‘Bone raises the bones at Sterkfontein

There’s a lot of rhetoric about celebrating South Africa – but rhetoric is no substitute for real information about real achievements. Yesterday, close to the Cradle of Humankind, the Sterkfontein Composers’ Meeting helmed by Michael Blake held its closing concert, presenting new work created or refined after a month of intensive workshopping involving a dozen new music composers and players from South Africa. The Netherlands and Uganda. The composers included Andile Khumalo, Clare Loveday, Lloyd Prince, Samora Ntsebeza and more.

Andile Khumalo

Only a few years old, the Composers’ Meeting has already spread the international word about new South African composition. 2015 guests, Swedish percussionist Johnny Axelsson and trombonist Ivo Nilsson – who returned this year – took the works created then back to Stockholm and Visby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hBY3gDFjLo ), and no doubt the process will be repeated this year.

Indeed, if you’re in Cape Town, you can catch a repeat of the concert tomorrow, March 3, as part of the Purpur Festival of Transgressive Arts at the Youngblood Gallery on Bree St.

As the event’s board representative, Paul Hanmer, phrased it in his closing remarks: “Just as small bands of those earliest people set out from this place to the world, so this small gathering – you don’t need massive stadiums and thousands of people! – will spread this music…”

Paul Hanmer

(Yes, that same Paul Hanmer, who now composes across genres, for orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as for the jazz combos from which you may know him…)

The dozen works presented varied widely in mood, texture and compositional approach. One uniting factor was the skill of the Swedish instrumental visitors. Axelsson coaxes surprising sounds from familiar instruments, bowing the keys of a marimba, or stroking a drumskin to mirror the tones of a trombone. Nilsson makes his ‘bone speak in multiple tongues, employing more kinds of mute than I could count. Both opened our ears to sonic possibilities soaring far beyond the idiomatic.

Johnny Axelsson & Ivo Nilsson

It was a short concert of startlingly new material, and I suspect I’m not the only listener who would have welcomed the opportunity to hear and reflect on all the pieces again. On only a single hearing, three lodged themselves most firmly in my memory.

Two works by Ugandan composers were revelatory. Milton Wabonya’s Empango , based on the court trumpet music of the Bunyara Kitara Kingdom provided a confident, infectiously swinging, fanfare to open the concert – a reminder that African kingdoms (and not only North European ones) had classical court music traditions too. Charles Lwanga’s One Buzzy Evening appealed to the ears of anybody who, like me, is more accustomed to listening to jazz, as it riffed on the possibilities offered by the Baganda pitch spectrum. It’s reductive to discuss African music in terms only of shared features across the continent. These two pieces reminded us that much as we may acknowledge African music generically, there remain distinctive sound-worlds in the countries around us that we have yet to learn about.

Charles Lwanga

Lloyd Prince’s Bones! Rise! Speak offered a narrative reflecting on the workshop’s location: the excavation of Mrs Ples’s bones and the story they (and she) have to tell. Axelsson’s wood-blocks invoked not only a scene of patient archaelogists’ hammers on rocks, but multiple other musical echoes, such as the fossils dancing to a xylophone in Carnival of the Animals. The ensuing lyrical narrative took us from images to emotions, and the magic of being there, at the dawn of human life.

But if you weren’t there, and you didn’t hear it, you’d never know about any of this: not the workshop, not the South African achievement, nor the pan-African and international collaboration – nor even the fact that we have respected and accomplished African new music composers. We barely heard, outside the enclave of Classic–FM, that Neo Muyanga was composer-in residence at this year’s International Mozart Festival. When writing this piece, I could find almost nothing, not even a picture, on the web for many of the composers at Sterkfontein.

The near-extermination of serious local arts coverage in most of our newspapers (and it’s happened mainly over the past two years) means there is increasingly no record of what our artists do: their processes, their motivations, or their works. Under apartheid, when the academy stereotyped or ignored black composers, the informal musicologists of the media, such as Todd Matshikiza at Drum, provided valuable reportage to plug those gaps. Today, we don’t even have that. We know less about Lloyd Prince than Matshikiza told us about Ntebejane back then.

For the researchers of the future, this is a potential data disaster. For the musicians of the present, it’s a barrier to audiences, professional development and earnings. For the public, it actively builds ignorance about who we are as a creative people, directing interest instead towards the disposable music commodities of America. The next time somebody tells you they’re fighting foreign monopoly capital, ask them what they’re doing about this.


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