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Impassioned Voice of the TownshipsCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Coetzee, BasilBasil Coetzee belonged to the generation of musicans who forged a distinctive new identity for South African jazz in the 1960s and 1970s, often in the face of both official and unofficial state repression. Their music was effectively banished from South African radio, and many of the major figures on the scene were forced into exile in the 1970s.
While musicians like Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), Chris MacGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, and Louis Moholo uprooted and established new satellite South African jazz communities, notably in London, Basil Coetzee chose to stay and make whatever impression he could on his home ground, despite the many difficulties and deprivations which that struggle involved.
He was born in Cape Town's notorious District Six, an area which shared the poverty common to all the major townships, but which also fostered a vibrant music scene. His first instrument was the readily available penny-whistle, and he began performing within the township on that instrument in 1958. He turned next to drums, before finally settling on flute and the instrument most closely associated with him, tenor saxophone, and was entirely self-taught on all of these instruments.
He became part of a vital but largely underground jazz scene which mixed the imported hard bop model of modern jazz from the USA with the vibrant marabi and kwela dance rhythms of the townships (the latter literally means 'step up', and takes its ironic name from the instruction given by the police when hustling township youths into their vans). Those urban adaptations of African folk idioms are responsible for giving South African jazz much of its distinctive sound and lilting swagger.
Coetzee developed a soulful, gospel-influenced instrumental voice which had a raw, impassioned urgency at its core. He often explained that his sound was reflection of the life around him, a product of the fact that "there's a lot of poverty in the townships, and people are frustrated, and my sound is created within that environment."
The Coetzee family were forcibly removed from the soon to be demolished District Six to Manenberg in 1969, and it was his composition of that name which became his best known work. First recorded in 1974 with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (who was still known as Dollar Brand at that time) on a historic album entitled Manenberg -- Where It's Happening, it achieved anthemic status both within the South African jazz community and the liberation movement. The saxophonist adopted the name as a kind of honorific middle-name, and became known as Basil Manenberg Coetzee.
The clampdown on jazz activities made the already difficult working environment almost impossible, a circumstance exacerbated by the departure into exile of many of his contemporaries. Like the great alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsie, Coetzee opted to stay in South Africa, and worked in a shoe factory throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, while keeping up his playing in the township by night.
He resumed active performing again in the early 1980s, and was often featured at concerts and rallies in aid of the United Democratic Front after its launch in 1983. In 1986, he formed Sabenza, with bassist Paul Abrahams, guitarist James Kibby, and drummer Vic Higgins, which remained his regular band for the rest of his life, and also acquired an independent reputation. Coetzee became a major figure on the South African jazz scene once again, although his international standing remained less prominent than his work deserved.
He toured Europe in 1988, and began to record again, issuing the albums Sabenza and Monwabisi. He performed regularly with Abdullah Ibrahim in the pianist's various ensembles after his return to South Africa, both at home and on tour, and Ibrahim was one of those who paid tribute to Coetzee's memory at his funeral, where his son, Basil Coetzee, Jr, played saxophone in the service.
The minister, Trevor Jones, spoke of the price in material comforts and physical well-being which musicians like Coetzee had to pay in maintaining their musical integrity. Coetzee was a founder member of a music school in Cape Town in the late 1980s, and in his funeral address Abdullah Ibrahim announced plans for the establishment of a Basil Manenberg Coetzee Music Academy in his memory.
Basil Coetzee died of lung cancer, and was survived by his wife, Mary, five children, and six grandchildren.