Music and the Remaking of the World: An Interview with Valmont Layne

When considering the significance of music to life,

Valmont Layne reflected “that what inspires me is the place that music can have in building people's capacity to deal with the world around them and to remake the world.” He would know. Layne grew up in Cape Town during apartheid, his family removed to the Cape Flat as part of the government’s policy of enforcing segregation. He found his idiom, and joined the mobilization of his generation to end apartheid, through music.

Layne is a musician, activist, museum curator, documentarian, and a scholar currently holding the position of Next Generation Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. His research has been on jazz, a concept of ‘the sonic,’ and the history of goema music—a style of music particular to the Cape, but as Layne will tell you, it is also connected to musical traditions that circulate around the world.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Layne sat down with journalists Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamps (hosts of To The Best of Our Knowledge) at a CHCI-sponsored institute on the Humanities throughout Africa. In the conversation that follows, Layne discusses growing up under apartheid, the role of music in activism against that regime, and the poignant histories of jazz, goema, and carnival.

If you would like a soundtrack while you read, consider a bright and energizing collection of Going Goema, or the slow-burning improvisations of the best-selling South African jazz albumYakhal’ Inkomo. You will find many more recommendations for your listening below. You might also check out Layne’s essay “The ‘abnormality’ of Cape Town’s traditional carnival” that he wrote for Africa is a Country.

Valmont Layne: I grew up in Cape Town. I was born in 1966, which was the year that the South African apartheid state declared District Six, a district in Cape Town, to be a white-only area. This was part of the National Party’s policy of implementing segregation. In that year, the fate of tens of thousands of families was sealed. The city's geography was reorganized into what we now have as the racial geography of Cape Town, created by force and with tremendous costs in human misery. I grew up in District Six, and then we moved to what's called the Cape Flat, which was the outlying township to which people had been banished. In my memories of growing up there, I often think of images of places where war is happening, where kids grow up playing cowboys and crooks among broken buildings. That's my memory of the place. It is a legacy that many South African towns and communities deal with, but District Six is the most referenced example of that phenomenon. So, that is my background in the sense that I grew up in its wake as part of a generation that became radicalized because of apartheid and, eventually, drove apartheid out.

Steve Paulson: So, you have strong memories from when you were growing up of the politics and the oppression that was happening around you?

VL: Absolutely. When I was ten years old, the 1976 riots happened. I remember my father that year had to go to fetch my sister at the high school, which was within walking distance, because he was so worried that kids were being shot. From the window of our apartment, I could see teenagers learning to make petrol bombs and helping each other to make these rudimentary devices with petrol and rags, then running out to find cops to throw them at. I grew up with a lot of violence. I'm a very passive, non-violent person, and when I look back on my life I think maybe that stuff shaped me.

Anne Strainchamps: And when you say that you were part of the generation that became radicalized, and that the experience of violence shaped you, do you mean also that you become a political activist?

VL: I was an activist from my teenage years. The generation right before mine, of the 1976 riots, was the generation of people like Cyril Ramaphosa who is now the president of South Africa. 1976 was, in a way, the beginning of the end of apartheid: there had never been such a massive uprising by young people. I think the government was terrified by young people with that kind of intensity of opposition because young people look to the future, and they want a future. The generation after that, of which I am a part, is the explosion that happened around 1985, which was qualitatively different.

SP: What happened in 1985?

VL: 1985 was like the riots of 1976 but on a scale that was just completely different. There had been a Black consciousness moment in 1976 with Steve Biko, so that by 1985, Black consciousness was no longer a question. The kids of 1985 who were out on the streets had already internalized what Black consciousness was teaching or they were radicalized in cultural terms. What I'm trying to get at is that we were much more confident. For example, I grew up with the languages of English and Afrikaans, and you need to know that in 1976 kids were rejecting Afrikaans. In 1985, Afrikaans became a language of mobilization. It’s analogous with the queer movement, where being queer had been an insult and later became a term of strength and mobilization. So, when I started getting interested in music, I joined a band that played, in Afrikaans, local versions of pop music or folk music. We articulated our anger in Afrikaans, in street-Afrikaans, not the Afrikaans of the educated, white elite, but of the Black majority. For me, that was amazing. I came out of that experience realizing how powerful this language is and why it's important to think about issues of justice through the ways in which ordinary people communicate.

