1950s and 60s
The cross-cultural influences that had been brewed in Sophiatown continued to inspire musicians of all races in the years that followed. Just as American ragtime and swing had inspired earlier jazz forms, so the new post-war American style of bebop had begun to filter through to South African musicians.
In 1955, the most progressive jazz-lovers of Sophiatown had formed the Sophiatown Modern Jazz Club, propagating the sounds of bop innovators such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
The club sponsored gatherings such as ‘Jazz at the Odin’, at a local cinema, and from such meetings grew South Africa’s first bebop band, the highly important and influential Jazz Epistles, whose earliest membership was a roll-call of musicians destined to shape South African jazz from then on: Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela among them.
In 1960, the Jazz Epistles recorded their first and only album, Jazz Epistle Verse One. At the same time, composers such as Todd Matshikiza (who composed the successful musical King Kong) and Gideon Nxumalo (African Fantasia) were experimenting with combinations of old forms and new directions.
King Kong (the tale of South African black boxer Ezekiel Dlamini) became a hit, and travelled overseas. Many of South Africa’s leading black musicians were attached to the show, and many found the freedom on offer outside the country an irresistible lure, and remained in exile there.
Among them was singer Miriam Makeba, who had achieved fame in South Africa with The Manhattan Brothers and later with her own band The Skylarks; she went on to a highly successful international career.
As the apartheid regime increased its power, political repression in South Africa began in earnest. In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the subsequent State of Emergency, mass arrests, bannings and trials of activists forced more and more musicians to leave the country.
Thus many of the most adventurous strains in South African jazz were pursued outside its borders for several decades.
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World On Line: History of South African Jazz
3rd Ear Music: Malombo Missionaries & choirs; Minstrels; Marabi; Kwela; Mbaqanga; Kwaito
Abdullah Ibrahim; Hugh Masekela; Miriam Makeba
1970s and 1980s
Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim), Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba – all these key figures in South African jazz developed their talents and their careers outside the country in the years of increasing repression.
One key South African jazz performer, and one of the country’s most innovative musicians, remained at home to pursue his unique vision. He was Philip Tabane, a guitarist who brought together the deepest, oldest polyrhythmic traditions with the freest jazz-based improvisation.
Influenced by the political ideas of Black Consciousness as well as by his own links with African spirituality, Tabane kept a shifting group of musicians playing in different combinations under the name of Malombo (which refers to the ancestral spirits in the Venda language). He has toured the world, but has always returned home.
From the early 1960s until today, Tabane has produced some of South Africa’s most interesting and adventurous sounds.
Jazz continued to be played in South Africa during the years of severe repression, with groups such as The African Jazz Pioneers and singers such as Abigail Kubheka and Thandi Klaasen keeping alive the mbaqanga-jazz tradition that had enlivened Sophiatown. Cape jazzers such as Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and Hotep Idris Galeta kept developing the infectious Cape style.
1990s to 2000s
The 1980s saw the appearance of Afro-jazz bands such as Sakhile and Bayete, marrying the sounds of American fusion and ancient African patterns, to considerable commercial success.
Others such as the band Tananas took the idea of instrumental music into the direction of what became known as ‘world music’, creating a sound that crosses borders with a mix of African, South American and other styles; this versatile and inventive group is now one of South Africa’s best-loved, beyond any category.
In recent years, important new jazz musicians such as Paul Hanmer, Moses Molelekwa and Zim Ngqawana have taken the compositional and improvisatory elements of jazz in new directions, bringing them into contact with today’s contemporary sounds, as well as drawing on the oldest modes, to provide the country – and appreciative overseas audiences – with a living, growing South African jazz tradition.
Jazz in south africa
1950s and 60s