5 Minutes That Will Make You Love South African Jazz

The country has a rich, original relationship to jazz, with American techniques layered into regional traditions and rhythms. Explore 50 years of recordings picked by musicians, poets and writers.

We’ve spent five minutes each with stars like Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach and John Coltrane. We’ve traveled together to New Orleans, and to the outskirts of the avant-garde. But we haven’t jumped past the boundaries of the United States. Let’s change that.

Perhaps no country outside North America has as rich, or original, a relationship to jazz music as South Africa. In the 1950s and ’60s, as the apartheid government enforced an increasingly brutal code of racial hierarchy, South African musicians, poets, artists, radical clergy and organizers found in this music a symbol of Black cosmopolitanism, interracial experimentation and free thought — all anathema to the regime.

Taking the swinging bravado of American beboppers as their model, young musicians in the mixed neighborhoods of Sophiatown, Johannesburg, and District Six, Cape Town, found their own uses for the techniques of jazz, layering them into regional traditions. In Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape, the vocal tradition of isicathamiya and the steady, Zulu and Xhosa dance rhythms of the regions exerted strong influence. In Cape Town, improvisers picked up on the carnival music of the townships’ Coloured population, a mix of Malaysian, Indian, Dutch, Khoisan and Black African heritages.

Many of the country’s greatest musicians wound up in exile, and figures like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Johnny Dyani and Abdullah Ibrahim became de facto ambassadors for their country’s repressed population. But back home, the music continued to develop in the hands of figures like Kippie Moeketsi, Robbie Jansen and Dolly Rathebe.

After apartheid crumbled — three decades ago this spring — a new wave of musicians, in the so-called “born free” generation, came to jazz with their own set of questions, curious to feel out the meaning of the tradition when its ideals were no longer illicit. Since then, South African society has continued to evolve, and so has the music. (Not covered on this list: the amapiano boom that’s swept the world of late, and that’s definitely worth another five minutes of your time.)

Below you’ll find a sampling of South African recordings from the past 50 years, picked out for you by a mix of musicians, poets and scholars. You can find a playlist at the end of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

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Source: Music -


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