MY SECRET: I DON’T KNOW WHY, I AM, HERE.

To belong:

What is the secrete, of life? I mean what is the meaning of life. Money, possessions, relationships, accomplishments, a job, a career, love? What’s the purpose of it all? I have been asking myself this question for as long as I can remember, remembering anything.  In my search for the answers I have looked into so many eyes, brown, blue, and grey, green, black. I’ve listened intently to people in all forms of languages, English, Afrikaans, Chinese, Portuguese, French, Danish, Swedish, Gujarati, Japanese, Spanish, German, Zulu, Swahili, Wolof, SeSwati, Sepedi, Setswana, Arabic, Amharic, I’m telling you yani even a whole host of other languages I couldn’t recognise. I have listened to countless heartbeats. I have watched how people smile, laugh, hug, cry, go mad, how they lie, how their worlds fall apart into a million pieces one evening and then they walk as if nothing ever happened at the break of dawn. In the dead of night. I myself have hurt, lied, screamed and shouted. Hoping that somehow I will find the answer that will appease this burning desire to know, just what it is that drives us all mad, because I want to know what the point of it all is.  There reason I am here.

 Or the reason I don’t belong here.

You see since I was a little child I was told stories about who I am. How I was conceived. About those who came before me to announce my arrival. About being monitored. I found these stories fascinating. I was not only interested in the words themselves I was fascinated with their meaning. I hoped that by listening intently to the incantation of voices, the tones, the pauses, the hesitations when people spoke that somehow between the words that were being said, the words that stumbled out of their mouths so easily like liquid, that somewhere between them I could find somehow a sliver of meaning. The meaning of my life. As with most children, I was interested in things, people and how they worked. And at school I used to hear this often. “You don’t belong here” my peers would say. I would wonder why. They never said it with menace. For them it was a kind of compliment. “You don’t belong here” they would say. What do you mean I would ask eagerly hoping that at least one of them could reveal some truth about me, something that I wasn’t quite seeing? Where should I be? I would ask as a follow up question, somewhere else, they would say shrugging.

They  Had No Idea

One day I met a medical student from Ethiopia. He looked deep into my eyes when I asked out of nowhere if he believed in God. I was desperate. I had had a day full of a the most unnerving case of Déjà vu, when things I’d  don’t remember seeing  before were happening again with such lighting speed I couldn’t stop them. I had no control. When  he greeted me. I said hello and  just told him exactly where he lived. As if I’d been there before. His neighbourhood, his street name and house number. He was shocked. I told him not to be scared. I was not psychic, ordinarily. I was seeing things something was happening to me which I had no control over. I hoped he’d tell me what was going on. “You don’t belong here’ he said. That’s why you get bored easily. I looked as his golden face with a mixture of disbelief and wonder. I could not say I was bored. “But what do you mean?” I asked him in earnest. His presence calmed me. My world was not spinning out of control when I looked into his eyes.  “People like you get bored easily” He said, handing me a cup of coffee. “People like me? What do you mean?” I asked, swallowing hard. “How am I?” He looked at me with a slight annoyance as if I was asking the obvious. “You’re intelligent. And people like you get bored easily” he said. I laughed. “You’re the medical student, not me” I said thinking if this was being intelligent then I didn’t want to be. I could not enjoy anything, every experience became an unending question. He had no time.

I Must Study, he said.

I have long forgotten about this time. What is the meaning of intelligent anyway? By any official academic standards I am average. Perhaps I am even slightly below average, barely making it. A failure on the grandest scale. So what makes me intelligent? “You don’t belong here” I heard a chorus from my student-teachers. “Oh” I said, taking the words in, remembering that this was not deja vu, this experience was completely new, but the words the students were saying were not. “I am here now, with you” I said “How can I not belong here?”

I said thinking back to the words which a colleague of mine from the Central African Republic said to me as if answering a question I had long stopped asking “ You belong” he said.

