Soundscapes in movement

We move to Denver/because there’s work in Denver/We move to Vlakfontein/no more work in Denver/… Mama, oh mama, you tame the snakes and scorpions and then you are moved again/ Mama, how I remember!/ We leave our graves behind …

(Lyric from the musical Phiri, 1972)

Migrant miners may have moulded South African music, but it’s more alloy than pure gold. Sounds from diverse sources were fused in a high-pressure crucible into something both recognisably rooted and audaciously fresh. James Ngcobo’s production, Songs of Migration, at the Market Theatre, contains the best representation of that process I have seen and heard on a stage.

Partly, that comes from the performances. At 70, hornman Hugh Masekela is more musically articulate than ever: his flugelhorn solo on the iconic Stimela is shorter, but deeper and more technically challenging than the several you can buy on record, though it references them all. Masekela’s singing has sometimes been undervalued; here, the relationship between how he thinks through vocal and instrumental lines is upfront and electrifying.

Singer Sibongile Khumalo is always impressive. These days she’s employing the unexpected textures of traditional extended vocalisation more freely, giving her a far richer improviser’s palette: magnificent and unique. The supporting singers and players — including violinist Tshepo Mngoma, pianist Ezbie Moilwa and percussionist Godfrey Mngcina — create empathetic accompaniments and soaring song; instrumental solos seem too few and vocal ones leave the audience wanting more, particularly from the deep-toned voice of Nondumiso Zondeki.

But it’s more than performance that gives parts of the show such power. There’s the songbook too. Regular Masekela warhorses, such as Stimela, are there — the audience probably wouldn’t let him leave without it and it is relevant. But much of this historical music has been showcased less often, particularly from the canon of Tswana/Sotho song. Todd Matshikiza’s Hambani Madoda from King Kong also gets a beautiful new arrangement it has long merited.

On a curving platform stage, bare save railway-station arches framing a compelling Drum photograph of a pass queue, and some scattered hat boxes and suitcases, Gregory Maqoma has choreographed tableaux from an old family album that gradually come to life. In describing the pre-1980s eras, visuals, music and spoken — often highly personal — narrative come together to create a soundscape of black community life in the city that perfectly supports the book’s discourse: migration as a maker of new music.
Khumalo describes how the sounds of neighbourhood life — birth, marching, mourning, love — wove into the urban song of her childhood, and we hear those transformations played.

That’s a fresh frame for such drama and potentially an extremely powerful one. Unfortunately, as the two-hour running time progresses, the music remains magnificent but the thread of migrancy becomes increasingly tenuous. The words continue to tick off all the topics, but that magical marriage between script and soundscape starts to come apart.

The show’s choices and emphases around gender and politics are worth debating too. Despite the powerful women performing — and writing — the songs (Dorothy Masuka’s Hamba Nontsokolo), this world of migrancy is very male-centred. Wives in the rural areas wait with folded arms for a remittance, but Matshidiso never writes to her migrant lover. Women like Nomathemba, swallowed by Jozi, don’t write home either. They never reappear, except as, cites Masekela, “the girlfriend in the city” or the glamorous shebeen queen Mama Ndoro.

None of this is untrue, but neither is it anything like complete. As the lyric from Phiri tells, women in the city also became workers, held homes together, killed the snakes and scorpions. Their story has been hidden from history and is shadowed on this stage too.

Briefly displaying a “no passes” placard doesn’t adequately explain how intimately those political struggles were tied up with the enforcement, control and trauma of movement, not just between township and “homeland”, but also within the city itself, for both sexes.

There’s some shuffling of the historical order of events and compositions, as the narrative switches back and forth between a thematic and a chronological approach. With an older, largely South African audience like last Saturday’s, who knows the plot, that wasn’t a problem. Printing a timeline plus a running order of songs (and composition dates) in the programme would help deal with it for everyone.

The narrative dwells on the common ground between all migrants, rather than gulfs in status and power. But not all migrancies, or all impacts on our music, were equal. People chose to bump jive, but were forced to render Sarie Marais for the police to prove they were singers, and required to learn My Yiddishe Momma by Alf Herbert’s mother to please segregated white audiences.

African-American liberation music — “spirituals” — gets generous time. That’s understandable. Both here and there, communities suffered slavery and sang its pains; visiting African-American minstrels such as Orpheus McAdoo’s troupe clearly influenced South African performers.

But the spirituals are presented as songs of lamentation, not liberation; Go Down Moses is entirely robbed of its coded, subversive, defiant force. South Africa’s own earlier slave era goes unmentioned, unless that’s the intended purpose of the clichéd, parasol-twirling carnival rendition of Hier Kom die Alabama.

But it’s the night choirs, with their spine-chilling, clearly South Asian vocal ornaments, that are the truer sounds from that migration.

That’s when the thematic thread finally pulls too thin: we hear great performances, but we no longer hear the musical developments the script discusses, only words about them.

So when the cast adds the vital narrative of current migration, we don’t hear the changes sparked by that either. The migrancy of exile is not mentioned, yet it was returning ANC and PAC exiles in the 1990s who first put Sam Mangwana, Bonga and Oliver Mtukudzi on our hi-fis, before other African migrants and refugees arrived in numbers.

Later, we were dancing ndombolo in Hillbrow nightclubs; today a raft of South African performers works with West African sidemen to add fresh creativity to the music. For a finale that genuinely updates and underlines shared experience, we need to hear that soundtrack too.

Songs of Migration is on at the Market Theatre and runs until February 21 2010

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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