Jimmy Dludlu, world renowned and self-taught Afro-Jazz guitarist was born in Mozambique but grew up all around Southern Africa. He has played to critical acclaim all around the world. His desire is to spread the culture of African jazz as well as mentor the generation next. We caught up with Jimmy at Togore’s Jazz Bar in Observatory, Cape Town.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did you get into music.
Dludlu: I am a self-taught guitar player. My cousin was a carpenter, he could build guitars, and I picked one of his guitars to learn how to play; but we used to start from like old pianos, cultural centers in different places. I used to pull out all those wires and I used to look for bicycle spokes in order to make the strings for the bass, and since I was the youngest I used to do the most jobs because everybody sent me to do this and that. It was not pleasant but I had to do it because it was my task, and it helped me. One day I took my cousin’s guitar to my dad’s house, he was not pleased with that.
Sam Umukoro Interview: He didn’t want you to be a musician?
Dludlu: My dad was a pharmacist.
Sam Umukoro Interview: And he wanted you to be a pharmacist or even a doctor?
Dludlu: He wanted me to be a doctor and that was his wish.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Where did you grow up?
Dludlu: I grew up in different places; from South Africa to Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, I have been everywhere.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you play music in all of these places? I understand that you were one of the people who performed in Independence of Botswana in 1986?
Dludlu: Yes, I did, I was there with George Lee from Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana; one of the greatest artists. Although he is no longer with us but I am very honoured and privileged at what I have learned from him, he is one of the artists who inspired Courtney Pine.
Sam Umukoro Interview: When did you decide that you were going to defy your father’s wishes and play music professionally?
Dludlu: Look, I found out that my dad tried to play the guitar at some point, but my grandfather, the one I was named after, was a musician. Although he did not play the guitar, he played the xylophone. I picked up the guitar in 1979. I was 13 years old and I used to play at weddings as an entertainer during celebrations. I was also a dancer and a singer. I tried to incorporate two elements, dancing and guitar when I started to listen to Franco.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Franco Luambo Makaidi of OK Jazz?
Dludlu: Yes, and Sam Mangwana. It was some serious guitar playing in Africa but I discovered other elements of guitar which came from the US, George Benson and I got stuck right there; I never heard people who played guitar like that and from that point, I moved on and started to focus on the guitar but then I don’t listen to a lot of guitar. I started to listen to a lot of horn players like Charlie Parker and guys like that. But when I discovered others like Salif Keita, I started to use my guitar as an African voice, when I went to Ghana I discovered other elements of the guitar, I discovered a different voice that I can use on my guitar. So I started listening to singers from Africa; Anglique Kidjo, Miriam Makeba, and the likes, trying to find my own voice as an African artist.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you play in their bands?
Dludlu: I worked with Miriam Makeba when I was 19 and with Hugh Masekela when I was 21.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Since you grew up in Southern Africa mostly, what was your place in the struggle against apartheid as a musician and young man growing up… did any of the activism going on around you affect you or your music today?
Dludlu: It did! I remember back then I was just trying to follow, there was a base for a lot of musicians from South Africa, which was in Botswana back then and Hugh Masekela played a very big role for a lot of Southern African artists. Then, Botswana was like the capital of African music, you could find musicians from all over Africa. The same way back then you will find people in Guinea, Conakry; they were there and went to different places in Africa. I was still young, so I couldn’t get to those places, but I managed to learn a lot of things from where I was. All I wanted was to find my people and in return find myself in terms of being a musician.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You eventually went to America, just like Masekela, Makeba and Fela Kuti did. How did America influence you?
Dludlu: It was a bit of culture shock. I found out that there was a man called Hugh Tracy, a musicologist. He did research in all traditions of music from Capetown to Cairo. He was the man who documented our culture, there’s nothing more painful than going to the US and people tell you who you are. You can not go there and play George Benson, you have to be yourself, that’s what happened to a lot of musicians who left Africa… in those day I’m sure Fela was trying to be like James Brown, Masekela was trying to be Louis Armstrong, and I was trying to be like George Benson. When you get there people will tell you, play your music. I had to look back and try to find myself.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In essence, America helped you discover yourself?
Dludlu: In a way, it is the truth. I am not going to lie to you. You can’t go to the US and try to be George Benson. There are a lot of musicians like George Benson there, more than a hundred. So what are you going to do? You need to be yourself, find yourself; but all that happened through the media, through what we listened to and watched on television.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You’ve won several music awards, including the KORA, but you’ve not won the South African Music Awards (SAMA). How has that affected you and does this push you to do more or do you think you have arrived?
Dludlu: I see myself as an ambassador. I see myself as someone working towards cultural development, to maintain or to sustain our legacy. I never look at myself as someone who has arrived. Arrived from where to go where? I’m happy if I can help my people to realise who they are and move on with our culture, that’s my duty.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You have formed some bands and played in others, how has the journey been so far?
