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UBUNTU: Cape Jazz

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Goema Swing!

“This is Cape Town’s music. It’s a primeval beat that goes into every heart and soul,” said guitarist and composer Mac McKenzie when a critic once asked him about the swinging Cape jazz hues coloring his album Healing Destination (2003). “I call it goema,” he explained. “Goema is the way we walk and dance, the way we talk and interact with each other.”


“I play for people who don’t know anything about ‘jazz’ music, like me. It’s about using music to tell a story through Africa—so that the story becomes universal.”
—Abdullah Ibrahim


While the roots of this “primeval beat” may lie in the traditional moppies and vastraps sung by the Cape coloured and Cape Malay communities descended from former slaves in the early 20th century, the goema is a far more polymorphous musical form. As Denis-Constant Martin suggests in his fascinating critical study Sounding the Cape: Music, Identity, and Politics in South Africa (2013), “Behind the goema beat there may be more than meets the ear.” As a Creole music, the goema is the musical DNA driving any understanding of Cape jazz as a bona fide genre.

As African township jazz trumpeter Duke Ngcukana notes, back in the 1960s there was no talk of Cape jazz. He suggests that the term was coined by coloured musicians in the 1980s wanting to (re)claim their own unique identity. He has a point. For pioneering Cape jazz proponents, such as guitarist Errol Dyers and saxophonist Robbie “The Cape Doctor” Jansen, going back to their goema roots meant mixing up the musical moods in order to forge an identity, find a new voice. As Martin observes, modern jazz and fusion gave birth to Cape jazz when musicians realized that marabi and klopse could rejuvenate a form of jazz capable of addressing the social and political needs of the times. Pianist George Werner agrees, stressing the rise of Cape jazz in the 1980s as a fundamental form of protest music.

Certainly for artists such as McKenzie and Jansen, injecting the goema groove with a fusion of the call-and-response architectures of African marabi and mbaqanga, the harmonic richness of African-American jazz, and Christian church chords was a political stance. For many musicians, deliberately mixing up musical styles and creating a fresh new form of homegrown Creole music meant giving the finger to Apartheid ideology.

Indeed, Cape jazz and that signature swinging goema groove became a key vehicle of expression for the anti-Apartheid movement in Cape Town during the turbulent 1980s. It was the goema that glued together the brash punk-folk-jazz riffs of McKenzie and Hilton Schilder’s seminal resistance anthem “Die Struggle.” For many cultural commentators, it was the moment when their band The Genuines performed the song during the 1985 municipal workers strike that gave credence to the term “Cape jazz.” What was it that Cape Town audiences heard in its freewheeling fusion? History? Identity? Resistance? Freedom? Hope?

This is certainly what was heard in pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s seminal two-part song suite, Mannenberg—Is Where It's Happening (1983), which fused melodic Cape and African jazz folk tones with the improvisation of American jazz and blues traditions and the technical proficiency of European classical music. His hypnotic—and just a little Monkish—left-hand motifs on key compositions such as The Pilgrim and the spiritually swinging anti-Apartheid title track may have tuned overseas ears into his sound, but this wasn’t mere bop imitation for audiences at home. Together with bassist Paul Michaels, drummer Monty Weber, and saxophonists Basil Coetzee, and Robbie Jansen and Morris Goldberg on the cornerstone title track, Ibrahim developed an authentic Cape jazz vocabulary that not only spoke to the realities of the socio-political struggle, but also celebrated the cultural history of the Cape Flats community.

Ever the Zen master musician, Ibrahim prefers not to pigeonhole his playing. “It’s really just a tradition of music,” he says. “I play for people who don’t know anything about ‘jazz’ music, like me. It’s about using music to tell a story through Africa—so that the story becomes universal. We’re living in a culture of exclusivity, and exclusivity has basically got to do with keeping time, whereas for a jazz musician it’s about just playing.” Point taken. As McKenzie insists, “It is a language of improvisation.” And it’s this vital musical vernacular that a younger generation of Cape Town–based jazz musicians have been conversing in since the birth of democracy in South Africa. Free from the baggage of their creative ancestors, they recognize that Cape jazz is fundamentally an improvisational vocabulary that allows the artist creative freedom.

—Miles Keylock

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation