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Freedom, Roots and Fusion: SA singer Pilani Bubu on African Jazz

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Picture: Supplied – Jazz provides a platform for Africans not only to express themselves, their feelings and aspirations through the power of music, but bring their ethnic and cultural traits to the genre in a way that transcends national boundaries, Pilani Bubu says.

By Maria Konokhova

On April 30, the world marks International Jazz Day, which unites people across the globe in a great celebration of jazz music, paying tribute to its roots, appreciating its legacy and promoting its further development. On this occasion, Sputnik Africa sat down with South African singer Pilani Bubu to discuss the role of jazz on the Continent.

Jazz provides a platform for Africans not only to express themselves, their feelings and aspirations through the power of music, but bring their ethnic and cultural traits to the genre in a way that transcends national boundaries, said Pilani Bubu, South African singer-songwriter, TV presenter and creative entrepreneur, in an interview with Sputnik Africa.

According to the artist, African jazz musicians have always respected the history of this genre, and found inspiration in the way how various jazz legends from different epochs expressed themselves through their work and music improvisations.

“I think across African countries we all appreciate the origins of various jazz sounds, jazz voices, jazz voicings, various instrumentation,” she explained, adding: “We sort of begin from there before we can express ourselves.”

In this regard, she noted, traditional jazz music serves as “an encyclopedia in itself and in its sound”, as well as a platform for showcasing one’s culture. The roots of jazz are highly appreciated, but every musician and every nation brings about its own original sound. This is how the music evolves through times, generations and cultures, taking new forms in different parts of the world.

“And in a big bucket of jazz, what you hear is the tonality of identity,” she stressed.

She noted that jazz in various regions of Africa differs as it acquired specific tones, scales and features of traditional music, melodies and rhythms of a particular culture. Bubu drew some examples, pointing at West African highlife, a music genre that combines elements of local cultures and western jazz melodies.

In South African jazz, she further elaborated, one could feel the influence of different tribes, “the time signatures and the certain harmonic chords” conveyed by these people through music. For her country in particular, jazz is about sense of freedom and inspiration, revealing one’s true self, expressing identity and cultural roots.

At first, there has been a strong influence of American culture, but the tonality of Americanisms, she highlighted, evolved through time, providing space to showcase and share influences from indigenous cultures within jazz.

Thus, musicians use the “medium of jazz in order to fuse what has been a strong part of our culture.” This can be seen in the music of Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa, who expressed themselves and at the same time reached out to large audiences, making this energy of freedom that jazz portrays to endure.

“I think the thing that’s happening which should be happening across Africa is that infusion, strong infusion of rich music within jazz is how it’s different for me,” the singer underscored.

For Bubu personally, jazz also became a tool of self-expression that allowed her voice to find its most natural manifestation and ”be the true bird that it is”. She noted that for her jazz started as a personal discovery, as she was raised in a family who didn’t listen to jazz.

As she became interested in this genre of music, she started to learn more about its history and origins, and at some point she felt that “this space of jazz” provides her with all the necessary means to express herself and free her voice, instead of forcing “it into a box”. Moreover, she added, due to its rich history and palette of sounds, jazz has “an intriguing point,” keeping her interested in how this expression of freedom evolved through time in music of various artists.

Trying to describe what jazz holds within itself in a few words, the South African singer said that it’s mainly about preservation, freedom and community. She explained that whenever jazz is played, it creates a feeling of bonding and connection between a musician and their audience.

“We are one within the music. So, it’s definitely freedom. It’s definitely bonding a community. And the first one was preservation,” she concluded.

This article was first published on Sputnik