South Africa was once a jazz-crazy nation. Its musicians ate up American swing and bebop but they washed it down with indigenous styles to form the distinctive sound of South African jazz.
The roots of the music lie in marabi, a hypnotic style played in 1920s and '30s shebeens and parties in Johannesburg's black ghettos. The music mixed New Orleans jazz and ragtime with repetitive rhythms and cyclical melodies and harmonies. From there South African jazz grew alongside swing and bebop, incorporating indlamu the stomping style of Zulu dance rhythms, and kwela, a pennywhistle-fueled dance music. That combination of sounds morphed into what was called mbaqanga in the 1960s, a booty-shaking form of pop-jazz that's also called township jive and which still exerts influence on today's South African music.
By the 1970s R&B became a staple item in many a South African jazzer's repertoire, and in the 1980s groups like Sakhile found the perfect blend of pan-African styles and American funk. While much of this was happening in Johannesburg, Cape Town saxophonists Basil Coetzee (composer of the South African staple "Mannenberg") and Robbie Jansen developed an eclectic and infectious styled dubbed "Cape jazz."
Because of apartheid, many of South Africa's greatest jazz musicians, such as flugelhornist and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and vocalist Miriam Makeba, moved abroad, as did the multiethnic band the Blue Notes, led by pianist Chris McGregor who later formed the influential Brotherhood of Breath band in London with fellow South African exiles Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums). But those who remained, such as guitarist Philip Tabane and saxophonists Kippie Moeketsi and Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi forged on to create rich legacies that influenced modern South African jazz musicians such as saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, pianist Paul Hanmer and the late keyboardist Moses Molelekwa.
One of the greatest bands in South African jazz history, the Jazz Epistles, never got a chance to fully develop. The all-star group featured Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand), Moeketsi, Masekela and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, guitarist Johnny Gertse and drummer Early Mabuza, and they only recorded one album together before the musicians spread across the globe.
With the end of apartheid in 1994, many musicians such as Masekela, Ibrahim, Moholo and Makeba eventually returned homeolder, wiser and finally able to claim their South African jazz legacies in the land where they were born. Christopher Porter