The future of African Jazz is taking a turn. With major record labels eyeing the outstanding musicians and both genders taking lead roles in the art, the genre is gradually making its mark on the international scene. While in the past, women were usually left out of the African Jazz revolution, mainly because of traditional cultures that barred them from doing what was termed as ‘Men’s” work, times are quickly changing. Miriam Makeba, popularly known as Mama Africa, set the stage for other women to take charge in the African Jazz scene. Although most of the contemporary women Jazz players in Africa are singers, and thus don’t play instruments, the new breed is without doubt on the rise. In Kenya, Christine Kamau is one such Jazz player. She has recorded an 8 track instrumental Jazz album and plays both the saxophone and trumpet. Music schools, which teach Jazz, are quite expensive making the privilege only available to a few. Scholarships for outstanding students are bound to change the trend.
Styles Used by African Jazz Players
During the height of Apartheid in South Africa, Jazz musicians opted to use music as a political tool to empower and educate people. A renowned figure, on that regard, is Hugh Masekela. This multiple Grammy Award winner has released over 10 albums that usually talk about the plight of black South Africans. The trumpet and saxophone player normally incorporates Kwaito and South African House styles of music to his arrangements. This in turn creates unique pieces that all audiences, worldwide, can relate to. He is also a vocalist. His Award winning song Stimela (Which means train in English) was a classic example of poetry, singing and exemplary arrangements of the musical instruments.
Moving upwards to the East, you’ll discover that East Africa also pays tributes to numerous Jazz legends. In Kenya, the major musical style is Benga. This involves traditional, and mostly stringed, musical instruments like the Nyatiti and Orutu. There are also similar, but not exact, musical instruments present in Uganda and Tanzania. Joseph Hellon (UG) and Aaron Rimbui (KE) are some of the Jazz players that are taking things a notch higher in the region. The style that Jazz musicians use mostly in this area involves playing the traditional stringed instruments in place of the bass guitar. This technique ensures that the songs acquire an aesthetic African appeal. Other players, on the other hand, just play the bass guitar but in a manner that imitates the traditional musical instruments. Languages used in the lyrics range from English, Swahili to traditional ones.
In West Africa, Jazz has been part and parcel of the culture for more than half a century now. Congo, Nigeria, Congo and Mali stand out from the clutter. In the 1950s, artists such as Fela Kuti were already leaving marks, internationally, with their political and thought provoking songs. With the nightlife culture gaining popularity in West Africa, Jazz from these parts disintegrated into other danceable sub-genres, notably Rhumba and Lingala. Congolese Jazz, mostly played by Lingala musicians, is more up-tempo and involves vigorous dance techniques. The Conga Drums are usually used to give the songs a more African feel when Jazz is being played in these parts. Papa Wemba is one of the best African Jazz players to come out of the Anglophone African region. Politics, love and freedom are the main themes revolving in the songs composed by Jazz players from West Africa.
The Characteristic of African Jazz
When compared to Jazz music from other parts of the world, African Jazz clearly stands out as an entity of its own. Although South African Jazz closely resembles American Jazz, the characteristics are dissimilar all the same. The situation was mostly brought about by the fact that South Africa was more exposed, and colonized for a longer time period than any other African country, to Western music earlier than her sisters. In general, the folk feature is prevalent in all types of African Jazz. In African culture, story telling was vital in keeping legends and myths alive so that they can be passed through generations. The content of the songs, therefore, is dependant on oral and written narratives.
Africa is a very large continent that hosts thousands of different tribes. The language spoken by a group of people largely affects the style used when composing songs. This has been a major determinant of style and rhyme patterns. Jazz players have also been influenced by economy. For instance, larger and urbanized cities like Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos offer more returns for Jazz players than the Sub Saharan region. In that light, such artists are forced to play feel good music, and not those of political nature, because the audience is diverse and basically looking for a great night out. Not poetic revelation in most cases.
What lies ahead
At the moment, the market available for African Jazz musicians is relatively small. This means that it’s tough for the artists to get their work out on an international platform. In order to achieve such a feat, the presence of a major record label, like Sony or Universal, is crucial. Furthermore, the recording technique used to produce the African Jazz albums is still wanting. Apart from a few giants in the niche, the rest usually take the low budget approach. This translates to a poor quality end product. Artists’ personal preferences cannot be exploited due to the fact that instruments are unavailable thus they only work with what they can get. Nevertheless the tradition is robust, and the inspirational roots music continues despite these difficulties.