Note: This is a revised version of a post that I originally published on 8 July 2010.
Robbie Jansen, who died yesterday, leaves behind many thousands of broken hearts -- those of his family, friends, and legions of fans. He was that rarest of human beings, someone who was admired, respected, and truly beloved.
Robbie Jansen, recording a solo track for the re-release of "Nelson," an anthem of the freedom struggle. SABC studios, Sea Point, Cape Town, July 2008. (All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2008.)
Many tributes will be paid to his memory. Most will talk about his music. The best will also speak of him as a cultural activist, as a man who was deeply committed to the struggle against apartheid and for a democratic South Africa. During the 1980s and 1990s, his music-making played a powerful role in calling the new, democratic South Africa into being.
Sakkie Jenner, the Western Cape's Provincial Minister of Cultural Affairs, Sport and Recreation, issued a statement, after learning of Robbie's death, that captures his importance to Cape Town and to the nation. Robbie, he writes,
was as synonymous with Cape Town and the Western Cape as Table Mountain, the South Easter blowing in the mother city, the Minstrels and the flower sellers, the snoek runs, and the diverse, rich cultural sounds of the people of the Western Cape. Through his music Robbie Jansen epitomised the tenacity, the fighting spirit, the defiance and the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation of young people who were determined to change the political landscape of this province and this country.
Robbie Jansen, on flute, this time, recording a solo track for the re-release of "Nelson," an anthem of the freedom struggle. SABC studios, Sea Point, Cape Town, July 2008.
I liked Robbie very much, even though I didn't know him well. I interviewed him twice, for a book that I'm writing on the connections between popular music and liberation politics, in Cape Town. A few years ago, I wrote an article for the African Studies Quarterly about the crucial role that he played in transforming Abdullah Ibrahim's '70s hit song, "Mannenberg," into an anthem of the freedom struggle, in the '80s. (I talk about Robbie in the introduction and in the last section of the article.)
Many people have told me about Robbies's unwavering willingness to appear at countless rallies, demonstrations, and benefit concerts. (He and the other musicians were never paid. They volunteered their time and talent.) At these events, Robbie did much more than sing and play his sax and flute. He told me that he would also "preach from the stage. ...[to] politicize [the audience] and create an awareness of change."
Robbie Jansen, preparing to record a solo track for the re-release of "Nelson," an anthem of the freedom struggle. SABC studios, Sea Point, Cape Town, July 2008.
I heard Robbie play dozens of times. It's appropriate that one of the last was when he was recording solo tracks for the re-release of "Nelson, Born in the Land of the Sun," a struggle anthem and tribute to Nelson Mandela composed by Randolph Hartzenberg and Aki Khan and first recorded, in the '80s, by the band Raakwys. Despite the fact that he was already suffering from the emphysema that would kill him, he sounded like an angel.
Update, 12 July 2010: I just got a note from Aki Khan, saying that he's posted a video of "Nelson, Born in the Land of the Sun" on YouTube. In his notes on YouTube, he says that
This new version of the song features the soulful voice of rising South African diva, Melanie Scholtz, and SA struggle and contemporary musician and great, Robbie Jansen. Lyrics by Randolph Hartzenberg & Nick Carter; music by Akhbar Khan, Nick Carter & Neo Muyanga. Track recorded in Cape Town, mixed at pureMIX Studios in NYC and mastered by Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering. Video edited by Ian Henderson.
Here's the video. Robbies solos on sax and flute, often under Melanie's voice. The first notes you'll hear are his:
Update, 9 July 2010: Greg Davids tells me that he will broadcast a four-hour tribute to Robbie, this coming Sunday, July 11th, from 8:00 to midnight, on Cape Town's Fine Music Radio [FMR], 101.3 on your FM dial. Greg, who runs Urban Soul, a media production company, is a walking, talking jazz encyclopedia. Just as importantly, he was one of Robbie's closest friends. He'll play Robbie's music -- including some unreleased recordings -- and talk with musicians who knew and performed with him. FMR streams its programs over the internet, so you won't have to be in Cape Town to hear the show. (By my calculations, 8:00 to midnight, Cape Town time, is 2:00 to 6:00, in the afternoon, US Eastern Daylight Time.)
Update, 9 December 2010: The great Cape Town pianist Tony Schilder died today. As a private tribute, I've been listening to his music and reading my notes from a conversation we had in 2006. To my surprise and delight I came across some comments that he made about Robbie. Here's what one musical great had to say about another: “Robbie is Cape Town. He’s part of the whole soul of Cape Town. That sound that he gets, that’s the Cape Town sound.” Amen.
Hamba kahle, Tony and Robbie, go well. You're already sorely missed.
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I'll leave you with an example of Robbie at his late career best, playing some delicious Cape Town jazz. It will make you happy. Which is just the way he'd want it.