Renowned Jazz Artists Host Workshop and Bring New Perspective to Music Education
McCoy Mrubata learned to play music on the streets because it wasn’t allowed in formal musical institutions.
Growing up during apartheid as a black man, Mrubata said he was systematically excluded from higher education. He and Paul Hanmer, who have worked together for 30 years, will draw on their experiences of the South African music scene to lead a workshop at the Schoenberg Music Building on Monday. On Tuesday, the two artists will perform their original compositions at the Jan Popper Theater.
Robin Kelley, a history professor and one of the workshop organizers, said welcoming South African composers, like Mrubata and Hanmer, aligns with global jazz studies and the Monk’s goal. Institute of Jazz Performance to bring musicians from around the world to expose students to new expressions.
“It’s their 30th anniversary of collaboration. They are both hugely influential in South Africa…and they are great teachers,” Kelley said.
Mrubata said he got involved in music in 1976 amid protests and political rallies against racial segregation. While attending some of the rallies, he said he listened to a man play a pennywhistle during breaks and quickly picked it up when the man left him behind – a moment that has fueled his passion for music. In 1979 he switched to saxophone – a change he has stuck to ever since.
Until 1991, jazz was considered an underground form of music in South Africa, Kelley said. Considered a threat to the apartheid regime because of its association with freedom and a diverse culture, jazz was banned from radio stations and broadcasts were limited to traditional South African music. However, jazz musicians opposed apartheid policies, such as illegally forming bands made up of black and white musicians, Kelley said.
“(Jazz musicians) were defying the law. In some ways, jazz defiantly opposed apartheid, and jazz played a role in the overthrow of apartheid,” Kelley said.
Since 1976, Mrubata has said that South African jazz has incorporated more Western elements, such as bebop. Young musicians tend to gravitate towards American jazz more, but old-school musicians like him mostly use South African jazz elements, he said. Hanmer said the basis of both types of jazz is similar in that they use 1-4-5 chord progressions and have similar vocal inflections. But South African jazz sometimes uses 1-2 chord progressions and is not influenced by songs sung by slaves in America, which is the basis of jazz music in America. Unlike American jazz which follows a 12 bar chord progression format, South African jazz forms are much shorter, following a 2 or 4 bar format, he added.
“The ideas, the basis of the music are very similar. It’s just the tunes are different,” Hanmer said. “The feeling of knowing where the pulse is and the workings of the dance that underlie the movements of the phrases and the movements of the harmonies are different.”
Despite the modern inclination towards more Western elements, Kelley said he considers South African jazz musicians to be the world leaders in jazz. For example, they mix bebop with township music, forms that have emerged among young street musicians in cities like Johannesburg. They also incorporate experimental styles and traditional forms like the music used in voodoo, he added.
At Monday’s workshop, Mrubata said he and Hanmer would provide a demonstration of South African jazz. They will also explain the different elements of jazz in certain pieces they perform and teach their approach to improvisation, he added. On the day of the concert, Hanmer said the two will present their original compositions that they have written and performed together over the past three decades. A composition titled “Musgrave Maskandi” mixes rural music with the ideas of shopping malls and urban planning, two symbols of wealth, he said.
Due to the fame and knowledge of South African jazz artists, Kelley said the workshop will allow students of World Jazz Studies and the Monk Institute of Jazz Performance to learn about the history of jazz. and hear new sounds.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn not only from grandmasters, but also from masters who have a very different background and training than their own,” Kelley said. “(This meeting) will be fruitful for the program and for the individual.”