(Editor's Note: This is the first post in a three-part series about the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Subsequent entries: part II and part III)
Despite the miseducation that taught us all otherwise, there is a very close bond between Africans and African-Americans. It occurs on many levels, and one very important aspect of the connectivity is music.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and if one had to choose a musical group that defined my generation, it would be Earth, Wind & Fire. I had already planned to attend the Cape Town Jazz Festival, and when I learned that Earth, Wind & Fire would be the headliner, I was thrilled. I hadn’t seen the group in concert for nearly 30 years. But on further reflection, I wondered what it would be like to experience my favorite band, the one that defined my youth in California, in a foreign land that had been locked in a struggle for their human rights while I had partied through high school to the likes of “Boogie Wonderland,” “September,” and “Sing a Song.” “Reasons” had been the official slow jam to define high school romance. “He asked to slow dance to ‘Reasons.’ He must really like me.” (Photo of Earth, Wind & Fire by minds_eye on Flickr)
Would my enthusiasm for this nostalgia be misplaced among the throngs of South Africans who had very different memories of the 1970s? The Soweto student uprisings took place in 1976. Would I seem frivolous and insensitive to the plight of those students by happily recalling the sounds and lyrics of my youth?
Apparently not. While fighting for their rights in the land that belonged to them and their forefathers, apparently someone smuggled in a bunch of 8-tracks (or maybe vinyl albums) of Earth, Wind & Fire. The Cape Town audience knew every word of every song. And when the love songs started, the South African brothers and sisters well into their 40s and 50s turned to one another, shared an embrace, and that look that said, “Baby, remember when we first heard this song back in the day?”
Music is a universal language that forms bonds. Experiencing Earth, Wind & Fire in South Africa taught me a lesson I hadn’t seen in the many books I’ve read that chronicle the apartheid years. The wounds were dark and deep in South Africa of the 1970s. But I saw the resilient human spirit that had managed to transcend one of our generation’s most profound struggles for human rights. Struggles aside, black South Africans experienced tremendous pleasure from their brothers across the Atlantic: Philip Bailey, Maurice White, and Ralph Johnson.
As Philip Bailey said when he opened the performance, “It took us 40 years to get here. And you know what that’s about. But we are here now. And we will be back.”