Music & the African Archive

Afropolitan Explosiv’s Creative Director, Dr Thokozani Mhlambi, reflects on the ‘Music and the African Archive’ event, which took place in Cape Town in August.

On the 22nd of August, a seminar took place at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town. Convened by the Black Archives & Intellectual Histories Seminar Series, a Mellon-funded series on archive and histories of African intellectuals, and what these could contribute to our understanding of present day concerns. The theme of this particular seminar was ‘Music and the African Archive,’ which took the form of a conversation between two South African-born composers, namely Neo Muyunga and myself Dr Thokozani Mhlambi.

Ncebakazi Mnukwana, who lectures in African Music and Music Pedagogy at Stellenbosch University, opened the occasion by introducing the presenters. Mnukwana highlighted the compositional output of the two composers; she noted how Muyunga had begun his career in popular music as a member of the group Blk Sonshine in the 1990s.

The group emerged at a particular moment in the development of popular culture in South Africa post-liberation. There was a sense of possibility which resulted in experimentation, as young people pursued new modes of presenting music, in the spaces of integration and diversity which had seemed unreachable before. Blk Sonshine co-existed with kwaito in creating a hybrid of sounds, that were to become the mainstay of groups such as Freshly Ground in the 2000s and beyond.

Mnukwana compared the two composers in their background and training in Early Western Art Music, Muyunga having studied Italian madrigrals and Mhlambi, who has played the baroque cello and recorder in ensembles and solo performances.

Mnukwana also compared the two composers interest in the history of ‘Amakholwa’ (early African intellectuals); this history is taken on in Muyunga’s work Flower of Shembe, about the African modernizer of Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century, Isaiah Shembe whose congregations still command a significant following today. The history of early African intellectuals is taken up in Mhlambi’s composition ‘Tribute to Ntsikana’ which is about the great Xhosa prophet Ntsikana. As legend has it Ntsikana began to speak of the message of Christian conversation prior to his first meeting with European missionaries.

In addition, Mnukwana mentioned the work of Philip Miller, another South African composer who was present in the audience, Mnukwana felt that Miller’s work on mining history (a phenomenon born at the turn of the twentieth century in South Africa) illustrated how many contemporary composers were deeply concerned with African modernities, both in their missionary as well as industrial orientations.

(from the right) composers Thokozani Mhlambi, Philip Miller & Neo Muyunga

The two forces were co-productive, where the missionary developments contributed to the birth of newspaper literary culture (in European, but crucially also in African languages), the birth of mining especially in places like Kimberly presented the first opportunities for the convergence of Africans from all walks of life into the city. Newspaper men like Sol Plaatje were able to capitalize on this industrial opportunity, by seeking funding/financing for their newspapers from the mining houses themselves (see Willan 1984).

In the first seminar of the series, Ntongela Masilela proposed the birth of newspaper culture as the beginning of what can now be considered an African Archive, as articulated by Tiyo Soga, who in 1867 wrote on the pages of his newspaper, Indaba:

What are the corn-pits, the cattle kraals, the boxes and the bags? What are the skin skirts’ pockets, and the banks for the stories and fables, the legends, customs and history of the Xhosa people and Fingo people? This is the challenge, for I envisage in this newspaper a beautiful vessel for preserving the stories, fables, legends, customs, anecdotes and history of the tribes. The activities of a nation are more than cattle, money or food. A subscriber to the journal should preserve the copies of successive editions of Indaba and at the end of the year make a bound volume of them. These annual volumes in course of time will become a mine of information and wisdom which will be a precious inheritance for generations of growing children.

Soga’s explicit turn to the preservatory, in his prompt to readers to make bound volumes at the end of each year’s collection of editions, can be viewed as a call for archives. Masilela sees in this prescience of Soga, an indication of “the genius of the man,’ and he believes that it was this vision that was “taken as a gospel by later generations of New African intellectuals.” A characteristic common in many context across the African continent, which Abiola Irele apprehends this way: “The attempt of this intellectual elite to take the measure of the impact of Western civilization upon the African world defines the path along which, since the eighteenth century at least, the development of modern African thought has run, and the area of its concern has been determined primarily by political and social questions and interests” (1996: 9). Newspapers were naturally the medium through which these elites could exercise the greatest degree of autonomy. In the case of DTT Jabavu (Imvo Zabantsundu, from 1884) and Sol Plaatje, for example, the British liberal orientation of the Cape Colony offered much freedom for the press in the late 1800s; freedoms which were dramatically eroded after South Africa became a Union in 1910

Muyunga Presentation

Neo Muyunga speaking at the seminar, held at the South African College of Music, UCT.

