I don’t understand jazz. I just don’t get it. All the trumpets, the blowing and sweating and sighing. And puffed lips. I don’t get the expressions jazz artists have either – especially those far-away looks on their faces when they are interviewed about their music. Jazz, for me, feels like something they would play in a surgical suite before they take out my tonsils. It just slows down my heartbeat too much, and I am wary of things that slow down my heartbeat. To be honest, I’m well aware that my opinion of jazz is purely a reflection of my taste and culture, and not in any way a representation of this fine genre.
All the jazz I know, OK, most of it, is because of my good pal — and whisky-drinking partner — Jonah Ochako, who, as a departure from all this, happens to work for a bank! (Gulp). Chase Bank to be precise. Jonah is a little younger than me but with a soul much older than mine. He’s also the most eccentric, frequently-reclusive, and most fucked up chap I know. Which curiously enough, fascinates me. (When I start talking about this guy like we are in a relationship, please promise to stop me?)
Just for you all to understand the level of his eccentricity – He has two cars; the first is a 1980 W 123 300D, 3-Litre diesel Mercedes. He bought this junk in a yard but hasn’t “come round to fixing it,” so it remains parked in his digs where he wakes up and stares at it because that kind of thing excites him. He is that person that is fascinated by old things (old soul?). Things that were designed by men who all died a long time ago. He understands engines. I will call him a dozen times in an afternoon, and he will call me back three hours later and say, “Sorry, I was under Gloria,” and I will be like, “Who the hell is Gloria?” (Sounds like a jealous chic, I know) and he will say, “Some moti I was fixing. Come over, let’s have a drink,” and I will go over and meet Gloria who is usually some haggard pre-independence thing with headlights that make her look like a soulful owl. There are weekends he will spend locked indoors listening to jazz and ‘reflecting on things.’ Purrrff.
His regular car is a ratty 1988 Volkswagen Golf MK2, a 1.6 litre carburetor. Whatever you do, don’t ask him about this car (or any other car) unless you have two hours to spare listening to him prattle on about the car. I can’t understand this car; it’s an awkward, tiny contraption that smells of hide. He doesn’t even fit in it properly because he’s 6’4” tall, and when he sits you can see his knees hitting the steering wheel. He calls her Dolores – yes, Dolores. He has wired Wi-Fi in it and often uses his iPhone, propped on the dashboard to stream jazz music.
He once drove me in it to Thika Road in search of this fish place called Car Wash that was apparently a must-eat-at. (FYI Jonah, It wasn’t). He drove it like a complete psychopath. As tiny as that car is, he stepped on it, the poor thing whizzing and tumbling down Thika Road, pushing buses off their lanes, elbowing out matatus. Drivers stuck heads out their windows and gave him what-the-hell-is-that glares. Melee. Utter Bedlam. I constantly stepped on my imaginary brakes even when he remained unperturbed and calm, never breaking a sweat or a thread in our conversation.
“This moti is German ingenuity, you guy, extremely functional,” he will say, forgetting to indicate, horns blare behind him, “She can climb pavements, run long distance, fit in any parking spot, carry five people and most importantly her boot doesn’t vibrate when I pump up the volume on the stereo.”
A bus he just blindsided overtakes him, horn blaring, and he glibly says, “Aaaahh whaaat? Si you go!” and then back to that vibe, “Dolores is not a morning girl and it will take her 8-mins of drive to warm up and give driving pleasure, just like us all.”
Meanwhile, he is playing Ella Fitzgerald or Oscar Peterson, or Earl Hines or Nina Simone (I know them because I’ve written them down) and he is driving so badly I’m sure I won’t live to have that fish but I can’t complain because I will sound like a girl, or worse, his girl.
He calmly presses on, “Her being older than Tamms means she can throw a tantrum whenever she wants to and I will have to respect her and not get angry, after all she has seen many miles even without an odometer, but the good thing about her is that she will always give warning signs.” At this point he suddenly wedges himself between two cars. I curse and his response is a simple, “Ebu stop being a girl, there is only one girl here, and I’m driving her,” and he continues, “She has no fancy dashboard notifications, she just talks to you. She makes a new sound. A new rattle. A new squeak. Something. A telltale. She has taught me to listen. I’m a better listener because of her.”
He’s smiling, obviously proud of this delivery. I was sure that we would miss a curve, hit a boulder and roll off the road and when the cops would arrive at the scene, they would find our bodies sprawled on the ground, limbs twisted awkwardly in the final dance of death as Billie Holiday croons the last dirge to us.