SP: And the music itself was part of this process of becoming radicalized?

VL: Absolutely.

SP: Why was that?

VL: You’ll need to know that when I was growing up, and when I was a teenager, something like R&B music—which today is ubiquitous and everybody's annoyed by it—was something you couldn't easily get access to. It was a precious thing to find, and people used to have these little informal networks where you could try to get Earth Wind & Fire records or Michael Jackson or whatever. There was, I remember, one program on the radio that was allowed to play Black music from America. The state told you what you could listen to. Most of what was on the radio was stuff that we would not identify with as Black youth. So, just getting access to music from outside became desirable.

SP: On its surface, R&B doesn't seem especially political.

VL:No, no, it doesn't. But we were kids. At that age, what do you think about as a typical teenage boy? You're thinking about going to dances, meeting girls, and you want a soundtrack to all of that. DJs were playing the stuff that they were getting from these informal networks; it wasn't banned, just not encouraged. So, we wanted access to that kind of cachet, that kind of coolness.

AS: Any particular songs or artists?

VL: From that time, it was a lot of disco, but I also think of artists like Robbie Jansen, Pacific Express, and The Drive. There were a few Black artists: Margaret Singana and, later on, Brenda Fassie. I grew up with Earth Wind & Fire, Bob Marley, and The Whispers. Linton Kwesi Johnson, a British artist, demonstrated more of the political stuff coming through, and, in 1985, Linton Kwesi Johnson was very big for me.

SP: And you were playing music too?

VL: I was learning to play the guitar in the early ‘80s, and by 1985 I was a soloist. I performed some original stuff and covers. It's funny, one of the songs I performed is a little-known Lionel Richie song called “Heroes.” It just resonated to me. Look it up. It speaks about ordinary people's ability to change the world.

What I need to communicate to you, though, is the idea of being able to party to music that was being made by people in our own community and in the language that we spoke. That was so powerful. I spoke about Robby Jansen, a saxophone player. He didn't regard himself as a jazz musician but more of a pop musician, and he's become sort of a folk hero in a radicalized idea of folk sensibility. That, for me, was inspiring.

But to bring that into a deeper historical context, there's another group, called The Genuines, who played a type of punk rock that they blended with goema, which is itself a contested field of music that comes from the nineteenth century. Goema is the music of the slaves at the Cape, and Cape Town is unique because it is one of the few places on the African continent where slaves were being imported from other places. So, unlike the rest of the continent, where slaves are being exported to the Americas in general and to the United States in particular, Cape Town was importing slaves and building an economy based on slavery. So, there are a lot of parallels between Cape Town, the Caribbean, the United States, and Brazil, where there's a carnival culture built on a slave culture with a particular racial hierarchy.

SP: You're saying, then, that Cape Town has a distinct history within South Africa and within apartheid?

VL: Yes, but at the same time, I want to point out some complications in that way of telling this history because in my own research, I emphasize the commonalities that Cape Town has with the rest of Africa. South African exceptionalism is a common talking point, and it emphasizes the idea that apartheid is somehow different from the rest of Africa. My sense is that there is another way of thinking about that, which links Cape Town to other parts of Africa. Apartheid is not unique to South Africa. Mahmood Mamdani, for example, speaks of apartheid as the generic form of the colonial state, not as an exception. That's an interesting way of understanding because it becomes a concept that we can use further and say that what we are experiencing in the world right now is a globalization of apartheid.

AS: Wow, can you can unpack that?

VL: I will try to give a sense of what I mean by talking about goema music. Goema is a word that has been attached to the music of slave-descendant communities and has been subjected to highly racialized language. That has been perpetuated by academics who have only written about goema as an ethnographic phenomenon: goema as the music of the colored people, as an expression of that identity. All of the studies that have been created up to now speak about it in that fashion. But that's just not my experience of the music. As I was telling you, I listened to R&B, to reggae music, and when I listened to Robbie Jansen or The Genuines, this punk group, they were doing something much more interesting for me. Often, it's intangible sensibilities. It's in languages. It's in mannerisms. It's in peculiar expression. These artists made an argument for goema music as part of the broader South African vision that is not applicable to colored people only. As long as you're speaking with a sense of integrity, you can do anything with any kind of music. And that struck with me. That is what I'm getting at with this moment in 1985 when, as a young person, I was also beginning to realize that there's a whole body of experience of music that existed throughout the world and, in fact, was forced to move around the world not just in a distant past but in the period when apartheid triumphed. For example, South African jazz was literally uprooted and landed in New York, London, Zurich, and other places.

