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Playing history

I get nervous when I hear filmmakers saying they’re ‘making doccies’,” says Cape Town-based producer/director Bridget Thompson. ‘The word ‘doccie’ always reminds me of pet dogs, lap dogs perhaps with a carefully coiffed presentation — rather like a film that is formulaic, neat, contained and doesn’t probe beyond the superficial and obvious.”

Thompson’s four-part series, Rhythms from Africa, an imaginative collaboration with exiled Somalian filmmaker Abdulkadir Ahmed Said, steers clear of many of the strict humdrum codes of what she labels the ‘doccie” format.

Each of the films explores the way in which the people who shaped Zanzibar, Cape Town and Johannesburg also created uniquely vibrant musical cultures. The fourth film examines how young people develop and sometimes ignore these cherished traditions.

Says Said: ‘In the films we see music, the musicians and the different musical forms they created as the collective expression of a society’s soul.”

The series has been screened around the world already — in New York, France, England, Venezuela, Poland, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Africa, as well as some hugely successful one-off festival and township screenings locally — but this is the first time it will be seen on South African television.

The first three episodes start with a brief introduction to the history of the specific society — tales of pain and blood under colonial slavery or apartheid. Each finishes with a note of hope. Taarab — an Ocean of Melodies, a stirring performance by Zanzibar’s Culture Music Club, established in 1958, pays tribute to the role of artists in society and reflects on their duty to use the gift given them for the collective good.

The traditional closing song of Taarab plays over the end credit roll, which starts with the lyrics translated from Swahili: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, goodbye to all of you. May every offence be forgiven. Be neither annoyed nor sad. We wish you an agreeable night. Praying for you that you may be blessed.”

In Gold, Tears and Music, about the development of marabi, kwela and mbaqanga in Johannesburg, musician Pops Mohammed plays the kora, symbolising all the African nations in the city’s mix, while calling for world peace.

In Our Language, Our Music, Our City?, although Cape Town is portrayed as unable to overcome centuries of colonial and racial division, the ‘kaleidoscopic” potential of the city is revealed in a multicultural musical celebration orchestrated by saxophone maestro Robbie Jansen.

The unusually titled episode, Scratch, Mix and … ?, featuring rap, kwaito and hip-hop, is more discursive but, interestingly, it was chosen to open a film festival in the million-strong barrio of Petare in Caracas. Argentinean poet Jorge Falcone said of the screening: ‘It was extraordinary to see Venezuelan people with African faces watching a screen, where African people with Venezuelan faces appeared, and to realise there was no difference between them.”

‘Our thesis in the series was to explore the ways in which unique musical cultures had been created in a number of African cities while these cities were in formation through trade, slavery, migrant work and immigration. We wanted to see how the dhow trade affected Zanzibari musical culture, how the nature of the port influenced the shape of Cape Town sounds and how the train to Johannesburg brought people and their sounds from the whole Southern African region together to create a new musical energy — the idea being that the people who built a city shaped the musical culture as well.”

The directors say they were motivated by loss. The loss of any African musician who held the musical memory of a community is the loss of an entire orchestra. ‘It is shocking to realise how rapidly this heritage is being lost through globalisation. The profound culture and heritage they represent is often distorted and belittled. We hope this series reminds young people of the treasure chest of their elders’ musical legacy.”

The urgency of passing on this musical inheritance is borne out by jazz bassist Spencer Mbadu: ‘The children who were born, as in 1979, they don’t know their history and they don’t know their music. Who’s John Coltrane? Who’s Mahlatini? It’s Tupac they’re crazy about.”

When the two filmmakers started in 1999 they had a proposal (and still do) to cover Africa and the diaspora, but didn’t have the capacity to continue. But there has been major interest from other countries. ‘In Latin America they’ve asked for more episodes and Abdulkadir was asked to do a film on the black roots of tango,” Thompson says.

‘I was at a film festival in Iran as a juror and was asked by an Iranian producer to work with him on a film on Kurdish folk musicians — but there are no deals yet.”

Said says that, to take the series forward, ‘what we really need is a serious producer or partner with an African vision and sense of historical understanding so we can continue with it and do the whole continent justice”.

The one thing that perhaps makes them most proud is how the films place South Africa firmly on the continent. In a joint email, from the producer and the director, they state: ‘South Africans suffer from a lack of historical consciousness of how this nation came into being and who comprises its people. Even more so of the continent.

‘Africa is still a place one goes to from South Africa, not a place that one is in already.”

Rhythms from Africa begins with Taarab — an Ocean of Melodies on Tuesday January 15 on SABC 1 at 9pm

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