"One day I bought a horn."
Reflections on time with Sydney Mnisi at the Afrikan Freedom Station
He’s a born innovator. There’s no other way of being in this world for Sydney. I see the excitement carefully constructed, sometimes with restraint and sometimes with absolute risk. He ignites when he’s creating something. He’d told me once that it’s difficult to stop the train once he’s on it.
I’ve heard Sydney Mnisi reject the label of Africanness once. “I am Universal” he told a pretentious white bar owner. Our conversations are of struggle and of justice, of our art and the politics of its making, of other musicians we’ve checked, harmony, form, texture, tone and mostly of expression and meaning. He is always hunting, searching and exploring. For Sydney each performance is the site of a search. It is a continuation of the struggle. In the audience, at the receiving end of his transmission, I’d like to believe that we’re witnessing the pursuit of a higher spirit: a cosmic being.
He is not afraid. He isn’t afraid to play, to make mistakes, to work with them and to move through the changes. He’s also not afraid of re-appropriation and finds no limitation of his expression in starting the journey where someone else left-off, the last line of a preceding soloist is often the first of his own. I think here of the Jazz standard - tunes composed by European, Creole and in some cases Black Americans, the former for entertainment and the latter as a politics of resistance and the blues. Tunes composed from a century ago, thousands of kilometers away, across a continent of social discord. Tunes originally written for shows, musicals and the like about happy places and colonial faces and the poetics of their existence that through the subversion of improvisation became retuned to tell stories about slaves, freemen, oppressed women, African magic and orphaned children through Ellington’s Voodoo, bass-lines in Brown and the soaring enlightenment of Clifford.
A century later, on another continent, we’re at a jam session on the outskirts of Sophiatown, Johannesburg, a city founded on the backs of migrant African people, where immigrant opportunists like my forebears befriended colonial powers to make the exploitation real. The place is frequented by the woke brown types (me), white children of the soil and by Black African people. Through our conversations it’s clear that we’re the children of a land that belongs to nobody but us. Everyone here is trying to make sense of it, and by sense – I think what we really mean is peace. To accept the unknown road ahead and to begin to walk it. Our versatile minds gravitate frantically to find a place, a common ground, an eviction, a massacre or an exodus, perhaps a genocide – to grab our logic by the hand and guide our emotions through our own versions of righteousness. Our versions of justice don’t comprehend the complexity of our paradoxical lived situations and of our horrific history. We’re at odds with ourselves and deeply at odds with one another. We’re speaking past each another and can’t find the tools to listen or to articulate our thoughts. We’re in need of some binder or some lubrication just to ease this friction. At this place though we’re mostly silent and come to share the music.
Sydney’s one of the older voices in this space. He speaks mostly through his horn, but when you hang around for long enough and you keep asking questions with wide eyes like I do – he’ll share some words too. Sydney found liberation from an oppressed life through music. “I used to buy a lot of records, one day I bought a horn” he once told me. He also added that he was 28, already married with a kid and in a stable job at an engineering firm, but he had a calling and had to respond. He related stories of how he didn’t have a gig bag (one of those fancy foam types that strap onto your back) and trekked uphill a few kilometers everyday with his tenor in one of those vintage coffin cases to get to the station in Tembisa in time, to get to his classes at Pretoria Technikon. People around the town said he was into witchcraft and carting bodies in there. He laughed at all of this, with the kind of deep enjoyment I’ve seldom heard since.
I’ve thought a lot about this level of sacrifice. I’ve asked myself, what drives one to dive straight into risk, the way that Sydney did? Was it the appeal of a freedom of expression that was previously silenced, of travelling the world, fame and a life of music? I like to believe Sydney found a necessary sense of power and meaning in rewriting the already written in his own voice, in recycling the melodic content of the imported popular world of his youth and in asserting a veracious discovery of his own humanity. That journey I know now has no destination. He’s shared this sentiment, time and time again and simultaneously challenged it by playing more than anyone else does every time he takes a solo, just in case he might accidentally one-day, reach one.
At jam sessions like these, we play together on Jazz standards from The Realbook. This anthology also known as the Great American Songbook is not African, nor is it ours. It’s from America and African Americans like Wynton Marsalis like to say that its use in Jazz is the true heritage and cultural invention of African American people. His phrasing of that sentiment perpetuates a sense of preservation which although enabling to an identity of African Americans, is exclusionary of related and necessary forms of improvisation praxis happening in other parts of the world - in other worlds like Sydney’s and my own.
Could its usage be a kit of parts for humanity? A tool for forgotten people who seize power in subversion and limitless appropriation. Is it any more than a set of measures for a drum to set a pulse to, upon which a bassline pockets itself that becomes the canvas for coloring a life? The horn, needling its way through a melody, questions and calls, responding to itself and others, challenging and accepting, asking more and more of itself and of the people who accompany it. A hornman like Sydney, a master of appropriation and subversion, whose sacrilege is in throwing things away.
Jazz as I understand it, does this. It simultaneously and necessarily acknowledges the I in me, the You in I and the I in you and the other in all of us. It makes palatable a story of us with whatever materials we truthfully bring to the session. It’s necessarily messy, ugly and difficult. It’s painfully disappointing and disheartening at times. It’s risky. This is the secret of its modality. I’d like to believe that if we’re patient and persistent enough and we jump into the risk of its making, there will always be something meaningful for us to listen to.