“This feels like home. This is home. I am home”. This is how jazz saxophonist – composer – scholar – activist Salim Washington describes his stay in South Africa. His very first visit to the country was in 2009 when he was invited to teach music at the University of KwaZulu – Natal (UKZN). In 2013, he became a full-time lecturer at the institution.
He was born in Memphis, Tennesee 59 years ago and moved to Detroit, Michigan where he spent most of his life. He grew up in what was “one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Detroit”. At the tender age of 9, he found himself drafted into a neighbourhood gang. The leader of the gang, who played the trumpet, goaded him into playing the instrument. He had a soft spot for the young Salim. He surpassed his leader who saw a huge potential in Salim and was excused from the gang.
When Marabi Jazz Lounge requested an interview with Salim, it took only a few hours to be invited to his Glenwood home that he shares with his beautiful wife Sindisiwe. A photo of American civil rights leader and academic Angela Davis is the first of the many photos that are displayed in his house. Lots of books can be seen just about everywhere in the house.
Asked at what age he realized that music was going to be a career for him, he said at around the age of 15. He was already listening to recordings by John Coltrane whose music he describes as ‘very intelligent’. “Jazz was Black art that was performed by intelligent artists that were passionate about what they recorded and performed”, he said.
Despite what he saw as racist attitudes from European teachers who felt classical music was far more superior to jazz Black music, he says he found relevance in jazz. “Jazz changed my life. I realized that jazz was the noble sound”, he said with a lot of confidence. He was raised in church where there was plenty of gospel music as well. “I was exposed to a lot of good music from a young age”, he added.
Besides drawing a lot of inspiration from John Coltrane and Miles Davis, there was a lot of political activism through Black consciousness that was led by civil rights leaders at the time. Describing the mood among the African American youth at the time, Salim says it was a golden era. “Through his music, Curtis Mayfield spoke to me. His music was rich and powerful”, recalling those years.
The golden era also extended to sports as well. “Sportsmen like Muhammed Ali were promoting Black consciousness through boxing”, he told Marabi Jazz Lounge. Besides Curtis, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations were also promoting Black consciousness through their lyrics. Music was inspiring and had the spirit.
He draws many parallels between the struggle of the African Americans and Black South Africans. “They suffered from racialised discrimination and settler colonialism”, Washington said. These were also largely driven by disparities between rich and privileged compared to the poor and marginalised.
Washington dropped out of Harvard University in 1976 to become a jazz musician and later returned to the institution in 2000 to complete his PhD. His undergraduate studies were about African American studies and his PhD was about African American civilization. “I have an interest in Black culture and Black history”, sounding unapologetic.
Before coming to stay in South Africa, he had met South African musicians including Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Johnny Dyani who were staying in the US at the time. He describes them as “geniuses”. The music they played opened his eyes and the realised that South African music was actually advanced.
“My wife is loving and supportive of what I do”, he said. His children are also raised as artists. “It runs in the family”, he added. He said parents who expect their children to be only lawyers and doctors are doing a disservice to the children and the entire community. They try too hard to protect the children. He said: “Children are not extensions of your dreams as parents. They must be allowed to follow their dreams”.
Salim strongly believes that the future looks bright for South African jazz artists. He emphasised that this country has a lot of great young musicians. Asked why some South African artists try too hard to emulate their US counterparts, he said colonialism comes in many forms even if it comes as a form of something looking attractive. He strongly believes that it is time they take pride in their own craft.
Forming an ensemble requires a lot of work. Ensembles must be able to deal with the music and the personalities. “Everybody must make a contribution and artists must understand each other”, he said. Salim also believes that government must support music in all forms. To illustrate the point, he said millions of rands are given to philharmonic orchestras but not given to maskandi artists.
He has recorded a total of five albums. He has also been featured in albums by artists including trombonist Aaron Johnson. His other work experiences include another trombonist Frank Lacy and multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Braxton. His previous releases include Harlem Homecoming where he works with Harlem Arts Ensemble and Love in Exile where he features the late pianist Joe Bonner.
It is his latest album Sankofa, however, that has raised his popularity among the South African musicians and jazz enthusiasts. It features the who’s who in the country’s music industry. Ayanda Sikade is on drums and whip, Dalisu Ndlazi on bass, Nduduzo Makhathini on piano while Leon Scharnick is on alto and tenor sax. Tumi Mogorosi makes a special appearance on the tracks Imililo and Tears for Marikana. Salim describes Nduduzo Makhathini as someone who is highly energetic and complements his style of playing.
Confining jazz slots to mostly Sundays on public and commercial radio stations is something that Salim is done deliberately to make jazz less popular than it is. “Jazz is a prestigious artform which must be restored and preserved”, he told Marabi Jazz Lounge. “Zoe the Seed is a vocalist I’m always happy to work with”, he added.
He strongly believes that getting students to obtain their graduation degrees should be a top priority. Nduduzo Makhathini does not only to teach but also to writes about South African jazz. “Bantu education was really a crime against humanity. It’s not yet Uhuru”, he concluded. He wants to play his part in having the music recorded and performed by South African artists preserved.