- Marabi Nights: jazz, ‘race’ and society in early apartheid South Africaby Christopher Ballantine
Being a part of this event is a big deal to me because Marabi Nightsis not as Gwen Ansell describes the first edition of Christopher Ballantine’s book “one of a few seminal works in SA jazz history”. Rather, it is theseminal work in South African jazz studies.
For the few that may need reminding, the first edition of Marabi Nightswas groundbreaking. Based on painstaking archival and oral history research in the 1980s with some 60 interviewees, it brought to national and international attention a vital South African music culture that was in danger of being forgotten forever. Although his sources were widely dispersed and, I would guess, often difficult to track down, Chris Ballantine fashioned these disparate fragments of information into a history that is compellingy rich and evocative. Direct quotations from interviews and other primary sources are so deftly interwoven into the narrative that the book along with the fantastic CD that accompanies it, is often a portal tothe times and places it describes. Here’s critic Walter Nhlapo describing pianist Toko Khampepe (on page 22):
It is wonderful how he pounds the piano. As time marches on, charmed by the strains of music, for it is said, ‘music hath its charms’, he becomes hotter and hotter, bangs the instrument, leaves his stool, knees on the ground, plays with his back towards the piano, sits on the keyboard and plays with his haunches. Such playing is seen in Harlem. [End Page 157]
Or Peter Rezant on the Merry Blackbirds (27):
So when the crowds would hear ‘Chattanooga Choochoo’, after the picture had been shown, oh, they would go mad, mad, mad, mad, mad! The police couldn’t stop them away from the doors in the places outside Johannesburg where we would go to, when they hear that sound.
As Sibongile Khumalo remarks in the foreword, the author captures “beyond academic pursuance, the ‘feel’ of how township jazz evolved”.
And if that is all the book did, that would be more than enough. But Marabi Nightsis as intellectually provocative as it is emotionally evocative. As Ballantine puts it (13):
All stories … are about more than just the flows, tensions, and details of their own narrative. They also open upon broader perspective, provide ways of thinking about more general issues, support and undermine related arguments, developed elsewhere in other narratives.
Key among those other narratives for Ballantine, is the work of Theodor Adorno who emphasises the ways in which music cultures are shaped by their social and political contexts. Bringing Adorno’s thought into dialogue with the work of important South African scholars like Tim Couzens, William Beinart, Shula Marks and Richard Rathbone, Ballantine lays bare the grammars of oppression and resistance that shaped the development of township jazz. In the process he develops a uniquely postcolonial take on Adorno’s philosophy by escorting the pessimistic, Eurocentric Adorno into an irrepressibly optimistic, African, proletarian musical and social context that Adorno might have found rather educational. Likewise the book teaches us that the arts and social sciences have much to learn from one another. In this sense, Marabi Nightswas and remains epistemologically pioneering. Informed by a deeply dialectical ethos, it achieves a genuinely interdisciplinary synthesis of humanities and social science modes of thinking. No wonder Sibongile Khumalo’s mentor and father Khabi Mngoma insisted she read the book when it first came out!
Empirically rich, theoretically adroit, and elegantly written, Marabi Nightsis needless to say, an outstanding teaching resource. In addition to acquainting students with a vital history, the book is great for teaching them how to write rich descriptions; how to tease out the reasearch questions that frame an author’s argument; how to ask and effectively answer complex questions about the interrelationships among musical sounds and their social histories. It helps no end that the book is so astutely paced. The [End Page 158]‘Concert and Dance’ chapter is predominantly descriptive; the ‘music...