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Pleasant Surprises

The many different sounds of South Africa will fill this year's Jazz Fest. Here's a listener's guide to the music.

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Despite Paul Simon's South African collaboration, Graceland, nearly two decades ago and the subsequent trickling of artists and records into the United States, the music of South Africa remains one of the most elusive of world musics. Thus the arrival of a very diverse South African musical contingent to this year's Jazz Fest is going to provide not only lots of great music but also many surprises.

The South African entourage brings with it everything from demonstrations of the most traditional folklore (from the Pride of Zulu) to unique interpretations of jazz, gospel, reggae, house and more. Several artists are widely known, such as the legendary trumpet/flugel-horn player Hugh Masekela, acoustic jazz guitarist Jonathan Butler, conscious reggae star Lucky Dube, and South Africa's only white world music star, Johnny Clegg. Others such as guitarist Selaelo Selota, kwaito group Bongo Maffin, poet/singer Vusi Mahlasela, gospel singer Rebecca Malope and guitarist Jabu Khanyile will make rare appearances outside of their homeland, bringing forth music that lies deep within a South African context. Only one group out of the entire lineup, Bongo Maffin, is a produact of post-apartheid South Africa, representing a new music called kwaito that has grown out of the urban dancehall scene over the past 10 years.

All will demonstrate a particular irony surrounding the continuing evolution of music in urban South Africa during the apartheid era. Dismantled in 1994, apartheid not only was unable to prevent cultural expression and social commentary, but it unwittingly nurtured a blending of cultures in the mines and townships that resulted in a stronger African identity. Newly forged township styles such as mbaqanga, kwela and isicathamiya were strictly South African expressions that reflected a complex interplay of tribal traditions with rural American gospel, Christian hymn singing and American jazz.

This rich blending will be more or less evident in the music of every South African artist on the Jazz Fest bill. The free-flowing jazz of Hugh Masekela is often propelled by the idiosyncrasies of mbaqanga, as is the more technical jazz approach of electric guitarist/composer Selaelo Selota. Underlying the music of almost every other performer as well, mbaqanga's melodic bass guitar patterns and high-pitched rhythm guitar will gradually become familiar to those who take in the full spectrum of artists. While some, like Masekela, opt for the more sensual patterns and tempos, mbaqanga in its jive form can be frenetic in rhythm and frantic in tempo. Vocal phrasing rarely slows the pace down, either. Leaning on Zulu traditions like speed poetry and on the tonal nature of the Bantu languages, vocalists often sound as though they're running a verbal race with the music to fit in all the words.

In fact, this richness of vocal traditions also influenced the development of a township choral style called isicathamiya (or mbube) that will be represented at Jazz Fest by the nine-member church group, God's Followers. The style's forceful delivery of a cappella vocals by deep-throated male singers thrived in the townships both in live performance and on hugely popular recordings throughout the apartheid era. First popularized here by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the foot-stomping, hand-clapping and expressive dancing attempts to enrich the messages of the lyrics. One oddity of the tradition during apartheid was the habit of soliciting a white man off the street to act as judge at the frequently-held mbube competitions in the townships, assuring impartial selection of the winning group.

The complex role of music during the apartheid era can be seen with groups like God's Followers that originate in township churches and that serve important community functions similar to those of many New Orleans churches and social aid and pleasure clubs. The Crocodile Gumboot Dancers are another such South African group that blends community service with performance, in this case based on the tradition of dancing with ankle percussion that is common throughout the regions and peoples of the country. In their unique township adaptation, the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers wear gold miners' boots (called gumboots) adorned with everyday devices such as bottle tops that provide a percussive sound. With the mere expressions of cultural identity like these having been discouraged during the apartheid years, the bravery of artists whose music voiced social commentary becomes obvious. One such artist who will appear at Jazz Fest is singer/guitarist Vusi Mahlasela. With a musical repertoire steeped in township sounds, Mahlasela spent apartheid's final decade appearing frequently at highly charged political rallies and other community events along with a core of like-minded poets and musicians. He was honored in 1994 by being asked to perform at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela and was recently featured in the film and soundtrack recording of Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a project which explores the importance of music and song in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle.

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