“I don’t know” one student-teacher offered “I think you should be somewhere else”. Here we go again I thought. It’s been six years since I met the medical student from Ethiopia. Where all my journeys converged, and he offered me something I never associated with myself. Intelligence. Me?  I’ve been trying to be intelligent, act like the truly intelligent people I admire in books and in life, but I was not. I pretend, I try.  I wish that one day I will wake up and think, wow, I’m so intelligent. But that day has never come. Each day I wake up thinking, wow there’s so much I don’t know! Each day feels like I have to start again. Trust. That maybe there is a bit of knowledge I have retained. That all this reading, writing and research will be useful to me or someone, somewhere. When I close my eyes sometimes and let go of control, I hear someone else speak. And that person is intelligent. But I have never considered myself to be intelligent, at least not in the way we understand it. I’ve always thought of myself as average.  I’m curious, sometimes nosey, often timid, bold in the face of injustice. Otherwise, normal. “You’re aware” another offered in clarification “ you’re too aware and that give us the feeling that you should be somewhere else, far, writing books maybe” he said smiling. I smiled back and concluded our discussion on the single stories we have about ourselves and each other.

Six Years Ago.

I stopped my search for the meaning of my life. Consciously. I decided that after 29 years in this earth asking the same question every day, I could give myself a break. And just be whatever came to mind – but nothing seemed to fit, me.  No place, no person, no relationship. Each encounter brought up more questions.  And this is not without a lack of trying, over and over and over and over again. A million times I’ve tried. But I could not stop myself from asking.  I could not stay – I cry often, because I wish I could, stay here. To be like you. Content. Happy with not knowing.See, I have to know. Even when I don’t say it out loud. Even in my silences I am always asking. I have to know, who I am and why I am here.

How can you live without knowing?

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50 SHADES OF COLOURED: FREEDOM!

 

Show a people as one thing and as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become” Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Reading Nadia Davids’s latest novel “An Imperfect Blessing”, a book which opened the door to the interior lives of the so-called coloured community in Cape Town circa 1993, helped me get to the core of the indescribable alienation I have often felt on my trips to the fairest Cape. The city has always held this air-about itself, as if it exists in a world apart from my own.  Her stories about family were familiar, relatable, warm and fuzzy.  The book made me think about a lot of things, it unearthed certain unresolved feelings, memories and experiences which felt a little rough against my skin.

Call me Sensitive

I know that you may be stuck on my use of the words “so-called’ in reference to coloured people. Let me re-assure you, my use of the word is very deliberate. It’s deliberate because not all of the so the called “coloured” people consider themselves to be “coloured” meaning a political class created by the Apartheid government when it sought to classify people according to the colour of their skins. But still there are some coloured people who embrace the word coloured and also define themselves by it. Their argument being that they are neither white, nor black, nor Indian.   And so by forced necessity they had developed their own specific cultural identity which permeates every area of their lives which includes but is not limited to the consumption of:

FRIKKADELS …

I never quite got the story of how this food came about, but learning to pronounce the word Frikkadels correctly was my first entry into the “coloured” world many years ago, at the invitation of a close friend of mine. I didn’t understand why I was so nervous, but on that day when my friend invited me to visit her hometown in Bosmont, on Johannesburg’s West Rand I was afraid. More afraid of going into a local pub to play foosball and pool none of which I was any good at, than I ever was of walking into my white, Afrikaner neighbour’s house who was a soldier with the South African Defence Force (SANDF) at the time.  I had heard so many stories about coloured people. They were ill-tempered.  Could lose their temper at the slightest provocation. They were always in fights or fighting with each other, drunk most of the time and when that got out of hand a knife or a broken bottle was not far behind. Like my so many of my relatives. My friend was incredulous “but why are you afraid, no one is going to do anything to you”.  Because I could not tell her the real source of my fear, I made some or other excuse, trying to suppress the urge to say, I want to go home.  Then one Sunday she invited me to lunch with her sister and parents, and we had Frikkadels.  I felt much like a voyeur in my own country, exploring new and different cultures from my own back yard.  Of course they laughed at me and my surprising inability to pronounce the word Frikkadels as if I didn’t live in South Africa. I calmed down after that visit, shamefully realizing that the so-called coloured people whom I had learnt to fear or even envy were just normal people like myself.  I met my friends’ parents whom I found to be much like my own, investigative of strangers and protective of their daughter. I understood my friend better and saw that even though she grew up in a flat in Bosmont, and I in a house with a small yard, an apple tree and green grass in Soweto, our stories were close to identical. There was a common thread in our lives.

