/ 12 October 2012

A jumbled trajectory

An installation representing the pillars of black music does not tell the whole story.
An installation representing the pillars of black music does not tell the whole story.

The first time I stopped by I had half an hour to spend but ended up leaving more than two hours later.

The second time I visited the exhibition it was with the intention of writing this article, so I experienced it with a much more critical eye.

At the desk visitors are handed a touch–screen phone with headphones: the exhibition guide has been installed on the phone and enables the visitor to navigate the rooms and also explains each exhibit.

As one enters the first room, you are greeted with the pillars of black music, 22 in all, although Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Touré's pillar was not working.

The pillars allow visitors to watch short four–minute films about the artists' lives and achievements.

Seven out of the 22 are African and 13 are from the United States, including (unbelievably) Elvis Presley. Only four are women.

Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo –represent South Africa.

Where are Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and Brenda Fassie?

Fela Kuti is there, of course, but you have to ask why Tony Allen could not have been included – and where are Franco and Salif Keita?

Sure, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Bob Marley, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix all have a stake in the history of black music, but so do Toots and the Maytals, George Clinton, Public Enemy, Diana Ross, Robert Johnson, Gil Scott–Heron and Otis Redding.

Do you see how ridiculous this pillar thing is?

Room two is by far the best of the exhibition – its focus is on African music. 

My colleague Percy Zvomuya and I chose different regions to focus on. I got East Africa and South Africa and he took Central Africa and Southern Africa. Each region features three films in the categories live, modern and ­traditional.

The East Africa films are –awesome and include a segment detailing the history of taraab music: the blending of Arabic music with Swahili sounds.

Then there is Ethiopian music and the swinging 1960s of Addis Ababa, with some captivating footage of the famed vocalist Tilahun Gessesse. After that, it was on to the sugar–cane blues of Réunion Island, dubbed maloya.

The only real sticking point for me is that the films do not acknowledge the impact that Congolese rumba had on the east coast of Africa, where it radically changed the musical landscape. It is a small quibble, because as a musical journey the East Africa films are riveting.

South Africa's musical story starts with the mines and the rise of is'cathamiya and mbaqanga. However, the films fail to make any mention of the rise of the townships soul and funk scenes in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is as if they did not exist.

Sophiatown of the 1950s is represented alongside the emergence of Drum magazine and the great jazz artists of South Africa. 

Then all of a sudden it is 1986 and we have Paul Simon and Graceland. Tied into this we get a narrative about Johnny Clegg. It seems bizarre – I almost expected PJ Powers to pop up on stage at any minute singing Jabulani.

There seems to be no acknowledgment of the 1980s bubblegum scene and its stars such as Chicco, Lazarus Kgagudi, Steve Kekana and Paul Ndlovu.

It is straight from white guys dancing on stage into kwaito. We get Brenda Fassie, TKZee, Bongo Maffin, Mandoza and Zola. Lucky Dube and Freshlyground get a mention, but no such luck for Mango Groove.

Prophets of Da City, Godessa, Ben Sharpa and Tumi & the Volume cover the hip–hop bases, whereas Playdoe, Spoek Mathambo, DJ Mujava and Tshe–Tsha Boys grab the electro headlines. And then BLK JKS bring the raaawk!

However, as I sat there watching the archival video footage of East African music, it reminded me 

of how much of our own musical legacy is still locked away in the archives of the country's major record labels. 

These labels do not seem to have the sense to reissue this vibrant music and build a new market for it among hip young South Africans. Nor – it appears – do they have the stomach for dealing with music that was recorded under exploitative circumstances during apartheid, which is this music's legacy.

Most of South Africa's premier musicians of the day never saw the money they deserved for their labours and died poor.

To many, ignoring this story is easier than trying to preserve our own musical heritage, which is a shame. 

The rest of the exhibition explores the modern musical context of black music, illustrating the links between Cuban and Caribbean forms and showing the history of American jazz, blues, soul and funk.