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Women in South African Jazz

Zoë Modiga is a special talent. A vocalist, songwriter, outstanding performer and all-rounded entertainer, she began her ascendance onto the mantle of greatness a decade ago — first, through lending her talents to songs and performances by a string of leading South African bands. She then branched off on her own to embark on a career that has to date produced two outspoken, acclaimed albums — 2017’s Yellow: The Novel, as well as 2020’s Inganekwane. The pianist Bokani Dyer, who worked with her on Yellow, has declared her as “one of the most complete artists” of his generation of musicians.

Though she has managed to defy categorisation, Modiga’s roots and understanding of music lie firmly in Jazz. She studied at the acclaimed National School of the Arts in Johannesburg before furthering her education at the University of Cape Town’s South African School of Music, which is also the alma matter of the aforementioned Dyer, Thandi Ntuli, Benjamin Jephta, Spha Mdlalose, and other talents who are running tings as far as Jazz and improvised music is concerned.

She was announced as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Music (2024), a merit that requires her to produce work for presentation at this year’s National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. Reflecting on the years since her last album, she says that it has involved a lot of learning how to become a different kind of music scholar, “a scholar by observation, a scholar by listening to other musicians.”

“The music that I’m doing now feels like a different kind of classroom than the one I’m used to. It’s involved me having to study a lot of people to find a sense of self in that — from your King Tha’s (Thandiswa Mazwai), your Simphiwe Dana’s, your Oumou Sangare’s, Fatoumata Diawara’s; there’s a lot of people I feel I’ve musically been under the school of — mam’ Busi Mhlongo, a lot of the artists that I grew up to as well.”

Zoë Modiga

Modiga notes that the impactful exercise has made her realise that she’s part of something bigger, a vessel that holds a baton that she herself shall pass onto younger generations with time’s inevitable passage. It’s noteworthy that the influences Modiga speaks of, are themselves purveyors of some form of Jazz — that evolving, unpinned-down, undefined expression uniting the universal Black experience.

In South Africa, it’s the men who have reigned in that world, oblivious to the privileged position, and mostly unwilling to challenge that tradition. It has been left to women, then, to force their way in, and this has produced a wide-ranging field that stretches from photography, to events, and even radio. The latter is where sis' Brenda Sisane lodges herself. A broadcasting veteran, her career started about three decades ago, and she as a result considers the likes of the late Bob Mabena, Shadow Twala and others as contemporaries. 

Sisane was at the helm of The Art of Sundays, a specialist show that stretched the limits of what we define as Jazz, hosted on Kaya FM, a regional Gauteng province radio station known during her time as 'the home of the Afropolitan.' Through her weekly features, she became instrumental in spreading the message of South African Jazz to greater audiences. She programmed herself into the consciousness of listeners, and brought her storied presence in both the broadcasting and corporate fraternities to imbue a rare quality and touch to a format that can otherwise become stale. 

There was always a fresh angle, a fresh take, an informed analysis. It was a scholarship of a different kind, complete with banging beats from the African continent and the Black diaspora. This was until Kaya FM went through a rebrand that witnessed a mass exodus of some of the dopest radio talent in this land. She was reinstated to the same radio station in late 2023 following a hiatus that began on 26 December, 2021, when the last The Art of Sundays went on-air. This time around, the show is titled The Jazz Standard with Brenda Sisane. 

I had a chance to break bread with Sisane. We devoted a sizable chunk of our conversation to the roles that women play, and have played, in constructing the many facets of Jazz. She highlighted the need to formalise a different vocabulary, one that accurately reflects the contribution of women.  "The are more things [in] the ecosystem of music. Women fill in those gaps as they walk into the space of artistry, [and] we don't talk about that; we don't write [about that]," she said.

Sisane was a close friend of the late Sibongile Khumalo, the educator and world-class musician who flew close enough to the sun to not only embrace its light, but to as well reflect it in order to shine the path for others. "I was inducted into that place of women by her. She extended my relationships with her into meeting and hanging out with Dorothy Masuka and others. She'd be saying 'Brenda, you know, mam' Sophie Mgcina taught me this.' So she, as a young woman, found resonance by being around them, hence she could be so bold as an established artist. And I find that from her case study, it looks like that's how you got to be as a woman."

She goes on to provide instances of such connections in contemporary times, and points to the likes of Thandi Ntuli and Spha Mdlalose's creative collaborations as sites where she has witnessed parallels to her experience. "They don't just walk in and spend most of their time on stage, they're backstage, they're front-of-house – they are other things besides being on the bandstand. Why is it?," she wonders.

