Vinyl as art: There’s music in the air

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“I don’t like that word – ‘jazz’ ,” said Miles Davis in a 1982 interview. Asked by Bryant Gumble what he would call the genre, he said “social music”. There’s no ‘jazz’ anymore, said Davis as he explained that all music is social – “all social melodies out – in the air. You take out what you want and leave what you don’t like”.

“There’s music in the air,” sang Letta Mbulu in the 80s as if predicting the future age of web 2.0 – streaming services and social media. As a smart phone user, I make use of the algorithms on Google Play music and, just ended my relationship with Apple Music. But I’ve found myself longing for something tangible and finite. Access to a vast library of music means I sometimes leave the music playing in the background, without any regard for who or what’s playing. This has made me long for the days when I could walk into a CD store and ask the section specialist what recommendations they have to share.

If one Googles “Look & Listen”, one finds an article proclaiming “How digital killed Look & Listen” explaining that in 2014 “more than 28 million people worldwide now pay for a music subscriptions, up from 20 million in 2012 and 8 million in 2010”. But with the music now airborne, I find myself missing the tangible. Because it’s not just about the tunes, it’s about experiencing a comprehensive piece of art. At #NAF17, I found myself wandering into a walkabout exploring one of the elements – the album art.

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As part of the National Arts Festival ‘Visual Art’ line-up, September Jive is a display of “150 of the most interesting, important and beautiful sleeve covers, with a special focus on truly South African designs, which could have emanated only from this country”. During the walkabout for September Jive, Rob Allingham – former Archive manager at Gallo Record company from 1990 to 2008 – took attendees through the history of some notable album covers of South African musicians. Allingham’s tour through music past included a look at an album I’ve recently acquired via second hand market – King Kong: African Jazz Musical.

Allingham explained that the Opera had a 6 month run in South Africa from February to July 1959 “then about 18 months later – with a somewhat altered cast and somewhat altered book and music – it went to England”. Another notable cover was that of the album “Gideon Plays” by pianist Gideon Nxumalo, which features cover art by artist Dumile Feni.

The South African version of King Kong:

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The UK version:

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Picture: SA History

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The cover of the album “Gideon Plays” by pianist Gideon Nxumalo with artwork by Dumile Feni.

The walkabout provided a chance to ask Allingham questions about the history behind the covers and the history of South African politics in the age of Apartheid cast a shadow on the compelling images, as one imagines that being an artist was an act of rebellion against the forces that sought to define societal narratives through control and censorship.

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In the midst of the history was a contemporary project by Allingham, Simon Allen, Caroline Hillary and Molemo Moiloa, in which they asked music and media personalities what albums or tracks were significant for them. I spotted some familiar faces among the 47 portraits hanging on the Terrace.

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While on the walkabout through history with Allingham, I stopped a few attendees to ask for their pick of notable albums or artists.

Muhammad Dawjee – saxophonist in the band Kinsmen who performed as part of the festival’s Fringe programme – said that “vinyl and streaming represent two of the opposite extremes – the one is extreme ease and the other one is extreme difficulty – just in terms of access because vinyl is also quite expensive to get into”. He considered that the expense of firstly buying equipment and the LPs themselves were a deterrent against going back to the way he first heard music as a child, from his Dad’s records but, that “it’s beautiful to have those art pieces”. The musician added that in addition to his love for the sound of vinyl, “I love that the needle spins on the centre of the disc once it’s done and, that white noise permeates through the house but, I simply am torn between moving into that – when I’ve spent so many years building the CD collection”.

Just as I move between listening to music on the CDs I started collecting in my youth; the streaming platforms clogging up my mobile phone’s memory and; the vinyls I’ve begun collecting thanks to the elders who’ve left them to me – there is something incomplete and detached about the ease of streaming. Muhammad captured this in his thought that “streaming is just about access to the music. Streaming for me is like a trailer – it’s not really getting into the music. There’s music that I would stream but then I’d still go and buy that disc because streaming has given me a taste but it hasn’t given me the music. It’s only when I get the disc and I open it, do I feel like I’m now part of the music.”

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Rounding out my journey through album covers, I returned to one of the 47 portraits of music and media personalities. Positioned cosily in the middle, and dressed in a striking head-wrap is Kaya FM radio personality, Brenda Sisane who hosts a weekly 4 hour (on Sundays) show that has broadened my musical landscape for as long as I can remember. I got the opportunity during the festival to take my weekly social media fandom outside of the ether and into the tangible when I stopped her during the festival to ask for her thoughts on listening to music on various platforms.

Returning to Miles Davis’ thoughts on the naming of jazz, Sisane – pre-empting the quote I’d end up using for this article – continued the theme of music as a social adhesive. “[Vinyl] is where I started listening to music for the first time – I used to be with a group of girls as a teenager and I remember the first album I took to them was Letta Mbulu’s ‘Music in the Air’. Everything we used to listen to – it was all vinyl. The radio legend whose exacting ear for music and weekly selections have me locked on the 95.9 frequency (I stream online while here in the Eastern Cape), seems to have developed this skill from the social act of sharing the music and eventually, the hard work of crate-digging and coming up with unique sounds.

“When I joined radio, I remember you would go to the library – open the stock and come up with the records. I learnt what was important. What kind of needles worked and it was nice to hear the record starting and learning how to cue it to the next song and all of that,” she described. Considering the social aspect of music listening in South Africa, one cannot ignore the social context within which Sisane grew up listening to and then working with records. “When we started, it was during the height of apartheid so you’d come across albums where the songs are scratched because the sensor board would go through all the music”.

In spite of the oppressive time she grew up in, Sisane has managed to retain a collection of records, some of which were passed on to her from her late stepfather. She describes that the listening parties of her youth are something she’s continued into the present as she pulls records from the “stash” at her house to play at the houses of friends who have record players.

“I believe, like books, we still want something in our hands. But, I also believe that there’s space for digital music. I just think we’re going back because of simplicity. The way the music was made. The way the liner notes were written. There was more focus on the product and it was not about churning out music, distributing it and making it accessible to all. There was the personal touch of saying ‘I want to know what the musician is all about’”.

As I recently bought my first record player to play records I’ve acquired on the second hand market, I find I am collecting records which were significant to my parents and which are part of my childhood memories of them playing or raving about them. When I bought the King Kong record, I bought two copies – one for myself and the other for my mother who often told me stories about hearing it played by her father in their house in Dube, Soweto. The significance of an “All African Jazz Musical” being accessible to African children in the 1950s has never been lost on me. It is not a mere act of nostalgia, but a longing to remember a time when creativity by Africans was in itself an act of rebellion against oppression and an assertion of identity in a time of denigration.

“I think the quality of music that still sits in the vinyl space because it was released at a particular time, is really amazing music that is timeless. People will always go back to that music. That keeps the vinyl space alive. That’s why you have the diggers who are digging for music that is amazing, that is not mainstream, that is rare and I think that is something that will always happen with music”, concluded Sisane.

Coming full circle, I mentioned to Sisane that I started out streaming the album I Press My Spine to the Ground by Carlo Mombelli and featuring spoken word performed by her – but had since bought an LP version at my favourite CD store in Braamfontein, Johannesburg called Just CDs. An amazing week spent with one of my radio idols ended with her coming over to autograph the LP for me – something that couldn’t happen with the streamed version downloaded to my phone.

By Mandisa Mpulo

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