Communities In Time: Jazz On Film

At the EFG London Jazz Festival, Michael Appouh reviews two films about jazz in the UK and beyond, We Out Here: A LDN Story & Blue Notes And Exiled Voices

We Out Here film still, credit: Fabrice Bourgelle

If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration” – Nikola Tesla

Jazz music has the chaotic brilliance of an unstable element. It has the ability to provoke movement and feeling; to decant ideas across time and space; to make liberation actionable. Not many cities act as a better nucleus for jazz than London. Its streets are already filled with the kineticism of cultures weaving and bouncing around each other, creating and destroying the musical tapestry of the city with each note. As a part of EFG London Jazz Festival, the double feature of Imruh Bakari’s Blue Notes and Exiled Voices, and We Out Here: A LDN Story from Brownswood Recordings assesses how London acts as a marketplace for sonic exchange.

With Blue Notes, the story of South Africa’s apartheid exiles is put to screen. Through Bakari’s excellent direction, thoughts that were once simply whispers within the mind of South African artists are shared, and give greater context to the music which found itself across seas in the early 1990s. Featuring performances of the radiant sounds of Mervyn Africa Quintet, Brotherhood of Breath, and the illustrious Hugh Masekela, the documentary explores the effect of displacement on these artists and their music, with Masekela’s Stimela a fitting soundtrack.

Against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the interviews with Masekela, Pinise Saul and Louis Moholo reveal what was lost in the struggle to emancipate South Africa. The ever-present threat of detainment, the prohibition of political and musical expression and the massive effect of apartheid on the health of their communities are not lost on them. Moholo in particular gives an impassioned interview recalling all the musicians who have passed far too early into their careers. It’s a stark reminder of the type of violence that tore at communities not only in South Africa, but the exiled communities that began to form in London. Bakari does not withhold any of his feelings about the current situation in South Africa either, before showing the film he says “I went to South Africa three times, and I got to see the asshole of apartheid. It wasn’t nice. Things have changed and they haven’t changed.”

Jazz music is not unacquainted with pain, and though forced migration is what fuelled the messages in their music, community was still in the spirit of South African Jazz in the UK. The relationship to a place can change over one generation; for the exiled musicians of South Africa, London was an unwelcoming friend. It provided them stability but never much more, homesickness and western malaise made them feel like strangers to it. But for the artists in We Out Here, it allowed them to build the ties and support systems necessary for them to take over the city.

Jazz has long held bourgeois connotations despite its roots in African and African American music. Reclaiming and decolonising is firmly at the forefront of these young artists – improvisation, freedom and expression are all preferred monikers for the loaded genre. Where Blue Notes documents artists who made music to soften the shock of being in exile, A LDN Story documents the burgeoning of a jazz scene that is trying to break out of its current conception.

We Out Here, made by Fabrice Bourgelle, follows the creation of a compilation album of the same name, featuring acts from Brownswood Recordings such as Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, and Kokoroko. Acting as much as a celebration as it does a documentation, the artists recall how London’s unique position in the world has allowed sounds from its streets to coalesce into a form that takes as much from grime, garage and hip hop as it does from samba, fusion and afrobeat.

Despite finally finding acclaim, the musicians featured don’t give in to the pitfalls of success. They cite each other’s work religiously, gain open inspiration from one another and maintain their tight knit community. As Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective puts it, “it’s not a scene… it’s just my friends doing well.” And they all are truly friends, some knowing and playing with each other for close to ten years despite their youth, because of organisations like Jazz Re:Freshed by Adam Moses and Tomorrow’s Warriors by Gary Crosby OBE, which has championed jazz music in the UK for close to fifteen years.

Without their contribution, their venues and events, it’s likely that few of these artists would be able to get the platform for the success they have now, especially at a time where music venues and arts organisations seem to be closing left and right. For them London has provided a common experience and universal space for them to collaborate, learn and redefine what jazz means for a new generation.

The universe is never at an absolute zero. Energy can never be destroyed or created; it only changes form, rapidly transferring from host to host. For the jazz musicians of London – those who came from South Africa to escape apartheid, or those born here who formed their own spiritual family – the energy of expression has never changed, their music still contains the frantic, melancholy nature of a community creating themselves in real time.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today