Muyunga then gave his opening address by playing a short clip from his latest work, Makeda (pronounced: mākidā). Muyunga said he is particularly interested in the place of voice in the South African spectrum, how it tells stories of blackness, of bondage and liberation, the voice as a national instrument in South Africa. He noted how particularly since historically in both traditional and postcolonial context, music making in South Africa has not had the prominence of musical instruments (like drums in West Africa), but has been primarily driven by polyphonic vocal ensembles, choral singers, and the mining industries’ isicathamiya groups. Muyunga said he is very distrustful of the notion that knowledge is made and fixed, like a figure in a painting, that is not how the voice works, he believes. He is interested in how it meanders, what it leaves behind as it evacuates. He is inspired to lift out stories that are not immediately available to black people in order to reflect on a history of voice and struggle; this for Muyunga relates to before the colonial archive and how we might imagine voice to mean. He has decided to use the biblical Book of Kings as it is read and known in Ethiopia. One of the stories that comes out of this archive is the story of the queen of Sheba, Makeda.

Mhlambi Presentation

I then began by explaining the conditions of possibility for the ‘Early Music’ project as it eventuated in the development of Western Art Music as we know it today.

When you look at what is called classical music today; really what we are speaking about is German music, the majority of its composers in the last 300 years or so. Perhaps at the height of this German prolificism and influence was the work of Richard Wagner. Wagner was trying to solve the problem of bringing all the artistic disciplines together, an idea he called Gesamtkunstwerk. He wanted special singers, with unusually powerful voices who could then project against the large/lush orchestra in his music dramas. He developed a lot of techniques in stagecraft in the elaboration of this unity of vision.

Instrument development tended to follow a similar trajectory, in the sense of what you notice in string instruments like the violin, which around the 1600s-1700s start to develop a repertoire of music, solo performance and group of instruments, in chamber settings and religious settings. But towards the middle of the 1800s the performance context shifts very much towards the concert hall, with bigger audiences. There is a music criticism tradition emerging in the pages of the Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft (Quarterly Journal of Musicology, from 1884). With these developments, there is an effort to improve instruments, with wind instruments keys are developed to widen the range, etc. , with string instruments like the violin the bows are redeveloped to project more sound, and in the cello performing with the spike/endpin becomes the norm, as it tends to promote sound projection.

As for me, in terms of my own preference I did not find this gesture of grandeur, and bigger is better, necessarily instinctive in terms my own music production. I wanted to find something else that could be my own.

There was this breakaway faction within classical music, which is called Early Music, or more formally Historically Informed Practice. The Early Music movement really took off in the late 1950s as performers of 18th century music and older score-based music began to take an interest in the way contemporaries of composers like Bach, would have performed his music. It involved an excavation of treatise and other archival collections in order to derive certain conclusions on how the music could be interpreted today.

Some of the transformations involved string players using gut strings instead of the conventional steel strings now used today. There was a new emphasis in tuning systems, away from the standard tuning of a modern piano. Flute players discovered variations in trill methods. Trumpeters discovered the value of the harmonics produced by natural horns. Suddenly these changes began to affect the performance of the music. They brought an atmosphere to the performance. Gut strings revealed more possibilities in tone colour, and variations in accent and attack for string players. The wider contrast between the down- and up-bow that is produced by the historical bow, made us understand what the distance between the ‘Vulgar’ and ‘Nobles’, as represented in V-up-bow anddown-bow, really meant for an early European Latin-literary society.

In the beginning there were some who labelled this movement as the ‘Age of Authenticity’, something that was later problematized as it tended to imply that somehow what this movement was presenting was more true to some past, than the conventional playing. The irony is that rather than the impact being in the authenticity of the playing, really it led to innovations that were very much present-day innovations, in terms of sound production and approaches to performance. The innovations brought by early music invigorated the world of classical music. A study commissioned by the journal Ethnomusicology Review, found that for most contemporary performers of Early Music, “their musical identities had been shaped by their experiences as listeners to the music of their own time” and that this led to many popular music appropriations of the Early Music sound (Upton; 2012).

There is always the danger that as we draw from the archive, we may believe that what we are doing is about the past (authentic), but actually what we are doing is very much about the present. I think that for me is important; Fanon problematizes this viewpoint in the essay Pitfalls of National Culture (1963). Here he is having a conversation with Senghor and Senghor’s negritude and its particular view of culture; ie. primitive culture. What subsequent writers like Hountondji (1976) view as a kind of ethnology or ethnophilosophy; and attribute this to the legacy of Tempels and his so-called ‘Bantu philosophy’ which kind of treats African worldviews in the past as collective, without any consideration of individual contributions.

I became privy to the developments in Early Music in my tutelage as a baroque cello and recorder player in South Africa and Sweden. I understood this, but I knew that I was also searching for models for doing something similar of my own, which I was not quite sure of in terms of what is its archive, and how would I be able to excavate it without the privilege of a treatise.

