THE STATUS OF SOUTH AFRICAN MUSIC
“I look at a stream and I see myself: a native South African, flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they become smooth and, one day, disappear — flowing from an origin that has been forgotten toward an end that will never be.”
– Miriam Makeba
Music is the pulse of Africa – a perpetual soundtrack of rhythm and melody as integral to human experience as is the heartbeat and the breath.
Reaching out from the recesses of rural life, and un-phased by urbanization; sounds unceasingly traverse across regions, reflecting and recording history as an archival memory, which mirrors, shapes and inspires.
This is the voice of our continent – an unlimited and expansive expression, affirming existence through dialogue. It’s a call to the heavens, to humanity – a connection to the ancestors and the earth.
“We dance for laughter, we dance for tears, we dance for madness, we dance for fears, we dance for hopes, we dance for screams, we are the dancers, we create the dreams.” – African Proverb
Like most African countries of today, which have the distinctive styles of their ethnic groups coupled with newer, urban adaptations, so too does South Africa. But it also has the largest profusion of styles, and as with the journey to freedom that brought with it 11 official languages, so must one acknowledge the multitude of nuances within each of these genres.
Like our brothers and sisters across the borders, South Africans have sung for sustenance and celebration, healed with harmonies, danced in ecstasy, drummed in defiance and concealed meaning with metaphor. With music, we’ve courted married, and mourned; we’ve uncovered a land of splendor, mysteries and miracles, coloured with many cultures and languages.
And as vast and diverse as the dynamic landscape of the region, so is the repertoire of our country’s music.
Through shared stories we’ve shaped our diversity, and found a common groove an accessible sound that’s loved the world-over.
Maybe it’s the simple rhythmic structure that strikes a human chord, or the conversation of call-and-response that’s at our core; and yet it seems that we, ourselves, have yet to fully accept that there’s something special.
We’re a vocal nation, with a dialogue so intrinsic to our souls that it’s perhaps difficult to separate, or maybe it’s the length of the trip that’s taken its toll. As with all long journeys, there’s relentless, disheartening moments and seemingly stagnant times.
But overall, ours is a journey to freedom – an expedition of the present embedded in an ancient past bound by a recent history that heralds the future. And faith can be found in remembering that at some point this adventure began with a single footprint…
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” – Nelson Mandela
It probably started with the Stone Age San people and their ancient click language and bow strings– a sound so sensitively placed, that it remained almost indiscernible in the nature. The Khoi followed with the melodic breath of their reed flutes, which at first went unnoticed in the wilderness, but gradually became an intertwining thread of vocal traditions carried through centuries.
In the 1800’s, Christian missionaries came with “Western” music, which marked the paths, that brazenly became roads by the early-1900’s, when Johannesburg’s gold brought the Big Band sound. In illicit ‘shebeens’, brass notes blended with pebble-filled cans, forming the distinctive sound of ‘Marabi’.
From the ‘20’s an accapella style evolved out of the sparse loneliness of rural migrants, who sang away the harsh starkness of their hostel living, and in 1939, Solomon Linda’s ‘Mbube’ [the Lion] became the first African record to sell
100 000 copies.
While Ghana’s Highlife linked countries across the continent, and Congolese rumba cross-pollinated with the Americas, each remains an assimilated style –neither can compare with the single story of a simple man – a migrant labourer’s song that spoke to millions.
From Madagascar to Mauritania, no other song has traveled the length and breadth of “Mbube”.
With countless adaptations and renditions it’s no wonder that it became the name of a style that’s also called ‘Iscathamiya’ [Zulu for ‘to step softly’] – currently concretized by the acclaimed Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
In the 50’s, American jazz added to the musical melting pot that established itself as ‘Jive’; confidently bearing numerous offshoots, which in turn paved the way for the legacy of South African Jazz.
Then the airwaves opened, and radio made music more accessible, but it also became a propaganda tool for the apartheid protagonists, who closely controlled content, imposing severe lyrical restrictions. Inadvertently however, this led to intriguingly subtle forms of poetic protest, and ultimately followed with the defiant freedom songs.
Safely for the persecutors, instrumentals also flourished, and soon ships carried ‘Pennywhistle Jive’ across the seas to commercial success. Trailblazed by the legendary Spokes Mashiyane, this style soared, and by 1954 ‘Kwela’, became South Africa’s internationally acknowledged ‘king’.