SP: Because South African jazz musicians moved to those places?

VL:Because they were compelled to. Remember that the vision of apartheid is to ruralize Black life. The notion that citizenship is only available to white people, as the colonial regime defined white people, and everybody else is either Black and ethnic, and therefore rural, means that apartheid created a system in which Black people can only ever be tribal. And so they need to live in the tribal homelands or, as some of these musicians did, leave the country. Within South African apartheid, the distinction was forced to be between white citizens and Black subjects.

AS: As the city became something for white people only.

VL: Exactly. So, from a segregationist’s perspective, what do you do with jazz? Jazz tends to take place where people can gather, but in apartheid rule, Black people had no business being in cities unless they were there to work on a temporary basis. From that point of view, jazz was seen to create all kinds of false hope for Black people: living in cities, being sophisticated, studying mathematics, all kinds of other things. So, jazz gets uprooted, it becomes closed off, it becomes a racialized.

AS: Do you think that jazz’s improvisatory nature creates something that feels kind of radical too?

VL: There were certainly radical elements of it. In this period, jazz emerged as the new language of Black urbanity, and in the early 1960s, there was a radical jazz movement in South Africa, which made its last stand in Cape Town. After getting closed down in Johannesburg and other places, all the artists, the radicals, convened in Cape Town for a couple of years before that scene was wiped out.

SP: Who were some of those jazz artists in that scene?

VL: Abdullah Ibrahim is probably the most well-known of that crowd. There are some notable groups too like The Blue Notes.

AS: They weren’t connected to the Blue Note Records label?

VL:No, they weren’t. The Blue Notes were a sextet led by Chris McGregor on piano and Dudu Pukwana on alto sax. They were, in a way, taking the lead from Abdullah Ibrahim's group, called The Jazz Epistles, which had Hugh Masekela in it. The Blue Notes eventually had to leave the country, and there's a wonderful book by Maxine McGregor, called Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, which talks about those last years in South Africa when they were trying to find gigs. Eventually, they went into exile, and they landed in Switzerland, never to return. But they went on to influence the free improvisation of jazz both in the United States and, quite significantly, in Europe and particularly in London. They brought a certain kind of African modernity to Europe that got people set alight.

SP: It’s fascinating because usually the story is told the other way around, about how jazz started in the United States and then spread to other countries. You're talking about influences in different directions too.

VL: Yes, it's interesting, there’s a very close parallel development between South Africa and the United States around jazz. Just for example, think about John Coltrane and Winston Mankunku. Mankunku was a student of Coltrane's, and there're many parallels between the two of them. Mankunku grew up in Cape Town, this hostile environment as the neighborhood he grew up in was being destroyed, and while he was a novice musician, he had to travel into the white part of town to learn music. By the end of the 1960s, he had spent years studying with John Coltrane, learning not only the music but also Coltrane’s way of working. Winston nearly plays himself to death. The musicians tell stories about how Mankunku would fall asleep at night with the saxophone dangling from his mouth. Then, in 1968, he produced this album called Yakhal’ Inkomo, which, again, is an engagement with folk traditions. The words “Yakhal’ Inkomo” mean the cry of a bull as it is being slaughtered. I won't go into all of this, but those words are particularly meaningful because the production of that album drained Mankunku physically, it drained him emotionally, and it drained him financially. Then, it became the most commercially successful jazz album in South African history, and he never got paid for that album. I think he just lost all sense of direction for years after that. He did recover, but the point I'm making is that the creative process of jazz, as it evolved in South Africa, parallels the struggles that people had to endure to make music and to create.

AS: Can you tell us about what made that album so remarkable?

VL: Right now, Yakhal’ Inkomo is experiencing a revival in South Africa among young people. It's quite interesting, actually, that you asked that question because, of course, there have been many other great albums. But, Yakhal’ Inkomo seems to have captured the imagination of a new generation of young intellectuals who think of it as a kind of a touchstone for something that they can reach back to, as something that they can claim as a heritage. So, there's quite a bit of writing and engagement going on now among young, very hip, Black people.

AS: Is the album so fascinating and compelling because of its musical inventiveness or the politics built into it?