Who Is Coloured Anyway?

I later learnt that my friend belonged to a concerned group of coloured people who felt poorly represented in South Africa’s mainstream media, particularly, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).  She invited me to a meeting where the group discussed ways in which they could ensure that the “coloured” voice and experience was properly represented in the country. Some of the suggestions at the meeting included the possibility of acquiring a license for a coloured radio station or Television program that could give voice to their lived experiences as coloured people. I was quite frankly perplexed at  the notion that “coloured” people sought to exclude themselves from the black majority as a special group of people who had specific needs which were directly related to their ‘ethnicity” or race which was in this case, “coloured”.  I was shocked that they felt separate from me, from us. I asked my friend with raised eyebrows that “So you don’t consider yourself black??. I was genuinely flabbergasted. “No” she answered emphatically. I am not black, I’m coloured. She said as if I was asking the very obvious. Of course she was not black! She’s mixed. Some of her great-grand parents were white. Maybe some Indian.  It’s not so easy to tell now. I think I was more shocked by what she said than discovering after years of sitting with a certain woman in the smoking room at work that she was Pik Botha’s wife, the former Foreign Affairs Minister under F W de Klerk’s government.  She said she’d understand if I stopped talking to her after she told me. “You didn’t know” someone asked. I never thought to ask who her husband was. Here was this lovely friendly woman, with whom I always had the loveliest conversations about random things. It never occurred to me that she was so close to the seat of power, which for a long time ensured that my life was hell and hers wasn’t.  At least from the outside. So we silently agreed never to mention her husband again in conversation until I ended up at their house in Pretoria, having lunch in the garden one day. But of course, that’s another story. And of course there’s not much to tell because I didn’t want to pry. It was obvious that behind the luxury of power and money, lay a deep and cancerous sadness which no amount of Sudoku could heal. There were so many layers.  But I got over Pik Bothas’ wife quicker than my friends’ statement. I’m not black. I’m coloured.

Coloured Defined: Not Black.

See, I grew up with the understanding that as long as you had one drop of black blood in your veins, no matter how it came to be, you were black. Watching countless American movies taught me that. I identified with the “coloured” black people in America (and by extension South Africans) who looked like my friend. I thought our struggles were the same, even if some of them had longer hair and lighter skins, they were still black, because (some) had black blood running through their veins.  More significantly they were not considered to be white by the powers that be. So to side with “whiteness” in that context, even if one was legitimately half white, i.e. mixed/biracial, meant that they were supporting the oppression, exploitation, marginalization and subjugation of “black” or non-white people as a unit.  So the word, coloured, in that context made sense for me because it included everyone who was not white (minded). Because of this I did not understand how one could be coloured and not black or make such a distinction, that specific point of difference. We were, after all oppressed by the same system, the same people. My friend politely explained to me that it’s because they are not black enough or white enough that it’s necessary for them to have their own “coloured” identity. Especially since some of them were of a different mix, which did not always include white, black or Indian ancestry.  The Khoi and the San for example, are not considered black. I realized my mistake: I took it for granted, I thought because I identified with the coloured experience they would identify with my black experience too, but that was not the case.

A Perfect Blessing.  

