Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Sounds of the "Third Way": Identity and the African Renaissance in Contemporary South African Popular Traditional Music

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Sounds of the "Third Way": Identity and the African Renaissance in Contemporary South African Popular Traditional Music

Article excerpt

"It is in the production of audiences that the political and social reality of art can be found."

--John Fiske (1989)

Many of you will have already remarked on the word traditional in the title of this article and perhaps prepared yourself for yet more ink spilled in the quest to define this rare, possibly mythical, concept of musical style. But it is my purpose here to develop rather than to authenticate the notion of tradition, and I shall not be concerned (regrettably) with the sounds of southern Africa that evoke most ineffably its cultural geography: the demonstrably indigenous, audibly other-than-Western music of imagined communities of custom that ethnomusicologists might deem truly traditional. Yes, players of acoustic percussion, string, and wind instruments made of materials animal and vegetable can still be found if one has the endurance and four-wheel-drive vehicle required to seek them out. People who sing in the old prehymnodic way, with scales unadjusted to Western harmonic intervals, are still yet more common in South Africa's rural areas. I propose rather to give up the ghost of alien organicological and tonal categories and simply use traditional to mean what black African people in South Africa, and more specifically, Zulu people in Johannesburg and Durban, mean by it. Their conception, a la Chris Waterman's Yoruba slogan, "Our tradition is a very modern tradition" (Waterman 1982), is that musical tradition is quite adequately maintained and signified through continuities of genre, verbal idioms of experience, and polyvocalities of tone, tune, and texture, of hue and cry. Where tradition is used to signify correspondences between aesthetic structures and an idealized social order, such correspondences are created through the specifically musical qualities of style, timbre, texture, and rhythmical flow (Erlmann 1966, 237). Electric guitars, basses, and keyboards; pentatonic and hexatonic scales and staggered linear melodic polyphonies; shiny drum kits thumping out rhythms of centuries-old stamping dances; faux leopard tails, antelope skin, or string skirts with sneakers and spandex underwear; miraculously balanced beaded headdresses and Kangol caps worn backwards; rhythmically bouncing, nude (insouciant rather than provocative) breasts; antiphonal lead vocalists and a chorus of back-up singers; synchronized hip swinging and stealthy Afro-Christian step-dancing--all are part of Zulu traditional popular music. Indeed, Joseph Nhlapo (2000, 29-30) has convincingly argued in a recent thesis that maskanda guitar need not be termed "neo-traditional" as I had done (Coplan 1985, 268) but simply "traditional."

Ezodumo (It Shall Sound), the state broadcaster's (SABC) single live-performance music television offering explicitly devoted to "traditional" music, features bands of rural-born labor migrants whose only (amplified, of course) acoustic instruments are the guitar, the German button concertina, and piano accordion. The gourd or mouth-resonated monochords, hand-beaten wooden drums, and reed and animal horn aerophones of preindustrial Africa are almost never heard on the broadcast media, although they are still played in rural communities. Significantly for the present discussion, when such instruments do appear on an urban stage, it is as syncretic elements in the eclectic ensemble music of serious African jazz composer/performers. These include Johannesburg's Sipho Mabuse, who employs a lesiba (mouth-resonated quill-reed monochord) player from Lesotho, and Cape Town's Pops Mohammad, who plays Khoi stringed instruments in an explicit attempt to musically reconstitute his self-avowed Khoi aboriginal origins. (1) No musical ethnonationalist, Mohammad also performs his own original improvisations on the twenty-one-stringed Malinke kora.

In brief, traditional for black South Africans means the Afro-industrial popular music of African urban labor migrants and dispossessed peasants. …

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