VL: Both. Winston was able to draw not only from Coltrane—which, as I said, was not an easy relationship—but also from a style of music called vocal jive including artists like Dolly Rathebe and The Manhattan Brothers. Those were artists of what’s called the “drum generation.” South Africa had a golden age of journalism in the 1950s when Black writers and Black intellectuals were producing journalism, poetry, visual art, and the drum generation was their music, asserting a Black permanence and urban identity after the Second World War while apartheid was working against their flourishing. Yakhal’ Inkomo also draws from that, so both art and politics.

SP: And jazz itself is mixing traditions and mixing cultures in a way that’s totally antithetical to what apartheid segregation tried to do, right?

VL: Exactly. So, Winston was taking John Coltrane’s improvisational style and vocal jive and then creating something that you can dance to. And that’s really serious. It’s amazing to think about this especially in Johannesburg, people listening to improvisational music and dancing.

SP: So, you’re saying that it’s not just the music being played but where people are listening to it, the dancing—the physical spaces?

VL: While Winston was making this music, the world was crumbling around him and changing rapidly. It was a traumatic experience just to get out of your door and go into town. You could get—and people often were—beaten up by the police and arrested. There're so many stories of oppression; some became tropes. In the narratives of jazz history, for example, stories of people playing behind curtains because the place was supposed to be a white-only venue and the bar or club wasn’t allowed to advertise that Black people would perform.

One of the things that sadly continues, despite the new confidence that young people have, is that there's also so much negative messaging, and so it is now even more important for young people to get to have hope. Hope is the scarcest resource in poor communities. How does a traumatized community rebuild itself? How do you not repeat abuses of the past? These traumas need to be dealt with and healed to create new behaviors and new opportunities.

AS: How do you begin to address those issues? And could you tell us a bit more about your research, the connection between goema music and the relationship between colonialism and apartheid, and, as you said, their globalism?

VL: In my research, what I'm saying is if we think about goema music as a process rather than as a fixed form, then it opens up all kinds of possibilities for understanding how race got produced and how it can now get reproduced. Because those identities now become things that people defend, when in fact they’re based on very little.

So, for example, and to be a bit more precise, part of the recovery project is thinking about how goema music came into being, realizing the connection with the Caribbean, and, in some senses, trying to understand a little bit more deeply what the Cape Colony, and Cape Town's, relationship is with the Indian Ocean. If you think about Cape Town's slaves, more than 90 percent of them came from the Indian Ocean. And that identity has been ossified in this notion of Cape Malay. So, at the discursive level, I'm trying to understand the source of particular identity. Why do we now have this identity called Cape Malay when we know that it is a fabricated identity and when it served apartheid to have this category?

SP: And you’re saying that process parallels other forms of racialized identity, which has become globalized?

VL: One of the things I can see immediately is that wherever there's been a colonial experience, there is a legacy of military music and dance music. Quadrilles, for example: you get quadrilles in different parts of the African continent. You also get them in Brazil. You get them in the Caribbean and in New Orleans. So, when I think about the goeman rhythm, there's such a strong affinity between the rhythm of Cape Carnival and some of the Caribbean zouk. Or you can name a number of Carnival musics in different parts of South America and in the United States, and they all sound very similar to goema music. People often think of their connections as somehow ineffable, that it’s like the sound of magic. But it's not only magic, it’s also real and you can trace it in quite material ways. You can think about how that’s been done for the career of quadrille and its mixtures with other music in different parts of the world in order to get a much greater sense of a global music and of global interaction between musics. That history also gives you a sense of how race gets produced in different parts of the world.

SP: Just as a point of clarification, when you talk about carnival music, do you essentially mean a type of folk music?

VL: Yes, although people make carnivals for their own reasons and now carnivals are commercialized too, so there’s another layer of something that's going on. But, what I'm trying to do is to thread, from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, how sound has been a way of knowing. Sound is knowledge. If you trace the sound, and a sense of the sonic, through different texts and discourses, what do you get? It's like language. If you think about that parallel, there’s Dutch as a language and, in Africa, the Dutch had their way of speaking with one another and they had a pidgin or creole, which they used to communicate with the slaves and which became Afrikaans. Similarly, with music in the nineteenth century, there existed a state of tension between printed music—or sheet music, which was how quadrille traveled to different places—and, unwritten vernacular variations like square music in Cape Town or what is called camp quadrille in the Caribbean.

