Hands Across the Water

Ernest Dawkins admits he wasn’t feeling especially generous when he was approached, in 1996, by the United States Information Service about organizing a visit for Orlando da Conceicao, a young jazz musician from Mozambique. The independent organization, which has since been incorporated into the State Department’s Office of International Information Programs, hoped Dawkins would help da Conceicao set up gigs and interact with other local musicians over the course of a month. “They asked me if I wanted to host him,” says Dawkins, a busy reedist and composer who now serves as chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and leads the distinguished New Horizons Ensemble, among other groups. “I thought to myself, ‘Not particularly.’ But when I learned that I would get a free trip to Africa I said, ‘Well, of course.'”

Though it may have been conceived with less than altruistic motives, Dawkins’s trip to Mozambique and South Africa the following year set in motion a chain of events leading to this weekend’s Chicago-South Africa Jazz Initiative, an impressive cultural-exchange program that brings to town a dozen or so South African musicians, from established star Hugh Masekela to cutting-edge trumpeter Fezile “Feya” Faku. And it’ll bear more fruit later this year, when the local label 8th Harmonic Breakdown releases a session that Dawkins and fellow Chicagoans Malachi Favors, Jeff Parker, and Chad Taylor recorded with Mozambican saxophonist and percussionist Ze’ Marie, whom Dawkins met that summer.

Dawkins says he clicked instantly with African jazzmen like Marie, but interaction with public officials was a little trickier. On his second day in Mozambique, he played a late afternoon concert with local musicians in a suburb of Maputo, the capital. As he was packing up, he was approached by an audience member who informed him that he couldn’t leave just yet. “He said, ‘You have to play for us,'” recalls Dawkins. “I said, ‘I just got through playing.’ He said, ‘No, you didn’t play for us.’ The dudes in the audience were all of Mozambique’s important diplomats and government officials. They circled around me and they told me that I had to take my horn out and play. In Africa you don’t mess with the politicians, so all of the other musicians backed off. I pulled my horn out and asked them what they wanted me to play.” It turned out they were hankering to hear “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Dawkins obliged, and “they started singing, clapping, and stomping their feet like it was some kind of ritual,” he says. “After I played the song for about 20 minutes they reached a fever pitch, like they were at a Baptist revival meeting. After I finished this guy came up to me and said, ‘You do not have to worry about nothing in my country.'”

In Chicago a year earlier, Dawkins had met noted South African reedist Zim Ngqawana at a gig at the Chicago Cultural Center, and Ngqawana had informally invited him to drop by if he were ever in the neighborhood. When the two reunited and jammed in Johannesburg, a lightbulb went on, and Dawkins began to formulate a plan for a larger-scale exchange of ideas. “In a certain sense African-Americans and South African [blacks] share the same psychoses,” he says, also noting that the polyglot nature of African jazz parallels the stylistic diversity pioneered in Chicago by the AACM. Over the next three years, he visited southern Africa six more times, most recently this spring with the New Horizons Ensemble, which spent three weeks playing gigs and giving workshops in Durban, Cape Town, and Pretoria as well as Johannesburg and Maputo. He procured some corporate sponsorship for the tour–from R.J. Reynolds–but the most help came in the form of a $10,000 grant from the USIS, which stipulated that half the money be used to bring South African musicians to Chicago.

Most of the rest of the funding for the Chicago-South Africa Jazz Initiative comes from HotHouse, whose proprietor, Marguerite Horberg, earlier this year applied for a $20,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council (under a new program called the Governor’s International Arts Exchange) for that purpose. Dawkins has also received yet another grant from Meet the Composer, an organization that sets up composers in three-year community-oriented residencies around the country, and he’ll apply some of that money to the project as well.

Groups led by Masekela, Faku, and Ngqawana all perform this weekend at HotHouse on double bills with Chicago groups–the Fred Anderson Trio, the New Horizons Ensemble, and 8 Bold Souls, respectively. They’ll also perform on Saturday afternoon as part of the first annual Englewood Community Jazz Festival in Ogden Park, a product of the Meet the Composer grant; sharing the bill will be the Englewood Community Jazz Band, which Dawkins organized and will conduct. Although the group–which includes talented young players like reedist David Boykin, flutist Niki Mitchell, and saxophonist Aaron Getsug–will mostly perform Dawkins’s compositions, by next year its songbook should be filled with original pieces composed by group members, whom he’ll mentor.

Dawkins hopes to make the African series an annual project, and although he plans to keep the focus on South African musicians at first, he’d eventually like to include musicians from other nations and to present them in cities other than Chicago. But “if this expands I’ll need to find someone to help me,” says Dawkins, who’s handled most of the logistics on his own. “It takes a serious toll on my practice time.”


The Vandermark 5 celebrate the release of their new Burn the Incline (Atavistic)–which features a more expansive and considered set of compositions than last year’s Simpatico–with a gig at the Empty Bottle on Friday night. Drummer Hamid Drake and superb Boston guitarist Joe Morris will open the show with a set of duets.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.