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Rough Guide

The Rough Guide To Cape Jazz



Released 27 November 2020

The story of Cape Jazz is inextricably bound up with the struggles of apartheid and hopes of freedom. Featuring legendary saxophonists Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee and Robbie Jansen along with the classic grooves of Pacific Express and The Tony Schilder Trio, this Rough Guide provides a unique insight into the Mother City’s musical heartbeat.


Cape Jazz is the Mother City’s (Cape Town) very own brand of jazz, which combines many different musical influences from the carnival to the church and beyond. Known as the home of Cape Jazz recordings, Mountain Records was responsible for the first commercial use of the “Cape Jazz” term for its 1993 compilation, on a suggestion of saxophonist Basil Coetzee, and since then this moniker has been in common parlance as a way of categorizing this incredibly rich seam of jazz. Belonging to the musical melting-pot that is South Africa, its roots are diverse and intriguing, as described by Mountain Records founder Patrick Lee-Thorp:

"It is a cultural music of the people of the Cape. Essentially it is blues or folk music, jazzed up, or new music composed which is inspired by the folk music of the Cape. There are common threads like the up-tempo goema rhythm of the carnival music, common harmonies in the voicing of the brass and vocals, sometimes similar to the Cape Malay choir style of singing mixed with Christian church music. The choice of instrumentation is mostly based on the ability to carry the instruments (in street parades) and its volume when played acoustically, and it has Africa in it, but the Africa of the very southern tip of the continent. The Africa of the Khoi/San tribes and of the Xhosa people with their cyclic repetitive phrases and rhythms. Like most African music it is mostly made to move or dance to.”

Undoubtedly the most famous of all Cape Jazz musicians, pianist extraordinaire Abdullah Ibrahim’s compositions reflect many of the musical influences of his childhood in the multicultural port areas of Cape Town, ranging from traditional African songs to the gospel of the AME Church to more modern jazz and other Western styles. A classic example is his seminal recording of ‘Manennberg’, a piece inspired by the infamous Cape Flats township which became the home for many of those forcibly removed from the District Six residential area of Cape Town during the apartheid regime. Among those were the family of the legendary saxophonist Basil Coetzee who features on the recording and who duly adopted "Manenberg" as a middle-name. Along with fellow horn blower from the "Manenberg" recording Robbie Jansen, they both became household names in the South African jazz scene and are represented on this compilation by their aptly named ‘Liberation’ and ‘Cape Joy’ compositions. Though the genre existed long before official apartheid, it has become a popular belief that these musicians provided anthems of resistance and challenged the Apartheid State through cultural activism, keeping their fans dancing through the 1980s towards electoral freedom in the early 1990s.

As is the case with all forms of art, adversity can spawn incredible creativity and consequently the racial segregation and poverty during apartheid shaped the song-writing of so many artists. None more so than singer and guitarist Jonathan Butler whose first single broke down racial barriers, becoming the first song by a black artist to be played by white radio stations in South Africa. Like other key Cape Jazz artists, he originally found the inspiration and encouragement to express himself when he joined Cape Town's best-known jazz/rock outfit, Pacific Express. In fact, Pacific Express were ground breakers in both musical and political fields and were something of an informal "jazz school" when there was no such thing in Cape Town. Both horn legends Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen also cut their teeth in The Express (as they were also known). Somewhat ironically Pacific Express scored their biggest success with a soul ballad penned by Chris Schilder and sung by the group's lead vocalist, Zayn Adams, called ‘Give a Little Love’, which gave them a country wide fan base outside of their real love and mission as jazz-rockers. Like Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand), pianist Chris Schilder converted to Islam in the 1970s and changed his name to Ebrahim Khalil Shihab, and whose featured interpretation of ‘Give A Little Love’, pushes his own contemporary style of improvising on the song’s beautiful theme. In contrast, Ebrahim Shihab’s pianist brother Tony Schilder kicks the album off as part of his trio with a classic raw jazz groove on the track ‘For Boykie’, complete with mesmerizing sampled human voice effects, played on this version by Tony’s son Hilton, himself a hero of the genre.

The Cape Jazz Band is a group under the leadership of jazz drummer Jack Momple, who was a founding member of Pacific Express and a key contributor to many of the most famous Cape Jazz recordings. They got together in 2013 to make a new album of purely Cape Jazz songs composed by him and his band members, entitled Musical Democracy. Drawn from this classic album the track ‘The Dance Of Our Fathers’ showcases the talents of pianist Ramon Alexander who is one of the new generation in Cape Jazz.