iPhupho L’ka Biko – dreaming, like Biko, of decolonised culture

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Bassist Nhlanhla Ngqaqu

June 16 1976 had multiple impacts on South African society. It’s often cited as marking the start of the “youth rebellion” that changed the country’s political landscape – although that minimises the long history of multi-generational resistance that preceded it. (Children had worked in white-owned households, mines, businesses, estates and farms, and formed part of anti-colonial struggles at those sites ever since the colonialists arrived.)

But new kinds of youth formations did emerge from ’76, and those in turn gave rise to new cultural expressions: songs, slogans, gestural language and dances. Those creative expressions travelled into exile, into the camps of young MK soldiers and into cultural collectives in Botswana, Zambia, London, more; into trade union cultural locals as school students became adult workers – and into performance spaces and rallies as artists re-visioned and developed the spirit of ‘76 with fresh creativity throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

The flowers from those roots were furiously diverse: the disciplined stage performances of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble; the take-no-prisoners compositions and playing of Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo-Moholo in exile; the mzabalazo of the Fosatu Workers’ Choir; Menyatso Mathole and Sakhile at Club Pelican (and that band’s Isililo a bit later); and the joyous defiance of the Malopoets https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ln-atDHLDk .

It’s now becoming abundantly clear that #RhodesMustFall/#FeesMustFall and the broader politics of the decolonisation struggle around it were just as significant a cultural moment as that for the generation who marched, carried placards and were tear-gassed a couple of years back.

Old struggle songs were resurrected and given fresh life and lyrics. New songs were crafted, including a fresh version of Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika. And new ensembles started coalescing, creating original music that spoke of and to the consciousness of the 20-teen years – think of Tumi Mogorosi and Project elo, Salim Washington and Sankofa, Mandla Mlangeni’s Born to be Black – and bassist Nhlanhla Ngqaqu’s iPhupho L’ka Biko.

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Centre: Godfrey Mntambo, flanked by Miseka Gaqa(l) and Muhammad Dawjee (r)

Fresh from a very successful performance in Grahamstown, Ngqaqu’s outfit played as part of the Wits Theatre 969 Festival on Friday. And it’s not just the spirit and spirituality of Biko’s Dream that the band invokes. There are also important resonances with the cultural creativity of the Biko era. For Ngqaqu, the ‘dream’ means more than a vision of the future. It’s an invocation of the spirituality and worldview of that leader and his era.

As in the post-’76 era, the musical sensibility is diasporic, not narrowly nationalist. For the Biko generation, in the wake of Festac, the rest of the African continent was a key reference point. That’s still present, but the sounds of Africans in America are also very prominent now.

A snarky comment on a 2017 video of the decolonised anthem (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncFNz3HkJe8 ) complains about its ‘Westernised pop style’ – but that misses important points. When global capital kills, solidarity for all the murdered is intensely relevant. Ngqaqu explained this in his introduction to Queen Sandra’s Hymn (for an earlier performance see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg2kb0K3CxY ), drawing out the continuum of oppression between Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Mambush Noki in his green blanket on the Marikana Koppie.

And then, of course, much of what the West has appropriated as its ‘pop style’ descends from the music of the African American churches; that, in its turn, is descended from the music of Africans shipped to America as slaves. When Motswedi Modibe sang a soulful Rise Again, she was acknowledging that style as part of the African musical family, not borrowing it from America.

The programme was dominated by hymns and anthemic praises, but they were often envisioned in unexpected ways. Some of the most magical moments of the evening came during Abaphezulu, a conversation among the ancestors recounted by TBMO’s Siya Mthembu with guests, Kismen’s tabla-player Shailesh Pillay and sitarist Druv Sodha. (Kinsmen saxophonist Muhammad Dawjee is already a member of Ngqaqu’s outfit.) Mthembu’s husky vocals against the shimmering sound of sitar strings, and the tabla changing paces with Tshiamo Nkoane’s jazz drums called up a unique soundscape that could well have been the realm of the ancestors. For the audience, the arrangement was a roar-provoking hit.

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iPhupho L’ka Biko at the Orbit

And yet, like the music of Sakhile in that earlier era, compelling, sad and passionate music shared the stage with brisk upbeat South African jazz, in compositions such as Braam Streets. And sometimes sadness and passion drove in wickedly satirical directions: Miseka Gaqa’s vocal undermining of the (colonised) national anthem has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Gaqa’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice underlined the genre fluidity of the whole conception. When she sang in counterpoint to the jazz instruments we were in New Music territory, but she also gave us sonorous Xhosa chords and straightforward, moving hymn-singing. The brass offered a strong mix of expressive individual emotion and beautifully-judged, disciplined chorusing. Dawjee’s lyrical restraint finds its foil in Godfrey Mntambo’s passionate eloquence, and vice-versa: they are perfect complements to one another. Meanwhile, trombonist Athamacwera Ngcaba’s trombone often invents outside what you might expect a ‘bone to do – but this is an ensemble in which nobody is predictable. There’s also poetry (powerful poetry, delivered clearly, in perfect synergy with the discourse of the sound), and off side-stage, Levi Pooe stands painting as the moods of the music inspire him.

That genre fluidity is saying something too, about the necessity of removing walls, and returning to an earlier African creativity that did not impose those colonial (and essentially commodifying) boundaries between art-forms.

The music not only spoke and enacted important messages, but sounded good too. At various points the whole audience was on its feet. By the encore, much of that audience (the Wits Theatre was packed) was actually on the stage, dancing and breaking down another imposed boundary. Because those who clap, move, exhort, build the vibe and listen are part of music-making as much as those on the stage playing instruments.

And at that point, for me, it raised a few other spirits too: Kingforce Silgee at the Woodpecker on the banks of the Notwane River in Botswana, the Fosatu Choir singing Andries Raditsela, and some huge UDF rally with Basil and Robbie blowing out front. Which doesn’t mean it was old – until its demands are won, that kind of spirit is never old.

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