Dludlu: When I worked with Papa Wemba, I realised that we needed to form an African Band that will focus on who we were in a musical context because then there were a lot of things happening and a lot of music with originality was coming from West Africa. We formed a band called Loading Zone, we backed various artists including Brenda Fassie, Sipho Mabuso, Hugh Masekela and even Miriam Makeba… many artists. I discovered myself and my own voice because our music is the only way we can be identified. We were just trying to represent this trend and who we were as individuals, as humans, and we did that. Many people were not ready. Nowadays many now know about African music and they support African music, but back then it was tough. Now there is a huge support for African music, because people like to support what they can relate to.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Who were the members of Loading Zone?
Dludlu: John Hassan, Frank Paco, Jimmy Dludlu, to name a few. I call it a cosmopolitan band, where you have people from all over the world, because I always try to integrate myself with musicians everywhere so that we can have a bigger voice that represents the continent, not only a clan or country.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You say you play African music, but your music has also been classified as Jazz, and there is a debate among musicologists and music experts that even though Jazz has African origins, whether Jazz itself is African is in doubt. Tell me about your Jazz and Afrojazz.
Dludlu: I will break it down for you, American Jazz is mainstream American or smooth Jazz or Fusion… Then you go next door, it’s Afro-Cuban Jazz, you go to Brazil, it’s Brazilian Jazz, and in Africa it comes in different ways. People push the Pop African music and they call it World music, in Southern Africa there are many mainstream artists who were inspired by Jazz artists, then you have township Jazz, but my line of music and what I am trying to do is Afrojazz, which I try to draw from all over Africa in order to have a bigger voice as an African. So it’s not American jazz, it’s Afrojazz.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How popular is Jazz in Africa?
Dludlu: If you say Jazz, again, using a terminology that might…
Sam Umukoro Interview: Okay, let’s define it as Afrojazz.
Dludlu: I will define it as African Jazz because many people in the new generation, who understand the voice is not Afrobeat, it’s not Kwasa-Kwasa, it’s not Pop, it’s not World Music; it’s more progressive but with an African flavour, the same way the Cubans will do. It’s progressive music, not Rumba, not Salsa, but African made Jazz. So we stand on Afrojazz.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Across Africa right now, young people are doing what they call Hip-hop and they have given it all sorts of names in different countries, like it is called Hip-life in Ghana.
Dludlu: Hip-life? Hip-life existed long before Hip-hop.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Yes but it is a variation of Hip-hop and Highlife, which is the old genre.
Dludlu: Here (in South Africa) they call it House, but they are doing western music.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What do you think they are doing in Nigeria? Nigerian Hip-hop and Hip-life are quite similar, they are remixing old Highlife songs, but some people say they are destroying them.
Dludlu: Let me tell you something, if you have a son and you do not teach him or guide him, how do you expect him to find his way? He will try to find his way by himself and might break things in the house in the process because he has no guidance. You can’t leave your son alone in the house, who is trying to find his way out. Today, we the older generation don’t share with the youth.
Sam Umukoro Interview: But they have your records to listen to, they have Fela’s records to listen to…
Dludlu: That’s not good enough. When you talk about records, most of the major recording companies are not yet promoting our culture, they’re dumping ours to promote American and western music.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So you think young people are playing western music now to be relevant?
Dludlu: The youth of Africa are trying to find their own way through their own access, Highlife and all that, but they need guidance. If we cannot help them and we criticise them, who is there to tell them this is the way? No one, so they had to find their own way.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What are you doing to correct that now?
Dludlu: I have been teaching in three countries, I’m teaching how to find a voice as an African artist. I have been teaching in Mozambique for five years, I’m teaching here (South Africa).
Sam Umukoro Interview: I know you teach in the University of Cape Town also?
Dludlu: Yes, but only for artists to find their own voice as African artists because if we cannot do that, where else can these artists go? They have to do Highlife and make it commercial. You cannot just come up with a name, I don’t blame them; they have no point of reference or guidance, because we do not facilitate them to do so.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How many CDs or records have you released?
Dludlu: I have released seven at the moment.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How many awards have you won?
Dludlu: My brother, I will be very arrogant if I talk about that, I try to avoid it. I humble myself to say I don’t like to talk about my achievements on a commercial level.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Has music made you wealthy?
Dludlu: Music made me to realise who I am, and I thank God for the gift of song. Music made me realise that I can be able to help my people through my knowledge of music, through the gift of my music.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What message do you have for upcoming African musicians outside of the ones you have already given?
Dludlu: Guys, Africa is in crisis. And if you are talking about music, we have a task and duty to perform. In terms of sports, we have development and a support system. Most of the good players, the good musicians, are coming from West Africa. Southern Africa, at the moment, is in crisis and everybody is looking at Southern Africa, especially South Africa, as a point of reference, may be technologically; but we need to empower our people culturally.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Why do you think there is a problem culturally in Southern Africa?
Dludlu: Watch television and you see US and Europe as points of reference. It’s good to a certain degree, the good thing about education at the moment is that people all over Africa don’t need to go to Europe to study, they come to South Africa. But if you look at culture, put on the television and watch sports, you see many soccer players and artists from West Africa at the forefront, but how many artists are from South Africa – apart from the big five? Miriam Makeba is gone… you only name the people that have been in exile in South Africa, and those before that, including myself. It is a big task.
Sam Umukoro Interview: The good thing is that you are still around and you are aware of what you need to do.
Dludlu: I can’t do it alone, in this part of the world, we don’t import we export.