Music breaks down some of South Africa's racial barriers

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2011 

Mike Laatz, 62, experienced firsthand how race-based apartheid rule shaped South Africa's jazz scene.

HALEY BLUM/PENN STATE UNIVERSITY

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — On a bright morning at a casual restaurant at the famed Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, teen pop star Justin Bieber's hit "Never Say Never" played in the background. Mike Laatz, his white hair escaping from a dark gray beret, finished his breakfast and ordered coffee. Laatz, a 62-year-old jazz saxophonist, was talking about something considerably less cheery than Bieber's beats.

Growing up between Johannesburg and the eastern city of Durban, Laatz experienced firsthand how race-based apartheid rule shaped South Africa's jazz scene. Musicians had to resort to tricks, for example, to skirt the prohibition of whites and blacks playing together.

"There were some ridiculous things where the bass player might be playing behind the curtain so that nobody could see him," he said. "It was that kind of nonsense."

It's been 17 years since the end of apartheid, which enforced segregation of South Africa's races, and the success the nation's musicians have had in pulling down the curtain of division can be seen in Cape Town's clubs and concert halls, its rehearsal rooms and in the views of its performers.

Just ask Craig Durrant, a gangly 22-year-old with chin-length, dirty-blond hair and a wide smile who's the drummer for an indie-pop band called Desmond and the Tutus.

The band's name — a reference to the beloved 79-year-old anti-apartheid icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu — is neither a political statement nor a joke, Durrant said. He thought it just sounded cool.

"I think if people hear us and realize that we're just these bunch of 'skollies,' then they know we're really not making fun of anyone," he said, using a slang word for thugs in Afrikaans, the language of South Africa's white Afrikaner settlers.

For South Africans of Durrant's generation — who were toddlers and preteens when Nelson Mandela was elected the country's first black president in 1994 — the country's tumultuous past isn't a burden. Young musicians have cultivated a rich scene, one that highlights how a country once torn by racial division can move beyond it, if not completely past it.

Two decades ago, the white government could ban musicians from the country for controversial lyrics and messages. Today, popular music may be one of the few areas of life in South Africa where there's evidence that the promise of a multiracial society is within reach.

The multiracial Afro-pop group Freshlyground, arguably the face and voice of contemporary South African music, counts people of all races in its fan base. And such crossover acts aren't gawked at, even though there are relatively few of them in the country's pop market.

Even for some black musicians, race is a tired subject.

"For me, race has become an issue that's kind of like, if it's still on your mind, I find it weak," said Mpumi Mcata, the 28-year-old guitarist for the South African art-rock outfit BLK JKS (pronounced "Black Jacks").

This isn't to say that music has been some sort of magic unifier. The curtain still hangs by a few threads, as lingering prejudices and economic disparity remain.

"Cape Town is a very divided city, and it's also the oldest one and it was the most thoroughly worked over by apartheid," said Michael Nixon, 60, a senior lecturer of ethnomusicology at the University of Cape Town. "And so you have generations now that have grown up in this space."

Today this tourist-filled, beachside city is home to an eclectic music scene.

Jazz is popular, with Cape Town hosting a major international jazz festival every year. Kwaito is a particularly South African sound, a dance hip-hop genre born in the townships. Dance clubs blast American Top 40 hits. The international influences of rock, indie, punk, techno and reggae also thrive.

For almost 10 years, acoustic guitarist Stefan Dixon has been one of many local musicians attempting to make a living off their craft. The 27-year-old Afrikaner got his break last year when he signed with the South African branch of Universal Music Group. Like many Afrikaners, he lived a childhood sheltered from the brutality of apartheid. He remembers that he was 10 years old the first time he heard the name Nelson Mandela.

"I'd like to go play townships and I'd love to play to more black crowds and poorer crowds, but at the moment, it's not that possible," he said. "I'm working on it, though."

Money is a reason for the imbalance, Dixon said.

"If something costs something, the majority there will be white, which kind of sucks," he said, "because if you think about it, we're already 15 years into our democracy, and you'd think that housing and jobs and things like that would have been sorted out a little more than it is at the moment."

(Blum, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.)

VIDEO FROM SOUTH AFRICA

See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.

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