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Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF): Africa’s Grandest Gathering of Jazz Aficionados and Cultural Resonance

Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF): Africa’s Grandest Gathering of Jazz Aficionados and Cultural Resonance

Cape Town International Jazz Festival - Afrocritik

In many ways, the CTIJF has … achieved the task of making Africa the centrepiece of Jazz music celebration and the appreciation of music festivals in general, on a level never experienced before its conception, especially as it highlights the kind of music that is slightly removed from today’s mainstream music.

By Chimezie Chika 

Jazz music, by virtue of its historical provenance in African-American communities of the southern United States in the late 19th century, is influenced by traditional African rhythms and jigs, even while it remains an overwhelmingly malleable music form, coping polyphonic influences from various musical traditions across the world. Sequel to its dominant influence in the contemporary music scene, there have been several music festivals all over the world dedicated exclusively to jazz or its fusion forms — some of the most famous being the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Festival Internationale de Jazz de Montréal, the North Sea Jazz Festival, Java Jazz Festival, among others. In Africa, one of the largest music festivals — and certainly the most significant jazz festival on the continent — is the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) which is held every year in Cape Town, South Africa, popularly called “Africa’s Grandest Gathering”. 

CTIJF was first held in the year 2000 as an affiliate of the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. At the time, it was called the Cape Town North Sea Jazz Festival and was ideated by the jazz photographer and political photojournalist Rashid Lombard and show promoter Billy Domingo, who are the brains behind espAfrika, an events management company which entered into a liaison with Mojo Concerts BV, founders of North Sea Jazz Festival, to create a new jazz festival in Cape Town. Lombard and Domingo have spent years as jazz aficionados and were regular fixtures in jazz circles in and outside Africa. The founding of CTIJF was therefore, according to Lombard, born out of passion. 

The debut event in the year 2000 attracted 14,000 visitors and featured various forms of jazz, including the New Orleans school, funk, fusion, and soul. That first event was so successful, changing the music atmosphere of Cape Town and South Africa that espAfrika immediately started making plans to expand to other cities within the country and on other countries of the continent. To date, this seems to remain at a conceptual level. In 2005, North Sea Festival ended its sponsorship and the festival thus changed its official name to Cape Town International Jazz Festival, by which it is still currently identified. And although the first four editions up to 2003 were held at Good Hope Center, the organisers were forced to change the venue to the Cape Town International Convention Center (CICC) due to a rise in the number of attendees which the previous venue could no longer accommodate. 

It is this quick growth spurt that has marked the festival since its inception. In its over twenty years of history, the CTIJF has built an international reputation as the fourth-largest jazz festival in the world. The event now features over 40 musicians and nearly 40,000 concertgoers in attendance every year. Currently, the CTIJF has become indispensable to the economy of the city of Cape Town and the Western Cape province by extension, contributing over a billion rand to the economy of Western Cape. This is a result of the tourist-related business associated with the high number of international attendees and jazz enthusiasts that the Festival attracts. 

 

Cape Town Stage jpg

Performer at the CTIJF

The festival usually begins with a “people’s concert” held on the grounds of Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, and open to the public for free. The festival organisers see this as a way to give back to the community. Over the years, the festival has added other interesting musical activities both related and unrelated to jazz music. Co-founder Domingo championed a youth development programme as part of the festival. While the main event is an intense two-day event featuring nonstop music performances by bands and performers from around the world, the Festival is, in the real sense, a week-long program complete with training, workshops, and mentoring programmers on music and performance, and lessons on how to play unique instruments. During each event, the festival hosts masterclasses on “The Art of Jazz”, where some of the maestros gracing the festival share their knowledge and skills. Participants in these sessions are accredited accordingly. 

