‘Anyone who listens to the sax player automatically has the feeling that what they hear is not only a nicely-shaped piece of sheet metal, that it MUST be an outward extension of the player’s soul.’ - Joe on 18
Music, right? Jeez. Enough said.
I think it is fair to assume that we have all encountered music that has quite literally sent shivers down our spines. The kind of music that has made the hairs on our bodies stand taller with each note. That stomach dropping, ball in your throat kind of music that leaves you gobsmacked because how could such perfection exist? What were the performers or composers thinking when they were delivering such masterful pieces and compositions? For some of us it is in the voices of the musicians, and for some of us, as will be discussed in this piece, are the musical instruments played.
Having been doing some thinking, going back and forth between what could possibly make me feel this way when listening to certain music, I have come to find that there are just some musical instruments that when featured on a song or composition take centre stage and it quite literally feels like the musician is giving you a long comforting hug or just smothering you making you the little spoon. Specifically, here I want to speak of the all so bold yet soothing saxophone, trumpet and trombone. They all have something in common right? They form part of the brass family, they get nestled in the warm comfortable hands of the player(s) then rest and are propelled by their lips, with the air coming straight from the diaphragm (I say soul) doing the rest of the work. It’s an intense thing man. Its intimacy that thing man nomakanjani.
When Jonas Gwangwa passed away earlier this year, my interest in jazz music in South Africa was piqued in a different way than before, because I read and was confronted with his history and music and found a greater appreciation for it, so I looked into it a bit more and well it is safe to say I was hooked. (Call me an uncultured sw*ne… I’m here now), Some of the people who have inspired me and my career path today from scholars and academics, activists and the like, then also happen to be jazz enthusiasts and of course if this music means so much to people who are so passionate about the causes and interests they advocate for and strongly believe in, and who mean a lot to me, surely I needed to find out why. The more I dug, came a greater appreciation for this music. The music represents unfettered emotion from those delivering it and it is felt. Oh Thixo it is felt.
The saxophone, trumpet and trombone have very distinct sounds and are easily and quickly recognisable and associated with jazz music both nationally and internationally, although they hold their own when they cross genres. When played or performed, they have and pack so much soul. These instruments and the people who play them, are spirited, easy and gallantly fine. Of the top of one’s head internationally, the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Kenny G, Masego, and a whole lot more come to mind right. Then locally, gee whiz where do I even begin? Kippie Moeketsi, Linda Sikhakhane, Ezra Ngcukana, Sisonke Xonti, Tshepo Tsotetsi, Jonas Gwangwa, Bra Hugh, Malcom Jiyane, Mandisi Dyantyis, Athi Ngcaba, Stompi Manana, Mzamo Bhengu, Khaya Mahlangu and so many more.
Considering the general nature of the genre these instruments are associated with, I don’t think one could play them and not have an enthralling background accompanying them. They do not have to speak, these instruments do it for them. I suppose this is much like any other artist. Their work is an outward display and depiction of what they think, have trouble with, and an observation and critique of their surroundings and general climate and environment. More than anything, when playing these specific instruments, the players use their very breath to produce the sound, giving life and amplifying the vibrations that reach us. You watch the videos of them playing. Their eyes are closed. Facial expressions telling a story. Highly emotive. Simply… captivating. There is a familiarity felt making it ever so relatable despite knowing what they may be behind those emotions. They get lost in the moment and are engulfed in this brass. It is beautiful to witness and experience. There is something about these instruments that provide so much depth and nuance that it has you questioning a lot about yourself and confronting emotions that were seemingly (not) well hidden.
Having been deeply moved by these instrumentalists, I look up what these instruments mean to some of them and what they provide. The general themes are those of loss and despondency although you do find happiness, celebration and hope in between. Feeling safe only when picking up this brass piece and playing it. Spilling all their emotions onto the composition thereby having a therapy session with it and finding healing and acceptance or understanding. What we get is the bareness and honesty of these musicians and their instruments.
I want to think along the experiences of the last two years living in a pandemic. There has been devastating loss, death, pain, suffering, uncertainty, heightened anxiety and depression, skyrocketing unemployment, unrelenting corruption increased domestic and gender-based violence among women and children and so much more devastation. I might have experienced all of these things this year alone and my only constant friend was the encapsulating sounds of the players of these horns. They comforted me in ways unimaginable and I feel compelled to shout from the rooftops about the absolute healing and soothing powers of music and its ability to make you feel heard, understood, and acknowledged. I would have to totally agree with Joy S Berger when they suggest that ‘music has a unique ability to elicit a whole range of powerful emotional responses in people - even so far as altering or enhancing one’s mood – as well as physical responses.’ Having been completely desensitized by things that would ordinarily matter to me because of the utter uncertainty of tomorrow brought by this pandemic, I think to have been moved and healed by this music is a big deal. I hope this is how they intend to make the listener feel.
It is amazing how music has the ability to be trans-generational and relate to things and experiences today as it did in times past. Is it then true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Are Black lives and experiences doomed to the same eventualities no matter how hard we try to escape them? Is pessimism the perpetual underlying feature in the Black story and experience? Although one may find it difficult to remain optimistic, we remain hopeful and committed to chartering a world where the sun will shine on the Black subject. Music having a great responsibility in shaping this world, and arguably doing a fantastic job at it.
I do not think it is fair to expect people to have to go through mind-altering experiences to have an appreciation or feel strongly connected to those who might have gone through some traumatic or other experiences. Therefore, this piece does not want to suggest that because other artists might not have gone through the existential crisis of the Black struggle(s), poverty, unemployment, crime, dispossession, alienation etc, that they would not be able to produce quality soul engulfing music, or any other art. It may be merely coincidental (or not) that the people I happen to find the most musically appealing, enticing, are conscious, conscientized musicians who have taken special and delicate care in looking into and addressing Black lives, livelihoods and experiences, as a result, have dedicated themselves to ensuring (or trying to) keep the hope and faith alive that the Black subject, collectively, will see a better tomorrow, and a time will come when their innate expression will be celebrated without boundaries or constraints.
I will end with this. I hope in the mess, confusion and uncertainty of the world and the state of this country, you find an outlet that completely alters your world. That makes you wake up and want to discover more of what is out there. Don’t make it a job and don’t let it make you lose what or who you have. Invest in the arts always. We are duty bound to give back and acknowledge those that give us what is truly unexplainable.
May the soul, and heart of the tremendous trio, the trombone, trumpet and the saxophone, and the players behind them, continue to moisturise and water our dry brittle hearts and souls, while comforting us and keeping us hopeful for a better tomorrow.