South African jazz cultures and the archive: the problems of a playlist

by Jonathan Eato and Nduduzo Makhathini

20 Jun 2018

This blog is part of our Summer Showcase series, celebrating our free festival of ideas for curious minds.

Where do we start creating a playlist of jazz music in South Africa? Our personal mp3 libraries, collections of CDs, vinyl, and cassette tapes might be the most revealing starting point, but what about online resources, or the more formal repositories found in public libraries, academic libraries, and broadcasters’ libraries? Might these produce playlists that are ‘better’, or at least more representative and comprehensive?

From these questions, others follow. Who are we creating the playlist for? What is the aim of the playlist? Is that aim explicitly acknowledged? What playlists are already available? Are all playlists for jazz music in South Africa fundamentally the same, or are they highly differentiated?

Once we recognise that a playlist is made by one person, or set of people, to be listened to by a second set of people, we can also start to ask whether there are any connections or overlaps between these different groups. Not only literally, but also ideologically, intellectually and culturally.

Jazz vinyl

What is the significance of this? After all, many of us make choices about different aspects of art and culture all the time, from our own personal mp3 playlists to publicly viewable YouTube channels. This is obvious to everybody and the status granted is (mostly) considered unproblematic. We might not share another person’s enthusiasm for dubstep, or avant-garde jazz, but the consequences of individuals expressing these enthusiasms and thereby conferring status on them are, it seems, within accepted limits.

Conventional broadcasters also routinely make choices and selections, as do journalists, critics, curators, and programmers. This is also widely understood and accepted, although with the increased power of these roles, which are not available to everyone, the choices made confer greater status and consequently attract more public scrutiny and criticism. We ask, why don’t our enthusiasms feature? Why are we not represented? And why must we lose opportunities if our choices, enthusiasms, or culture do not align with those of a select number of cultural gatekeepers?

Educators and academics also make powerful choices and selections every time they plan a lecture series, write a text book, draw up an exam paper, or plan a research project. However, there is much less public scrutiny of status conferred in this way; it seems we are willing to trust and not question the expertise of our educators, more than we are the expertise of our critics. But is that desirable?

What influences our individual selections?

We would like to suggest that whether you are considering a playlist, a formal archival initiative, or any other repository of knowledge, it is important to ask some fundamental questions.

Who makes the choices and therefore confers status?

Why do they make the choices they make?

What happens as a consequence of those choices?

It is worth quoting the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at length here, as he describes the brutal historical context of this ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ in his book Decolonising the Mind:

“Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

“For colonialism, this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of a people's language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.”

Notions of ‘The Archive'

Image © Hugh Mdlalose

The question of ‘what goes in and what is left out’ of playlists, archives, research projects, and curricula is, then, anything but neutral. Archives of all varieties reflect our view of ourselves, our view of others, and can have far-reaching consequences, intended and otherwise. This is especially apparent in South Africa, a country with a legacy of both colonial rule and white minority rule under apartheid.

As you might imagine, when setting up a two-year project centred around notions of ‘the archive’ for jazz music in South Africa, there was no perfect response to the questions and challenges we raise here. However, we were at least able to acknowledge them, acknowledge our positions, and construct our project knowingly. It was important for us to put the musicians who make the music at the heart of the project, while also including other interested parties such as journalists, fans, academics and photographers .

So, to the playlist we have created. You know the ‘who’, and the ‘why’. As for the ‘what’… well, this playlist is not a potted historical survey of jazz in South Africa. Indeed, many major contributors to the music are not included. Rather we have selected music that we value and is in some way connected to our project and the discussions we had.

You can find out more about our processes, the choices we made, the events we curated, and the contributors we invited by visiting our exhibit in the Summer Showcase where we’d be glad to meet you and hear your thoughts.

Jonathan Eato’s research explores South African Jazz Cultures and the Archive. Nduduzo Makhathini is an award-winning South African jazz pianist. 

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