So you wouldn’t blame me for associating Jazz music with eccentrics. Because Jonah is the kind of recluse who wanders off alone on holiday. Last Christmas he took off to Kilifi to spend the holidays alone in this huge house that his aunt had vacated as she took off for her holiday in shags. I couldn’t wrap my head around the solitude. He would spend his days fixing her car that had a technical problem, or just sit in that damn house alone, reading a book or drinking whisky, listening to Jimmy Dludlu because he just “fell in love with his work lately.” In the evenings, he would take long walks on the beach, alone. So spooky, so haunted, so pseudo-psychotic. I asked him why he would do that and he said he needed the alone time to reflect on the year. Such shit. “Why don’t you just reflect on your life while seated on the toilet like everybody else, man?” I asked.
I can’t stay in a room alone for more than three hours, let alone a whole goddamn house in the middle of Kilifi for days on end. I would quickly get suicidal. My thoughts would drive me mad. I need to know there is a human being in the next room even if they aren’t talking to me. I need to hear a cough. A sneeze. I need to hear the soft thud of a closing fridge or the ruffle of a curtain being drawn. I need to hear footsteps, a drawer shutting. OK, fine, I’m needy. I accept that. And it’s normal.
So Christmas Day I called Jonah, (not because I care or we’re having a bromance), and asked him what he was doing for the day. He said he would — and listen to this madness — “just spend time finishing this book and maybe get some fresh catch of the day and do a grill.” The hell? Who uses phrases like “fresh catch,” in a conversation? I asked if he was expecting anyone over, he said no. Hmm, so “fresh catch” alone with Miles Davis or Era Himes or Nina Simone? So I told him to come over and join us for dinner at the hotel we were staying at in Mombasa; no need spending Christmas Day alone. He drove out that afternoon, in the car he was fixing and he joined my brother and my pals, Eric and Paul, for a whisky by the pool and then dinner. Later that night, the Missus asked me with deep concern, “Aki Jonah, is he happy?” and I said, “Only when he is under Gloria,” and she gave me that disapproving look and I quickly added, “Gloria is a car.”
I remember seeing him (Jonah) off in the dimly-lit parking lot after dinner and me telling him, “Jonah, maybe you need a girlfriend.”
A sigh. “I don’t need a girlfriend. I’m easy.”
“OK then, maybe you need a boyfriend.”
“I won’t forsake you for the choices you make.”
“Hahahaha. Thanks for dinner. Good night, boss.”
And off he went, his taillights glowing out of the gate, perhaps playing some ghoulish tune with lots of saxophones.
So it’s little wonder that during this just ended 16th Cape Town Jazz Festival, when I told him that I didn’t feel Hugh Masekela his response was, “Think of Hugh like whisky, you can’t just jump into the mature stuff, if there was something like deep house, he would be it. This is mature sound we are talking about. Contrary to the belief of most Blankets and Wine/Koroga fest attending Nairobians, Take 5 doesn’t count as having understood or acquired a rich and complicated tastes in the genre.”
Hugh was to perform with Oliver Mtukudzi and when he announced that “Tuku” didn’t make it into the country, we decided to watch Hugh who, although the South Africans loved and sang along to, just didn’t float my boat. He blew the hell out of that poor sax but otherwise his music just seemed too drowsy. I realise that this sounds like saying Mandela wasn’t a hero.
I wandered aimlessly through many stages, watching different chaps perform; Yvonne Chaka Chaka (she was good), Gerald Clayton (his ensemble was oddly bristling) and Al Jarreau (anesthetic), Jason Miles (no comment) but my best was the Mahotella Queens who were celebrating their 50th anniversary on the job.
Now, I had never heard of these ladies. (Neither had Jonah). One is like 73yrs, the other was 70yrs and the youngest — who had replaced an ill member — was 29. It has to be said that these South African mamas remain quite unapologetic about their weight (and age) but they can move those bodies. These women kicked and thrashed and raised their legs in the air and moved their waists … at 70!! Also South Africans love their own. The arena was jam-packed, and the crowd bobbed and heaved like a tidal wave and they screamed throughout. The ground under me moved as they sang and danced and when they screamed “Yebo!” thousands and thousands of people screamed back, “yeboooo!” and you just felt the pride. And before I could comprehend all this, they were all singing along word-for-word, in utter jubilation. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen happen because of music.
Then Zuma made a surprise visit to the stage, and you know how Zuma is, he is sort of a loveable rouge, isn’t he? And they love him, my God, he stepped on the stage and it went gaga.
I still don’t get it. Jazz, that is. I sort of get the African Jazz, but then when you put me in a room with some chap on a piano, and some guy holding up that big-ass guitar (cello?) and some other guy on the drums, I start daydreaming. Especially since the crowd is so rapt in attention and silent until they erupt in polite applause when the drum guy shows off his skills by beating every drum successively but you still feel sorry for the drummer somehow even though the crowd seems to love his dexterity. I always feel sorry for drummers; they look like they have fewer friends than the pianists.