So reading Davids novel was a perfect blessing, because it opened my eyes to something else.  In her novel Davids skirts around the colour bar like a ballerina trying to avoid a lovers pleading eyes. She polarised these identities and posits them in the safer but never the less equally controversial spectrum of religious faith, Muslims vs Christians.  The Muslims in this case are of Cape Malay or of Indian origin so they are in essence according to one of the younger character’s Nick, sure of their origins.  “At least you know who you are” says Nick to her Muslim girlfriend while visiting the museum of natural science in Cape Town. The rest of the mostly Christian fraternity is of Khoi, San, African or more prominently Irish, British or French origin. Even though I make these references none of the characters or families in the book ever alluded to their possible “black-African” origins. Blacks in this case are referred to by some of the older characters in the book as “kaffirs”, the “Africans” the “other”.  As if they themselves were not African. For me the novel was like being invited to dinner with people who speak of you in your presence in euphemisms and code words, using your presence as a reference  to something else more sinister and evil but still  vaguely undefined, but which also simultaneously has absolutely nothing to do with you or your race.  It was like being invited to dinner by someone who wishes you didn’t exist but unfortunately has to tolerate the fact that you do. But I’m glad I walked in, sat there and watched, because now I know why being coloured today matters. I understood why it often felt so much easier for me to relate to white – or – Afrikaner people. My relationship to them was clear. But the coloured experience, the Cape Town coloured space for many years left me feeling rather strange. A student recently told me that most coloured people nowadays don’t use the word coloured anymore. For them the word has become as dirty and evil as the word kaffir is to a black man. They prefer to be called mixed. Bi-racial. Not black.

Here was something I had never considered before, to enter this world, the colored-mixed world,  you need one drop of white or other blood, hopefully not black or African and if it is there, ignore it. This is what makes you better than a regular black. This is what makes you coloured. This is what makes me inferior.

This chilling reality brought to mind Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who in his most famous book on critical pedagogy: The Pedagogy of the oppressed,  said this

“Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed not the situation that oppresses them. For the more the oppressed are able to adapt to the situation the more easily they can be dominated”

So what, if you’re coloured?

I suppose it would be too disorienting for many people if all racial classifications were dissolved into this one huge generic box of “coloured” people as we  all have even within our own specified “races” different skin colours, i.e. some people in my family look coloured (mixed) even though there’s no traceable white (other) heritage in my family. Which is what I suppose Archbishop Emeritus  Desmond Tutu sought to inspire  with his metaphoric reference of  South Africa as a “rainbow-nation”: white reflecting light or an  “inclusive of all colours” – black nation.

The thing about race though is its historical association with white supremacy, power, money, privilege, influence, discrimination, intelligence and let’s not forget beauty. So that even if you want to disassociate yourself from these debates about race and racism, the world as it is currently constructed judges you based on those, so that in time you will have to engage with it directly whether you consider yourself “blind” to the colour bar or if you think yourself free from the weight of racial classification or Orientalism.  Perhaps in time we will all be truly “mixed” – but even then I’m sure we’ll find ways of separating ourselves from each other by creating distinctions between us and them. Religious Faith. Class. Education. Sexual orientation. Gender. Language. Geographical orientation. Blind.  Hearing etc. You know, just to make life little more interesting. I mean who wants to live in a world where everybody gets along just fine, harmoniously. A place with ritual, pathological friendliness coupled with  unquestioned pacifism that would be boring wouldn’t it?

In a strange but understandable way  reading an “An imperfect blessing” made me feel invisible as a black person. It made me as  visible as a servant is to its master. Perhaps the story would have been more interesting had the author chose a domestic worker as its narrator. But of course that would require her to get under her skin in more ways than one and this book is  not about that.

Life is not  always about what exists on paper: as it is and constitutionally speaking we are all free, all equal, we all belong to this one human race and all have the same rights and responsibilities. But the reality is different. It’s a whole other universe!

