"Everything of value is defenceless"

Andrew Donaldson reviews "Blues for the White Man: Hearing Black Voices in South Africa and the Deep South" by Fred de Vries


Blues for the White Man: Hearing Black Voices in South Africa and the Deep South by Fred de Vries. Penguin Random House, 2021 (238 pages)

THERE is a sense of community and resilience in the work of the jazz artist Abdullah Ibrahim that is unabashedly “local” — and gloriously so. South Africa, after all, boasts the continent’s greatest variety of musical forms and styles, and their echoes can routinely be heard in Ibrahim’s rich body of work, particularly his signature composition, the curiously misspelt Mannenberg — “Is Where It’s Happening”. 

Based on an old mbaqanga melody, this lilting piece features nostalgic elements of marabi, Xhosa ragtime, Cape coloured folk music, African Methodist Episcopal hymns, kwela, swing and township jive. Released in 1974 under the alias of Dollar Brand, Ibrahim’s stage name prior to his conversion to Islam, Mannenberg was a runaway hit, its success largely due to this interplay of musical forms in a coherent whole with which South Africans of various backgrounds could easily identify.

That said, Ibrahim is a notoriously cranky personality, his irascibility distinctly at odds with the warmth and celebration of tunes like Mannenberg. Our number one jazz sheriff, he strongly disapproves, for instance, of hip-hop acts and “non-jazz” performers on the bill at jazz festivals and frowns on those who attend such gatherings only to socialise and who regard the music as a backdrop to having a good time. He won’t allow alcohol to be served in clubs during his performances, which can often be arduous endurance tests for audience members. [1]

It came as no surprise, then, to learn in the opening pages of Dutch journalist and cultural critic Fred de Vries’s engaging new book, Blues for the White Man [2], that an interview with Ibrahim at a Johannesburg hotel rapidly collapsed into disaster and was hastily terminated just shy of 12 minutes. “Do you even know what jazz is?” Ibrahim accused De Vries at one point. (It wasn’t a question.) After a few more desperate attempts to get him to open up, a grumpy Ibrahim told the journalist, “This interview is going nowhere.” 

This is a pity. Judging by the many conversations in the pages that follow, De Vries is ably gifted in this department, and he is certainly able to draw startling, if sometimes uncomfortable opinions from his subjects. Ibrahim, it must be said, is not the only person to lose patience with De Vries’s questions, but the pianist’s behaviour prompted an uncharacteristic consequence. De Vries writes:

“It was the first time I had ever walked out of an interview, chased away … I felt aghast, shocked and mostly hurt.” For a long time, he says, he tried to understand what went wrong with the interview, perhaps Ibrahim was tired, perhaps he thought De Vries’s questions were thoughtless and uninformed. 

“But there was probably something else too, something that had to do with race, with recalcitrance towards a white man, and with a lack of understanding between us … I guess you could trace this belligerence back to the loaded concept of black pain.

“Tricky territory, black pain. From what I’ve gathered talking to people and reading, black pain is a form of depression that whites cannot understand or feel. It is the result of trying to survive in a world of continual repression, where you constantly have to prove yourself. To me, it sounds like the blues.

“I wanted to know where it came from — the blues, black pain, and its toxic twin, white supremacy. And I wanted to know my position in this battle that had been raging for centuries. I wanted to visit the place where the blues was born and write about everything that came after.”

So begins an account of an elusive quest, in the form of two lengthy road trips undertaken in 2016 to the birthplace of jazz and blues, for historical and spiritual links between the American South and the African South that is now De Vries’s adopted country. 

It is a journey that explores much of the upheavals of the past five years, the fierce debates over racial and social justice, the clamour for reparations and land expropriation, the rage of the dispossessed, farm murders, and the rise and fall of both Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma. 

It is, in a nutshell, a road trip that veers from Fallist rhetoric to that of Black Lives Matter and back again, a fractious, often noisy undertaking but one in which, as De Vries puts it, “the blues in all its musical and non-musical manifestations is always there, a unifying force that encapsulates joy and suffering, and connects us all”.