I’ll give you another example: probably the most famous song in the repertoire of goema music is about a Confederate ship called The Alabama that arrived in Cape Town in 1863 in order to kidnap and to disrupt trade with the United States. The song became captured, so to speak, and it’s a bizarre thing.

AS: Bizarre because of the lyrics?

VL: Bizarre because, first, in the 1840s Blackface minstrelsy had come to Cape Town at about the same time that it was beginning to take off in the United States. In 1863 minstrelsy music was the pop music of the day, and this song, “The Alabama,” was a minstrel song sung in Blackface. So, why does that song become what is still the most popular song of carnival? Why does it resonate through the centuries?

AS: Why?

VL: It is because, I think, it resonates at a number of levels as a herald of a new century. First, the Dutch colonial influences are beginning to wane, the British colonial influences are beginning to gain, and then there's the United States beginning to expand its cultural popularity. Second, the ship itself is an argument about technology, it’s driven by steam in addition to sail, and so it was a new kind of warship. Before it actually arrived in Cape Town, it had been in the news for a month because of rumored sightings as it had been harassing Northern ships, patrolling the oceans, and even having captured a United States’ trading ship called the Sea Bride. So, third, it is like 9/11 in that it is the first great spectacle of the century in which tens of thousands of people, assembled in boats on the beach and on the mountains, watched. There had been a journalist onboard who traveled with the ship, and he documented this incredible moment when the crew were overwhelmed with people coming to see this thing, this steam-powered sloop, that they've been reading about and then got to watch as it captured another ship without shots fired. So, the song, “Daar Kom Die Alabama,” is a minstrel song from the Confederacy and is now at the center of the carnival in Cape Town.

SP: I want to bring this history up to the present, then, because you’ve been talking about how radical music was in terms of what it meant to people, particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m wondering if there is anything comparable to that in music today. Since we’re here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where there is great jazz scene and a particularly important club called Fendika. Can you tell us about that?

VL: It's a fascinating place. Really it's another example of that resonance with the past and place, change and identity. If you're talking about Addis Ababa as a city, one can’t help but to be struck by the number of construction sites. There is an explosion of construction; most of them are fairly ugly high-rise buildings, but maybe they're going to look better later on. And then there’s this informal economy spread around these skyscrapers. As a South African it’s fascinating because you wouldn't see that in Cape Town. Cape Town has its shiny, high-rise buildings in one part of town, and the informal economy and small shops in another. In Addis Ababa, they’re mixed together. And, as people who have studied this have commented, development and displacement often go together. I just told you the story of District Six, and it's a similar sort of thing here: today in Addis Ababa people living in an informal space are being threatened with eviction because the state wants to build.

Now, there’s a very famous local artist (Melaku Belay) in Addis Ababa who is using his clout as an artist and founded this cultural club called Fendika, and he's trying to say that this club is going to defend its piece of land from encroachment. It’s not that people don’t want development, but they want it to take their lives into consideration. So, he's going to leverage this place to defend that piece of land, and I'm amazed by what he's been able to achieve. The music I heard there the other night was traditional music, but it was unbelievable because the place was packed. It was packed with local people. It was completely acoustic. The artists were amazing. And everybody knows why they're there, making an argument for something.

I've been told that neither he nor any of the artists who perform at Fendika will perform at any other venue. I think that's powerful. It means that the place is using the power of the symbolic cache of the arts to make a much more powerful argument.

SP: Have you heard of other musical artists using a strategy like that?

VL: I remember being in Zimbabwe, at a place which closed last year or the year before, called Book Cafe, which was somewhat similar. The founders were a group of former revolutionary soldiers, and, when they were decommissioned after Zimbabwe’s independence, they took their decommissioning pay, pooled those payouts, and built a community center that was also a book club. They hosted film screenings and live music there, and all of Zimbabwe's top musicians used to go there to perform. It lasted for decades, but eventually ran afoul of the Mugabe government. They got forced to close and the owner, who was a very charismatic individual, passed away. But there are these little stories all across the continent in which people are able to do things without—in fact, in spite of—the state. Very often.

AS: It's inspiring to remember just how radical and political music can be, in contrast to the commercialization of a lot of music.

VL: I think that what inspires me is the place that music can have in building people's capacity to deal with the world around them and to remake the world around them.