Ultimately, life is about how you are made to feel. It is what you feel that matters.  Like that one time I went to visit someone I considered to be a good friend of mine in New York, a man who thankfully introduced me to James Baldwin and The Fire Next Time. He was handsome man of Irish and African-American ancestry, he could easily pass as a white man or the reincarnation of the revolutionary Che Guavara. Fortunately for us, ours was a platonic relationship, we had dinner and chatted till midnight reminiscing about the memories we shared in South Africa together. So I stayed over at his place, I slept on his couch in the living room and he on his bed in his bedroom. In the morning he left me a note asking me to disappear for a while because he didn’t want the landlord ( who was coming over to paint) to think he was sleeping with prostitute(s).

I’m grateful to Nadia Davids for writing this book, for archiving the Cape Coloured experience in all its different shades and intricate contradictions. In reading her book I have come to understand myself and my pain. To forgive. Myself.  I can now put this chapter in my life to bed  and step fully into my black shoes with poise.

After all being invisible is an amazing super power to have. You just have to know how to use it.  It’s like magic. Now you see me, now you don’t!

Picture credit: Estascio Voloi

THE BIGOTRY OF EDUCATION:#FEESMUSTFALL

Bigotry – an intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.

I was beginning to lament the pedestrian nature of my life in Johannesburg. Or more accurately I was beginning to lament the fact that for the most part, I have to use the most reliable public transport system in the world to move around Johannesburg, because I cannot realistically afford to buy my own car, or pay for a maxi taxi or cabs at my current monthly salary of about two-thousand rands a month on average, maybe  three or four if I’m lucky from doing odd jobs for friends here and there.  I was beginning to miss that life, the comfortable, predictable life I used to live before, six years ago. Before I tempted fate and pursued a dream. An adventure of a lifetime. I was beginning to miss a good steady salary, a comfortable house, with my own bed, a fridge full of the food I want to eat, a cupboard to hang my clothes, a place to put my belongings, my books, pictures, a beautiful vase of fragrant flowers, and candles. I was beginning to miss having that comfortable car, with well cushioned seats and a surround sound system that helped me glide through life as if in a music video of my own making.  I was beginning to miss a clean environment, of not having to navigate, sewage, coagulated blood, food, spit and only God knows what else in mounds and mounds of rubbish, rotting meat, food and flying rats at street corners in my mainstay Birkenstock sandals a friend gifted me with years ago, when I realized – during my search for that beautiful man, tall, thin and super refined – that I would not have known him had I continued with my life encased in a bubble of privilege. I realized that I would have never stopped on my way to catch  yet another minibus taxi in new-town to speak to him, to listen to him tell me his story, which was as fascinating as it was bizarre.  We met on three different occasions. I wondered about his dress. Until one day we bumped into each other again as if by divine appointment. I had just finished my last interview for the whirlwind which was the ill-fated Dance Umbrella and my spirit was very low. He beamed when he saw me, hello friend! He said, stay a moment. I stood thinking I have nowhere to go, now where to rush to. I asked him where he was from. The Democratic Republic of Congo, he said. Oh no I thought to myself, what it is about this country that keeps following me! I asked to take a picture of him in French, and he said no. Too dangerous my friend. I was weary  and didn’t probe– so out of nowhere he looked straight into my eyes, in the middle of new town junction, on a busy Sunday afternoon.

Time stopped, for a moment:

