Covers, copies, and "colo[u]redness" (1) in postwar Cape Town.

Author:Muller, Carol
 
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To copy [note] for [note], word for word, image for image, is to make the known world your own ... It is within an exuberant world of copies that we arrive at our experience of reality.

Hillel Schwartz 1996, 211-2

Despite their prodigious use of recordings in formulating perspectives on jazz history, historians have tended to avoid theorizing the actual status and function of these artifacts_the very artifacts that ... would seem to constitute primary evidence about jazz music.

Jed Rasula 1995, 134

There was a time when radio was pure magic ... the magic [came] from entering a world of sound, and from using that sound to make your own vision, your own dream, your own world.

Susan Douglas 1999, 28

Just to sit in this dark place, and magic takes place on the wall. For a moment, we forgot apartheid, we forgot there was another world that wasn't good; we sat there, and were carried away by the dream of these American movies.

Actor John Kani to Peter Davis 1990, 23

On January 25, 1959, a short but rather glowing review appeared in The Golden City Post, one of South Africa's most popular newspapers targeted at a "non-white" (2) audience. It read:

There is no doubt about it, Beatrice Benjamin is the mostest, the greatest and the most appealing girl singer in the Cape, whispers Howard Lawrence. What she did to the audience at Post's show, "Just Jazz Meets the Ballet" was wow. I got it bad when she sang "I Got It Bad." Everybody else got it bad too and they kept shouting for more of that feeling. Most promising singer for 1959. Agreed. [my emphasis] Five decades later the performance of Duke Ellington's music in Cape Town, South Africa may not seem particularly noteworthy. In its historical moment, however, it was a remarkable achievement for a local singer of mixed race to move her interracial audience emotionally with a "foreign" repertory, i.e., a style of song performance far removed from the site of the music's original production. It begs the question of how jazz had become both a naturalized discourse in Cape Town and part of the individual and collective experiences of so many who lived through that period of South African cultural and political history. For this Cape Town-born singer, "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" has a certain aura. Sathima Bea Benjamin (3) recalls that this Duke Ellington tune created an immediate and steadfast bond between herself and internationally acclaimed South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (aka. Dollar Brand). (4) Benjamin and Ibrahim were each working separately on the piece when they first met at the jazz fundraiser mentioned above. Unbeknownst to them in 1959, through an extraordinary sequence of events, they would come to meet and record with Duke Ellington and his musical partner, composer-performer Billy Strayhorn in Switzerland four years later. Benjamin and Ibrahim memorialized that encounter by performing "I Got It Bad" once again, but this time in the presence of its composer.

Two records came out of the 1963 encounter, one featuring Sathima Bea Benjamin (A Morning in Paris, 1997) and the other Dollar Brand, (Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, 1963, reissued 1997). These records signified a climactic moment for South African jazz because while many South African musicians had performed the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in Johannesburg and Cape Town, few imagined they would ever have the opportunity to meet these musicians, or witness them performing live, let alone record in the presence of such internationally acclaimed artists. As the Cape Town jazz pianist Henry February commented to me, at that time for people in his community, travel to America was like travel to the moon. "The only experience I ever had with Americans was through records." (5) Similarly, when South Africans began to travel in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, they report that they rarely met anyone abroad who had any knowledge of South Africa's vibrant jazz communities. (6)

In this paper, one of a series of meditations on postwar performance amongst people classified as "Colo[u]red," I examine the media through which ordinary people like Sathima Bea Benjamim, Abdullah Ibrahim, and their peers learned American popular music and jazz performance in the port city of Cape Town. The materials derive from a long-term research project I have been conducting with Ms. Benjamin since the early 1990s. While much of that project is concerned with the auto/biographical details of her life and music, including a move into cultural and later political exile initially in Europe and ultimately in New York City, this paper takes a more generalized approach to musical practices in Cape Town, South Africa from the end of World War II to the early 1960s. Although the musicians I have interviewed were all somehow connected to Ms. Benjamin at the time, I have integrated additional primary sources, including discussion of archival film and newspaper material, to enhance and enlarge upon the ethnographic particularity.

