Looping history for a brave new now

Two groups of young men stand at right angles to each other on stage, in front of what appears to be a complete jazz band on an elevated level. The band is framed as though it is merely a prop in a grand show that it has been hired to play in. The arms of the young men hang beside their bodies, waiting for an instruction to lift them up and dance. They are dressed in black suits with white trimmings and white gloves. And then they begin to part where the right angle meets and there, with a spring in his step, swinging his arms in the air in perfectly measured rhythm, seeming to be floating, a young man appears and glides to the front of the stage.

The arms of the other men instantly swing through the air, from side to side. Above them is a large painted caricature of a black person with exaggerated lips, nose and eyes — an image straight out of the minstrel shows that were developed in the early 19th century with the sole purpose of mocking people of African origin. This scene repeats throughout the video of Thabang Tabane’s first single, Nyanda Yeni, off his debut solo album, Matjale.

This scene is what movie buffs call “mise-en-scène”, a frame that captures the entire film’s aesthetic. This scene encompasses the politics and the visual aesthetic of the video.

The Nyanda Yeni video is cut entirely from archival footage. It repeats, circles, loops and remodels the visual mapping of history by contorting the very films apartheid-era filmmakers employed for their propaganda. The footage ranges from 1950s variety shows to propaganda films made in the 1970s.

Subverting propaganda

This footage is sliced and looped and intersected with an archival video of Dr Philip Tabane performing. The director of the video — StraitJacket Tailor — arranged, cut and rearranged the footage into a medley that summons and dismisses the emotions that footage like this often brings up.

Instead of swelling one up with anger, the propaganda footage of young black boys leaping on to each other before jumping into a pool makes palpable the boundless spirit of children, sabotaging the deliberate project by the apartheid government to separate out and keep black people away from spaces meant for white people.

The presence of Philip in the video makes it possible for the late musician to connect metaphysically with his son Thabang, and extends his life while passing on the music of malombo. It is striking how this footage seamlessly blends with the rest.

Some shots bear no relation to each other, but together they create new meanings — known as the Kuleshov effect. This editing effect was invented by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the early 20th century. From this, one can conclude that, in a way, the video is about Thabang in conversation with his father and South Africa — and, as a result of the reimagining of the footage, about the future of this country.

There are, however, close-ups of hands playing a drum that feel like an interruption; after they play, the mind feels as if it needs to refocus on the video. Besides this, the video holds one’s attention for its entire four minutes of screen time. Afterwards, it does not let go — the footage loops in the brain as it did on screen.

Lasting impression

Everything about the video is designed to achieve a lasting effect. The decision to make the aspect ratio sit between the old 4:3 and the familiar 16:9 dimensions works incredibly well. Because of this, the video does not play in full-screen mode. There are large black spaces left around the frame and the video cuts a discernible figure in the middle of the screen.

This is a case of the song and the music video being in a telepathic conversation. They both dissect time, slicing it up into seconds and half-minutes. They capture time that has long passed, as well as the now and the future.

The viewer is subliminally caught in one epoch one second and then another in the next. A frame that was filmed and intended for a different purpose in the 1970s comes to mean a completely different thing in this video. There is grace in the women who repeatedly descend a small hill because that frame has been reimagined and now, in 2018, there they are, these beautiful black women in traditional clothes descending the hill with elegance.

A schoolgirl shoots her hand into the air to answer a question in class, an image that may have once been presented as anthropological proof that uncivilised blacks have learned the language of their masters. But because it is 2018 and we know that the mantra “black girl magic” is true, the footage now speaks a new truth.

Though the archival footage has aged, clearly depicted by the broken pixels, the fading focus and facial and topographical details, and the creaking sound that accompanies it, there is no doubt that it captures a time that has gone and a time that is yet to be.

The soundtrack complements these visuals by dissecting time in similar ways. The polyrhythmic drumming of Thabang, as well as the well-defined yet unpredictable guitar of Sibusile Xaba, Dennis Moanganei Magagula on percussion and Thulani Ntuli on bass, capture a sound that our parents played on cassette tapes, letting nights fade into mornings, and a sound that in years to come our own children will snatch from the air and play on invisible speakers that will turn themselves on when one simply thinks about a song.  

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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