At the time of his tragic death last February, the young jazz pianist Moses Molelekwa was putting the finishing touches to an album recorded with one of the top kwaito bands, TKZee. This new type of dance music exploded in the townships at the beginning of the Nineties. Moses Molelekwa was not attracted to kwaito for strictly commercial reasons. A jazz record is considered a hit once it has sold 10 000 copies, whereas any kwaito hit song rapidly attracts 150 000 to 200 000 buyers
« Kwaito is undergoing big changes« , affirmed Moses Molelekwa, « it is seeking an identity, trying to free itself of American influences in order to explore its own African modernity. » Whilst awaiting the posthumous release of this collaboration, however, South Africa’s jazz composers still consider kwaito to be a minor genre.
The talented, nearly seventy-year-old guitarist Allen Kwela unenthusiastically watches the music videos that follow on one after the other on the television. « Kwaito has something undeniably South African in the language and the dance, but musically, it’s very poor« , he says. Pianist Paul Hanmer is just as divided; « I like the dance and well-trained bodies, » he says, « but I hate the stereotypes of sexual domination of women and the brutality of the messages. The culture is as scant as the anger enormous. I find the inability to speak about hope and harmony worrying. » For the saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, the genre quite simply contributes to the « general deterioration of music » he thinks has affected the country since liberation
The omnipresent kwaito is found in fashion, advertising and on FM radio. However, the flood is far from having swept everything away. The gospel and choir tradition remains undying, even if badly exploited on a commercial level. Pop is prospering with its two national stars, the singer Ringo and the « South African Madonna », Brenda Fassie. As for jazz, it is undergoing a major revival. Although still marked by a highly distinctive sound, it is progressively breaking away from the influence of its great masters. Gloria Bosman, Zim Ngqawana, Paul Hanmer, and Jimmy Dludlu belong to the new generation that has taken up the flame from the likes of Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, and Hugh Masekela. Each is exploring his or her path. Taking inspiration from maskanda, a gentler Zulu rhythm than the one, which made the Mahotini and the Mahotella Queens famous, Themba Mkhize has, for example, made a name for himself remixing the melodies of these songs traditionally accompanied on the acoustic guitar.
It is a sign of the times that all the majors have launched jazz labels focusing on local artists over the last two years. But the new wave’s standard-bearer is the independent South African record company Sheer Sounds. In a somewhat morose context, with national record sales falling by 20% in 2000, this small label is holding the fort. Paul Hanmer, Zim Ngqawana, and Gloria Bosman feature on its catalogue, along with other lesser-known artists, such as the saxophonist McCoy Mrubata and the white trumpeter Marcus Wyatt. Even though the depreciation of the Rand has boosted American luxury goods imports, Sheer Sounds is still managing to sell its local products. « They are cheaper and better« , affirms Kevin Stuart, director of marketing. « We aim to develop a South African world music and a sophisticated African jazz in order to position ourselves on the new black mid-tempo market« . This potential is counted in millions of consumers, assuming that the emergent black middle class continues to grow. 20 000 copies of Paul Hanmer’s Trains to Taung have sold in the space of three years. This success has opened up the way for many other young artists, including Don Laka, Vusi Khumalo, and Sipho Gumede. Despite all this, Sheer Sounds is still dependent on its import activities, handling twenty or so foreign record companies’ catalogues and operating mainly in the world music slot. It is to a degree thanks to the South African success of the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora that the label can boast having released more South African artists this year than all the majors put together. This simple fact highlights the limits of the jazz revival. The trend remains very local. « Our jazz doesn’t rouse the slightest bit of interest at the Cannes Midem, the record market’s international get-together« , admits Kevin Stuart. World music exports much better. The Zulu line-ups Bayete and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have thus forged themselves solid reputations, as has the string ensemble, The Soweto String Quartet, which is a big hit in Britain and the Scandinavian countries.
On South African music, also see: Les dance-songs comme visualisation de la voix (Dance-songs as visualisation of the voice: Africultures 4, p.11), Le hip-hop à la marge (Hip-hop on the edge: 24, p. 21), Pour l’amour de l’Afrique entretien avec Miriam Makeba (For the love of Africa interview with Miriam Makeba: 29, p. 65), and La mort tragique de Moses Molelekwa (Moses Molelekwa’s tragic death: 39, p. 105).///Article N° : 5519