THE grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. In Johannesburg, we tend to assume that tourism keeps Cape Town jazz venues healthier than their Gauteng counterparts. Arriving in Cape Town, I have encountered woeful musicians reciting a litany of extinct festivals and closed venues.
Just as apartheid zoning enforcement hit the Mother City slightly later than Joburg in the 1960s, so now have the waves from the world depression.
It’s against this background that the Breathe Sunshine African Music Conference was launched on Monday. Debates there raised a question that is important for any industry: work better within old paradigms — or work differently?
Musicians need to earn an income from their work. Conventional wisdom urges them to protect copyright vigorously, and turn their personal vision into the kind of commodity the market finds desirable. But what if another way existed, where musicians could keep their products authentic and build different markets?
It has happened in a music market with problems very similar to those of South Africa. In northeast Brazil, an urban music genre called tecnobrega (“cheesy techno”: a mix of 1980s beats, vocals with a strong regional flavour and found sounds) is prospering by asking what would happen if there were no big labels owning music and dominating tastes.
The music is created in living-room studios in the townships, using cheap computers and synthesisers. CDs are cut and given away free to hawkers, to build the reputation of the artist and win audiences for “sound system parties” — what South Africans would call house parties, which can attract anything between dozens and thousands of attendees. These parties are numerous recurring events, so a musician can earn a regular, modest but sufficient income from them.
The parties act as training schools for organising bigger or more sophisticated events. The scene overall is fertile ground for creating variations on the genre, and new styles of music to keep fans interested.
On this economic base, musicians have established co-operatives, and alternative trading systems using their own currency.
All this builds on the new features of the digital music world. The CD world on which established industry models are founded is in steep decline.
The value chain has been reversed: live performance, not physical product, is the high earner. The middle man has been cut out. Music-making is no longer the mass factory production of standard commodities, but has become a volatile, highly innovative, community process.
The tendency when developing music policy for South Africa is to draw from the experience of high-income western nations.
While no model can be adopted unchanged to suit different local conditions, this southern experiment has been successful enough to merit consideration too — after all, in the stokvel formations, South Africa already has a well-established co-operative tradition.
LIVE jazz this weekend is concentrated in Cape Town, where the city’s International Jazz Festival opens for two days on Friday.
The festival offers jazz in both its South African and US flavours, world music and pop, as well as performers who mix the genres, such as pianist Robert Glasper performing with hip hop outlaw MF Doom. However, it’s not the only show in town.
Nostalgics can catch the Drifters beginning their national tour at the Boardwalk Casino in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday night.
Capetonians not at the jazz festival on Friday night can sample an intriguing world music collaboration between South African composer and performer Neo Muyanga and Honduran Aurelio Martinez.
Martinez has his roots in the Garifuna community, which fuses the cultural traditions of both African and Caribbean-Indian ancestors.
The two perform at the Baxter Concert Hall.
And on Saturday, just as one jazz festival is ending, the run-up to the next begins.
At the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg, keyboard player Frank McComb cuts the ribbon on The Road to Joy of Jazz: the build-up to the Standard Bank-sponsored Johannesburg spring event.