As the featured artist at this year’s National Arts Festival, composer, librettist and performer Neo Muyanga and several collaborators will present a series of separate but interlinked works, anchored by his solo performance, Solid(T)Ary.
In this work, he uses various instruments, such as Egyptian and Ethiopian flutes, to reflect on South Africa’s protest tradition over the past 150 years and on its similarities and differences to the traditions of other places in the global South.
There is also the funk jazz improvisatory group titled Works for Trio, in which he plays familiar but transformed music with the aim of achieving “a mood of vibrancy and elation”. The trio includes drummer Andrew Swartz, bass player Peter Ndlala and special guest Msaki.
Muyanga will also participate in Think!Fest, at which he will talk about opera in South Africa’s townships, a theme he has been researching for about a decade.
He will also take part in a concert titled Re Mixing Music with composers Prince Bulo, Lungiswa Plaatjies and Kingsley Buitendag. And he has written a score for the Magnet Theatre production, I Turned Away and She Was Gone.
Muyanga’s musical history stretches back to his birth in Soweto in 1974. He took part in church choirs and took lessons in music theory and physics and, because of the circumstances at the time, left the country and studied the madrigal tradition in Italy.
Shortly after the demise of legislated apartheid, Muyanga founded the guitar-driven soul duo Blk Sonshine with fellow musician Masauko Chipembere, which led to a sustained period of mainstream visibility.
Muyanga’s artistic practice has always crossed disciplines, involving film and theatre scores, operas, exploration of free jazz, as well as the co-curation of the seminal Pan-African Space Station (PASS) music festival and live streaming website. In its festival format, PASS ran for three years but it has since shifted into global interventions and pop-up collaborations. Muyanga is currently participating in Angazi But I’m Sure, a Chimurenga Dakar session running until the end of May, at which he will present a seminar titled Revolting Songs Can Shield (Sometimes) Against Bullets.
This week, he spoke about Solid(T)Ary’s antecedents in the South African operatic tradition and what more recent iterations of struggle music reveal about the country’s transition to democracy.
How far back does work in the operatic tradition go in the townships?
There is material that has been happening in the township for the past 100 years that may not even be called operatic, but that is the basis for the South African operatic voice. I will be describing some of that history and interrogating how the political links to our protest tradition are not being made sufficiently.
I will be trying to elucidate some of the archival information that exists to show how the operatic, the disciplined voice, the declamatory voice becomes a viable choice for young people today who live in marginalised communities. It’s interesting to talk about opera in that way because opera everywhere else in the world pretty much means “elitist, white, moneyed pastime”. It doesn’t in this country.
Is it appealing because it allows room for bold individual expression?
No. It’s a long, long story of historical contingency. What I’m saying is that there has been a long history, through missionary schooling, through colonialism, that has informed what people regard as the voice of discipline to aspire to.
Some of that expresses itself in our churches. When you go to the old Apostolic Church you get that sense of the four-part harmony, singing in declamatory style. That’s exactly what the baroque is. That’s exactly what the chorus in the opera does.
So I’m saying it’s a historical link, and it links to our history of missionary schooling and colonialism. It’s pre-apartheid. It’s old. I’m saying it links to the liberation movement. All the liberation movement stalwarts were people who were reported to have been opera lovers at some point because they were listening to it on the radio, they were being asked to join choirs at societies at school. People like Govan Mbeki talk about this. So I’m not saying so much about the freedom as I am saying about the history.
People are not aware that our choir competitions all, generally, have a slot for arias, at the same time as performing umhlabelo and traditional songs. Choirs are also performing these arias from the 18th and 19th century, quite fluently in fact. We haven’t paid that movement any mind but it is real.
Is Solid(T)Ary a musical exploration of some of these connecting themes?
In the word is both the term “solid” and the term “solidarity”. It’s a reflection of our protest tradition over the past 150 years.
There, as a solo performer, what I will be doing is abstracting the archive of our protest music. Protest song is not music in the sense that you would play it on the radio or play it in the background as entertainment; it’s never that. It is a statement of intent. I will be performing them solo because I am wondering what those protest songs mean today. It’s an invitation to the audience to gather with me around that.
Is the choice of instrumentation significant in the performance?
Yes. They are all important for they suggest mood and tone and modality. I will (primarily) be using the piano. It is the instrument that is generally used for four-part harmony accompaniment in the chordal movement.
I will also be using some traditional instruments that I collect from other parts of the continent, some Egyptian flutes, Ethiopian lutes and bowed instruments, and I probably will also be bringing some instruments from colonial India, because there is a reflection on the historical conversation that happens across the Indian Ocean, as colonialism sets itself up as a paradigm.
What has democracy meant for struggle songs and their forms?
The reality is most of the templates that are being used to design new songs are in fact pre-1994. I think that tells us a lot of important things, like that there is a continuity between the previous context and where we find ourselves today.
