A Local Guide to the Cape Town Music Scene
We’d heard a lot about South African music before coming to Cape Town and were eager to experience as much of Cape Town music as we could, so much so that Terence even signed up for a drumming workshop! We were particularly keen to see some live music, especially jazz, but were surprised at how few venues there actually were in Cape Town, a city famed for its unique style of Cape Jazz.
When I appeared on Africa Mulane’s radio show, locals who phoned in insisted we go to Swingers, a restaurant-cum-jazz club in the township of Landsdowne. We did, on a Cape Town ‘jazz safari’ organized by Coffeebeans Routes, a company specialising in creative tours, and we loved it.
When we learned that Iain Harris, owner of Coffeebeans Routes, was also a music writer and something of a music aficionado, operating a record label and music agency as part of Coffeebeans Routes, we asked him if we could pick his brain. When we did the Jazz Safari, we also met Calum MacNaughton, a writer and director currently completing a documentary about Goema.
I asked the guys if they’d give us a ‘Cape Town Music 101’, a quick intro to where things were at that would serve as a guide for music fans visiting Cape Town and they agreed. Iain also managed to persuade Spencer Mbadu, a legendary Cape Town bass player, to join us. Spencer has been the bass man for Cape Town greats such as Robbie Jansen and Winston Mankunku, and, more recently, Mac McKenzie’s Goema Symphony Number One. Spencer was also the bassist in the house band for the 46664 concerts, in honour of Nelson Mandela, in which he backed Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), Beyonce, Annie Lennox, and Youssou n’Dour.
We met at Coffeebeans Routes where, over, what else but coffee, we chatted about music. I was surprised to find the guys were pretty much in agreement on almost everything I asked them. For instance, there was virtually no debate when it came to putting together a top ten list of jazz legends whose music we could seek out. So in those cases where they were in agreement, I haven’t identified their contribution; elsewhere I have.
What can music lovers visiting Cape Town expect to find here?
Iain: Expect to be surprised! Cape Town is known as a jazz city, yet we have very different forms of jazz, something akin to New Orleans. Cape Town is a port city so music has come to us off the ships, very different kinds of music. We’ve got goema, but nowhere to listen to it, and we have jazz, which in Cape Town is as diverse as its people.
Spencer: Here in Cape Town, jazz is everything, and everything is about jazz.
How would you describe the state of the music scene?
Iain: We’re passionate about music here, but we’re disillusioned about where it’s going.
Calum: We don’t seem to have an educated audience who talk about and think about music anymore. It doesn’t seem to be part of people’s vocabulary in a way that it once was.
Iain: Music is no longer as political.
Spencer: I blame it on the politicians. When they introduced this so-called democracy, they used us musicians – we were used at rallies – and then they pushed us aside. Now they’re promoting new messengers.
Calum: We’re not building on our legacy. We have new bands, but the new bands don’t seem to turn to the icons, the legends, who were truly innovative. One reason I think is because many of the old recordings are only on vinyl and are not available.
Spencer: Nobody knows them anymore. Nobody sees us on TV. All they see are DJs and bubblegum pop.
Iain: One of the challenges is the language: 11 different languages. Brazil has one language.
Calum: We need to sell our own stories better. Jazz greats such as Mankunku should be presented as a music figure to look up to, aspire to be like.
So who are Cape Town’s jazz legends?
1. Winston Monwabisi Mankunku
2. Abdullah Ibrahim
3. Errol Dyers (we saw his brother Alvin, pictured above, perform at Swingers)
4. Robby Jansen
5. Basil Coetzee
6. Hugh Masekela
7. Ezra Ngcukana
8. Miriam Makeba
9. Jonas Gwangwa
10. Sathima Bea Benjamin
Where can we see live jazz in Cape Town?
Spencer: Swingers on Monday night.
Iain: The Rainbow Room, also the Green Dolphin, but I’d describe the music there as cocktail jazz – there’s little room for creative expression.
Good venues for other genres of live music?
The Assembly – very eclectic, good for rock and electro.
Zula Sound Bar – hip hop, reggae, and world music.
The Grand Daddy hotel’s rooftop bar – eclectic, fun.
Festivals worth flying to Cape Town for?
Cape Town International Jazz Festival – focused on local jazz.
Pan African Space Station – a monthly African music festival at venues all over the city.
Rocking the Daisies – rock-focused, lots of local acts.
Alien Safari – a trance music festival.
What about the indie music scene?
Iain: many of the young guys who studied at UCT’s South African College of Music are doing well. They’re better at marketing themselves than the older guys.
Calum: They’re also involved in many different projects and they’re producing their own music, they’re not relying on a record company so they’re in a better position of power. There are more festivals for them to play at now, and they have freedom of movement, unlike the last generation of musicians.
Your picks of the new talent that visitors to Cape Town should seek out?
Goldfish – jazz-electro
Freshly Ground – afro-pop
Kyle Shepherd – jazz
Mark Fransman – jazz & world fusion
Jitsvinger – African hip-hop
She Man Lion – out there, new wave 80’s-inspirations
Best music stores?
Mabu Vinyl (2 Rheede Street, Gardens; 21 423 7635; www.mabuvinyl.co.za) and The African Music Store (134 Long Street; 21 426 0857;