metres, is the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape.

My former wife Joan and I visited there in October 1999 and were entranced, as are so many others, by the Owl House. The spirit of Helen Martins is almost palpable in the house and its fantastical garden.

The small house is full of colour and shimmer from the ground-glass wall covering and the large panes of coloured glass in the windows. The interior was where Miss Helen, as she was known, started the transformation of her modest home back in the late 40s or early 50s. For this stage of the transformation of the house she used two local workmen to enlarge windows and help with the painting and installation of the ground glass wall coverings.

The garden is crowded with camels and owls and people of all kinds, many with skirts of coloured glass bottles, most of them facing East.

According to the official website of the Owl House Museum the number of visitors to this fascinating place has reached more than 15 000 annually. This begs the question, Why? What is it that people look for there? What draws them to this rather strange place in a very out-of-the-way corner of South Africa, far from the beaten track, far from any glitz or glitter?

The house itself is small and architecturally nondescript. And yet more than 1000 people visit it each month on average. Though I must admit the day we were there we were the only visitors, so I’m not sure when these 1000 people visit. Maybe in holiday seasons. We visited in a very low season.

Nieu Bethesda itself is a really beautiful place, calm and peaceful to the point of somnolence. And like so many such places full of stories and legends.

One of the most potent of these is the story of Miss Helen and her Owl House. Is the house the beginning or the end of her “Road to Mecca”? Is her garden of wonders and delights a happy or a sad place?

For the people of Nieu-Bethesda it was in her lifetime a place of mystery and fear, a place which loudly disturbed the Calvinist calm and quiet of their town with its Christian symbols facing the Muslim Mecca, with its brooding sexual questioning. Even her relationship with the workman Koos Malgas became an affront to the burghers’ sensitivities in the depth of apartheid South Africa.

Athol Fugard’s moving play “The Road to Mecca” is about this confrontation between the repression of convention, symbolised by the character Marius Beyleveldt, and the defiance of the visionary, embodied by Miss Helen.

It is tempting to see in Miss Helen’s outpouring of creations, her obsessive covering of the walls of her house, evidence of sickness, of a diseased mind, as in what has become known as “outsider art” or , in Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. This kind of art has become well known and widely studied and certainly there are similarities with Miss Helen’s creations.

Dubuffet wrote about Art Brut that it was created without reference to “worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion” and was largely self-taught. Miss Helen certainly created from what Dubuffet called “solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses”, but she was at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, concerned for the preservation of her creations, and was concerned to some extent about their acceptance by others. She wanted, according to the Owl House Museum website, to be recognised as an artist.

One of the most famous “outsider” artists is the Swiss asylum inmate Adolf Wofli, who also wanted to be recognised as an artist. His output of drawings shows he had what is termed a “horror vacui”, a fear of empty spaces, and so his many drawings are obsessively covered with no white spaces left. Was there a similar fear at work in Miss Helen? I would suspect so, though I would not imagine her to be mad, as Wolfli undoubtedly was.

What she undoubtedly was, was a sign of contradiction in an era and place of conformity. Graeme Revell, who has studied the music that Wofli composed, has written that Wolfli’s music brings us to “The realisation also that our aesthetic sensibility is constrained by our limited perceptual ability.” In other words, what we see (or hear) is limited by what we are able, as culturally determined, to see (or hear).

Which brings us back to the question of what people come to the Owl House wanting or expecting to see? Is it a morbid fascination with or expectations of seeing symptoms of a sick mind? Is it the attraction of the merely picaresque? Or is there some sense of coming into contact with something deeper. Some deep connection with the origins of human creativity, perhaps?

Dubuffet on outsider art again: “After a certain familiarity with these flourishing of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."

However I would not characterise the Owl House as “outsider art” but rather as a “visionary environment” as in the following definition: “Visionary environments ("fantasy worlds") are extensive/large-scale artistic installations (buildings, sculpture parks, etc) intended to capture intense subjective/personal experiences (dreams, fantasies, obsessions, etc) of their creators. The subjective/personal nature of these projects often implies a marginal status for the artists involved, and there is a strong association between visionary environments and outsider art.” (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visionary_environments - accessed 140808).

What l was left with at the end of our visit was a somewhat wistful feeling, a feeling that Miss Helen haad been trying to communicate something very deep, very powerful to anyone who would visit her house, but somehow that something was at once so fleeting and so obscure that to grasp it might destroy it, that in the looking at it too deeply its meaning might be lost. The feeling was something like what Wolfli wrote towards the end of his life: “Some day again – in the dark wind – sweet childlike innocence will come.”