What emerged from our exchange is that the disparity we see in a patriarchal society stains everything in its environment, including the current gender imbalance of instrumentalists in Jazz. “Those instrumentalists that come from the school big bands disappear because they need to portray a particular person, which is characterised by  aggression and just insisting on being out there. So what if you don’t have that? And you’re not surrounded by a team that can elevate your work?,” again, she wonders, a question without answers; a question that only leads to more questioning, and as well raises the need for a deep reflection by the people who hold power in the music industry, in the academic fraternity, and in popular culture as a whole.

Msaki at Cape Town City Hall

Sisane invited Dr. Lindelwa Dalamba for a conversation during her show recently. What ensued felt more like the listener being invited to eavesdrop on old friends catching up. It was warm, inviting, and informative. Dr. Dalamba is herself a scholar of note whose research interests include Cultural Studies and Popular Music. She currently works as a senior lecturer at Wits University in Johannesburg.

The conversation focused on the multi-year exchanges that Dr. Dalamba had had with the recently-departed Vuyiswa Rebecca Ngcwangu Mbambisa, described by the writer Gwen Ansell as "a huge star in her day, with an enthusiastic following who gave her the nickname ‘Sis’ Viva’." She says, “what was intriguing for me, after just chatting with aunt Viva over the years, is how she recalls how unsafe those [live performance] spaces were. Some of the spaces where Jazz was performed, by their very edginess, have served to keep women out of the scene.” 

Dr. Dalamba then moves on to reference something she read from Professor Lara Ellen’s book on South African women in Jazz, stating: “[She] notes how once Jazz moved to the stage, more women could participate because there was some separation between the audience and the musicians. So that somehow made women feel safer.”

This calls to mind discussions in Electronic music, and in Hip Hop, about creating safe spaces, about inclusion, and about accountability. Again, it's left to the venue owners to create these spaces, and to the patrons to divest from supporting venues that don't have a vested interest in such values through both policy and practice. “There are different dangers now. They recognise these dangers, they’re recognised as assaults. There’s hashtags for this kind of thing now,” says Dr. Dalamba. Sisane then wonders: "What do we want women to do, as women in Jazz for instance?," to which Dr. Dalamba lets out a hearty laughter, and follows up by suggesting a different approach. 

"Maybe the question should start with ‘what do we want from Jazz’, you know?! We also have to be careful that Jazz doesn't consume us, because it consumed Billie Holiday and them. What do we want from Jazz? Do I want to make a living from Jazz? No. What I want from Jazz is the narrative [that] it is able to show me how black South Africans can be. It shows the possibilities. That’s what I want from Jazz."

At this point, my mind shifts to Nina Simone's evergreen quote about the  artist's role in society being that of "reflecting the times." The pianist and composer Thandi Ntuli has spoken about this in the past, and her view is that she's still trying to figure it all out. "I do generally feel like the things I share need to sort of be thought of. I'm always making songs; I've got many songs that will probably never reach the public, which is also fine because I think it's also okay for me to make things for myself, or for the moment. But I do sense that there is a sort of responsibility, or an accountability, for the things that you say. Just like you can think many things, but you shouldn't have to say them. I think that the same is true with music."

While these thoughts percolate, women in Jazz and other fields are doing what best they can to assert themselves – gently, with intent, with the utmost focus, and aware of what is at stake. Sis’ Brenda’s sentiments about ‘being inducted into a place of women’ is reflected not only in the music, where a new generation is taking its rightful place, as evidenced by the presence of instrumentalists like Nobuhle Ashanti and Thembelihle Dunjana, and vocalists like Thandeka Dladla and Bokang Ramatlapeng; it’s also reflected in lenswomen like Vuyo Giba and Lerato Pakade, whose eye ensures that the story of Jazz shall be faithfully documented for generations yet to be born.

Yet Sisane cautions against this optimism, as she deems it as only a drop in the ocean in contrast to what women are up against. “When we see one we think, ‘yes, things are happening!’  Sibongile [Khumalo] disappeared, [she] had a larger-than-life personality. So [she] disappeared, and the voice of women disappeared [with her]. In a short space of time. [She] was everything, as an activist, if there was something that you needed, she would step in without fear or favour.”

Then, who is taking up that position and creating those opportunities in this day and age? 


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