In light of CTIJF’s postponement, we pay homage to what would’ve been the 21st celebration of Africa’s Grandest Gathering

Every year, for the past 20 years, approximately 14 000 people both local and international gather to Greenmarket Square on the Wednesday evening leading up to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival for the Free Community Concert, the people’s concert.

But last night, on the 25th of March, on what was supposed to be the kick-off in celebrating 21 years of Africa’s Grandest Gathering, Greenmarket square was completely deserted.

On the 18th of February, I was invited to an impromptu media gathering that festival director Billy Domingo insisted “Was not a press conference but a conversation” with himself, Don Vino and Judith Sephuma regarding all things CTIJF.

A day ahead of lockdown, I decide to go back to a recording of that glorious conversation. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for but, listening to it, I was transported back to a moment of deep South African pride.

Allow me, briefly, to share that experience with you.

L-R: Billy Domingo, Judith Sephuma, Don Vino.

Hi everybody, my name is Judith Sephuma, I live in South Africa, and I’m an alcoholic,” jokes the multi-award winning “Queen of Afro-Jazz” as she addresses the group of us sat in Domingo’s room at the Cape Sun Hotel.

Don Vino is next to address the room, “Hi guys, my name is Don Vino, saxophonist, singer, dancer, producer… just a saxopho…” he pauses, laughs, and corrects himself, “I am an artist,” and Domingo chimes in, “You were doing okay ‘til you got to the ‘dancer’ part.”

Both Sephuma and Don Vino respectfully give Domingo the floor. He takes us back 23 years, to when Rashid Lombard (jazz photographer and CEO of espAfrika, responsible for staging the festival) approached him about starting the festival.

Domingo recalls growing up coloured during apartheid, “I remember we used to play in our backyards and our parents would listen to Otis Redding, to George Benson, to Al Jarreau, but we never got the chance to see them because we were not allowed to see them. I needed our people to have the privilege of seeing and listening to our music, and that’s why we started the festival.”

He recalls the words of his late father, “You wanna create a legacy? Have a legacy. Don’t come with, ‘Oh actually we’re having Al Jarreau then Michael Jackson…’ Where’s Winston Mankuku (South African jazz saxophonist)? Where’s Judith Sephuma? Where’s Don Vino?’” He drives the point home, “You’re in Africa! And that’s where Clarence Ford came with ‘Africa’s Grandest Gathering’. And that’s our mantra. Daai’s onse stoeka!”

The people’s concert gives him pride and purpose, “That free concert is more important to me than the jazz festival, ‘cause that’s the guy from Heideveld, that’s the guy from Bonteheuwel, who doesn’t have to pay, who doesn’t have to be privileged and say, ‘I wanna go sit in golden circle,’ because there is no golden circle. And that’s what our country should be about.”

Sephuma excitedly interjects with a memory of her first involvement with Domingo both internationally and locally, and when she gained confidence in our African sound, “It was so packed at the North Sea Jazz Festival [The Hague, Holland]. Marcus Miller (American Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and composer) was standing on the side with his entire band and they were like, ‘Who is this girl?’ and I’m like, ‘Ja, I am from South Africa!’” 

And once she’d been given the opportunity to perform at CTIJF in front of her international idols, they couldn’t get enough of her. Sephuma remembers fondly, “They said, ‘Hah, that black girl with that crazy hair, we want her!’”

Don Vino shares his appreciation for the festival, “Think about this 19-year old coloured laaitie, me, for the first time hearing about the jazz festival, seeing my idols perform, and then I got a chance to perform on one of the biggest stages in the world?” he pauses in disbelief, “I remember vividly, it was just an overwhelming experience and I got so emotional and so thankful for guys like Billy and them for creating that platform. From there it just spiralled into us going other [international] places and people recognizing us and ya man, this [South African] music is something else!”

Domingo looks at Sephuma and Don Vino, both of whom were to perform at this year’s event, and with a father’s pride says to them, “Those [international musos] aren’t the big guns. You are the big guns! All of the Europeans and everyone else comes to the festival to watch Africans perform. They can stay at home to watch their musicians perform. But they come here to see you… and I will die before I put 57 internationals on our stage above our local talent.”

In our entertainment industry’s moment of chaos, in our country’s moment of uncertainty, to share some of the insight I was given that day is to pay homage to something truly South African, something truly great, and something worth holding out for and looking forward to.

The CTIJF won’t be happening any time soon, but we will be compiling a playlist for each day of the festival, featuring artists who would’ve performed on the respective days, starting with our Free Community Concert playlist that you can stream below.