There is a classical Africa: Renee Reznek’s From My Beloved Country and more

Ignorance about African history and culture abounds – at both ends of the political spectrum. The smug racists banging on about railways and piped water are only a little more ignorant than the philistines asserting “science is colonialist” in blithe ignorance of the foundational legacy of Semitic, pre-Islamic (and later Islamic) research and invention in the North of our continent, among peoples today labeled Arabs, Egyptians and Libyans. (For more on where the myth of white Ancient Greek science came from, read the late Professor Martin Bernal’s Black Athena )

In the same way, other myths about Africa float around, for example about pervasive cultural ‘backwardness’ (more backward than the atavism of the Ku Klux Klan?). In relation to music, there are assumptions that the term ‘classical’ music can only apply to the European children of Bach and Mozart, or that African contemporary composition happens only in popular genres.

Let’s start with ‘classical’ music. The term has a number of coexistent meanings. For Wikipedia, it’s “music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized,” or, alternatively, “serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.” You could spend a thousand words deconstructing the assumptions in that second definition: jazz ain’t ‘serious’? folk music doesn’t follow “long-established principles”? and so on… Leave it.

Ganda court
East African classical music

Wikipedia’s first definition reflects pitch-perfect Eurocentrism. The word ‘classical’ means “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style.” To colonise that word for European music alone – albeit sometimes with a capital ‘C’ – ignores that, for example, Indian music, or the Arabic music of Al-Andalus, or the musics of the Mandinka or Ganda courts in Africa also went through historical phases during which the pinnacle standards for their forms were set. Every culture has its ‘classical’ music.

But in ordinary speech, classical music is simply the kind of repertoire presented in formal concert halls, whatever micro-niche the genre specialists would place it in.

Rznek album.jpg

That’s my only excuse for headlining the term when discussing this year’s release by UK-based South African pianist Renee Reznek, From My Beloved Country ( ). In fact, this is an album of ‘New Music’, all composed relatively recently in South Africa or by South Africans, and though Pietermaritzburg-raised Reznek has garnered many international accolades for playing more conventionally ‘classical’ material, that is not her project here.

The album comprises a dozen pieces, some of which have deep personal meaning for Reznek. Kevin Volans’ PMB Impromptu, for example, reflects their shared birthplace and pays tribute to Reznek’s keyboard skill through the demands the music’s intricacy places upon it. David Earl’s Song Without Words was written for her daughter’s wedding. The works are eminently accessible examples of their kind and provide, in total, an enjoyable introduction to the work of eight South African New Music composers, from the jagged edginess of Michael Blake’s Broken Line (which alludes to the conventions of Xhosa bow music) to the melodic lyricism of Song Without Words. And Reznek’s playing throughout is impressive: the pieces may sound accessible, but they are no less pianistically complex for that; her technique is the mediator. If just about every critic reviewing the album has used the word ‘warm’, there are good reasons: not only does the piano tone radiate warmth, but Reznek’s very evident pleasure in playing these particular pieces also reaches out warmly from disk to listener.

Pianist Renee Reznek at the JIMF 2014

However, From My Beloved Country – like, for example the Andre Petersen/Kathleen Tagg duo outing Where Worlds Collide ( ) before it – also serves a larger purpose by reminding us about the breadth of contemporary South African concert music. Two previous columns ( ) ( ) have already reflected on this rich, less travelled, part of South Africa’s music scene.

Reznek’s album opens with a composition by Neo Muyanga, whose work was showcased not only at this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF) (when he was composer in residence) but in 2014, when the pianist visited and premiered this very work: Hade Tata.

Neo Muyanga
Neo Muyanga

Hade Tata is a programmatic piece, evoking scenes from Mandela’s release onwards, and reflecting on high hopes un-met. For those of my readers not familiar with New Music criticism, it’s worth noting that in this context, ‘programmatic’ is often uttered with a slight sneer; for some, music with an extra-musical narrative isn’t so fashionable right now. But I’m not sneering. For me, Hade Tata is a moving ten minutes of memories and sound-pictures, from the icon’s slow footsteps out of Victor Verster Prison, through a riotously chaotic welcome home to the bluesy regrets of the final passage. (Come to think of it, ‘bluesy’ isn’t exactly an accepted term in New Music criticism either.)

That’s a good place to conclude. Forget the labels, and, next time, buy some South African music from a category you’d normally swipe left on. Whether ‘New Music’ or ‘Classical’ (or jazz) it’s all music. And music often brings us things that get everybody’s metaphorical feet tapping, alongside things that carry special meanings for certain listeners. Whatever its general appeal, Hade Tata will carry an extra resonance for those South Africans who were there and felt those emotions from the inside. And probably Mozart says some special things to a Salzburger, too…

One thought on “There is a classical Africa: Renee Reznek’s From My Beloved Country and more

  1. Hi Gwen – I’m a reporter at the Washington Post, working on a story about jazz musician Hugh Masekela. Are you available for an interview sometime soon? Happy to talk by phone or email: harrison.smith[at]


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