AfroAsia Workshop

Writing on Water: Preliminary Thoughts through the Sound of the Blue Notes

Phindezwa Mnyaka presented a Re-Centring AfroAsia workshop reflecting on her ’embryonic’ research focused on musical recordings by the Blue Notes, and meditating on the potential of music to work as theory.

27 October 2017 /  Anthropology Museum, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Phindezwa Mnyaka

Respondent: Steven Sack

Image: Basil Breakey. Nick Moyake with sax

At this embryonic stage of thinking, I am interested in the ways the jazz band is marked so deeply by fluidity in both its sounds and its stories, existing seemingly everywhere, while negating conventional markers of monumentalisation. I consider this both humbling and generative, and reflect on what it might mean to engage archival material differently, less as object of study, or work to be contained, but as omnipresent and downward-shifting bodies of water, which in turn can move us. This may be in different arenas, including those seemingly outside the terrain of sound, such as visual or writing forms.

My involvement in the Blue Notes began some years ago in East London, years after I had completed my doctoral project at the University of Fort Hare, which turned out to be part visual analysis and part biography of Joseph Denfield and his images taken in west and southern Africa.

At some point last year, my former supervisor mentioned the Blue Notes project, and invited me to a workshop in the Eastern Cape where people  working on sound would discuss work in progress, and where he would talk about this potential project. In a moment of madness, partly due to the romance of the snowfall on the Hogsback, I saw potential in turning it into a collaborative effort rather than a single-authored project.

Ruminating through whatever material I could find on the Blue Notes, I was struck by what seemed to be the band’s omnipresence, in contrast to an apparent lack of sustained academic work on them. A number of artists would reference them in interviews, acknowledging their musical influence; some academic articles on jazz mentioned them without talking about them; their recordings are easily accessible online, uploaded by fans of the music. More recently there have been tribute performances and recordings. Approaching this from an academic training where the convention is to bring light to things, even in the form of critique, when so much is already known by music scholars and listeners, has been a humbling challenge, and seems to necessitate a paradigm shift when encountering cultural archives. Indeed it has made me worry about whether an academic project, about the Blue Notes, runs the risk of turning accidentally into a commemorative ‘legacy’ project that positions the researcher as founder and producer, and even worse, serves to conceal the real breadth of skill and musicality of the band.

In wanting to take up an anti-monumental stance, if that’s possible, I did consider what it would mean to think through the work of the Blue Notes, even though it was difficult to completely avoid writing about the band. By this, I mean a framework in which one approaches one’s research material as doing something to us, rather than the other way around. I see potential here in taking cue from the discourse on music in South Africa, and political mobilisation and music, but extending the metaphors of movement, not least in the very name of the band, suggestive not only of the American jazz tradition of blues music, but also of the blue sea.

Fluidity, experimentation, and mobility figure so strongly in different aspects of the band, in their sound, at an obvious level of their physical movements and changes in membership such that it is difficult to talk about ‘the Blue Notes’ as a singular collective over an extended period. Usually writers are referring to Dudu Pukwana, Nick Moyake, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza, and Louis Moholo-Moholo, who morphed into a collective roughly between 1961 and 1964, performing with difficulty within apartheid South Africa, leaving in 1964, and eventually re-grouping with other musicians to form different bands while in exile. In an interview in 1991 with Richard Scott, Louis Moholo’s statement encapsulates this when he describes the Blue Notes as the fountain where the original members would meet, reconnect, and diverge. Movement is also apparent in many claims made about their musical influence on later generations of jazz artists in South Africa and western Europe, a refreshing inversion of the typical representation of European-African cultural exchanges.

Movement in time is often concealed in the photographic print, making it fairly easy to describe an encounter with the illusion of a pause: the photograph appears to stop and wait for you. In contrast, listening to some of their recordings challenges the convention of writerly coherence and temporality, if one is trying to write about the music, given that it is intrinsically characterised by mobility. It is particularly challenging if you don’t have a vocabulary of music theory. At the same time, I’m imagining that it is this fluidity that might allow for an epistemic shift, where one moves through the cultural archive, which in turn moves you. One photographer whose material I think captures this is Basil Breakey. Breakey was a regular figure at Dorkay House in central Johannesburg. He took photographs of individuals who passed through the space, including other musicians, and forged friendships – not simply passing through as a photojournalist. At some stage in the 1960s he was putting up artists on the floor of his flat in Hillbrow, including Chris McGregor. This degree of intimacy with the individuals and the space of Dorkay House is apparent in the images reproduced in the book Beyond the Blues, in which these images are published.

Much scholarship has critiqued photography’s complicity with ocularcentrism, the epistemological bias that gives preference to vision over the other senses. Criticism is often oriented around the creation of spectatorial distance that allows the viewing subject to stand over and against the viewed object, rendering the latter vulnerable to control through fixating, grasping, and bringing it to a standstill. While taking photographs necessitates distancing oneself to some extent, the sense I get from Breakey’s images is that in doing so, he achieves proximity to those he photographs. Dorkay House, as well as Langa, the apartheid-era ‘township’ located close to Cape Town where Moholo is photographed playing drums, appear less as spaces of discovery for the unknowing subject, and more as transitory sites to be experienced, hosting many migratory subjects. My brief analysis here is resting on the compositional aspects of the images that lend themselves to such a reading, but I am inclined to think that this could be pushed further, even to those cultural texts that seem invested in fixating and settling.

So, to return to where I began, sort of, it was years later, once past the pressure of that demonic beast called a thesis, that I visited Denfield’s colonial-settler photographs of East London, which had been taken at the turn of the 20th century, but circulated among the city’s reading public in the early 1960s, this time playing close attention to photographs of the beach. Placing these alongside photographs taken by Daniel Morolong in Duncan Village in that exact period, just as Johnny Dyani was coming of age in that same township, I was able to appreciate Denfield’s difficulty in entirely negating a narrative of colonial undoing even as it was being made, through images of shipwrecks on the beach; despite his celebration of city fathers and imperial nostalgia. And in turn, to appreciate the way the images seemed to anticipate an apartheid future, the very period in which Denfield made them public, thereby moving through different temporalities. In these images, so invested in settlement, is a well-concealed but animating oceanic sensibility.