Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

University-Based Music Training and Current South African Musical Praxis: Notes and Tones

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

University-Based Music Training and Current South African Musical Praxis: Notes and Tones

Article excerpt


Whereas written notation is at the heart of formal university-based music education, most Africans, and indeed many other societies acquire music-making skills aurally, orally; and through participation in the many rituals and socialisation processes commonly considered "informal." (1) The transition from the so-called "traditional" or "informal" to the supposed "formal" music training paradigms, especially at university level, has, for most black South Africans, been a relatively new experience, fraught with challenges.

In the South African context, fully functional music qualification programs were and are still offered in historically whites-only universities (HWOUs). In the late 1980s, when these universities were forced to open their doors to all races, a few otherwise talented African students, but with little or less than adequate preparation from the erstwhile Bantu education system, gained access to university education. In doing so, however, many abandoned or suppressed their culturally acquired Africa-sensed ways of music learning in order to venture into the fashionable literary approaches wherein music is, according to scholars such as Cook, reduced to scores or written notations. (2) This situation arguably represents one major cultural discontinuity for these students. Despite their admirable ability to learn through what Primos likens to "osmosis," many unknowingly suppress these natural aural-oral sensibilities as they understandably strive to "fit in" with or conform to what they, like most, are made to believe is the defining feature of university-based music education and training. (3)

It is widely known that the tradition of music education, including the accompanying repertoire, is gravely foreign. (4) It is unashamedly western and out-rightly colonial and imperialist in that it, necessarily, privileges and perpetuates the canonisation of music traditions and aspirations of the northern worlds. As Akrofi and Flofu posit, "no African country south of the Sahara can boast of a music education system which is uniquely African and which fulfils its national aspirations." (5) Put succinctly, university-based music curriculum designs are never intended for an African or the African environment. African ways of acquiring and circulating music-making knowledge and skills for that matter hardly feature in or inform university curricula. This explains why students interested in the study of African music are not a perfect fit in these programs; rendering universities as the last places one should resort to when intending to study African music.

To pursue music studies at any South African university, for instance, the prerequisite grades are still derived from western classical and/or, lately, jazz musics. Only recently can students, once accepted into the system, elect to specialize in African music--a development that mainly appears to be a politically correct than a genuine recognition of the status of African music systems. Since the entry into these programs is via western music, a student, assuming he or she is African, wishing to study African music at a South African university has to, first, musically and culturally excommunicate him or herself from the music of birth; almost suspending the self until completion of the study course. This way, accumulated musical heritages are violently supplanted.

For young black South Africans to be accepted into a university music program is hard. This is due to the neglect of music education at the school level by authorities. Nevertheless, some bridging interventions, with various degree of success, have been devised. In most cases, non-governmental arts schools and some historically black only universities, out of necessity, become the de facto bridging or feeder organisations to universities running the so-called established music training programs. For some time now, universities such as the University of Venda found themselves, and not by intent or design, as mere feeders institutions to the HWOUs, which, post-1994, have been racing to meet the student racial demographic imperatives of the new South African dispensation. …

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