One of the legends who carried Kwela’ into the new millenium was the ‘late’ Big Voice Jack Lerole – a man who later profoundly influenced the vocal groaning style, with all-female harmonizing, known as ‘Mbaqanga’. This in turn was made famous by another deceased hero, Simon Mahalatini Nkabinde and his Mahotella Queens – an award-winning trio who continue to charm the world with their unique performances..
Meanwhile, in the 60’s, the omnipotent presence of Fela Kuti arose in West Africa. This young Nigerian ironically ‘brought Black Consciousness back to Africa’, from the US, and armed with a saxophone he sparked a revolution. Fela was the face, the front-man, the voice of Afrobeat – a hard-hitting poet with a message for all of Africa.
As a tireless campaigner for human rights, he endured torture, jail and other atrocities with unsurpassed courage, and although a hero in his homeland, his musical potency is only now, after his death, being fully appreciated universally.
Simultaneously, South Africa’s oppressive regime strengthened; and as inconceivable injustices increased, so proportionately, did the power of song!
Hugh Masekela relates how, in the 70’s, Dizzy Gillespie once said to him,:
“I’d like to be part of your revolution, because the people are always dancing and singing. “
By the early ‘80’s, funk-crossover groups like Stimela and Harari opened a new avenue; which was somewhat compromised by ‘Bubblegum’, a more commercial, disco-inspired, African pop sound.
By this time, other African artists were also making inroads abroad – the quintessential grandfather of funk, Cameroon’s Manu Dibango, was already 40 when his 1972 “Soul Makossa” became a planetary hit.
Born in the bloodline of kora players, Guinea’s Mory Kante, electrified this ancient instrument, and in 1987 took the world by storm, with “Yeke Yeke” – which sold over a million copies worldwide, and changed the face of modern African music.
Sadly, most of Africa’s greats remained regional heroes, but in recent years, West African artists like Mali’s Salif Keita, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and the Cape Verdian, Cesaria Evora indelibly etched the Mande, Mbalax and Morna styles [respectively], on the international map.
Currently the trend has headed North – taking Algerian, Egyptian and other Arabic exports to international audiences.
But we’ve long been the headquarters of the Motherland – democracy brought us Madiba – a dancing president [with a reason to do so…]; and even while exiled, South Africa was always home to Mama Afrika, Miriam Makeba.
Just as she sang to presidents, so did our ‘badgirl’, Brenda Fassie, who was also known to have sat, sharing bread with street-children on the pavement. And with this same intense ‘humanness’ that perhaps led to her untimely death from drug abuse, she sang. So instead of shaming her, we hailed her as a she-roe, erecting a statue of her immortality in front of a legendary ‘live’ music venue.
Anyone is welcome to join “MaBrr..”, [as she’s affectionately known], as she now sits upon a pedestal, next to an open chair, overlooking Joburg’s re-emerging cultural precinct, Newtown.
With the liberation generation of the ‘90’s, came ‘Kwaito’ – here MTV meets raw expression, township style! With a hip-hop edge and the courage plucked from the promise of democracy, a refreshingly rude assertiveness arose – finally the youth could own their future.
“When the music changes, so does the dance” – African Proverb
With song and dance, the struggle was won, and with freedom in 1994, we finally felt proud. We’d come a long way since the “5-pound flat-fee” previously paid for a Radio Bantu recording.
Thankfully artists have since empowered themselves with increased awareness of their rights, royalties and contractual commitments.
In contrast however, ‘live’ music venues have shown a steady decline since the new millennium; and clubs are filled with faceless DJ’s pumping out formulaic House tracks. Audiences seem unwilling to pay a nominal amount for a ‘local’ performance, yet easily fork out more, for half the show of an imported has-been.
Music is about dialogue, so it’s healthy to see the assimilation of influences, but one can’t help wondering if we got stuck somewhere – maybe we didn’t survive the cultural boycott – as the world withdrew, and the US stayed. Have we unwittingly been culturally colonized, or did the apartheid plan of removing art and music education from schools, semi-succeed? Did this absence of creative development inhibit independent thinkers, and encourage followers of mass-media – who only like to listen to ‘what’s familiar‘?
