Am 31. November 2019 startete das 55. Jazzfest Berlin mit einem Grand Opening, in dem es das Haus der Berliner Festspiele mit 10 Acts auf 5 Bühnen über 7 Stunden lang in ein „Haus of Jazz” verwandelte. Für die Eröffnungsrede konnte Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung gewonnen werden.

– after Caliban

Give your throat to everything,
not the word but the thing of it.
What the body speaks is untranslatable,
how always some unpeopled aching,
our mouths closed around the past
like knives.

Jah, mind our words,
our wound. Our runaway climbed deep
into these cockpit hills, kissed his good memory
into limestone, into blue fern-gully, built
that same fire combusting these stolen
margins, our sacred double gaze, shantytowns
slashed black from ear to ear.

Circumstance has made us strangers here,
wild dance we are slowly forgetting; what home.
The Mobay sky a lingering torch to mutiny. Rebellion.
Here I conspire with fish-monster, ignite and riot
with sugarcane, with shame-a-ladies, brush palms
in solidarity with each thorn, each shy tentacle,
our bodies opening and closing eager,
breathing the dark impossible.

How time holds me under
a shadow I cannot name, the bush-music and its sweet
bangarang. Do not wake me. Downtown
I’ll roam wild with the improbable goats,
window-cleaners careening through traffic,
ripe urchin bartering his endless hope:
Each day is usable, I want to tell them.
Our hunger is criminal, faces sewn shut.

We are tongue-tied with the songs
of unknown birds, an extinct diction. Fire burn
that shipwreck, its aimless curse. Jah, guide
these words, this life an invisible column, my one
bloodline stretching, red livewire vein, to appear across
these hijacked decades, inventing Paradise.

Safiya Sinclair, Cannibal

Act I

There has always been that need, especially by the historically precarized and disenfranchised, to engage in the invention and re-invention of utopias.
We are caught up in these dire moments, gripped in the claws of the extreme political and socio-economic exigencies of our times … Times in which thousands of people have left their homes as fragile collective bodies in Honduras or Guatemala, Cameroon or Nigeria, Syria or Yemen, to engage in the most inhumanly and uncomfortable processes of transitions on foot or through the perils of the desert or the Mediterranean sea, only to face demise or fortress Europe or USA . Times in which the shift to the extreme right, the resurrection of proto-fascism, the fortification of authoritarianism is no longer just a fear of something to come, but a reality— as we witness racists, misogynists, xenophobes and neo-liberals democratically elected in the USA, Brazil, Italy, Poland, India, England or Cameroon, and the rise of far-right political movements in Germany or England. Times in which in just a week pipe bombs are sent to political opponents and innocent people praying in a synagogue are assaulted. Times in which black and brown bodies, women and LGBTQ communities all around the world are literally in the line of fire and exposed to the menaces of patriarchy and hyper-capitalism.

In these arduous and challenging times, wherein we need all powers of imagination to conjure that utopia, these constellations that are reminiscent of the socio-political and economic contexts in which that thing we might choose to call jazz was birthed, what can jazz do?
May we take as cardinal point We Insist! Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite from 1960 – this quasi history lesson embodied in the sonic, which takes us from the duster crux of oppression, that is the slave chant “Driva’ Man”, through the invocation “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” – for which in the liner notes Nat Hentoff wrote that it is the “unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulating fury” and which ends by taking us back to Africa in a pledge for Freedom everywhere with “Tears For Johannesburg,” a piece composed in solidarity and as a response to the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa in 1960 in which the apartheid police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people.

In a late review of We Insist! Nick Reynolds wrote that “in the past forty years the word ‚freedom‘ has been chewed up, spat out, kicked around and used to justify pretty much anything. We Insist! takes you back to a time when it actually meant something.” (Nick Reynolds, 2007) Which is all to say jazz can do protest. It can be a catalyst for the expression of rage, it can be that space of catharsis in which protest is radical love. It can offer and facilitate solidarity and, in its sonicity, invoke a coalition of the oppressed. That kind of invocation which Dutty Boukman and Cécile Fatiman did at Bois Caïman in August 1791 and which served as the catalyst to the slave revolt that became the Haitian Revolution.

Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Jazzfest Berlin 2018 © Camille Blake

So what can jazz do?