“I am one of Mabutu-Sese Seko’s nephews. Yeah. Believe me, I’m telling you the truth. We used to live a privileged life. Everything we could ever want or need was at our finger-tips. We lived in a large compound and my father was a high ranking officer in Mabutu’s government. For a long time in my life I did not know what a shop looked like inside, or what the streets looked like. We were super protected and lived well until of course things went sour. After Mabutu’s regime collapsed we all had to scatter, flee, because even today, we’re are still being hunted won , you see, that’s why I didn’t want you to take my picture. Because I don’t know what you will do to it or who will see it and next thing, Boom, I’ll be gone.  Spies are here. You don’t know what they look like because they are all living here among us, and one day you will see someone dead on the street. No report, not police inquiry, they’ll be just dead. You’re lucky to be South African. You’re lucky to live in this country because here you can say whatever you like about your president, and nothing happens to you. Not in other African countries and most certainly not in the DRC, there you say one wrong thing, look the wrong way and you’re gone, dead. I have a friend here somewhere, a journalist from the DRC who wrote a story exposing hundreds of murders currently taking place. It was a story where at least 400 people were killed in skirmishes, but the government officially quoted a small figure like 43, so my friend wrote that this was not true. And soon as his story was published, they were already hunting him down. His friends who knew about this hid him in a huge rubbish bin, and covered him in it, until he was able to negotiate a safe passage to South Africa through East Africa, Tanzania. I cannot tell you my real name or reveal myself, but maybe we can arrange a meeting with this journalist and we can tell the story of what is really happening in the Congo. Maybe you can write about this in one of your stories, and maybe you also have to use a different name”

 By this time I was transfixed in a haze of disbelief.

So I asked him: why are you telling me this? What’s the point of writing about violence in the Congo, when it’s only going to put your life and possibly mine in danger? It is worth it? I had heard too many of these stories before, there were too many of them. What could I possibly do? How long have people been dying in the DRC? Gosh I couldn’t even get the simplest things in my own life right? I had given up on telling the story of the DRC years I go. Why did it keep coming back? I had no interest in fame or even fortune. I was drained by self-righteous humans (including myself) who pretended to know what’s best for others.

He looked at me and sighed for a bit as if searching for an answer somewhere in the sky:

“I think maybe if you write about it, if you allow us to tell you the stories, and expose the truth, maybe they will be afraid a little, maybe they will think twice before killing, maybe they will never stop, but maybe they will be afraid to just do it so blatantly with impunity and reduce the number of people they kill. Maybe it’ll save a life somewhere. Maybe they will stop for a bit. Because now it’s too much, they are just killing, killing, killing and we need to stop them somehow. They need to know that someone knows what they are doing. That someone is watching.”

Then he told me that when I’m ready we’ll meet again. He wished me well with my career, and hoped that I succeed in everything I do. And we bid each other farewell.  I didn’t know it’ll be for the last time.

I went looking for him today. And over the weekend, all over Newtown.

A man who was so visible and conspicuous, had vanished off the face of the earth. I had an opportunity to make right on his request. I didn’t have his number. Then I realized, how fleeting this life is. Then I realized how grateful I am to have risked everything that is material, in order to be able to one day- look at another human with love and respect without knowing  their history, and for no other reason than momentary companionship. To listen to a story, because I can and because it’s important for them to be heard. Not because I want to make money or there is something in it for me. He asked me to be his friend for a moment and I don’t think I would have taken the time to be, if I were still encased in my own sense of self -importance.

It is not education that teaches you how to love. Education only re-enforces all the stereotypes we have about each other. Education even in impassioned speeches by young Students still maintains that “we are better” because we read books and get marked. Because we can write essays. We know what GDP stands for. Because we spend our days excavating knowledge from people we assume are unfortunately too ignorant, because they didn’t have money to go to school.  Because they are helpless, because they can’t think. So we use them, for our theses, our Masters and PHD’s, our “research” and use their knowledge as our own.  Even though Malema can stand triumphant with his black  gown, he’s not a better human being for it. Because it’s not education that cleans the streets. Or hugs you when you are lonely or sad. Or picks you up when you trip and fall. It’s people. Human beings. A degree is just that, a degree of knowledge.  You now know a little more about something, it’s certainly not everything there is to know, and most certainly you’re not the better for it. Why should I earn 10,000 rand for typing out someone’s story? And they only earn an honorarium of 1.500? How is that fair? Senegal has the largest number young people with Master’s degrees I have ever encountered in my limited years of travel. They are not the better for it. The country isn’t better for it. Because it is those with education at the highest levels of government, business and society in general, who know better than everyone who (want) maintain the status quo, it is they who are the gatekeepers of power and influence. It is they who don’t see human beings. It is they who create intricate systems of exploitation and oppression. It is they who always want more than others. Because they deserve more. Because they went to school. Centuries of education have only reinforced inequality in our global modern societies. They have not improved our collective life experience.  They have only reproduced, different  forms of slavery or exploitation – different words, same thing. Because living in an equal society means they have to give up something, they have to use public transport, cut back of their luxuries, it means everyone will have access to the same knowledge and information if they want it. There’s no incentive for equity or justice for the wealthy.  Because it  means they’ll have to share it. Only the wealthy stand to lose in an equal and just society – not the poor.