Perhaps we can blame it on the broadcasters – because albeit talented, Luther Vandross, Usher and Missy Elliot seem to deserve more airplay than artists like, Richard Bona, Ringo and Oliver Mtukudzi. African music isn’t played on American radios, yet we’re still overloading our airtime with an unattainable consciousness.
In turn, we promote mediocrity by creating more ‘just add hotwater’ stars, while sidelining those with commitment to excellence. Pop has its place, but long-live the day that genius is promoted on prime-time TV!
There’s an amazing range of quality music from our continent, and if repetition creates demand, then there’s only one way to make it ‘what we know’ – and that’s to play it! Lots of it – and play it again and again!
Besides, each time we play, we pay! So it’s time we stopped strengthening far-off, advantaged industries, and started investing in our own.
Already we have state-of-the-art equipment, existing infrastructures, and a
more-than-adequate skills pool – with superb releases proving the internationally quality of our sound.
We stood united and won a war with song and dance, and then we dispersed like teenagers exploring our own needs. Now it’s time to pull together again and ‘walk our talk’ of national pride.
If Bafana Bafana had qualified for this 2006 World Cup, would we support the host country Germany, or even consider rooting for Korea if we reached a semi-final? And without the representation of our team would we still prefer Italy to win a semi-final against Angola, or in a kick-off between Ghana and Japan would our best wishes head to the far East?
Thankfully however, the past few months have whispered hope – especially amongst the youth, there’s a growing patriotism towards homegrown music. Poorly publicized shows featuring excellent African artists have been well attended, and the Africa Day celebrations were a resounding success. Alhough the standard of music videos has diminished, TV’s shown a marked interest in local productions.
Our skilled filmmakers also haven’t skipped shores – proved by an admirable spate of recently released movies. It may have taken an Oscar to know that “Tsotsi” even existed – but at least it also affirmed our standard of global excellence.
“A Boy Called Twist”, directed by Tim Greene has won a string of international awards since it’s release in 2004. It’s a masterpiece that not many know about, even though it was produced in Cape Town, featured some of the finest acting ever filmed this side of the equator; and can claim the rare distinction of being a completely South African financed film.
It’s incredibly beautiful soundtrack, features the Mother City’s Moodphase5ive, with their crossover sound and innovativeness that made them hip back in 2000. Which brings me back to the music….
With the likes of Zola and HHP at the forefront, one need no longer despair the the downfall of kwaito; which Revolution has mixed with House, and taken to “Another Level”. Bongo Maffin’s been abroad and hit back bigger and better; and Freshly Ground had fun in France!
Kwani Experience has bridged the demographics with their poetic blend of homegrown jazz, and the veteran guitarist and ‘Bubblegum’ star, Condry Ziqubu, has proved he never lost the groove.
Wanda has a refinement beyond her 23-years – her latest being a beautiful production by Camillo Lombard, who also co-produced Jimmy Dludlu’s last. Emerging from the shadows as his pianist – she’s another woman worth
watching out for!
Some people still don’t know of our master percussionists like Mabi Thobejane, whose career spans over 30 years. He pioneered as part of Sakhile, in the ‘80’s, recently worked with Rudeboy Paul, and is now big in Japan. Or take Tlale Makhene – way more than a session musician, he released an epic through a record company that’s still unsure of “where to place it”!
But that’s OK, because there are informed independent labels arising, with new energy and ethics.
And though the mystery of the sacred SABC archives remains unanswered, Sibongile Khumalo’s finally felt the freedom of an accapella album.
Musicians are uniting – and it’s an anti-piracy campaign called Operation Dudula that’s bringing them together. The Moshito Conference has been initiated to address our industry’s needs; and this year a South African delegation attended MIDEM, the international music-business exhibition.
Rejuvenated and motivated, it’s time to embrace our richness, and further initiate corporate and governmental support. Individually and collectively, there’s much to be done – and it’s exciting!
“The main thing is planting the seed and changing the mindset not only of our people to say, “Yes, I can,” but also changing the mindset of the old establishment who are the people who are really free because they have the economic wherewithal to enjoy freedom and to do something that could make South Africa the beacon of Africa as far as arts are concerned, by having a real African industry. – Hugh Masekela
NICKY BLUMENFELD – MAY 2003
[Article commissioned by Dept. of Arts & Culture for World Cup, Germany 2006 [build up to World Cup SA 2010], and was published in the book ‘Africa Calling – South African Arts & Culture Manifestation – Germany 2006’]