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Big band taps African history

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014 06:00 am

SOUTH AFRICAN JAZZ – Gateway Big Band will play a musical tribute to the apartheid experience Thursday, April 24.
SOUTH AFRICAN JAZZ – Gateway Big Band will play a musical tribute to the apartheid experience Thursday, April 24.
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The Music of Celebration: The Music of Exile
Gateway Big Band
Thursday, April 24, Doors at 7:30 p.m. Jazz at 8 p.m.
Yardbird Suite
11 Tommy Banks Way
Tickets: $10 to $15

Every dedication gig is filled with surges of excitement and heartfelt poignancy. None more so than the Gateway Big Band’s tribute to jazz created from South African apartheid.

The incandescent 17-piece jazz band, under the direction of Allen Jacobson, performs The Music of Celebration: The Music of Exile at the Yardbird Suite on Thursday, April 24.

“The music is a tribute to the apartheid experience – the struggles and the joys. You hear it in the music. You hear it in the tonalities, and what makes it interesting is that it hasn’t been performed here before,” said Jacobson.

He was introduced to this form of creative expression – a mixture of folk songs, songs of revolution and healing – and played it in Europe with some of the continent’s renowned jazz musicians.

These charts date back to the late ’50s when the Blue Notes, a mixed-race sextet based in Cape Town and Johannesburg, fought apartheid simply by playing together.

Mixing black and white players was unheard of, however their motivations were not political. They simply played together because they were the best.

When the younger Nelson Mandela called for equal democratic rights, the Blue Notes began to play for demonstrating crowds and at dances in townships.

However, apartheid forced the band into doing absurd things.

Drummer Louis Moholo recalls that if “white cats” hired them, he played behind a curtain. And if white pianist Chris McGregor came to drink beer at one of the Zulu quarters, he applied black shoe polish to his face.

In a country of violent and bloody social classes, the name Blue Notes took on a double meaning. On one hand it signalled a reverence for black American jazz. On the other hand, the word blue camouflaged the colour issue.

Although they played at the high-profile 1963 National Jazz Festival, as a bi-racial ensemble in South Africa, their life was vulnerable to threats and mistreatment. A year later they immigrated to London.

As Jacobson explains, they arrived playing a loose, intuitive, homegrown brew of hard bop, township jive mixed in the new wave of free jazz. They immediately filled a void that no one knew was there. Today they are considered one of the great free jazz bands of that era.

“I played the music so much and it’s incredible how deep it is, how spiritual it is, and it’s such an experience of the human condition. A lot of times, music is paint by numbers. It sounds the same. But this is the opposite,” Jacobson says.

South Africa, with its continued legacy of apartheid, is an ocean away. However, examples of cultural expression of exclusion and inclusion are found everywhere. And Jacobsen feels artistic innovation can be a tool for political change.

“The music is so powerful,” he says. “It draws you in. It’s infectious and you want to be involved. It’s informative, and it’s important music be heard and celebrated.”


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