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The annual Jazz on the Lake, held every September, is the largest free event on Johannesburg's annual entertainment calendar.
South African jazz has a way of getting under your skin. Its distinctive voice tells the story of a century of collaboration and conversation between African musicians and artists from across the globe. It is dynamic, unexpected and yet familiar in the way it constantly re-interprets the genre from a South African perspective.
African-American jazz began reaching South Africa in the early 20th century. The influence and popularity of ragtime and dixieland music lead to the development of a uniquely South African musical form called marabi. This mixed American sounds with African cyclical harmonies and a trance-like rhythm. It took the country by storm and, with the onset of swing, the music became progressively more complex.
Kwela, a musical style that made the pennywhistle an indispensible part of its sound, was followed by the sleek, sophisticated rhythms of mbaqanga, a genre that combines guitar and bass with brass.
These sounds evolved with the influence of the many South African jazz musicians who lived in exile during the apartheid-era. By its nature, jazz doesn’t stick to the rules. Those who first performed this mainly improvised musical style were rule breakers. Trumpeter, composer and vocalist, Hugh Masekela, is one of South Africa’s jazz giants. He started his music career playing with the Jazz Epistles band in the 1950s. When he returned from exile to South Africa in 1990, his country-wide tour won him passionate new fans, ensuring that he is as much in demand at home as abroad.
Another South African jazz giant, pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, was influenced by the avant-garde music of the 1960s. When he slipped back into South Africa in the 1970s to record his masterpiece, ‘Manenberg’, he earned his place among South Africa’s greatest musicians.
Caiphus Semenya was another exile who carved a name for himself as one of South Africa’s most highly regarded jazz musicians. While in the USA, Semenya worked with Masekela, Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa. He composed music for the movie, ‘The Color Purple’.
Miriam Makeba started her music career as lead vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers in 1954. Her beautiful voice earned her a place in the jazz musical ‘King Kong’. She recorded two of her most beloved songs – ‘The Click Song’ and ‘Pata Pata’ – while in exile in America. She returned to South Africa in the 1980s, as popular as ever. She died in 2008, but her music and influence live on.
Today, South African jazz is more popular than ever. It is continuously revitalised by talented young musicians, a mix of graduates from tertiary institutions and community-based jazz education programmes, who are engaging with their music and their context in innovative ways and winning fans in the process.