But before ‘entertaining the idea of a coalition one necessarily needs to find one’s “self”… be it “by touching the back of our minds” as it is so compellingly reiterated in Nicole Mitchel and Black Earth Ensemble’s “Staircase Struggle” in Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds or be it in the form of what and how Zim Ngqawana described Zimology as “a study of the self. It’s about who I am, what I’ve done, what I’m doing and where I’m heading with my music.” He went on to state that “death can be studied through the silent moment after every exhalation when you breathe” and then suggests that “all great music is supposed to lead you to silence — towards yourself”. So, jazz can be that enabler of that introspective or reflection — physically, psychically and spiritually. The kind of quest for the self, which doesn’t have to follow a direct and linear trajectory of self-discovery or chrono-normativity, but it is a meandering through a plethora of bodies, geographical and spiritual spaces that Alice Coltrane took us through in Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse!, 1970), or when Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana take us by the ear on a mission of attaining that self through the incantation of a higher being in Illuminations (Columbia, 1974), and obviously through the divinity of Universal Consciousness (Impulse!, 1971) when that self is put in rhythm, sync and unison with the universe.

Whether genres like Malombo are considered jazz or not is irrelevant and a banality, for the Malombo that transformed jazz in South Africa is a Venda word that means “spirit”. While in the Pidgin of the grasslands of Cameroon jazz means witchery. The possibility of Malombo forbearers like Philip Tabane to tap from ancestral spaces, to evoke other musical traditions, to use jazz as a detournement through which the composers and musicians could relate to themselves, or as Galane points out in The music of Philip Tabane via Simiso Asher Gamedze’s thesis It’s in the out sides: An investigation into the cosmological contexts of South African jazz when he writes that, “In malombo, the lelombo/lelopo or the lead singer and initiate practitioner leads the song and the other initiates or malombo/malopo respond. The structure is cyclical with a constant chorus and varied solo sections. The language of indigenous malombo/malopo is often the indigenous language of the initiate”. Thus, jazz can thrust us and accompany us into those spiritual spheres.

So what can jazz do?

Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka was very critical towards the white jazz critic and musician in Jazz and the White Critic, 1960, when he said that the first white critics sought to understand jazz so as to understand the secret of the subculture from which the music was issued and the secret of the black man’s life as much as to appropriate the secrets and that the major flaw of the white critic is that he strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent because jazz cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes which produced it, and also that because “the majority of jazz critics are white middlebrows, most jazz criticism enforces white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them.” (Amiri Baraka, Jazz and the White Critic, Black Music, New York: Morrow, 1960) Despite this tough love from Baraka, jazz has always been and is still one of the most hospital of forms and disciplines one can imagine. It has been a host to music genres from India through Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia or Finland to Brazil, and even Germany, just as much as it has been guest to music cultures all over the world. Jazz has been a host to peoples/musicians from varying geographical spaces, all races, classes and genders, as one can see in the Bamako*Chicago Sound System or the Black Earth Ensemble. And jazz has lent itself as a vessel to and carrier of all kinds of existential issues, love messages, burdens, and more, and it is its ability to lay bare the fragilities of being host and guest simultaneously that one needs to dig deeper into.

What can Jazz do?

In thinking about what jazz can do, we dare not forget about the healing aspects of the sonic. A healing not only of singular body and mind, but the healing of the collective body and mind. In 2014, Hrayr Attarian published an article  on jazz and healing, music therapy in certain neurological illnesses, and especially in relation to the trumpeter Louis Smith, known amongst others for his albums Here Comes Louis Smith (Blue Note, 1958) and Smithville (Blue Note, 1958). ( Louis Smith suffered a stroke in 2006 that led to a complete paralysis of his right arm, leg and the right side of his face, as well as loss of linguistic abilities. Speech language pathologists used an ingenious method to help Smith regain his language, by asking him to re-learn to play the trumpet. Through Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) Smith retrieved some functional language, learned to play the trumpet with his left hand and engaged again in improvisation. Interestingly, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka writes in his 1963 essay A Jazz Great: John Coltrane that one night while listening to Coltrane play the head of “confirmation” over and over again more than 20 times as his improvised solo, it felt to him frighteningly like watching a grown-up man learn to speak. And he was convinced that this is what was happening. Research has shown that during improvisation, activity increases in areas of the brain responsible for autobiographical narrative and internally motivated, self-generated, and stimulus-independent behaviours.

