Although each of the engagements was significant in its own right, the visit to Lea School was particularly important. There, students aged eight to fourteen were given a unique opportunity to experience the richness of South African jazz music, which they may not otherwise have a chance to learn about. For many of these students, this was the first time they had sat in the audience for a live musical performance.
South African jazz came to the United States largely through the exiled community of musicians who left South Africa under apartheid. These include musicians Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, and others. Uhadi is the generation of musicians who followed Ibrahim and Masekela. Uhadi musicians have been deeply immersed in the South African jazz scene since the 1970s and are leaders of their own bands. When most Americans think of the history of jazz, it is probably more likely to invoke images of New Orleans than images of Johannesburg, South Africa. Nevertheless, South Africa has its own rich history of jazz, and collectively, Uhadi represents over a hundred of years of South African jazz history.
Interestingly, the history of South African Jazz is deeply connected to the history of jazz in the United States. Before they became fixtures in South Africa’s professional jazz scene, most of Uhadi’s members’ musical journeys began in the 1950s and 1960s. At the Music Department colloquium, each of the members recounted childhood stories of their early musical influences drawn from both traditional South African musical genres as well as from U.S. jazz legends that we all know and love, such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among others. Like its role in the U.S. in serving as a voice to undermine segregation and oppression of African Americans, for South Africans, jazz has a meaning that transcends music. Uhadi described how jazz was a powerful political tool in the fight against Apartheid, the collection of racial segregationist and discriminatory policies instituted in South Africa until 1994. In fact, the band’s formation in 2014 celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Apartheid. Further, even during the height of Apartheid, jazz music attracted people of all races and from all walks of life, uniting South Africans in a time of fierce divisions. Many times band members risked their lives to perform in these integrated venues. Thus, Uhadi’s music is inseparable from the history of South Africa.
There is something poetic about Uhadi, an improv-jazz band formed in Johannesburg, playing in Philadelphia, a city that hosts one of the world’s most thriving musical communities. Watching Uhadi live in Philadelphia, performing both original compositions and iconic songs from South Africa, is to watch both a lesson in South African jazz history and to watch South African jazz history in the making. This visit was sponsored by the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund and the Netter Center’s Moorman-Simon Program, and was organized by Professor Carol Muller, the current Moorman-Simon fellow.
For me, this opportunity represents the culmination of a well-rounded Africana Studies education at the University of Pennsylvania. As a senior in the Department of Africana Studies I have had the opportunity to take a number of courses in African history, language, and culture. I have taken three classes with Professor Carol Muller, each of which focused on African music. In fact, last summer, as a member of Professor Muller’s Penn-in-Grahamstown class, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa’s National Arts Festival, where I was able to watch Uhadi preform in their home country. Although I am grateful to have had such enriching educational experiences at Penn, I am most proud of the fact that the University uses its resources not only to educate and enrich the Penn community but also to educate and enrich the surrounding West Philadelphia communities.
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