Music is a part of life that has become integral to human existence. It’s the welcome everyday distraction that carries emotions, stirs memories, instigates dreams and communes with hearts and souls. It reaches out where the hand can’t; baring all a lover will never explore… bringing with it a magic that transcends simplicity. The humming and chirping of birds, make one realize that even nature has its own way of making music…
For centuries, music has brought people together. I’ve sat in bars, at weddings, parties and watched men and women who wouldn’t ‘normally’ acquaint, smile together and respond to the resounding beauty of music. From the instruments that bring exciting melodies to the lyrical content, music has made love to many; painted hope in lives where death lurked and brightened dark spaces. For in sadness and happiness, man, especially Africans, finds comfort and celebration in music.
Music was and remains an important tool in shaping society’s minds, challenging deeds and social and political landscapes. Hip-hop and reggae have led the pack in creating a rigid social and political consciousness. Commercially, think Tupac Shakur and Bob Marley. Anyone who’s tasted the undistilled richness of ‘underground’ music will understand the misconceptions held about hip hop (not the bling bling ring me a chick type), which to me is an offspring of poetry. These genre artists used music to convey untold messages to the masses that were sidelined, discriminated, used and abused. The earliest musicians in Africa include the Khoi khoi and San who created the mamkie(3 string guitar) and the mamokhorong(single string violin).They blended this with western folk to create their sacral music. Missionaries had a lot of influence on music in Africa. The choral, gospel music was derived from their music style.
In South Africa, Enoch Sontoga composed Nkosi Sikelele in 1897.This was the times of people like John Knox Bokwe, who composed numerous hymns. Africans drew in this influence to come up with their gospel(ZCC type) and isicathamiya(Ladysmith Black Mambazo).African music has made use of instruments (they made themselves) like drums,rattlews,bells,kora(harp),mbira and djembe. Even though African music had influence from the West, it also influenced jazz and blues music which became popular in America. Different music styles started in various parts of Africa.In South Africa it’s mbanqanga, Zaire, soukous music, Nigeria the juju, Botswana, the borankana and Ghana, highlife…just to mention a few. These styles and many others have been evolved and infused to create the African music we know today.
In South Africa,music has evolved in stages which also reflect the stages of it’s history.(That is why it is relevant to study the musical aspects of a country when researching it’s history).The was the choral,marabi,kwela and mbaganqa jaz(the latter three mark the urbanization of the Africans) and the pennywhistle became popular around this time. (Lenny Mabaso and Spokes Mahiyane stand out in my mind as pennywhistle magicals). In South Africa (considering the pain of apartheid), music played a unifying role. It was meant to soothe hearts and bring joy to otherwise dry, desert like lives. The prevalence was jazz and bubblegum. Hai!Letta Mbulu’s ‘Jikijela’ still reduces men and women to tears. I can’t forget the heart tearing pain I felt when I heard Brenda Fassie’s ‘Too late for mama’ and ‘Black president’, songs obese with truth and thoughts. The likes of Busi Mhlongo, Miriam Makeba, Abdul Ebrahim, Dorothy Masuku, Todd Matshikiza, Bra Hugh, Lucky Dube etc are remiscant of a confused past dotted with pain and hope, for they sang the of stabs of their time. Post 1995, (when I still had firm thighs that peaked beneath a neat tunic), I skipped and shaked to Boom Shaka and Bongo Maffin among others. These were the children borne in the wombs nurtured during oppressive times. They saw a future bright as the Kalahari sun, and we wanted to share its warmth. It was a cry for true liberation, which many years later my people still pursue, for at times I believe we are wrapped in towels of illusions.
You cannot throw oblivion to the funerals in townships when a shrill beautiful voice broke out I ‘Thuso’ or ‘Morena re boloke’. Wait! How about the ‘tswang tswang’/’I do, I do’ danced to at weddings. It wasn’t/isn’t only about the celebration of a marriage but a yearning for a ‘better’ life: a chance to be truly, forever happy, a seemingly far- fetched dream in this gratifying life. Even in the days of Bantu migrant workers, miners trudged home accompanied by song and housemaids hummed their way around their daily chores.
Afro-centric and revolutionary music, hold the candle for me, as they are more poignant in my large eyes. They tell of struggle and a need to relieve oneself of the internal conflicts that come with existence and living.
Embracing trying moments and laughing at life in the face of adversity. It reflects intense hopes, obvious in glazed eyes, determined voices and shuffling feet that move in directions pointed out, gathering the world to oneself.
Huge capitalist record companies have tried to discredit worthy musicians, by opting to support those intrigued by uninspiring gratification (shake a waist, get a rand) music that carries nothing positive. Everyday, we witness how talent has to compete with popularity (which doesn’t translate to quality).
In the midst of this, phenomenal music makes people speak in unison and break out in tongue. Sang quietly, it remains one of the man-made treasures of the earth, for you can’t take away beauty that nestles in the heart and echoes in the soul.