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Kokoroko - © Nina Manandhar

Afro-descendant jazz sets the tone… except in France

While jazz is regai­ning popu­la­ri­ty with mil­len­nials thanks, in large part, to hybrid com­po­si­tions by black musi­cians haun­ted by its social and mili­tant DNA, it’s clear that in France, the genre is repre­sen­ted by a rather inward-loo­king white elite. 


Jazz is a music that has ended up muta­ting over the cen­tu­ries into seve­ral dif­ferent forms and defi­ni­tions. One of these – and undoub­ted­ly the most vibrant – is still rele­vant today : like much ori­gi­nal­ly black music, jazz encom­passes a range of social rea­li­ties depen­ding on where it spreads. “Jazz is, with hip-hop, the most lite­ral form of the rebel­lions that play out within black Ame­ri­can music as well as in our socie­ty”, explai­ned saxo­pho­nist Mar­cus Stri­ck­land to the French dai­ly news­pa­per Libé­ra­tion in 2016, in an article des­cri­bing how many black musi­cians of Ame­ri­can jazz’s Gene­ra­tion X re-appro­pria­ted the Black Lives Mat­ter social move­ment through their com­po­si­tions. “Jazz is a bat­tle”, clai­med the Cali­for­nian trum­pe­ter Ambrose Akin­mu­sire in Jazz Maga­zine in Februa­ry 2019 on the release of his latest record Ori­ga­mi Har­vest, in which we see the racial ten­sions in the Uni­ted States that are a recur­rent theme in his work. It is not sur­pri­sing that jazz is injec­ted with mili­tan­cy and takes on a socio-iden­ti­ty guise in the coun­try of its birth. 



Nor is it a sur­prise that these cha­rac­te­ris­tics should be found in the jazz played by musi­cians who see it as the per­fect medium for expres­sing their hybri­di­sa­tion that results from the dia­spo­ric big bang that gave rise, in par­ti­cu­lar, to the “Black Atlan­tic”. Concep­tua­li­sed by the Bri­tish essayist and his­to­rian Paul Gil­roy in 1993 in his essay of the same name, this term refers to a par­ti­cu­lar bla­ck­ness that blends Afri­can, Ame­ri­can, Bri­tish and Carib­bean cultures.


Diasporic big-bang


In the Uni­ted King­dom, in Lon­don to be pre­cise, musi­cians from what is a flou­ri­shing jazz scene with plen­ty of appeal in Europe and the Uni­ted States are the per­fect embo­di­ment of this “culture of the Black Atlan­tic”. Of Afri­can des­cent, they are the young sons and daugh­ters of Afri­can and Carib­bean immi­grants and their gazes are defi­ni­ti­ve­ly focu­sed on the Afri­can continent. 

Sha­ba­ka Hut­chings – © Nico­la Antonazzo


They include the saxo­pho­nist Sha­ba­ka Hut­chings, who, as well as joi­ning up with South Afri­can musi­cians in his group Sha­ba­ka and The Ances­tors, relea­sed a record with ano­ther of his groups, Sons of Kemet, in 2018, that cele­bra­ted lea­ding female figures in the struggle for black eman­ci­pa­tion. From Lon­don to Gha­na via the Uni­ted States and South Afri­ca (Your Queen is a Rep­tile). The sin­ger Zara McFar­lane, of Jamai­can ori­gin, high­ligh­ted her Carib­bean heri­tage on her third album Arise and paid tri­bute to “kumi­na”, Jamai­can folk music impor­ted by ensla­ved people from the Congo. Soca and calyp­so are on the menu for the drum­mer Moses Boyd and his side­kick Bin­ker Moses. And with no conces­sion to compromise.



In France, jazz is from overseas

Ano­ther ines­ca­pable example comes in the form of Koko­ro­ko, who take us on a jour­ney from Gam­bia to Ethio­pia, via Sier­ra Leone and Nige­ria. They bring their cos­mo­po­li­tan, colour­ful Lon­don with them. Sla­ve­ry, colo­ni­sa­tion, immi­gra­tion, cultu­ral mel­ting pots… Themes that are hard­ly new on the French scene. But the intel­li­gent­sia trembles at the sound of the term “post­co­lo­nial”, which it sha­me­less­ly asso­ciates with that other dir­ty word “com­mu­ni­ta­ria­nism”, still firm­ly convin­ced by cultu­ral assi­mi­la­tion and only men­tio­ning “over­seas” pro­blems when they spark public disor­der in France. The addi­tion of gwo ka – from which gwo ka jazz derives – to UNESCO’s intan­gible heri­tage list only cau­sed a stir in… Guadeloupe. 



And what about Afri­can musi­cians who are paving the way in Paris, such as Her­vé Samb and Alune Wade ? Why are they so incons­pi­cuous on fes­ti­val bills ? Many West Indian jazz musi­cians remain confi­ned to the cate­go­ry of “jazz ultra-marin” [over­seas jazz], as demons­tra­ted by a recent radio pro­gram on TSF Jazz cal­led “Note Bleue Outre-mer” [Blue Note Over­seas]. The pro­gramme was a mish­mash of artists such as the genius that is the pia­nist Alain Jean-Marie, a crafts­man of biguine jazz, the pia­nist Gré­go­ry Pri­vat and the drum­mer Arnaud Dol­men (who can cur­rent­ly be seen in Netflix’s Ame­ri­can pro­duc­tion, The Eddy, cour­te­sy of Damien Chazelle).



Towards a new generation ? 

« (…) We’re still suf­fe­ring the conse­quences of a sys­tem in which the gaze of the colo­ni­ser dimi­nishes the colo­ni­sed. When I see the cur­rent contri­bu­tion pro­vi­ded by musi­cians of Carib­bean ori­gin to jazz in Lon­don, I inevi­ta­bly think of the fact that the English have shown grea­ter res­pect for the cultures of the peoples they once colo­ni­sed », the saxo­pho­nist Jacques Schwartz-Bart revea­led to Tele­ra­ma in 2018. One of these musi­cians stam­ped as « Carib­bean » tells us : « Yes, there are black musi­cians who have gra­dua­ted from the Conser­va­toire Natio­nal Supé­rieur de Musique et Danse in Paris, but the clas­sic path is almost out of reach for them. We’re figh­ting to make sure our music isn’t sub­cons­cious­ly side-lined by pro­gram­mers for spe­cial ‘Antillean’ shows where jazz meets the zouk ».


Son­ny Trou­pé – Tokyo blue note © Tsu­neo Koga

But accor­ding to ano­ther who we inter­vie­wed, things are chan­ging. « A new gene­ra­tion is emer­ging and, with it, I dare to believe that the French jazz scene will be more color­ful in the years to come ». Meanw­hile, black French musi­cians are few and far bet­ween in the cur­rent jazz lexi­con. And for that par­ti­cu­lar musi­cal genre in such a mul­ti­cul­tu­ral socie­ty is quite an oxymoron ! 


Emma-Sacha Morizan


A journalist focusing on culture and society, Emma-Sacha Morizan has been writing about music, jazz in particular, since 2010. She has worked for media outlets such as L’Obs, So Jazz, Slate Afrique, Le Monde, Les Inrocks, Le Point Afrique, Magic RPM, Le Monde Diplomatique, Jazz Magazine and Libération. She believes jazz isn’t dead but eternally current.

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