The Music, Career and Legacy of a South African Jazz Legend — Basil Coetzee

Basil Coetzee is one of the greatest jazzmen ever. He was born in District Six in Cape Town in 1944, and fell in love with music through living in District Six, and experiencing its vibrant and dynamic music scene. Coetzee started playing the penny whistle in live performances when he was just fourteen years old. He moved onto drums and then the flute, before picking up the instrument that he would become world-renowned for, the tenor saxophone. He taught himself all of these instruments.

Coetzee was affectionately known by two nicknames. One is ‘Ou B’, and the second is ‘Manenberg’. Behind his nickname ‘Manenberg’ are two interwoven stories. One is an apartheid tragedy and the other is an anti-apartheid struggle victory. When people of colour were forcibly removed from District Six by the apartheid government, Coetzee’s family was relocated to Manenberg township. Coetzee joined a new music scene based in and around Mitchell’s Plain and, while working in a factory to support himself and his family, changed South African music forever.

Coetzee pioneered a brand of South African jazz than combined the American hard bop style with South African township dance styles like Marabi and Kwela. This mix makes for joyful, uplifting music. Coetzee became known as ‘Manenberg’ for the iconic Cape jazz record called Mannenberg that he created with Abdullah Ibrahim and Robbie Jansen. Ibrahim was known as Dollar Brand then.

This song became an anti-apartheid struggle anthem. It was played in tens of thousands of South African homes, and at rallies across the world. And it’s success, along with other jazz numbers by people of colour, caused the apartheid government to persecute jazz performers. Jazz was banned from South African radios and musicians were hounded by the state. Many, like Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, left South Africa and made their names overseas. Basil Coetzee stayed. He worked in a shoe factory by day and tried to keep the music culture alive by night, even in the face of oppression. He played at the launch of the United Democratic Front in Rocklands in Mitchell’s Plain in 1983. He was flown to Europe in the late 80s and performed with his band, Sabenza, at an ANC festival in Amsterdam, and then toured the continent. When Abdullah Ibrahim finally returned from exile, he and Ou B Coetzee played together many times, as apartheid fell.

Coetzee released beautiful albums with Sabenza, one of which I am so fortunate to own on vinyl. He passed away in 1998 after a battle with cancer. A newspaper article records that “Coetzee developed a soulful, gospel-influenced instrumental voice which had a raw impassioned urgency at its core. He often explained that his sound was a reflection of the life around him, a product of the fact that “there’s a lot of poverty in the townships, and people are frustrated, and my sound is created within that environment.”

Out of that environment, Basil Manenberg Coetzee created music that gave people solace and inspiration. His excellence and power gave hope and joy to those who were fighting against great evil and injustice.

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