Opinion: Has Africa lost touch with jazz?


For a continent that had such a heavy hand in orchestrating what has come to be known as “Jazz”, Africa is yet to discover the premise and fundamentals of jazz. As the so called middle class binges, the conventional musical offerings have grown leaner and less appealing ushering in a new dawn for show organisers.

The last decade has seen numerous shows organised under the jazz prefix in East Africa, in particular, only to showcase instrumentalists. I have attended many “jazz shows” in my home country Uganda only to be startled by artists on the line up who don’t know the difference between Blues and Bebop.

With a growing middleclass, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya have taken to more sophisticated music genres to subtly announce their status in society. I remember going for my very first jazz safari in Uganda. I waited over three weeks for a free ticket (of course I couldn’t afford one) as the show was sold out months before the event. Norman Brown who’s George Benson’s (my favourite guitarist) protégé made his emphatic stroll to the stage only not to be recognised by the revellers. I was in utter disbelief; the crowd was oblivious to the prince of the west coast feel in modern Jazz. The show organisers had obviously anticipated this and tagged him with RnB crooner Joe Thomas who on the contrary wooed the crowd at a so-called “Jazz Safari”.


Rwanda too hasn’t been any different; I have made my way to the renowned “Jazz Junction”, only to be lost at crossroads. One Jazz Junction featured Ugandan soul artist Maurice Kirya which for me only compared to an indolent performance of an underpaid 70s prom band on the road. The performance lacked sophistication and I could tell what was coming next even before they played it. Many revellers just fail to understand what they bargained for.

My second Jazz Junction event in Rwanda featured a gentleman called Herbert on the saxophone and I could have sworn his coarse treatment of the instrument had Adolphe Sax (R.I.P) wish he hadn’t invented the saxophone. The mundane thought that playing incoherent melodies qualified for music had me consider asking for a refund at the gate.

What is Jazz?

Jazz is a genre of music that relies on syncopation and improvisation. You can’t play the same lick twice, (If you do, then you should apologise at the end of the show). Jazz stands for humble beginnings, jazz is storytelling, jazz is a skirmish between substitute chords, and altered chords. Jazz is contemplating chromaticism or dissonance while you’re on the stage. Jazz is that smile on Django Reinhardt’s face when he found out he played better than all the guitarists in his generation even though he he’d lost two left fingers in a caravan fire. Jazz is resilience of Pat Martino, a jazz guitarist who underwent a surgery that left him with amnesia  and without memory of the guitar only to spend ten years listening to his old recordings and re-learning how to play the guitar again. To sum it all up, you can’t have a jazz show without understanding the history and perilous journey of the genre.