Jazz in the Global Imagination

A symposium

Copyright © Gwen Ansell 2007

There have been a number of dedications given today. I’d like to dedicate this short speech to the late Allen Silinga who died four weeks ago and who, among a vast opus, was the composer of Ntyilo Ntyilo, one of the best-loved standards in the South African jazz canon.

Think about that: a South African jazz canon that many of you in this room may not even be aware exists.

Jazz through the cultural history of South Africa has had both a global and a local face. When I was researching and interviewing players for my book, Soweto Blues, two statements kept recurring. The first was that American jazz players “were our black heroes.” That was the global dimension: jazz linked South African players whose creativity and humanity were suppressed by apartheid with an aspirational international domain. But the second was that American jazz was loved “because it reminded us of our own mbaqanga music here” - in other words, jazz felt local; its African roots played loud in the sound.

And those two faces should be making us reflect on what the global and the local really mean. For its contributions to many musics, Africa is surely global. And there’s a sense in which America is merely one variety of the local.

A lot of lip service is paid to jazz’s global dimension, but to realize that concept we need more than lip service; we need respect for what global really means. I live in Africa, a place that is not one country or cultural tradition, but many. That’s something Americans sometimes have trouble with: Koffi, my Ghanaian taxi driver a couple of nights back complained, “I tell them I’m from Ghana, and they say ‘Ah, Mandela!’”.

In some African countries, the word ‘jazz’ is used merely as a marker of urban modernity: Shirati Jazz (Luo jive) in Kenya; Franco and Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz Band in Congo. But in other countries such as South Africa, ‘jazz’ signifies a music that anyone in this room would also instantly identify as jazz.

So if we’re going to say that jazz is a truly global music, we journalists also have to acknowledge in our writing - with full respect to the heroic pioneers of the music who came from Africa and became Americans:

Global and local both need respect. The point is not to reduce them to sameness, but to celebrate difference.

Posted by admin on 31 Jan