Progressively, from the mid-2010s, the festival began to incorporate other artistic expressions such as a fashion show and photography exhibitions (the exhibitions have especially featured notable artists such as George Hallett, Basil Breakley, Mike Mzeleni, Alf Khumalo, and others) in its programmes. While this has enriched the diverse and holistic experience that CTIJF offers, some have wondered if the term “Jazz” really describes the festival’s seemingly overreaching identity. Confronted with this question in an interview, Domingo replied, “It’s not really a jazz festival anymore; it’s a lifestyle festival now.” He stated in another instance that the goal of the festival has always been to create a variety of experiences, “ensuring that we get the right programming mix for the entire event. It has been difficult over the years to find the right mix that everyone loves, because everybody wants a lot of jazz, but nobody wants too much jazz.”

Cape Town International Jazz Festival - Afrocritik

performance

Musically, the festival features a wide range of genres and jazz sounds, having built a reputation for inclusive musical performances. Apart from jazz and its different sub-genres, Funk, Swing, and Soul, there’s Afropop, Hip-Hop, Blues, Latin, and Gospel. The festival also has a reputation for honouring legendary musicians and long-standing bands as a way of celebrating their legacy and impact on the jazz scene. Some of those who have been so honoured include Hugh Masekela, Emily Bruce, Jonathan Rubain, and the jazz band, The Stylistic, who have been performing since 1968. Other acts and bands that have graced different stages at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival over the years include Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman,  Youssou N’Dour, Tsepo Tshola, Courtney Pine, Peter White, Miriam Makeba, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Buena Vista Social Club, Mi Casa, Al Foster, Incognito, Dianne Reeves, Lauryn Hill, Jimmy Dludlu, Jill Scott, Manu Dibango, Gregory Porter, Maceo Parker, and Kyle Eastwood. 

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Not many events in Africa attract this stellar list of stars from all over the world. The 2017 edition of the Festival, for instance, highlighted all the best that the festival has to offer. As usual, the Duotone Photographic Exhibition, which took place at the Duotone Gallery inside the CICC and showcased the best of Jazz in motion and the best of jazz photography and jazz history, went on simultaneously as the festival gathered speed. The artist lineup came from countries ranging from Argentina, the US, the UK, and India, to  Switzerland, Cameroon, and South Africa, featuring famous jazz bands and musicians such as En Vogue, Jazz Funk Soul, Skyjack, the Soweto String Quartet, Jonas Gwangwa and Friends, Deepak Pandit, Taylor McFerrin, Ernie Smith, Escalandrum, and many more. 

CTIJF CICC jpg

CTIJF

The entire festival experience owes some debt to the impeccable stage management for which the CTIJF is known. In many ways, the CTIJF has a lot going for it; it has achieved the task of making Africa the centrepiece of Jazz music celebration and the appreciation of music festivals in general, on a level never experienced before its conception, especially as it highlights the kind of music that is slightly removed from today’s mainstream music. The experience itself is distinct from what might be found in festivals elsewhere in Africa today, especially the popular ones in North Africa. Those who attended have praised the artistic synergy that the festival exudes, now being emulated by newer music events in Africa. In a continent that is notoriously lacking in several ways, the gift of CTIJF is beyond valuable. 

At the moment, there seems to be an organising problem at the CTIJF. Since December 2022, when the upcoming edition in 2023 was announced, the event has been postponed a couple of times. The 2023 event, which was projected to take place between the 17th and 18th of March, was shifted to February 2024. Again, according to recent news on the CTIJF website, this year’s edition of the annual showpiece will not be held on the previously announced dates, February 23rd to 24th. Based on the announcement, a new date will be announced later in the year. My sincere hope is that these issues are resolved as soon as possible for the sake of the festival’s integrity, since no explanations have been given for these postponements. 

For more information on ticket sales, hospitality, and updates on the festival visit the CTIJF website

Chimezie Chika is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His works have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Shallow Tales Review, The Republic, Lolwe, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He was a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency in Iseyin, Nigeria. He is the Fiction Editor of Ngiga Review and currently resides in Nigeria.

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