So for all these reasons

I am happy, for this life I now lead, not because it’s nice to be made to wait, to walk through rubbish, or be treated like a commodity  or a virtual slave in the highway of life. Of course like everyone else, I would love to live in comfort. To have all my needs taken care of. To not worry about what I’m going to eat, what I’m going to wear, or where I’m going to sleep tonight. Or if I’ll be kicked out yet again, by some well -meaning friend. No. no one in their right minds want’s to live a life like that.  Just Like I’m sure, the old man from the DRC didn’t imagine in the safety of a luxurious compound in Kinshasa that he’d one day end up in Johannesburg, assuming different disguises, selling cigarettes and sweets at street corners.  Because even then, in the comfort of despotism and security, his education, could not save him. I’m happy because this experience is continuing to teach me about the true value of life, about who and what is important. Education is essentially information and like money it is a just a tool. True knowledge is everywhere, in people, in their lived lives and experiences. Not in theories we dream up about them or their lives.

So maybe if we treat people as people. If we treat humans as we would like to be treated ourselves, with respect.  In spite of our education and also because of it, maybe then we can all make it. Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe you will make it too.

So

Child of the song, sing don’t cry

With song and dance we defied death

Remember

Like

The heavens are blue because they are empty

Beware my brother of park benches

Sitting there

Is the last thing a fighter must do.

By Mongane Wally Serote, 1975, New York, City. Exile

Pictured: EFF leader Julius Malema  triumphant after receiving his BA degree at the University of South Africa. Picture credit:www.dispatchlive.co.za

NOBODY WANTS TO PLAY WITH THE LEGENDS: MONEY AND ALL THAT, JAZZ!

It came as an old surprise that South African Jazz legends; multiple-award winning singers and composers Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka have no one who wants to play with them, or even a smalla-nyana record label willing to go into the studio with them. The two Diva–Stalwarts made impassioned pleas to anybody willing to listen during a press briefing  ahead of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (1&2 April) last week-end.

This Money Thing!

Abigail Kubeka, who is 76, says the only way she’s been able to survive all these years is because she is  essentially  an artist,  a  performer so she does Cabaret shows, voice overs and a bit of acting here and there to make ends meet. But she says her true passion, to make music, that door she says has remained closed to her for many years. “I’m ready to go into studio now, but I have to raise the money for that. People are no longer willing to spend money, they want to make money” She said behind black sunglasses. Dorothy Masuka (81) who was forced into exile for decades during the peak of her career as a singer, song- writer and composer reiterated their shared state of isolation from the mainstream recording industry.  “I’m going to perish with my stuff right now, I am full of nothing but material, my age does not control my compositions. I didn’t want to sing, singing wanted me. It’s a disease which no doctor can cure”. The two legends however commended South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa , whose ministry was one of the official funders of this year’s festival ( the others include Independent newspapers and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa “Prasa”)  for including them in the  program. Both of them hosted master classes as part of the program and performed on the main – Kippies – stage on the opening (first) night of the Jazz Festival. Nothing like this had been done for them before, they both said, hugging and patting the minister who smiled with satisfaction. So that when I met them during lunch after the press conference they both told me that things are getting better, “People are at least starting to listen” they said between bites “at least there’s a conversation going on now”.  But everybody knows real money is on the Rosies’ stage, with red comfortable seats.

