MUSIC THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNIVERSE: Living with a song in our hearts

This one time, in my village came a heavy storm. It was so scary we could even feel the ground vibrate and as young boy I had all kinds of thoughts running in my mind ‘Are we going to die, if so are we all going to heaven?’

The late great ‘Alphinah’ my grandmother saw it in my eyes that I was panicking and she immediately stood up and ask if she could be given her church gown ‘isivatho nesikhali’ and she went outside.

Probably this made us get even more worried so we quickly ran to peep through the window onto find that she was chanting a melody so gracefully. She did this for a while and the storm gently faded away then she came back inside the house looking very weak.

“Gogo, how did you do that?” I asked and she responded very quietly “You see my child, music has the power to communicate and speak to everything I learned this from the elders.”

This is when I started thinking about the power of music, I must have been seven years of age. You see my grandmother came from the Zionist Church which is based on ritualistic and Africanized worship characterized by very meditative chanting/singing, dancing, clapping and drumming it also incorporates divination, ancestral beliefs and believes in traditional magic.

Now the past couple of days I have been trying to recall what song was she probably singing and what sort of songs in my upbringing had this kind of power.

REPERTOIRES (song as a vehicle for change)

I have also been thinking about repertoires in my continent, a couple years ago Bab’uThemba Mkhize shared some of the Hugh Tracey collection with me mainly recorded from southern Africa and since then I have been very interested in finding out about what each piece intended on achieving. Within this process I have been trying to collect the rest of this collection to cover the whole continent.

In the collection I discovered that the compositions were grouped according to their purpose for certain ceremonies and rituals; lullabys, initiation songs, river songs, dirges, wedding songs, funeral songs, religious songs and more. I have also been told that within these songs some were only performed once a year, some every five years so each tune had a very strong and unique intention.

I personally feel that this kind of directness is important in our music and as a country I think in the post apartheid South Africa after 94 we experienced a huge paradigm shift whereby we started having less and less of these intentions in our music, it somehow feels like there was a projected layer of illusion that made us feel that things were now okay and there was no need to be further deliberate about change in society anymore. Perhaps this happened in our writing, poetry and dances too.

But in the recent years I have noticed once more a change in our thinking, our music, our creatives have become very direct and intentional about the kind of change that we need in society and how we can project that in our creations. There is a certain realization that is giving birth to new nuances and articulations of the music and it is indeed time for change.

Nduduzo Makhathini

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