Harlem Code


On Wednesday I received this auspicious invite to attend a jazz session, and although I was feeling rather tired and PMS-ed out I decided this is not an invite you turn down. So indeed I went to Harlem to witness this very special moment which gave me a feeling of being in a shebeen in Sophiatown, South Africa, right in the middle of the sonorous 50s; except it wasn’t young and boisterous journalists and photographers that populated the spot, but rather retired African American war veterans—stylish, very “Bra Timing from Phomolong”, and filled with charm. This was the invite:

Hey Rafikiz,

Tomorrow night I am going to the best Jazz joint- after St. Nicks of course (RIP) in Harlem, and I hereby request your presence.

This spot is not for the faint hearted. It is a legion hall – A Colonel post. There will be no pampering. The average age is 60+. There will be no one to hit on or hit on you. The drinks are cheap (served airplane style) and there is no cover. Come here only if you love music (JAZZ) and tales of war by African Americans vets. There is an honour code and members live by it, so do not worry about shit you shouldn’t be worrying about.

Once you get there you go directly to the basement. It is a cash only bar, with a basic menu of the day, so if it is chicken, it is just chicken nothing else. I suspect tomorrow will be fish. Collard greens or Peas are on the house and always on the menu.

Hope to see you there if not don’t beat yourself.

PS: This is a place close to my heart so do not mass invite people. If you have plans with other young things but are not sure where to go, DO NOT GO HERE or I will forever hate you. This invite is only for you and your significant other. I am not trying to popularize this spot.  They don’t need it. 

This place is special. There is something about witnessing an older black generation born and raised in the city of New York, on the streets of Harlem—our older generation of black folks in South Africa have grown under the Draconian apartheid laws, and hence almost always have a conservative and strict disposition. Of course there are exceptions, like Bra Timing from Phomolong, who represents the self-made, stylish, and culture-conscious, jazz-loving brother/father who fancies himself the quite the ladies man—not in a Casanova kinda way, but more like he is loved by women for his gentle nature and behaviour his mom can be proud of. Last night I saw him, in numbers, in his old age, still emanating that unfading coolness. I wrote this piece while listening to the jazz ensemble, and titled it ‘Harlem Code’, after realising that black America and black South Africa have so many similarities, links and ties, as I have just outlined above.

SophiatownCold brass

Warm hands

Life force articulates

Streaming riffs—

Jazzman blows

Balloon face

Sounds histories

Complex mysteries

Human flows

Intersect, ebb

Into shared futures

Riffing bridges

Reuniting siblings

Ocean carrying song

Rivers, blood

MiriamStreams notable

On cold brass

Warm hands

Life force circulates

Strums the strings

And streams of the heart

Rumble in jungles

Of thoughts and feeling

Jazzman bops the ‘b’

Flat minor

Major ensemble

Across borders

Cold brass

Warm hearts as one

The images displayed above are both from Sophiatown in the 1950s, whilst the opening image is a portrait of a young painter in Harlem – but they can very easily interchange. The cultures of both places are impeccably similar, as has been observed by most who have been residents of both ‘hoods’. Keorapetse Kgositsile points to this in one of his poems where he seamlessly transposes a tsotsi from the streets of Sophiatown to Lennox Avenue in Harlem. He can, with much ease, step from one continent to another, guided by those exact shared histories, not without their own complexities. The similarities have opened up a whole new area of studies in academia, within which I have found an intellectual home… Take a look at this striking image. Wonderfully framed and captured in Harlem, it addressed the same issues I always write about re black aesthetics. Look at the dolls, then look at the girls, in their formative years that will shape their consciousness on what is beautiful and what is ugly. We can place this on the verandah of any South African/African home and would be resonant.

Little black girls urgently need to see magic in the mirror. Magic and transcendence...

Little black girls urgently need to see magic in the mirror. Magic and transcendence…

This is the song ‘Bra Timing From Phomolong’ that I make reference to in this post. It is particularly vehicular…

While watching the oldies last night getting down, singing beautiful songs reminiscent of Miriam Makeba and Billy Holiday, I penned this short little piece:

Old is young

gran is child

end is beggining

back points to forth

destination is departure

and death is birth.