South Africa’s Must-See Jazz Festivals

Jazz has always been in the tapestry of South Africa’s identity. Whether it was Miriam Makeba singing songs of freedom in exile or Winston Mankunku Ngozi playing behind a curtain at the Cape Town City Hall in 1964, because as a black person he was not allowed to play on the same stage with musicians of other races.

Jazz cannot be extracted from South Africa. South Africans simply love jazz and this is why jazz festivals attract thousands of enthusiasts. Even those who don’t particularly love jazz still come out to festivals for proximity to the music and the sheer spectacle of it all. Some will argue that jazz festivals in South Africa aren’t what they used to be. A conversation for another blog. 

Before Covid, South Africans gathered in numbers, others travelling from all over the country to witness their favourite international stars perform their hearts out on humongous stages. Since we haven’t been able to gather, jazz lovers have been yearning for that festival atmosphere. The South African government has been making adjustments to the Covid restrictions, which means very soon we’ll see each other at a jazz festival of your choice. If you’re not a jazz enthusiast but you want to know what you’ve missing, start with the following jazz festivals.

Cape Town Jazz Festival 

Fondly known as the Grandest Gathering in Africa, the Cape Town Jazz festival is held annually in March at the Cape Town Convention Centre. It is recognised as the fourth largest jazz festival in the world, and the largest in Africa, attracting over 34 000 people. The festival was formerly known as the North Sea Jazz Festival because of its connection to the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. That partnership has since ended, but the festival has only grown. The festival features a blend of some of the biggest jazz names in the world and some local up and coming talent. Jazz greats like Richard Bona, Jonathan Butler, Rachelle Ferrell, and Hugh Masekela have graced this grand stage. The event features about 40 artists on 5 stages, over two days. The festival organisers have added some pop music to the itinerary for those music lovers who cannot listen to jazz for two nights in a row. Artists like the late Hip Hop Pantsula and Mi Casa have been popular through the years. This has also started a debate on whether or not jazz festivals should remain purely jazz festivals or have some pop artists to draw crowds.

Jazz fans from all over South Africa and neighbouring countries descend on Cape Town to see their favourites give world class performances. This is a must see festival. And while you’re in Cape Town, you can do some sightseeing during the day and go to the festival by night. You can see Robben Island, Table Mountain or take a city tour on the Red Bu. Long Street is also the perfect place to have a party. Either way you will be entertained.

 

Makhanda National Arts Festival

Formerly known as the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, this festival offers a lot more than jazz, even though jazz still remains one of the biggest attractions. It was renamed after the host city was renamed to Makhanda in October 2018. Makhanda was a Xhosa philosopher, prophet and warrior who fought against colonialism in the 1800s. The festival is held annually in June-July for 11 days in Makhanda, near Port Elizabeth. The Makhanda National Arts Festival is extremely important to the arts and culture calendar of South Africa because it is here that art lovers converge to have one massive immersion in the arts. In the 11 days revellers can enjoy a film festival, dance festival, book festival, stand-up comedy and anything in between.

Makhanda National Arts festival festivalgoers are a special lot, because they brave icy weather and are always willing to stay in humble student accommodation just to see their favourite acts. Unlike other jazz festivals in the country, this festival tends to attract more regular jazz lovers and not celebrities and government officials surrounded by bodyguards. It’s always a good idea to book show tickets and accommodation well in advance to avoid disappointments, but as long as the ticket are available they can be bought at the door. The festival will surely keep you busy but if the music, flea markets and theatre productions are not enough, the city itself is a tourist attraction where you can see historical museums, take a township tour, go hiking and visit game lodges. Either way, you will not be disappointed. 

Standard Bank Joy of Jazz

The Joy of Jazz is held annually in September, in Sandton, Johannesburg. This star studded event takes place over three days, with more than 30 performances on 5 stages. It is a real feast for jazz lovers who travel from all over the country to see their favourite jazz musicians. The lineup has never disappointed, boasting international names like Christian Mc Bride, Cassandra Wilson , Brandford and Wynton Marsalis and South African favourites like Thandiswa Mazwai, Nduduzo Makhathini, Brenda Mtambo , to name a few.

Through the years there has been debate on whether the festival is making a difference in the lives of young musicians in the township who may not be able to afford a ticket to attend the festivities. The festival has also been blamed for being elitist because it is frequented by celebrities and politicians, thereby making jazz inaccessible to regular South Africans. 

To its credit, the Joy of Jazz itinerary includes outreach programs where the visiting international musicians spend some time with less fortunate music students, sharing knowledge. Whether or not this is enough is another conversation.

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