I think if we are thinking in terms of system design, and the songs were designed to work against the system pre-’94, and we see them still applicable today, we have to ask ourselves really fundamental questions about what, in terms of our new dispensation, is the identifiable change for the masses, for the marginal.
The second important factor for me is: the people who used to sing these songs, who used to feel they owned them, authentically, from a moral high ground, they are sitting on one side of the fence. The people who are singing them as supplicants, as the ruled masses, are sitting on the other side of the fence. I think it’s the first time in our history where the two sides of the political landscape are singing the same songs and claiming them as authentically theirs.
It’s a very paradoxical power dynamic we find ourselves in. I think it’s an opportunity for us to think deeply about what has gone right and what has gone wrong since 1994.
There is a third issue: yes, new songs are being generated but those new songs are referring to older modes of song-making. The struggle songs were mostly laments and hymns of the early 20th-century movement of the kholwa intellectuals. John Dube, Sol Plaatjie — all these people who saw themselves as universal personalities who lived and acted locally.
When the  Land Act is declared, rather than negotiating with the local governorship, they take a ship and go negotiate with the monarch in Europe about their franchise as British citizens and as global citizens. There has been a retreat from that position since the Land Act, but that era of song-making and lament is religious in tone (Nkosi Sikelela, Senzeni Na).
Then we enter a period of protest song that is more warlike, that refers to indlamu and dances. I think that’s where the toyi-toyi becomes a possibility. There is a third phase that we have entered now that comes with songs of lampooning; here people ridicule people in positions of power.
Have you looked at the song-making tradition in the mines as a particular site of protest?
That’s new research that I am approaching at the moment so I can’t speak fluently on that. I know some songs but I am actually at a superficial point [at the moment].
The mining songs are a different thing because they have a lot to do with migration from the rest of the continent so they are not all in South African languages. You have got people who were coming from as far as Uganda, who were being asked to come and work on the mines and build this society. That’s why these xenophobic eruptions are such an aberration because these have been the blood relations of our folk for the past 100 years.
Have you found anything revealing in similarities and differences between Salvador da Bahia, Egypt and South Africa? How have slave routes shaped the struggle song?
As South Africans, our protest songs are never attributable to a single personality. These are communal songs, public songs. When you go to Egypt to people who were participating in Spring 1 and Spring 2 [2011 and 2013 respectively], what they were performing in Tahrir Square, Mohandeseen and all the urban centres around were songs that were sung almost as love songs.
These are romances, these are quatrains that celebrate patria. These are patriotic songs being sung by a solitary star who is being venerated by an audience. Almost like a superstar poet who is standing in the middle of the court and enchants her audience. They sing these songs that were outlawed in the Fifties and Sixties. They are resurfacing now.
Part of what is being said in Egypt is that the same paradigm that built the Forties and Fifties is what is extant today.
In Latin America, again you find a solitary singer-songwriter. A lot of people from Bahia and Salvador are very famous for this. Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil. They perform as soloists to an audience of idolatry fans who sing in the chorus. Our tradition has no soloists, which is why I am exploring this abstraction of playing these songs solo. In a sense it is to desacralise some of the material.
What was the effect of a project like the African Youth Band that packaged these songs and brought them into the lounge?
I think it was a powerful idea because it did connect to the popular aesthetic. They were doing what the Amandla group was doing in exile, which was to open the space for political dialogue with music and dance, popularising this template of song. The first port of call for any cultural activity is a sort of diplomatic engagement, but I think we have to go further to a philosophical, theoretical engagement, because these songs carry a philosophy and an epistemology.
You know that they say Vuyisile Mini, who was one of the only writers we know of protest songs, as he was led to the gallows, he was singing Nantsi Indod’ Emnyama, a song that he had written. For that to be this lone baritone’s answer as he makes his way to the gallows is an incredibly profound moment of our historical archives. It tells us something about the strength and the presence of his songs. They are not just about the diplomacy. They are about the beginning, the middle and the end.
Why is his the only name that comes up as a prominent composer?
This is a tradition where people were not supposed to be celebrated as individuals for their own protection. So. I think he was known like that because he was particularly prolific, but I don’t necessarily think it was an intention to publicise him.
If you listen to the old recordings of Radio Freedom, you get the sense that other people were playing this role too. This is a spontaneous public act that everybody participates in because they understand the template. It becomes useless to name personalities. Our tradition says everybody can do this. That’s the power of our tradition when you juxtapose it with the Egyptian tradition.
Will there be any spillover between Works for Trio and Solid(T)Ary?
I am trying to keep them separate for two paradoxical reasons. I am trying to keep a mood of solemnity and meditation in the solo presentation and a mood of vibrancy and elation in the Works for Trio. But I believe that all our music, whether it be church music, slow laments, protest or funk music, I believe that all our music in this country is dance music. But I won’t necessarily be dancing in the first. I will be dancing in the latter.