The spiritual healing in the sonic has also be discussed widely. In the aforementioned text by Simiso Asher Gamedze, he describes illness as the repossession or that moment of entry of the ancestors in the bodies of the living, thus “the function of Malombo is to heal a sick person through possession,” and the person is healed if the spirit succeeds in entering (Victor Ralushai,  The origin and social significance of Malombo, 1984).
Amongst the Gnawas, the spiritually weak, possessed and so-called mad are healed though the performance of Gnawa music and ritual practices performed under the guidance of a maalem. Through the performativity of liturgies called lila or derdeba, the Gnawa ceremonies recreate the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity.

So what can jazz do?

Being a sound born of resistance, jazz too must be looked at through the complexities of resistance that go beyond resistance as an affront, but especially escape and retreat in the form of marronage as resistance. Jazz as marronage itself and as enabler of marronage. In the binary of ‘fight or flight’, it is often fight that is considered the active form of resistance. But in the history of slavery in the Caribbean and Latin American slave enterprises for instance, in Barbados, Brazil, Jamaica, or Suriname, but also in the Indian ocean, for example in La Reunion, marronage served as a possibility for slaves to escape from plantations and create maroon communities in the peripheries of slave enterprises: Be it the “petit marronage,” in which people escaped for a short period of time to then return or “grand marronage,” in which they escaped permanently. At the heart of it all are strategies of resistance, which sometimes led to rebellions across some colonies. In their hideouts, the maroons could challenge the plantation system by the sheer act of absence, depriving the plantation of its workforce, attacking the plantations or negotiating their freedom and autonomy, but also encouraging or inciting others to follow suit.

But what is also fascinating about the act and space of marronage is the ability to retreat from light and enlightenment, which is tantamount to the plantation, into darkness. Darkness not as the opposite of light, but as that space to which we the maroons and other initiated have access, but not all. Darkness as that space in which we who have been condemned to invisibility have sought comfort in. Darkness as that space in which you can’t see us because you are in light/enlightened, but we can see you … and most especially we can see us, as in each other of us, and take care of each other, because our eyes have accommodated to that darkness and we can feel each other. So, in these dire socio-political moments, jazz can offer us that retreat; that darkness; that space of marronage; that escape from those spaces of hyper-illumination. Jazz can offer us sonic and physical spaces of recalibration and restrategizing. Spaces for the initiated, in which we can afford to be safe; to deal with existential issues, do poetry, live life, or just be human. Nicole Mitchell put is more sophisticatedly in Staircase Struggle when she says:

Some had the fortune to stick our hands in the black soil. We instinctively learned that dark matters. That’s where the mind is free. Birds sing interlocking songs of imagination. An image nation of endless possibility. There is a place of innovation, of improvisation, of impossible. That’s where our survival is. Many have dipped to drink its power. Darkness is the beauty and will always be. New worlds and words can change this illusionary one. Enter.

So, what can jazz do?

Jazz is not afraid to be or offer a space of uncertainty. It is not afraid of vulnerability.
“Art at its best is able to show vulnerability. It is able to show the humanity of the artist and intern inspire that humanity and vulnerability in the beholder.” said Black Thought aka Tariq Trotter in Between The World And Black Thought.

Toxic masculinity has falsely informed us that vulnerability is a weakness and patriarchy a strength. In my conversations on vulnerability with my colleague and friend Natasha Ginwala, I am always reminded that vulnerability can be a position of strength rather than weakness; it can be a position of resistance rather than of passivity. So, jazz can offer those spaces wherein people and society could show their wounds, and the history of jazz shows this. The process of turning to each other and acknowledging that we all have some kind of wound is crucial. For it is only by acknowledging that vulnerability that we can really see each other, converse with each other and heal each other. Art can be that space or possibility of presenting the wounds of our times and then a possibility of individual and collective healings. Of catharsis. How can jazz help us in processes of making and unmaking or becoming sound again – cognitively, emotionally, corporeally, societally and humanly.

Act II

To me, Berlin has always, in some weird and perverse way, stood for the demise of jazz. Not because of Berlin’s jazz scene per se, but because it was in Berlin that two people, who beyond playing jazz for me were the embodiment and epitome of jazz, transitioned.

