MUSIC / Talking through the bar lines: Europeans hold the high ground in South African music, but they won't for long. Susan Loppert reports

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The Independent Culture
'WHEN 20,000 children quit their classes and gathered in a dusty squatter camp earlier this week it wasn't for mass action - it was to attend the opera. The strains of Verdi and Puccini sounded as the PACT opera company entertained the children of Orange Farm. The performance is believed to have attracted the largest audience in the 150-year history of opera in South Africa. PACT spokesman Mr Robert Perry said the Truck Theatre touring programme was designed to introduce opera to township children. However, the ANC's department of arts and culture did not join in the applause. Spokesman Mr Mtutuzeli Matshoba said opera did not relate to the daily experience of SA audiences' (Cape Times, 11 February 1993).

Angelo Gobbato, Artistic Director (Opera) of the Cape Performing Arts Board and director of the Opera School at the University of Cape Town, doesn't agree. 'A social art like opera can never be neutral - putting on opera is itself a political statement.' He caused a furore in Cape Town last year with his new production of Il Trovatore, whose scenes of necklacing, flames, babies on fire and burning shacks for the Gypsy Chorus and Azucena's fiery 'Stride la vampa', with their resonances of Inkatha killings, predictably outraged the (mainly white) audience. 'Joe Public is afraid to think that art touches life. There is a place for traditional opera in the new South Africa, but it must be relevant. Verdi was highly political.'

On the other hand, Ekhaya ('Home'), a musical about returning exiles, written and performed by blacks, was a dismal failure in terms of bums on seats when presented at Cape Town's Nico Malan Opera House last month. But this probably has more to do with the perceptions, both white and black, of the monolithic Eurocentric boards which control mainstream music, theatre and ballet in South Africa, and which are an immediate target for reform by the ANC. Black culture has been systematically starved of funding in a land pulsating with talent.

In a country where the economy has almost collapsed, and where priority must go to the building of houses, schools and hospitals, the importance the ANC attaches to the arts is salutary and encouraging; the ANC has a department of arts and culture whose director is a poet. In the new South Africa, the city of Johannesburg even has a Director of Culture. As Gobbato says, 'in the future, the concept we'll have to live with is participatory; whites are still talking of giving rather than sharing, giving their sets of values when we need a dialogue between artists, not representation on boards.'

At the SABC, until recently the mouthpiece for white government propaganda, the television and radio networks are still segregated by language and the emphasis is still very much on imported European culture: the big excitement, after the wilderness of the boycott, is that the London Philharmonic is visiting in July. When asked why music by indigenous black composers was hardly broadcast, Raymond Sargent, director/producer for the cultural network TSS, replied: 'I've only just managed to get Bartok on the air.' But, as he also said, 'we've all grown up together - apartheid was the unnatural thing', and the SABC is promoting a series of 'nation-building' concerts glorying in the title 'Partners in Harmony', which tend to be heavier on Messiah and Mozart than on black traditional choral works or composers like Michael Moerane, who writes in the Western idiom.

James Mzilikazi Khumalo is using traditional African musical forms in writing an opera on Enoch Mgijima, charismatic Xhosa leader of the Israelite Church in the Eastern Cape who incited his followers to massacre. African music, usually improvised though on very fixed patterns, is never written but passed on orally, and as most black children learn tonic sol-fa at primary school, orchestration and writing in staff notation are being done by composer Peter Klatzow (who has said, concerning the politicisation of music, 'I may have left-wing sympathies, but I don't want to write an ANC symphony'). Khumalo, a passionate advocate of the integration of black culture into the country's main structures after centuries of marginalisation, is professor of African languages - not music - at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. African music at South African universities is still dealt with in the departments of anthropology. Andrew Tracey, distinguished authority on African music and director of the renowned International Library of African Music at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, finds his department attached to, of all things, the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

The irony is that, as South Africa lumberingly starts negotiating towards its integrated future, even while people talk to each other across the colour line as never before, they are not doing so over the bar line, as it were. In general the inward-looking white world pays little attention to the riches of black music. Whether this is a result of decades of isolation is difficult to say: certainly a composer like Kevin Volans, who has left the country and made an international success with music which combines African and European aesthetics, is scantly regarded by his white compatriots. Envy, or because, as Volans says, 'I took the liberty of approaching European music from the point of view of an African', whereas their vision is firmly European, accidentally located in Africa?

