The Significance of Stories in Today’s Songs: Indaba Is


‘The beat of the drums can cure what no medication can cure; it can heal the ills of the mind –– it can heal the very soul.’ (Mutwa, 1998: 668)

The quotation above is borrowed from iSanusi uCredoVusamaZulu Mutwa’s seminal text Indaba my Children (1998), regarded by many as the ‘African Bible’. Mutwa who had recently transitioned on 25 March 2020 back to the realm of the ancestors, had been prophesying about the coming of the evil ones, the brainwash of Africa and the coming of deadly diseases among other problems facing the continent. His writings, teachings, poems, songs and sculptures, produced over many years, formed a counter-narrative against the catastrophes mentioned above, which he felt were slowly erasing being from our consciousness. Of course, this erasure comes as the aftermath of slavery, colonialism and of late, apartheid. Given these circumstances, we have found ourselves asking questions such as, what is left? or a more cliché one here in South Africa, Senzeni Na? (what have done?). Mutwa felt that these were pertinent questions and needed multiple responses. His knowledge about Africa was to provide a glimpse into the precolonial practices, and ultimately lead Africa to her healing. It is thus paradoxicaland perhaps symbolic that Mutwa would leave us just before the dominance of the coronavirus around the world.


We have lost a sage in a period of sicknesses, ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ under which humans fear one another and gathering of any kind is restricted. At a deeper level, this time-period is challenging beyond the sicknesses of the body but challenges our methods of solution making here in Africa. For instance, in yesteryears, when the rocks were still soft, in the midst turmoil and pandemics the elders would receive dreams and visions. Guided by the unseen forces, the elders would gather, climb the hills and mountains, visit riverbanks to perform rituals and songs, seeking intervention from gods. On the contrary, during the post-Mutwa time-period we find ourselves fearing the very thought of being around others, we sit in isolation and wait for death to find us. In this sense, we are unable to look for solutions within our cultural constructs, concepts and worldviews, but we continue succumbing to Western dictatorship that is based on deep-pocketed sources of funded research positioned as authorities on well-being and solutions. This moment has put us into deep amnesia, we have forgotten ourselves and our healers have no place, so is our poets and drummers. While Ubuntu asserts that (well) being (and harmony) can only be achieved in the context of community and being with others –– we seek solutions in isolation. 


In seeking restoration of our wholeness, Indaba Is (2020) was born: partly as a response to the great Sanusi’s call (now on the other side) but also as a vehicle of storying (and perhaps storing) the legacies of storytellers that are left. In a time-period when it is made impossible to gather around the fire, listen to stories and play the drum, this project created an opportunity for the jazz community here in South Africa togather around the sonic. Here the sound burns fires to keep our communities, shacking in the coldness of death, warm. There is a notion that people are born into stories, but what sort of stories is the generation after us born into, if we allow our legacies to perish? If we agree with the perception that we are born into stories, then it is also true that we are born into songs and thus we are the people of the drum. From the beating of our mothers’ hearts, we are born into the meditative drums of our ancestors. We are born into and with songs and we live our lives attempting to sing in harmony. It is in seeking this harmony (ubuntu) that our healing finds us.


Our foremothers/fathers believed that we lived in a multidimensional reality. While they were concerned with their family and community around them, they simultaneously interacted with invisible worlds around him. This is what Mutwa teaches us, that when we are in deep sleep, we are in unison with ithongo (the ancestor) thus ukuphupha (to dream) is to float in the grace of divinities. Similarly, songs in the context of ritual bind us with the dimensions of our ancestors and those of the ones yet-to-be-born. This is the core of African cosmology that songs emerge from. We live here now, before and forever, all in one moment.


Informed by this background, one can already see that our ancestors found deep relationships with songs. Song are passageways to complete our immortal-ness. If we were to believe that songs, similar to stories, are mythical narratives reflecting some remote past –– a way that our ancestors lived –– then it is not farfetched to claim that Indaba Is is an attempt to constructs new myths. While we live here, songs allow us into suspended time or elastic paradigms of time that transport us to the past and the future. It is this level of depththat this community of musicians in South Africa, in various ways, is seeking deep within sound. This is a generation that is seeking to understand the stories that live inside songs and similarly the healing properties that manifest from the sound. This is a generation of improvisers that accepts the impossibility of living in one paradigm or one notion of truth. Thus, it is a generation that finds it important to fosterrelationships with the many sonic worlds/dimensions from which these songs emerge.


This generation is brought here by history. In recent years, there has been many questions around a decolonial project (and some of which I highlighted earlier) and what that entails in former colonial zones. The traces of these questions are evoked in Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements, and in calls to decolonize the curriculum. Alongside these pivotal moments we have witnessed how the current jazz scene in South Africa has been dealing with these questions inside the sound, not only creating a soundtrack to these movements but also confronting these issues in their sound. This is evident in the compositional styles, liner notes, album artworks and underlying concepts. At least since 2010, there is a noticeable shift or an intentional restoration of folk elements in jazz. That is to say, there is an incredible use of collective memory to bring about indigenous worldviews and sonic gestures that predates the arrival of ‘jazz’ in our shores. In seeking to understand the sound in Indaba Is, it is necessary to understand the teachings of Mutwa of the precolonial. Although this past is not entirely documented, it is within our imagination to locate the secrets of our early ancestors and sound them out in our anthems. In this sense, imagination is not abstract but a reality of elsewhere. It is also not utopia, but it lives. As we walk on these lands, we are constantly citing buried pasts, forgotten tales and songs from beneath our feet. Alluding to this notion, in IsiZulu the elders would say ‘ukuhamba ukubona’ meaning we know by the experiences of having walked the journey –– we are taught by our very mountains and valleys.  


Indaba Is read in the contexts suggested in this text could be understood as a refusal to look at the self from foreign doctrines and lens. It is an affirmation that storying our myths and tales is a collective responsibility of the ones that live. We are doing for our children what our foremothers/fathers have done for us. Some, like Mutwa, have dedicated their lives in the world to the vastness of their work despite the limitations of living in the body. They now form a strong alliance of ancestors who are protecting and shining light over us. Similarly, we are here dedicating songs to our children not-yet-born. 


Ode to a new world,

MaKhosi AmaKhulu!!! Siyavuma

Nduduzo Makhathini

Written for Brownswood Fanzine

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