Ms. Benjamin and her peers in 1940s and 1950s Cape Town initially honed their musical skills by taking cover in the imported sounds of American (and to some extent British) popular music and big band jazz performance. These styles came to the port city through a range of personal contacts with visiting American sailors, occasional tours by English and American musicians, (7) but more profoundly through the importation of Anglo-American entertainment media and technology, specifically radio programs and commercials, sound recordings, and Hollywood films. Without the opportunities for formal musical training, South Africans absorbed and listened closely to the recordings, copying and covering them live in local venues, creating what some in South Africa have called a culture of "carbon copies" of foreign music and musicians. (8) Dovetailing with the experiences of a small group of men, who drew on their recent experience as wartime entertainers to train young musicians in the new repertory, many in Postwar South Africa had come to believe in European classical and American popular music as universal languages, languages that could be both understood and mastered.

Postwar South Africa must also be characterized as a period of growing anomaly. On the one hand, there were several "collaborative" musical projects between English-speaking liberal whites, people of mixed race, and African descent. These included production of the films The Magic Garden (1951) and Jim Comes to Joburg/ African Jim (1949), Song of Africa (1951), Zonk! (1950) (see Davis 1996), the continued (state) support of the Eoan Opera Company (9) for "Colo[u]red" youth in Cape Town, and the organization of traveling performance troupes like The Arthur Klugman Show (or Coloured Jazz and Variety), African Jazz and Variety (changed to African Follies), Township Jazz, Golden City Dixies, and King Kong: An African Musical Opera. Even though they were heavily loaded towards white direction of "non-White" talent and there was, for example, little "African" in African Jazz and Variety other than black bodies performing, such initiatives surely signaled a measure of hope in some for racial or at least cultural integration in the future. For many who participated in their performances, they also held the promise (though usually not the realization) of international travel, particularly to England and Europe. On the other hand, for those of African and mixed racial descent like Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin, it was an era of increasing state surveillance and exclusion in which the scaffolding of apartheid was legislated if not yet fully enforced by the Afrikaner Nationalist government. The political climate changed dramatically with the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 in which the National Security forces opened fire on black protesters, killing several.

In other words, in contrast to this period in the USA, which may have started out completely segregated but was slowly transformed, at least legally, through the Civil Rights Movement, by the early 1960s the outcome in South Africa was legalized apartheid enforced with draconian measures. "Colo[u]red" and other forms of African (10) racial classification became increasingly problematic especially in urban areas like Cape Town and Johannesburg. The ideas and sounds of middle class respectability expressed in "Colo[u]red" dance bands and those of political liberation suggested in the racially mixed or ideologically non-racial membership of the small but progressive jazz avant garde contrasted with the expanding force of state control and the repression of individual and collective expression. For some the response was to engage politically, to become more outspoken; some withdrew in fear; yet others used jazz performance to articulate ideals of political and cultural freedom and racial integration.

The first part of this paper situates so-called "Colo[u]red" racial classification in the postwar era from the perspective of the musicians I have interviewed. This narrative of the complexity of "Colo[u]red" identity in Cape Town in this period suggests why at least some people in that community opened themselves up to the possibilities of new and "modern" musical sounds and practices not historically germane to the region or regarded as articulations of "South Africanness." The second part is largely ethnographic with a focus on the participation of Ms. Benjamin and her peers in a Cape Town culture of "carbon copies" and covers from the 1940s through the 1960s. This narrative, or series of narratives, is about the transplantation of foreign mediated performance onto local culture. It tells of the translation of "American" music into a form of performance that was more culturally coherent, and one that occurred largely through live reenactments. In other words, this is a history in which objects more than people bring the sounds of jazz and popular...

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