South Africa: Book Review | Pulses in the Centre of Silence

In the face of dwindling writing about South African jazz, bassist and composer Carlo Mombelli's new offering is not only a workbook for musicians but also a repository for future historians.

For some time now, archivists have been warning us that relying on digital formats is eroding the archive from which future historians will have to work. That's true for the Nelson Mandela Cabinet archives, but it's even truer for the archives of South African jazz.

Researchers in the 1990s could look back through texts ranging from the mainstream Drum magazine and Star Tonight newspaper to the counter-hegemonic Staffrider literary magazine, the Medu Art Ensemble newsletter from the armed cultural wing of the ANC and the trade union newsletter, Fosatu Worker News.

All of these documented events, works and lives. The quality varied, but the information was there. This is how we know what jazz pianist Todd Matshikiza thought about the birth of African Jazz in 1948, how astoundingly many struggle-rooted workers' cultural groups flourished in the 1980s, and why German record labels in the same decade gave Johnny Clegg the cold shoulder - apparently, he sang too much about the "funny little issues in South Africa".

That kind of coverage stayed alive through the 1990s, but now the double whammy of the decline of print media and the shift to an analytics-driven focus on "personality", "showbiz" and "lifestyle" has mostly wiped out coverage of the why and how of our jazz, at a time when the creative sounds have rarely been richer.

Many publications have not digitised (or effectively preserved) their historic paper archive; extended arts writing, when it is still published, is often put behind a paywall that denies low-income readers access; and around half of South Africans can't afford regular, or any, access to the much smaller-scale critical local arts coverage online. Additionally, you need to know about it first to find it, and sites and blogs can die overnight - bloggers railing against the hegemony shouldn't fool themselves, they're mainly a privileged elite talking to each other.

Artists who want their work to be documented and understood often have to make this happen themselves. Many do, paying for publicity, a web presence and $47 (about R690) a year to profile a single album on Apple Music, with returns of just $0.00735 (about 11c) per stream. Numerous others lack the know-how, time or funds to do so, particularly if they work outside the urban, connected, anglophone metropoles.

It's not enough. We need texts, too: research papers and biographies, autobiographies and workbooks from as many players and composers as possible for library shelves, so that recent South African jazz decades don't end up drawing a blank.

That's the process bassist and Wits music professor Carlo Mombelli started when he published his instructional text, Mombelli's Intergalactic Bass Programme: Volume 1 Scales and Arpeggios, in 2018. It has just been republished as a revised edition - with a cover featuring an assertively South African tin-can bass and new material aimed at music learners who can't read staff notation - along with a second book, Pulses in the Centre of Silence, that unpacks the thinking behind Mombelli's music.

Learning how to be a musician

Pulses contains a discography, scores and lead sheets for all 96 of Mombelli's recorded compositions, and, most interestingly, five short prefatory chapters discussing issues such as what improvisation means, the concept of originality and the bassist's ideas about learning and teaching.

"Producing the books grew naturally out of how I work," Mombelli says. "I'm self-taught and recently I found my own old scruffy exercise books with the Mickey Mouse covers, where I'd created charts of finger positions and so on as I was learning. And even today, I'm old school. I compose at the piano, on paper, with a pencil and eraser beside me." The book, he says, attempts to share "all the things I've learned while being a musician."

Although Mombelli is now embedded within the music department of a formal institution, he's emphatic that he doesn't want his books to sit only on those shelves.

"There are copies at Wits, but I want to get it to more people. It's certainly worth going to a music institution if that's possible for you, but my own experience is that there are lots of other schools of music. I never went to college, and practical experiences like working with [the late guitarist] John Fourie were my universities," he says.

The book expands on that theme, citing, for example "the great flamenco guitarists who learnt their music around campfires". It singles out one of Mombelli's current collaborators, vocalist "Mbuso Khoza, who learnt his music as a herdsman in the mountains of KwaZulu-Natal ... every note he sings is pure spirituality and beauty. His school of music was the mountains in which he grew up."

Pulses in the Centre of Silence is two things in one: a useful Mombelli Real Book - a collection of scores from which other musicians can work - and an insight into his opus, answering questions that South African music journalism rarely asks any more. In that context, the title couldn't be more apt.

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