In Soweto, the African Youth Ensemble, under its dedicated leader Kolwane Mantu, meets every Saturday afternoon in a tiny, airless room with a single barred window in Diepkloof's shabby community hall, its grounds now encroached upon by squatters, to rehearse Bach, Vivaldi and the masters of Western Baroque music. The sheet music is photocopied and there are never enough instruments: most of the young people's parents haven't jobs, let alone spare cash for violins, violas or cellos, and the group's main source of support is Buskaid, a group of British classical musicians who, each year in March, play all over Britain to raise money for them. Why do they play Western music? As black American member Terri Barnes - who now lives in South Africa - says: 'There are no boundaries to music, no confines, so why should particular ethnic groups play particular kinds of music? The doors of culture should not be closed.'

In rundown, downtown Johannesburg, the flame kindled by Father Trevor Huddleston at Dorkay House still burns - just. The centre which spawned Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim), Jonas Gwangwa, Dudu Pukwana, Kippie Moeketsi and other jazz greats, and shows like King Kong, has been kept alive by Queeneth Ndaba, working without pay, so that young blacks - most of whom have no money to go to school - can rehearse their musical shows, plays, ballets. These kids are fuelled by the passion to perform, which they do on empty stomachs. They want to start an academy of music, a million miles in concept from Western conservatoires.

It's the same in Cape Town, where the Adult Choir of Langa township sings not only old oratorio chestnuts like Handel and Bach, but has developed a combination of choral and marimba styles called chorimba. They hope to build a resource centre with their own instruments, and have their own orchestra; they are sick of being the targets of patronising white 'outreach' work trying to incorporate them into the mainstream of European culture. 'Outreach must go from here to the white suburbs.'

And on the outskirts of Durban, in the sprawling township of KwaMashu, the Nokwe family's Amajika Performing Arts Project, formed by Tu Nokwe after the Soweto uprising and schools boycott of 1976, keeps children off the streets, teaching them to play instruments, sing, dance, act, as well as self-motivation and determination. They have no funding and the children pay nothing. Amajika has produced two record albums, and ten of its alumni were in the Broadway hit musical Sarafina, itself based on Amajika.

What is one to make of all this? Alan Lazar, keyboard player of Mango Groove, a successful mixed-race band which appeals equally to black yuppies and white liberals, feels 'South Africa is completely psychotic at the moment: we've gone through cycles of euphoria after Mandela's release and the referendum, succeeded by despair after the Boipatong massacre and gloom at the failing economy, the endless violence.' Chicco Twala, South Africa's biggest pop star, the millionaire creator of Bubblegum, or township pop, who wrote the hit 'We Miss You Manelow' for Mandela at a time when the name could not be uttered, admits to carrying a gun and killing people in a country where negotiation is done with guns; while Bheki Mseleku, jazz pianist and saxophonist, is proclaimed 'a gentle genius, world leader and global groove merchant'.

At the same time, the musical Nkosi, celebrating Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika ('God Bless Africa'), the protest song fusing traditional call-and-response patterns with harmonies and melodies derived from Christian missionaries which has became the de facto anthem of the new South Africa, is playing to rapturous houses at the Pretoria State Theatre, the citadel of white Afrikanerdom. (Choral music has always been the medium of protest against apartheid.) It's as if a Jewish cantor, rabbi and congregation were invited to sing at a Nuremberg rally. And the heavens did not fall in. The answer is neither black nor white.

(Photograph omitted)