How do you write a life? What makes a good biography? Some readers like their biographies spicy and scandal-laden; some want dry, encyclopedic barrels of facts; some prefer works of literary imagination on the Geoff Dyer model, exposing more about the writer than the subject.
Add the word “music” to “biography”, make it a South African artist of colour, and the question assumes greater complexity.
The biography of a creative figure – musician, poet, painter – can’t just describe a life. It has to offer at least some insight into the why and the how of the creativity. What inspired them? Why that style or instrument and not this one? What were their aesthetic drivers? All that is made doubly hard by the scant public record about such figures. Under apartheid the erasures were motivated by racist disbelief that Black artistry had any intellectual component. Now, they are driven by the cultural hegemony of the global West and its platforms. Ironically, more – though usually still not enough – survives if you comb through local media from then, than if you search the same sources today.
Those research lacunae are among the reasons it took music scholar Dr Paula Fourie around 10 years to complete her comprehensive biography of Taliep Petersen, Mr Entertainment. (https://www.loot.co.za/product/paula-fourie-mr-entertainment/ppyv-7735-g590?referrer=googlemerchant&gclid=Cj0KCQjw4omaBhDqARIsADXULuWXnuqSygzXzSVm4eNqyscyQFJP2yKF7gY4IWYcf8eUK-zl3xJqgMYaAtk9EALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds )
Though it would have been unfair to his talent, Petersen might have remained a hugely respected but essentially Cape Town musician had it not been for the dramatic circumstances of his murder aged only 56: his then-wife was one of those convicted. That put him into headlines worldwide, and it would have been tempting for a biographer to go the highly marketable drama and scandal route.
Thankfully, Fourie does no such thing.
The musicologist, currently a Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University’s Africa Open Institute had developed a scholarly interest in Cape Malay choral singing. She told Cape Town music writer Warren Ludski (https://warrenludskimusicscene.com/2022/04/15/taliep-petersen-first-book-to-detail-life-of-our-mr-entertainment/ )
“It was at a competition in the Good Hope Centre that a colleague of mine from the university pointed to an empty chair and said, ‘that’s where Taliep Petersen used to sit’… That plastic chair stayed with me after I went home. Its emptiness spoke very loudly in the packed hall (…) I had started to think – perhaps there was a figure active in the Cape Malay Choirs whose life I could research for a biography. One day just as I awoke, still groggy from sleep, the name ‘Taliep Petersen’ was in my head, as if it had floated up from a bubble in my subconscious and lay there, fully formed, waiting for me to awake. I had never met Taliep, never even heard him perform. But I knew that day I wanted to try to write about him.”
So although Mr Entertainment is about Petersen’s life, it’s also about a tradition and a community, about relationships, hopes and dreams. Fourie’s 50-odd interviews provide what paper archival records cannot: the texture of conversations, the quirky turns of phrase, the emotions of speakers as they re-live experience. What she conveys about her interviews demonstrates how respectfully she listened. She reflects back and seeks for clarification, watches and notes expressions and gesture. Her ability to communicate in Afrikaans, the language of most of her sources, shines a light on the nuances of their narratives (with translations for those of us who can’t do that).
All of this could serve as a primer for other, less skilled researchers and interviewers – both journalistic and scholarly – who think it’s just a matter of pressing “record” for bald transcription later.
Most biographers and many readers are prey to what Bourdieu called the “biographical illusion.” Real lives are usually lived in messy, sometimes incoherent and probably simultaneous or recursive ways. For the sake of readers and the researchers who may follow, a biographer usually does some “straightening out’ of that tangle into a coherent sequential story with an identifiable beginning, middle and end. Those waypoints, Bourdieu asserts, are imposed on the life, not how it is actually lived.
Fourie manages the negotiation between structure and messiness nicely.
First, she grounds everything in solid research, with ten pages of end-notes backing her 350, footnoted, pages of text. Then, she does sufficient straightening out that it’s easy to see the timeline unfold, and to place personal events in the context of the history of community and cultural oppression that was their context. The book could take a useful place on music and social studies curricula, because it makes those contextual connections clear, in an un-forced but vivid way.
But there are also times – and the way she deals with the murder is one – where she simply lets complexity breathe and does not try to rearrange that information to impose a neat explanation.
Fourie’s tender handling of complexity extends to her consideration of Petersen’s material. As a musicologist, she is well aware that in some representations of Malay vocal music and its descendant genres – from practitioners, promoters (and most egregiously often from the media) – deep, spiritual roots and intricate codes of subversion are often in contention with gurning, gap-toothed stereotypes.
By never masking her own presence and role in the biographical process, she has a vehicle to express the unease that the power relationships implicit in every placing of the music generate.
Mr Entertainment can be read on multiple levels. It’s a life story – and a wonderfully readable, hugely entertaining one, given the fluency and sharpness of its sources. It’s certainly history and an important addition to the archive. And it’s also an autobiographical account of a scholarly journey: learning the man, his milieu, and its music through the lens of who this writer is. We need more authors to explore this space, and more publishers to publish them.