But Wait a Minute…

Then I met an American Jazz journalist at the Jazz festival, for him of course, it’s an annual event. He asked to use my phone because he couldn’t make local calls with his iPhone.  He wanted to go to his all-time favourite restaurant in Cape Town called “la Colo …”” what? La Colombe. I had never heard of it before.  Anyway he told me, it’s the best restaurant in the world, his opinion at least. It served the most sublime food and he wanted to go as soon as possible which is why he was using my phone to call them to make a booking. So while he was holding the line and he waited for quite a while, we had a conversation about my name Jedi, which has nothing to do with Star Wars of which he is a complete fan. He complained that South African Tourism (SA Tourism) who sponsored his trip to cover the entire Jazz festival had promised to take him there too, but they had somehow forgotten to make him a booking.  “They serve dinner for like, 120 USD, he said, but it’s like a six course meal or something ridiculous” Okay, lucky you I said.

Nothing Unusual There or….

We waited for at least ten to twenty minutes for American Jazz songstress Cassandra Wilson, 60, the main Act who graced the cover pages of this year’s Who’s Who Jazz catalogue to come to the press briefing with all the artists present, until the director of the festival Billy Domingo decided that the show must go on to preserve some modicum of respect for the Minister, and all other artists present at the press briefing without her.  She arrived minutes after the press conference was over and then the doors had to be shut so that the media didn’t escape.

But we had booked an interview

Soon after we were ushered into a private hotel room with two journalists from Spain, waiting for an interview with Cassandra Wilson. Revered South African Jazz writer Gwen Ansell had the first 15min minutes and we were next.  Then we were told by three of her minders, CTIJF staff, that she will no longer be doing the interview with us. She was tired. Nothing we could  do. There’s no one to kill, but Cassandra Wilson herself because even if she’s old, that would definitely be a huge travesty. I wanted to ask her if she could collaborate with Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka, did she even know about them? Ah well…

“They” Think Americans Are The Only Bankable Artists

America currently has the largest (consumer) market for Jazz Music in the world so of course, it makes sense. Artists are intrinsically unpredictable, moody and rebellious. Makes even more sense. But of course she’s Cassandra Wilson. In any case this year’s festival has been the best, Eric Alan -Founder-Producer-Presenter-CEO-President-Chairman-Chief Grub Maker-Pot Plant Babysitter-Serious Pinotage, Coffee & Beer Quaffer-Utterly Passionate Jazz at the online AllJazz Radio Station has had the pleasure to attend. It had the highest number of South African not local artists performing than any one of the 16 festival before this.  Eric Alan would know because he has done it 17 times, and most of the artists on his own wish list which he submitted to the festival organizers and selection committee were on the bill. So he was a happy man with a beard.   But this he said did not detract from the fact that South African musicians did not get their fair share of the pie on commercial extra-terrestrial radio stations. “They need and deserve to bask in the in the spotlight. But that’s not happening because “they” think American music sells.  They being the SABC, to be precise.

In other news: The Cape Town International Jazz  Festival contributes more than half a billion rand to the Western Cape Gross Domestic Product. Last year the festival created 2,723 jobs, of which 321 were direct and 2,402 were indirect. Cab drivers charged inflated prices for local rides, 150 rands or more for a local turn that normally costs 40 bucks, even though none of them knew where Devil’s Peak was. They had no sense of direction even with a Global Positioning System. All flights out of the city, from SAA, Kulula, Mango, Flysafair, British Airways, etc. Were fully booked until today the 8th of April. I know because I missed mine. So I bussed it, with a Translux long-distance bus, which incidentally is owned by Prasa. The official sponsor of the Jazz festival. After chasing 42 artists, 21 of whom performed simultaneously each day on five different stages until way past midnight… I was more than ready to put my feet up and sleep for the 18 hour ride home, on my birthday.

 

Picture Credit: Estacio Voloi.