Salim Washington’s influence on Durban jazz

By Niamh Walsh-Vorster

There is a rumble in Heat City and the cause is soulful saxes and brilliant basslines belting out of venues all over town. From 8 Morrison with its up and comers, to spoken word artists weaving political consciousness into poetic performance at open mics, Durban’s proving itself to be a live music hub. One artist who is part of the revitalisation is Durban’s latest resident, professor Salim Washington.

Straight out of “black bottom” Detroit, Washington has become a vital asset to the Durban art world. Having displayed an immediate aptitude for the trumpet, it was a local gang leader who first introduced Washington to the instrument. “He loved the trumpet but he wasn’t that good,” explains Washington. “I was better. He recognised that.”

In his teen years a John Coltrane track lured him into the jazz haze and by the time he was in junior high, Washington was playing in a church group as well as performing at a few parties. “We would play rhythm and blues,” he recalls. “The power of this music was intoxicating to me.” A few years later Washington followed the romantic artists route and dropped out of college to join a travelling band. Living off of peanut butter and “a lot of rice and beans,” Washington says his musical and political awakening came in full force by way of news of a country experiencing its own turmoil and political issues.

It was the 1976 Soweto Uprising that called Washington’s attention to South Africa. “These were young people, teenagers, and I was a teenager myself. I was so impressed and I was a political activist myself so I started to investigate South Africa,” says Washington.

Inspired by the political integrity of the youth then, he also found a deep connection with South African music which resonated with his own musicality, “I learned more about South Africa and I found out that their music was in dialogue with our music in profound ways. I used to listen to Dudu Pukwana and all these different South African musicians.” Musicians from his country too were connecting with the South African struggle, the likes of Gil Scott-Heron’s Johannesburg, painted pictures of resistance and resilience in a city far from his own, prompting Washington to one day make a journey to those soils.

It would be a while before Washington could actually set foot in South Africa however. Besides his personal boycott of the apartheid government, he also had children on the way. “I couldn’t come because I would have to have been an honorary white to come at that time. And I didn’t want to be an honorary white. In the 90s I was having my babies, you know.”

It was 33 years later that Washington was offered the position to teach music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and finally in South Africa, he found himself falling in love with the cultural heat of the city. “The talk of Ubuntu for me is real. I come from a country that doesn’t practise it. As much as it may be criticised or in suspicion here, I’m able to see it from a different perspective and it’s a beautiful thing. The physical beauty of the country is remarkable.” His journey to eThekwini began in 2009, when he moved into modest accommodation provided by UKZN on its campus with his two youngest children, Jamila and Memphis. With a house filled with family photos stuck onto the wall, it is evident that this is a proud and loving father. With his children in the States, his dad-like nature transferred to the classroom where his involvement as a lecturer has played an important role in supporting Durban musicians.

Speaking on the difference between South Africa and the States when it comes to learning institutions, Washington explains, “They [current students] do more with less compared to my American students. The best is the best no matter where you are in the world, but when you look at the overall picture, not just who is the cream of the crop, I think my students here are a little more creative.”

The lack of resources in South African schools at foundation levels means that music often only becomes an opportunity for those who go on to tertiary institutions or can afford extra curriculum classes and even then, background in music may be informal through the likes of churches and peer formed groups. “It’s not unusual to have a student begin playing an instrument at 18, 19, 20,” he says. “And you know in the states if you don’t start by the time you’re 12, they tell you it’s not possible. The widespread notion is that only the precocious are worthy of being an artist. That’s been an education for me, actually, because in the states a person who hasn’t played an instrument at 18 or 20 would never ever get admitted to a conservatory. So that’s been interesting to see these kids can achieve just as much as their more privileged counterparts.”

Founded in 2015 The Salim Washington quintet gives opportunity to younger Durban musicians to perform at grand Durban events such as Time of the Writer, BAT centre music clinics, The Chairman. As a teacher, he gives his students room to play and provides the opportunity that is sometimes not available for Durban musicians. “There are millions of Rands here in KZN that are given to the Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonic Orchestras are nice things to have, but that’s European music at the end of the day. There are no millions for Maskandi music; there are no millions for jazz musicians. Nothing that comes from here, right, there are millions to protect European music. I don’t understand that even in the United States. I understand it even less in Africa.”

Washington has immersed himself into African spaces and creates work that reflects our society back to us. After the Marikana Massacre, Washington with other musicians held a fundraiser, “If we are good citizens, if we care at all about our fellow citizens we must look at this for the travesty that it is.” Reflecting on the recent violence which took place, “I felt it demanded an artistic response.”

“Right now we’re having a kind of renaissance”, says Washington. With the current political climate in South Africa at boiling point, Washington believes the student movements, the union strikes and racial conversations happening are all part of the young South African trying to wake up and face its socio-economic problems, “This is a place where the final chapter has not been written.”

With ‘I heart Harlem’ subtly displayed over his chest, Washington greets the band entering his Glenwood home, before rehearsals for a gig at The Chairman begin. By still constantly involving himself in the live music scene, giving opportunities to younger artists and using music to confront and celebrate South Africa and its people, it’s safe to say that prof. Salim Washington is at the heart of the city’s jazz revival.

Read the full, in depth Q&A with Salim Washington in Edition 8 of Ja. magazine.

More stories in Issue 68

Contributors

Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Niamh Walsh-Vorster is a recent Rhodes University graduate with a degree in Photojournalism and Anthropology. Most of her time is spent on a bus exploring South Africa, or tucked into bed with a novel.

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