Hmmm, tricky territory, the blues. This the writer and musician Elijah Wald makes clear in his myth-busting Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad) [3]. As he puts it: “There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson [4] in particular, than about any other genre or performer of the twentieth century.”

For a start, the term “blues” itself is a marketing strategy, according to Wald. The first popular music recordings by African-American artists like Johnson were labelled “Race records”, and it was only when white urbanites discovered the music during the folk revival of the late 1950s that the genre was reshaped to fit their tastes and desires. In the process, a mythology was created that bore little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired. 

Popular entertainers, often highly skilled, sophisticated and educated performers, were remodelled as “primitive voices from the dark and demonic Delta, and a music notable for its professionalism and humour was recast as the heart-cry of a suffering people. The poverty and oppression of the world that created blues is undeniable, but it was the music’s up-to-date power and promise, not its folkloric melancholy, that attracted black record buyers.”

And what of the suggestion that the blues emerged when “the first lyin’ woman met the first cheatin’ man”? Wald argues this is certainly true — if we are talking about heartache and emotion rather than music. In that sense, the blues can be any style of music lamenting lost and martyred love: flamenco, mento, country and western, fado, opera, and so on. It’s what all listeners understand, whoever they may be: somebody done somebody wrong.

As far as musicians are concerned, the blues is simply an arrangement of chords, sometimes three, sometimes one, over a set number of bars, usually 12, but sometimes eight and sometimes 16. 

The other thing worth noting about the blues is that it had very little, if any, impact on the development of South African popular music. Instead, our hybrid styles were grounded in and shaped by that other great American idiom — jazz. It’s a point repeatedly stressed in David B Coplan’s landmark In Township Tonight! Three Centuries of South African Black City Music and Theatre (Ravan/Jacana, 1985, 2007). Nevertheless, this has not stopped jazz musicians from using the term in the titles of their compositions, be it WC Handy’s Saint Louis Blues or indeed Dollar Brand’s Blues for a Hip King.

But back to the tricky territory of black pain. De Vries visits the Birmingham, Alabama church notoriously dynamited by members of the Ku Klux Klan on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, an attack that claimed the lives of four young girls. There he meetschurch administrator Lamarese Washington, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who feels that groups like Black Lives Matter should stop whining that so many young African-Americans are jailed for drug possession. “Sure,” he says, “if you’re caught with an ounce of crack cocaine, you’ll get a twenty-year sentence. And do you known what’s the solution? Just don’t carry any drugs. It’s very simple.”

Washington is just as dismissive of “traumatic experiences in Vietnam”, and snorts, “Everyone who talks about traumas must already have been traumatised before they went to Vietnam.” Reacting to De Vries’s look of surprise, he calls out to another black man in the room, “Joe, did we get traumatised in Vietnam?” Joe grins and shakes his head. “See,” says Washington, “it’s 100 per cent bullshit. Those who claim to have been traumatised just want money.”

It’s a wholly different situation when De Vries meets Mary Hooks, a young BLM activist in Atlanta. Here, economic upliftment, or gentrification, appears to be a particular source of irritation. Her black and lower-class neighbourhood has been “infiltrated” by white millennials. As a result of the influx of wealthier residents who snap up the affordable housing, poorer black suburbs like hers are “colonised” by the white middle classes. Those who cannot afford the now higher taxes and more expensive services are then forced to move to even poorer areas. This infuriates Hooks. She approached one of her new neighbours, asking her what brought her to the community:

“And the white girl says, ‘Well, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, and I think it’s cool to live among different cultures. People are outside, on their porch, this is nothing like the suburbs’ … And I told them, the reason why you’re so compelled to do that is white supremacy. That’s how it shows up in individuals, this coloniser imperialist mindset. One of her roommates said they go to this church and the preacher preaches about transcultural living, where they believe that people of different cultures can live in harmony.”

