Celebrating ancient song

It is good to know that in corners of South Africa there is still music that is thoroughly African, in history, in inspiration, in sound ... and unchanged over the centuries.

All music in Africa, from traditional to pop, has the same functions in relation to people — it integrates, it reaffirms, it reinforces relationships. This is one of the great things about African music that the world is discovering — it’s special, in that it reinforces our humanity.

This year the Arts & Culture Trust Awards honours some of the people behind traditional music and, in so doing, recognises the importance of this music.

Traditional music is all too often ignored — the attention of the public, of business, of the media, is given to commercial music.
So the support of the Arts & Culture Trust for traditional music this year is more than welcome.

My father, Hugh Tracey, used to respond to populist political talk about equality by saying: “Yes, people may be born equal, but more important, we are all born special.” It’s in recognising each other’s “specialness” that we get the richest kind of human relationships.

Our traditional music is special. One of its greatest features is that it is so strongly linked with life.

The music you play, what you listen to, what you join in with, to which you dance, is you. And who doesn’t want to be modern? In the process of moving to a city lifestyle, people move musically as well, because music in Africa is an expression of who you are.

It is accepted that to live in town you should go for town music and leave behind your rural roots.

This linking of music with status is both a strength and a weakness. As far as national development is concerned, the only way to ensure rural music’s long-term survival is to weaken the link and help it to be judged independently, without social prejudice. As we urbanise, music will have to move towards becoming “folklorised”, brought more consciously, more analytically, into national life. But will this approach also destroy the music at its roots? I don’t have too many worries about that. Because as our national culture grows and changes, our music will also change, whatever controls are put on it.

Our rural music has already changed under the overpowering influences of the past 200 years. Western schooling and the church have made much original African music vanish. The hot glare of the media reaches everywhere in Africa, evaporating culture at home, in stores, in kwela-kwela taxis. Even traditional musicians often have the radio blaring all day.

The sound of our popular music has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, but the African principles in it have remained solid. It has been the same in the rest of Africa — the way music is put together, the way people relate to each other in music, does not seem to change. This is a very deep part of the African social order.

So what should we be worried about, if little has changed?

There was a time, long ago, when the indigenous music of all countries was the popular music. And it still is in some countries. Take, for example, music in South America, in the United States, and in times not that long ago, in Southern Africa.

Our own music is still relatively strong. But it is weakening daily, as we lose the older expert musicians who still retain that smell of original Africa.

As Africa has become independent every country has said: “Now we are free, who are we?” Popular music has answered the question, amply funded by the record industry. We are part of the international world of music all right, but we are still largely ignorant about the musics of Africa.

We should be exposing our people to more of the old music of Africa, to our traditions, to train our ears, build pride, to let people learn the musics of Africa. Once we know them we have the freedom to choose — we can make any kind of music we like. But unless traditional music develops an aura of acceptability, most of us will continue to opt for the music of the day.

In this context we focus on the winner of this year’s Arts & Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award. There’s both happiness and sadness here — happiness for those who have come to receive the award on behalf of NoFinish Dywili, and sadness because Dywili passed away earlier this year.

While Dywili was outstanding in her own way, she was also representative of many other outstanding, unsung women who can be found in small communities in South Africa — people who have the courage to live life as they know it should be lived and to influence others to do the same.

Her field was music — the traditional music of the abaThembu people, part of the Xhosa, at Ngqoko village, the town of Lady Frere, or Cacadu, between Queenstown and Engcobo in the Transkei. While customs in surrounding communities were gradually being eroded, she kept a core group of singers going for about 40 years.

They specialised in the typical married women’s style called umngqungqo, which is traditionally performed at the time of intonjane, girls’ isolation and initiation. In this time when the rediscovery and revival of Khoisan culture is in the air, it is worthwhile remembering that the Khoisan had a big influence on the western Xhosa, and although it’s now almost impossible to trace any relics of original Khoisan culture in the Eastern Cape, it’s still there to hear in song-dances like umngqungqo.

Dywili’s music might have remained unknown if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting in about 1979 between her and Dave Dargie. Dargie was working on Africanising the music in the Catholic liturgy.

Once he had met and heard Dywili he knew that he needed to learn about traditional Xhosa music before continuing. So, late in her life, Dywili was “discovered”. Soon her group received invitations from all over South Africa, then Europe and, last year, Réunion. That was Dywili’s last trip.

The group have made a tremendous impression. It’s not only their music, the polyphonic singing, the three types of bow they play, the umngqokolo overtone singing. Their strength lies in their presence, dignity, gaiety and seriousness. In the knowledge they give to an audience that they’re part of an ancient tradition that means something — and something of this meaning comes across to every audience.

In making this award, received on Dywili’s behalf by her daughter Thulisa, I would like to think it is also in recognition of all other women in South Africa who have confidence in themselves and their culture.

This is an extract from the keynote address by Professor Andrew Tracey at the Arts & Culture Trust Awards ceremony

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