Sharps & flats

"Freedom Blues" presents the tunes of South African jazz artists under apartheid -- and they sound a lot like John Coltrane.

By Jon Dolan
Published August 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Selling African pop to an American audience has never been easy. Many labels, playing to the first-world audience's predictable jones for exotic authenticity, have come up with some pretty condescending ways to do it: textile tableaus of euphoric natives doing the post-colonial hustle; restive visions of tranquil East African grasslands cooling at dusk; watercolors of rotund village matrons raising their hands in a cappella ecstasy.

With "Freedom Blues: South African Jazz Under Apartheid," the reissue label Music Club isn't being condescending so much as reductive, selling apartheid-era South African post-bop around the dated American notion of the jazz musician as alienated artist, diffidently fleeing oppression to discover an aesthetic freedom commercial music can't offer. The theory is incredibly intriguing, if a bit flawed.

Few places on Earth in the last 40 years have seen oppression define everyday life like South Africa has. It only makes sense that the musicians -- the most famous among them trumpeter Hugh Masekela, pianist Dollar Brand and the descriptively named Blue Notes -- would infuse a political subtext into work rife with appropriations of shared heroes Rollins, Monk and Coltrane.

At times they seemed to, mixing their bop stylings with the melodies of the '40s folk-jazz form, marabi, but often they simply stopped at well-crafted homages. There are moments on "Freedom Blues," from Winston Ngozi's cool wing to the Blue Notes' torch ballad "O My Dear," that could have been recorded by talented, no-name jazz bands in Akron, Ohio, or Stockton, Calif., circa 1963. Oddly enough, it's those songs that make this compilation interesting, not only because mimesis is never a proper avenue for the "simmering sense of rage or heartache" that Graeme Ewens' liner notes allude to, but because it suggests that, like bop's innovators, these players had a more complex relationship to jazz as a conventional music, and a commercial music too.

The myth surrounding these sounds is that they symbolized a break from marabi's escapist, summertime swing (compiled beautifully on the essential "Township Jazz 'N Jive: 18 Swing Classics From the Jivin' '50s"), providing a perfect analog to American bop's disabuse of dance music. But history is never that tidy. One of the darkest, funkiest things here is "Switch," by Chris McGregor & the Castle Lager Big Band, who used to play a version of "When the Saints Come Marching In" in the early '60s -- hardly a move that would line up with the self-conscious desire for constant innovation that's traditionally typified bop's self-removal from commerce. Maybe McGregor led a dual life, shilling for sponsors by day, chasing his dreams by night. Or maybe he saw that American jazz was an amorphous blob, a storehouse of ideas and styles that could be pulled from simultaneously. That would explain why there are more joyous fanfares and genteel orchestrations on "Freedom Blues" than violent discord or fire-throwing sax solos.

So what was jazz to these musicians? An impossible chance to feel distinguished? A dream of creating a magic reality by erecting a funhouse mirror for an American music they loved? A chance to make recordings that might reach the European audience many of the best players here would flee for in the years to come? It was probably all of the above, but let's just chalk it up to the universal need to do that thing -- by any means necessary.

Jon Dolan

Jon Dolan lives in Minneapolis and writes for several publications, including Spin, City Pages and barnes& His reviews of the top albums on the Billboard 200 appear in Salon every week.


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