Perhaps that is what the owl house provokes, a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity, something will-o-the-wispish, playful yet sad, fleeting and profound, that evokes in people a nostalgia for what can never be. A paradoxical coming together of darkness and innocence, symbolised by the ethereal quality of the constructions in the Camel Yard, made of such earthly and commonplace materials yet pointing to something far other.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Hiroshima: A Terrible Memory burned into the bodies of hundreds of thousands

>“Hundreds of people who were trying to escape to the hills passed our house. The sight of them was almost unbearable. Their faces and hands were burnt and swollen; and great sheets of skin had peeled away from their tissues to hang down like rags or a scarecrow. They moved like a line of ants. All through the night, they went past our house, but this morning they stopped. I found them lying so thick on both sides of the road that it was impossible to pass without stepping on them.” - Michihiko Hachiya lived in Hiroshima during the Second World War. He wrote an account of the dropping of the atom bomb in his diary on 6th August, 1945. Retrieved from the Spartacus Educational website at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWhiroshima.htm

“It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued from Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with a fighting skill of which they have already become well aware.” - President Harry S. Truman, speech (6th August, 1945)

Thus was the era of nuclear war introduced to the world this day some 63 years ago. And for the past few years it seems to me that the world has lost sight of the horror, the sheer inhuman horror of that era.

When the so-called “Cold War” ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall citizens of the world have been lulled into a kind of torpor and perhaps moral quietude about this issue. Maybe all the other horrors of the modern world have eclipsed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder about that.

I wonder if racism could be involved. I wonder if Japanese lives are less valuable than occidental, and particularly United States, lives. Or is it a reflection of the fact that the Japanese at the time were enemy combatants, systematically dehumanised in the propaganda of war, as Islamic people are now being made victims of similar propaganda in the wake of 9/11?

Nuclear weapons have not gone away. They are still in the arsenals of combatant countries around the world, some acknowledged, and some unacknowledged. And that fact alone is extraordinarily scary.

As Jonathan Schell wrote in The Fate of the Earth in 1982: These bombs were built as "weapons" for "war," but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate man. They are a pit into which the whole world can fall - a nemesis of all human intentions, actions, and hopes. Only life itself, which they threaten to swallow up, can give the measure of their significance."

Some years ago I was in Germany at the beginning of summer and walked with a friend up a gently swelling hill covered with, I think, beech trees, and these lovely little yellow flowers all around on the soft green grass, birds twittering in the branches and the sun warming our backs as we walked. It was so peaceful, so gentle, so quiet.

And then my friend quietly remarked, “Do you know that below this hill, some metres under our feet, are many megatons of nuclear warheads?” That kind of shattered the peace of the moment for me.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who led the team which developed this terrible weapon, is said to have thought, at the moment of the first successful detonation of an atomic device, of a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, the famous Hindu scripture, a quotation from the Eleventh Chapter, entitled Visva-Rupa-Darsana-yoga, or the "Yoga of Theophany", the chapter in which Krishna displays His Universal form—His divine Opulence—to Arjuna: “The Lord said: ‘Time [death] I am, the destroyer of the worlds, who has come to annihilate everyone. Even without your taking part all those arrayed in the [two] opposing ranks will be slain!’”

T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland in 1922, a long and ambiguous poem that foreshadowed the anguish of the atomic age. These lines from Section V: What the Thunder said, are particularly apposite:

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


It’s interesting that William Carlos Williams, the great US poet, remarked of this poem that it “wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped on it.”

Certainly literature can help us maintain the memory of atrocities and hold the hope that humanity might one day learn to live in peace, but that hope seems precarious in the face of so much naked aggression and hatred as is loose in the world today.

As time goes by and the number of survivors of that terrible day in 1945 gets smaller and smaller, we need something to keep the knowledge alive, to keep us focussed on changing, of bringing the world a little humanity, a little dignity, a little peace.

This we can only do by, to quote Gandhi, by being the change we want to see in the world. This means by treating all life as sacred, each person as an end in himself or herself, as worthy of dignity and respect and understanding.

When I think of the thousands killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on those fateful days in1945, I am reminded of other words by Eliot, this time from one of the Four Quartets, first published in 1944:

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

And then a few lines later in Little Gidding Eliot sounds a note of some ambiguous hope, some possibility of redemption:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

On this anniversary of the dawn of the atomic age, I can only cling to this shred of hope.