On June 28th 1964, Eric Allan Dolphy, American flautist, clarinetist and saxophonist collapsed in Berlin and died the next day in a Berlin hospital, apparently from an undiagnosed diabetic condition, at the age of 36. This virtuosic improviser had just recorded a performance 27 days before his death in the Netherlands which was then released as “Last Date,” the same year, 1964, that the album “Out to Lunch!” was released. Dolphy was on a European tour with Charles Mingus‘ sextet in early 1964 and was preparing to join Albert Ayler for a recording. Rumour has it that when Dolphy collapsed and was brought to the hospital the physician on call thought Dolphy had suffered a drop overdose, though Dolphy had avoided alcohol and drugs all his life. It is said that the delay in treatment led to at least speeded up his demise. Whether these rumours are true or not is rather irrelevant, what is of interest is the sudden end of a tender jazz life in Berlin.

Johnny Mbizo Dyani, undoubtedly one of the best double bassists from the African continent had fled apartheid South Africa in 1964 to seek for greener political and musical pastures in Europe. Mbizo was a member of the jazz outfit, The Blue Notes, with Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Chris McGregor, Nikele Moyake and Louis Moholo, and later member of The Brotherhood of Breath, as much as he was co-founder of Xaba with Mongezi Feza and Okay Temiz. Jazz was never meant to be the same again after Mbizo and fellow travellers set foot in Europe and America extensively recording with Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Don Cherry, Mal Waldron, and many others.

In 1986 Mbizo was working towards a Johnny Dyani South African Project’s Germany tour amongst others with singer Pinise Saul in collaboration with the Jazz Gegen Apartheid project, led by Jürgen Leinhos. According to Lars Rasmussen, the tour opened in Quartier Latin in Berlin, as part of the Berlin Festival on 16 October 1986. On the day of the concert, Mbizo conducted the rehearsals lying on the floor not feeling well, but was fit enough to play in the evening. However, after the concert, he collapsed backstage and fell into a coma. After 10 days in a coma at Elisabeth Krankenhaus, Mbizo transitioned on 26 thOctober, at the aged of 39 (Lars Rassmussen, When Man and Bass Became One. Johnny Dyani 1947-1986, 2003).
Unfortunately these events have influenced my perception of jazz and Berlin, though one must take time to acknowledge the incredible jazz scene of this city from the early stages of Der Funk-Stunde Berlin, Berliner Jazztage later Jazzfest Berlin, Berliner Free Music Production (FMP), Jazzbühne Berlin, Jazz in der Kammer, or Jazz im tip, just to name a few. And there is hope. Hope because if Berlin despite its sophisticated jazz history still confers the memory of demise, Berlin could also be the place of revivification. Hope because with the appointment of a young curator for the Jazzfest Berlin, Nadin Deventer, a woman who comes from the grassroots of jazz activities in the Ruhr and Brussels while also involved in the European Jazz Network, a curator who, though individualised here, indeed is an ambassador of a generation of people who embrace a different understanding of jazz, while circumventing the hyperfamiliar, a curator whose first season sees the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell, Moor Mother, Tania Giannouli Trio, Hamid Drake & Yuko Oshima, Julien Deprez & Rob Mazurka and many others. There is hope.

But there is especially hope and joy because we will begin this festival with the wonderful Nicole Mitchell performing with her Black Earth Ensemble Mandoral Awakening – Emerging Worlds – which was commissioned in 2015 by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – for the first time in Germany.
It gives me great joy and honour to introduce to you the celebrated composer and flutist Nicole Mitchell, who amongst many other accolades was president of AACM in Chicago between 2009 and 2011 before taking up a professorship in California. She will be accompanied by AVERY R. YOUNG vocals, KOJIRO UMEZAKI shakuhachi, HÉLÈNE BRESCHAND harp, TOMEKA REID cello, banjo, Hannes HUBER, guitar, TATSU AOKI bass, shamisen, taiko and JOVIA ARMSTRONG percussion.
There is hope in these dire moments we live in because through the music of Nicole Mitchell we can imagine a new utopia and re-invent existing ones. As Nicole Mitchell so aptly sites in the sign off of her email:
“Welcome to the beginning of a new era. The time for justice, clarity, cooperation, awakening …”

Thank you! And enjoy the festival …