Music

Story of diaspora exiles many

Percy Zvomuya

The International Exhibition of Black Music reveals the iniquitous nature of halls of fame, writes Percy Zvomuya.

A passageway representing the slave trade from Africa to the Americas is among some of the elements of the exhibition which is on at the Museum Africa in Newton, Johannesburg. (Supplied)

Those inducted receive the envious glances of those skulking in the corridors, left off the roll of honour.

Sometimes those who have been shafted have a right to feel aggrieved. 

Let's begin with the video installation that examines the greatest musicians from Southern Africa.

It begins with Thomas Mapfumo before swiftly moving on to Oliver Mtukudzi and then wading across the Zambezi into Zambia.

Not mentioned is Zimbabwe's superstar band, the Bhundu Boys. They were so big in the 1980s that Eric Clapton was enamoured with them; Madonna went a step ­further, inviting them to be her support act at a concert in London where they played in front of more than 200000 fans.

The way some of the entries in the exhibition are organised allows a visitor to move seamlessly between countries, disregarding borders. So the entry on Southern African music moves swiftly from Zimbabwe to Zambia, where it acknowledges ­Serenje Karandulo, Amayenge and others, but not Emmanuel Mulemena and his band, the Mulemena Boys.

An important link between Southern African music and Central African music is the late Zimbabwean musician Simon Chimbetu, who was able to meld the brooding melodies of rumba with the percussive, drum–based sound popular in Malawi – a country not mentioned at all in the exhibition – and Zimbabwe.

The videos on Central African music are superb. I grew up listening to Congolese music and knew the disparate narratives, but had never sat down to piece together who's who in the evolution of the music. 

It begins with the mournful and beautiful song Marie Louise by Wendo Kolosoy and Henri Bowane – a song that takes you back to pre–independence Congo when the Cuban sound was in the African smithy, receiving a knock here, a blast of hot air there.In this evolution Wendo Kolosoy was crucial and so was Franco, who released more than 1000 LPs. And so was the fast–forward sound and bling ­culture presided over by Papa Wemba. I was sad, though, that the silky–voiced Mbilia Bel – the queen of rumba – is not included in the video.

I am sure I missed Abdullah Ibrahim – even though I visited the exhibition three times – because I do not want to think that the curators did not include the pianist and composer as a pillar of black music. Ibrahim was a chief proponent of what would come to be known as Cape jazz, a narrative he was to transcend when he went into exile in the United States, where luminaries such as Duke Ellington acknowledged him as an accomplished musician (legend has it that Ellington even asked Ibrahim to sit in for him on a tour of Switzerland).

I also did not see Joe Harriot, a trumpeter trained at the Alpha Boys' School, a music school for boys in Kingston, Jamaica, although his fellow free–jazz innovator, Ornette Coleman, is very visible. Perhaps it's because, instead of heading to New York, as most musicians seeking fame and acclaim did, Harriot went to London. 

There he laid down a sound that saw him acknowledged as a pioneer of free jazz. Harriot's legendary and cultish albums Free Form and Abstract are strident and striated approaches to the genre, inventive and vivid in their sonic visions.

Instead of including Elvis Presley (has he been reclassified?) as one of the pillars of black music, why not include the Jamaican sound engineer King Tubby, who is credited with inventing dub music? Many people consider him to be the godfather of modern dance music. Echo, delay, reverb – effects now widely used in contemporary dance music – were first used on Tubby's mixing desk in his Kingston studio.

The exhibition demonstrates a common problem when a roll call is made for black artists: the preponderance of our exiled brethren in the Americas. 

Sure, the brothers and sisters went away and achieved a lot, but those who remained didn't just pick their noses at dawn, trap flies in the morning, kill lizards in the afternoon and admire African sunsets in the evening.

Still, it's an exhibition worth checking out for its foundational take on black music. But, remember, you will have to visit it more than once.


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