In finding my way, I then identified people who I could call my role-models. People like Princess Magogo and Mazisi Kunene, in the shaping of my own repository of historical antecedents. I noticed some similarities between the two; Kunene is writing ferociously in Zulu, in the context of exile, first in London and then later the US where he of course would have no audience, isolated from a Zulu reading public. This does not deter Kunene though, whose productivity as we now know from the manuscript collection in the Mazisi Kunene Museum accelerated as he grew in age. He is not writing novels, he is writing lengthy epic poems. What strikes me about this mode for me, which is similar to Magogo for me, is what I call an ‘economy of means’. It is very much vivid and immediate in the telling of events, I am thinking of here of his epic poem on emperor Shaka, uNodumehlezi KaMenzi.

Somewhat similar to the role played by Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress (1684) in the American imagination, an account which was written at a time when global centres were being realigned and ways of life were being reinvented.

Kunene’s world is wide in its contours of time, and geographical orientation. In this story we have a dynamic, bigger world foregrounding and seeping through the local-specific narrative of Senzangakhona’s son. And in the Afrocentric spirituality of Kunene this world is not fractured by the encroachings of colonialism, in the sense that the people hold firm to what they believe is true about their lives, even as they are being physically displaced and transformed psychically (as their trauma is first experienced in dreams, of prophets but also of ordinary men and women in society).

There is an economy of means I find in Magogo, who sings her own dramas and answers her own stories, as she accompanies herself on her one-string instrument, ugubhu. Now some may wonder why just one string, why not 4 like the cello, why not 7 like the kundi harp from West Africa—no, just one string. But somehow through this one string the world that Magogo conjures up is as big as that of Wagner if not bigger. Somehow through izangelo as she speaks to herself you understand her world, you understand the world of her grandparents which she is portraying. Her song Sabulawa, is a chant which was composed as a plea to Dingane when he was impaling a lot of people, and throwing them off dongas in the in 1800s. There is also a theme of lost-love in her repertoire of songs. Perhaps as a reflection of her own separation from a teenage love-affair, when she was brought into customary marriage, for she was of royal blood.

This is what I am trying to experiment with. I then played a song.

Audience Interactions

One of the audience members said that he is currently studying classical voice at the university, he then articulated a suspicion that somehow he feels like “I am being moulded to be an export. Whereas I am just trying to find how can I just get the training, and just make sure that I do something about it here in this country. And what can we do as an institution to get this music like Princess Magogo and the piece you [Mhlambi] just played for us now. So that we can be taught how to do this, and then we can do actually outside of here, than just to be moulded as exports to go to Europe then nothing benefits this country.”
Muyunga, said, “the apartheid project put in place a certain archive that we can reach for. In the 50s and 60s the South African Broadcasting Corporation had Radio Bantu and they put out a call to ask people from all the terrrains of black South Africa to sign up to come record music in their language. There would be long lines, if you read the archives, of musicians who were working in the mines, who were working in the kitchens, who were working everywhere in the city, who made their way to the SABC to play their guitar, to play with their little band, and this is how we have a certain archive of the music of South Africa.” Classical music is really German music of the last 200 years, when people talk about Monteverdi who was writing operas in 1609, that is not classical music. When I first heard that I associated with that much more because it resonates with the choral music I learnt here and in Botswana when I was growing up. So I think we have to constantly butt against these categories. And break them apart and re-make them, that’s part of our work I think in a university. So that is what I would encourage you to do with your lecturers in music.
There was another audience question, about the business of categorizing music, “we hear about classical music which is being classified in this manner, perhaps there is some kind of violence to it, because when these historical figures were making music, were they calling it classical music? What do you think about experimental music like you were creating, how would you put it in an archive, where do you locate it does it fall in or out?”

I [Mhlambi] then responded by suggesting that perhaps I should not have used this term classical music, some politely call it Western Art Music and things like that. “But what I am more interested, which is really my problem, I am not sure if I am going the right direction or not, because the problem is proving very difficult for me. That when I stated the problem of this notion of Bantu Philosophy, this idea that one could then take through language, and glean something of a collective consciousness, something that you can make deductions of the past about, such that it becomes your archive. I am finding that very challenging methodologically because at the same time there are people who find it to be problematic, and say that no in actual fact where we start is with our present, if we are building an idea of an African Archive or an African philosophy, we can start from the present moment as we are now, and not make claims about the past, and say that somehow there was an African philosophy that existed, when those people did not recognize it as such. And also because of our cultures not being literary/writerly in their orientation then people speak of collective thought, or collective ideas, as though people did not move about as individuals, as though our cultures had no place for individual excellence, and all those ideas are then taken from us as we lose sight of that. That is the problem of archive for me. As I am searching and digging, and every time I think I have found it, suddenly I read Fanon again, and then I feel very exoticist or primitivist.” [laughter].

Dr Thokozani Mhlambi is a composer, cultural theorist and innovator from KwaZulu-Natal. Follow him on Instagram @thokozani_mhlambi

The text is also published on the Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative’s newsletter, The Gazette.