Chimurenga Blueby Lindokuhle Nkosi / Images by Zachary Rosen / 09.11.2011
The lights get dimmer as you drive towards the city. The street lamps are incrementally less illuminating the further away from Sandton you get. The billboards aren’t as flashy, less convincing in their sales pitches. Headlamps are replaced by human traffic. Bodies carry over-filled Checkers plastic bags. Street vendors bustle, packing away cardboard box display tables; dumping refuse a meter from the concrete rubbish bin. The street signage makes no sense.
Some one has turned all the one-way signs around, the red-and-white arrows lead you into oncoming traffic. I can’t find the Drill Hall. Defeated, I park at the Johannesburg Arts Centre and ask a security guard to walk me to the right venue. He understands. 21h30, near the now infamous Noord Taxi Rank in short shorts – the colour of skin – provides insufficient confidence.
The walk isn’t as daunting as I had expected. Two drunk vendors promise to fuck each other up come fruit selling time on Monday morning. Rats fight for pavement space, not scurrying into gutters like they normally do, but darting from bin to bin, marking their territory.
Somewhere in between the overpowering Vodacom branding of the Ponte Tower, and the shiny whitewash of urban gentrification, the city breathes. Treacle thick. I finally find the Drill Hall.
In between three face-brick buildings, a minute away from the KFC and the Taxi rank, stands a stage. On it, the only South African band to win the order of Ikhamanga. You’ve heard of them right? The Blue Notes. The Chimurenga catch-phrase is most appropriate tonight: “who no know go know”. This is a musical education. This is a band lauded worldwide as one South Africa’s jazz greats, but many South Africans don’t even know who they are.
The Blue Notes are known worldwide as the South African Jazz exiles. In 1963, amongst stray random gunfire, smoke and ashes, blood and dust, the six men packed away their instruments and headed to the less hostile European lands. John Dyani on bass, Mingeza Fengeza on the trumpet, Chris McGregor on piano, Louis Moholo on drums and Dudu Pukwana on the saxophone. Tonight’s incarnation is a little different. Under the direction of Marcus Wyatt, the horns are a mournful whale-cry suspended like a mist of concrete in the air. Above us, musical notes in various shades of blue swirl above the scattered snippets of “revolutionary” and “conscious” conversations. The Cobalt of longing and memory, somber sapphires and Brandeis Blue. These are exile songs, the music of a revolution, the sounds of a struggle. How apt.
The crowd is filled with artists starving for their work. Yielding DSLR’s, balancing fake Moleskines and free branded pens. We’re still unable to capture the rhythm of resistance through a lens. The music haunts, taunts and teases. A melanchonic movement that dares you not to listen, but too distant to let you let you really get involved. The sexless brass provides a high more potent than the box wine being sold for R20 a cup. There’s a sprit here, almost like a chemically induced high. The electric buzz of knowing you just witnessed the indescribable greats; but can never be a part of it.
Still the music makes me feel like a pariah. Exiled like the Blue Notes were all those years ago. Unable to make a living off my art in the country of my skull, unwelcome in my own home. We are a forceful imposition. The night would’ve been the same without us. The sounds as intoxicating. We mill around, swaying slowly; noticeably trying to paint our blue into the sky.
*All images © Zachary Rosen.