Music for people
There’s a growing volume of scholarship around South African music, much of it thankfully moving beyond the discredited boundaries of the old ethnomusicology the starting point of which was invariably the African musicmaker as Other.
The process is similar to that which occurred around jazz studies. There United States scholars such as Eric Porter, Sherrie Tucker and John Gennari were among the diverse voices forcing a re-think of the genre; stripping away the naturalisation of definitions and categories and exposing them as manufactured by specific social and political dynamics.
In reconsidering African music, one of the key voices is Ghanaian scholar Dr Kofi Agawu, whose analysis of African music as a system of signs has encouraged new emphasis on both the conditions of the music’s production and reception, and on the different connotations those signs might carry for makers and audiences inside and outside the music’s home community.
It’s fitting that there are frequent references to Agawu’s work in Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid edited by Grant Olwage (Wits University Press).
Nothing impacted quite as strongly on the conditions of the production and reception of South African music as the direct and indirect effects of apartheid. Indeed, as far as modern popular musics are concerned, a strong argument can be made that apartheid repression and market fragmentation fostered the classic underdevelopment of the sector, which emerged in 1994 weaker than it was in the 1940s.
The 13 essays that comprise Composing Apartheid are based on (and in some cases reworked from) papers presented at a conference hosted by NewMusic SA in Grahamstown as part of the 2004 New Music Indaba. They range from Christine Lucia’s sensitive exploration of the tensions between schooling and originality in black choral music to Martin Scherzinger’s dazzling deconstruction of ethnicity and the imaging of an exotic “Africanness” in both the compositions of Kevin Volans and their critical reception. Jazz, kwela, kwaito and the Afrikaans classical establishment all receive critical attention from South African and overseas scholars.
Much (though not all) of the writing is refreshingly free of semiotic jargon and studded with the kind of human anecdotes that remind us music is essentially something made and heard by people. These help to open the debates even to non-academic readers.
Olwage’s short introduction effectively frames the essays, highlighting the two key themes that unite them. The first is race: not so much the race of individual scholars, composers or musicians, but race in its specific apartheid construction as both ingredient of and overlay on the discourse around the music—not only then, but now. For the second key theme is that apartheid is still composing itself, this time in historical retrospect, in scholarly explorations and accounts of the era and in popular memories and imaginations of it.
The book makes a perfect companion piece to Lucia’s earlier reader The World of South African Music, which gathered and informatively contextualised historical writings about South African music of various periods. Lucia’s important role in engaging with survivals of apartheid-composed establishment attitudes to African music receives overdue and well-merited acknowledgment from Olwage.
I attended the 2004 conference, and the element missing from this volume is the unexpected connections and challenging collisions created between apparently disparate themes by live debate and questions. The cues and catalysts are certainly here, as they were in the original papers, but it’s left to the reader to tease them out. Paradoxically, that may make the book an even more stimulating intellectual and historical treasure-hunt than the conference, and for a far wider audience.