A new take on the cultural village

Traditional music shows often come with more than a whiff of formaldehyde. However well-intentioned, the 'cultural village' model – "There's some Zulu dancing; here's a Sotho song" – carries the dead weight of discredited ideology.

Concepts of static, separate and often antagonistic 'tribal' identity were constructed by colonialism and enforced by apartheid. In reality, Africa was and remains a place of migration, co-habitation, and shared and changing cultures.

Ideas of unchanging difference get a subversive kick in the pants from the Sibikwa Arts Indigenous Orchestra, whose Celebration concert, (plus schools workshops) is staging at the National Arts Festival.. The young cast – many of whom are graduates of Daveyton-based Sibikwa's Saturday Arts Academy – play, sing and dance their way through a fresh soundscape of African music, where no combination of styles or instruments is out of bounds.

With compositions from tradition, ensemble members and master percussionist Tlale Makhene, the sonic results are astounding. Kudu horns punctuate bell-like marimba melodies and provide a jazz vamp under scat singing. The shimmering overtones of mouth-bows interact with percussive dancing feet. When modern horns are added (tasty solos from saxophonist Nhlanhla Mahlangu and trumpeter Bhekinkosi Hlatshwayo), the transition feels wholly natural. These historic instruments demonstrate a remarkable capacity to make very contemporary – even avant garde – noises, packed with spicy contrasts and sweet, surprising blends. Despite a few small rough edges the show could use better linking commentary, and the 1950s female costumes feel out of place – in terms of the music, Celebration's hour is far too short.

When the workshop arrives, the Indigenous Orchestra members make great teachers. They manage to hold a theatre-full of initially rowdy junior secondary school students quiet, attentive and desperate to jump on stage and try the instruments. That teaching skill comes from their own experience of learning. "I was interested in the arts but didn't know much," said Lydia Makuele, who plays guitar, marimba and drums, and aims to become a master drummer. "Some friends told me about the Sibikwa Saturday Arts Academy – and here I am."

But it's tough aiming at a musical career in a poor community like Daveyton where performing doesn't always pay the bills. Singer, choreographer and drummer Thandi Dube recalls family members urging: "Why don't you rather get a job at Pick 'n Pay? But when we toured, my mom got proud, and said: 'Wow! My daughter's going to India!'" The cast agree that what keeps them going (alongside solid encouragement from the rest of the Sibikwa team) is, as singer Bebe Shongwe puts it, "passion. You wake up, you know you're going to work really hard – but you just love it".

In the workshop, horns and bows are pressed into service to play hip-hop and kwaito, and at the end a student asks quietly: "So, could you play any song on those instruments?" Thandi smiles. "Yes," she says, "I believe we could."

The Sibikwa Arts Indigenous Orchestra has also just released a self-titled album of their music.

They will be performning at St Aidan's Chapel in Grahamstown July 4 at 11am, July 5 at 5pm and July 6 at 11am and 8pm

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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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