I was once reprimanded for talking in Ronnie Scott’s – an earful from none other than beehive-topped Mari Wilson herself. But, though scarlet with embarrassment at the time, I still feel that the perfect atmosphere for listening to jazz should be like Rick’s Café in Casablanca… a smoky, low buzz with a just streak of rebellion running through it.
In its 11th year and more popular than ever, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival is also dubbed “Africa’s Grandest Gathering”. But is it really grand? To take over one of the largest conference centres in the world is an impressive feat. More than 40 acts, split between African and overseas artists on five stages over two days… 33 000 attendees… accompanying workshops and master classes… a contribution of ¾ of a billion rand to the national economy… and yet it all felt so easy and laid back.
Attending for the first time this year, I’d been concerned about how it would all work. I wanted to be able to skip from stage to stage, dipping into and tasting a little bit of everything, lingering where the music grabbed me.
And I was thrilled to find I could. It was an eat-as-much-as-you-want jazz buffet, with a little blues, a little folk, acid and smooth, funk and soul, and a lot of piping hot Afro-jazz. With three indoor stages and two outside, food and drink stalls, shops and a photographic gallery, there was even a good contrast between the crowds who chatted and sang and danced and ate and drank and moved about just as they pleased.
My first glimpse was as I drove on the flyover into town and saw below me a massive screen backing a stage where pianist Stix Hojeng was banging the ivories to the applause of an ever growing audience. I pressed my foot harder on the accelerator, screeched into a parking space and threaded my way through the crowds to the main stage.
Then Vusi Mahlasela came on stage and blew me away. Not just for his voice and his guitar playing (and his ability to do the twist while playing – how on earth??) but the emotional response he pulled from the audience. Not a screaming / crying / bra-throwing kind of reaction but the ululations and shouts of agreement to individual lyrics that for some reason is particularly African. And Mahlasela is a political poet. His are the messages of unity and an end to poverty etc which can seem trite from Western pop stars, but coming from an African folk and blues and soul star singing to a mainly African audience, it felt earthy and real and I felt honoured to be a part of it.
On the other hand the jazz buffet included a certain amount of cheese – George Benson being the prime candidate. But that’s fine. Benson has a huge following in SA and for 10 mins it was fun to be a part of that. But if his style was more my cup of tea I would have stayed longer and therefore would not have discovered the groovy delights of Marcus Wyatt and Language 12 on the Moses Molelekwa stage.
And then there was Jonathan Butler and Charles Lloyd and Paolo Flores and Toots Thielemans and the Brooklyn Funk Essentials… but it was impossible to see everyone. And rushing was not an option. The crowds were slow moving but the general mood was so good spirited that I found myself at one point being hugged for being “too tall”. And I was allowed to talk as much as I wanted. Now that’s my kind of jazz.