De Vries suggests there is nothing wrong with that. But Hooks is having none of it. Her message to those like her neighbour is simple: “Stop moving here. Send out a message, tell all your friends: stop coming! Stop!”

For all that, Hooks appears altogether more reasonable than, let’s say, Yerushka Chetty, the Black Land Black First activist who, before she left the Economic Freedom Fighters, was Julius Malema’s personal assistant. De Vries’s initially amiable meeting with Chetty in Woodstock, Cape Town, sours considerably when he mentions the wanton destruction of property that invariably accompanies service delivery protests — “the buses, the libraries and shops that go up in flames”. She snaps back at him that libraries are of no use when kids can’t go to school and buses are pointless when there are no jobs.

“‘You,’ she says, pointing her finger at me, ‘want to keep a structure intact that suits you, instead of looking at the individual who has been excluded from society. That is your attitude: the system sucks, but please don’t destroy it. You don’t mind changes, as long as they don’t upset your daily routine too much.’ She makes an angry, snorting sound. ‘Typically white middle class.’”

Matters do not improve after that, De Vries writes. 

But he wonders about Chetty’s words, especially in the context of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, in which he states it is not so much the white supremacist who is an obstacle to freedom, but the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

There was a time, De Vries reveals, when he too believed in the wholesale destruction of the “system”, and preferably to a punk rock soundtrack too. That, he says, was a while back. “I am without a doubt lot more conservative than forty years ago. At least, conservative in the literary sense, as in wanting to hold on to things that I think matter, valuable things. These days I feel a lot in common with the Dutch poet Lucebert, who once wrote, ‘Everything of value is defenceless.’

“A library is defenceless, a train too, just like paintings and statues. It’s easy to destroy, it takes a couple of seconds, minutes at most. And the sound of breaking glass and the heat of burning canvass or the noise of statue coming down is undeniably exciting. To build something up is much more difficult and less exhilarating. It takes years, costs a fortune and must be done with care and consideration. Often, things cannot be replaced at all, like those paintings [#RhodesMustFall activist] Chumani Maxwele and his pals burnt, some of which, it turns out later, had been made by black artist Keresemose Richard Baholo. One of them was titled Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom.”

This wise and thoughtful book is not really about music. But it’s tone is set by the telling Kurt Vonnegut Jr epigram on its opening page: “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religions & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”

That is indeed the case. Although the image of Nero and his lyre does come to mind. One wonders if tyrants ever get the blues.


[1] As a long-standing fan once put it: “The people just want to have a jol and party. But Dollar, he wants it to be like church!” Or perhaps something more stoic. I once attended a solo performance at the Bassline in Melville where Ibrahim tinkled away formlessly at the piano without a break for more than 70 painful minutes. Throughout this exercise he glared at patrons whose chairs squeaked when they shifted uncomfortably. Now and then he responded to a distraction from the audience, like the slight rustle of a crisp packet or a hushed whisper, with a sudden, startlingly loud chord –– BRONG! — and more death ray staring. There was relieved applause when he finally finished. This he regarded as a demand for an encore, and he dutifully returned to the piano for a second piece that lasted about 40 minutes. All told, two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.

[2] The book first appeared in Dutch as Wiegelied voor de witte man (Nigh & Van Ditmar) in 2019. It has been considerably overhauled and updated for the South African edition.

[3] A declaration: De Vries mentions me in his acknowledgments, and states that my “library and knowledge of Southern music and literature were of immense help”. This is rather flattering. To the best of my recollection, he borrowed just the one book, Wald’s highly recommended Escaping the Delta.  

[4] Now recognised as a master of Delta blues, Robert Johnson enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. His landmark 1936 and 1937 recordings would however have a major influence on later generations of musicians. The most enduring “foolishness” about Johnson is the myth that he sold his soul to the Devil, whom he met one night at a crossroads in rural Mississippi, in exchange for mastery of the guitar. He died in 1938, probably poisoned by a jealous husband, or so it’s said. He was 27 years old — the founder member of the club that would claim as its members Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and others who died at the same age.