Address from the Chair, Sasrim Tenth Annual Congress, 25 – 27 August 2016, Odeion School of Music, University of the Free State

Good afternoon colleagues, and welcome to this tenth AGM of the South African Society for Research in Music. It is wonderful to be welcomed here in Bloemfontein, the place where the first AGM of our Society was held in 2007.

In 2006, the year in which Sasrim was established, our South African democracy was a twelve year old pre-teen, slightly awkward as kids of that age often are, and poised at the edge of early adulthood. Today, ten years later, our democracy has come of age – and, having outgrown much of its youthful idealism and no longer able to endorse the sense of naïve optimism that personified the early years following on 1994, our South African democracy of 2016 insists on new imperatives and urgencies. In a year exemplified by continued student protests on university campuses across the country, precarious economic and political realities and a clear indication of significant shifts in the power bases of the South African socio-political landscape, it is perhaps not surprising that a word that came up frequently at this 2016 conference was ‘crisis’. This term entered discussions across the spectrum of the material presented over the last days: crises of curriculum; of freedom of speech; of enforced neoliberal educational models; crises of history and historiography; the crises of the daily realities faced by students on the very campuses on which most of us spend our working hours. In 2016, crisis is a reality that cannot be ignored; if perhaps music research had in the past allowed itself to remain in some sense exempt from participating in South African socio-political imperatives, this is no longer a conceivable possibility.

In music, these imperatives manifest in a variety of ways: there exists for example an imperative to reposition ourselves, our ‘gaze’ if you will, to no longer begin significant explorations only from a viewpoint of the so-called ‘global North’, but to rather embrace our own situatedness as scholars on the African continent. In this regard, presentations on the repatriation of the ILAM field recordings, along with numerous insightful and challenging expositions in the fields of Xhosa music, Venda music, musical practices from Kenya, Ghana and Mozambique (to name but a few) have made invaluable contributions to the strengthening of African music practice and discourse, indicating a vigorous commitment to continuing development of this field. Scholars working on Coloured music history and historiography introduced figures long unrecognised and underappreciated into discussions of identity, agency and creativity, thus forcing open an intellectual space within which these significant figures may be engaged with. Five new works for string quartet were premiered, created by young South Africans committed to and energised by the multiple musical possibilities and materials inherent in our South African musical landscape. Scholars engaged with the legacy of Arnold van Wyk, both problematizing and celebrating this fascinating South African composer during the centenary year of his birth. Theories of decolonisation were forced into conversation with the very real challenges faced by students on South African campuses on a daily basis, and the imperatives for tangible change were clearly identified (even if not necessarily accepted by all).

One of our colleagues posed the question during this conference of whether and how crisis can become productive – indeed, the origins of this word contain both the root for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. I would like to posit that the strong and topical presentations, vigorous debate, energising musical exchanges and brave encounters of the last days represent not only possibilities for dealing with the crises that exemplify our current world, but also opportunities for bringing about real and significant change. If the first essential step to transformation of our social, cultural and political landscape is recognition of the crisis within which we find ourselves, the next step must be a refusal to accept this crisis as a new and insurmountable status quo, and to begin to propose real possibilities to facilitate and encourage transformation and change.

At the 2015 AGM, the incumbent Executive Committee were given a mandate to significantly transform the Society in terms of member demographics; conference structure and content; and the presence and visibility of the Society. The ExCo accepted this mandate with the recognition that the transformation that was being posed as an imperative was deeply entrenched in the realities of our present day. Looking back over the last days, I want to suggest that even with the recognition that much work remains to be done, the 2016 Sasrim conference to some extent at least has met the expectations put forward one year ago. One third of the presentations at this conference was delivered by students, evidence of the fact that Sasrim is energised not only by the expertise of senior scholars but also the dynamism of emerging younger academics and performers. Performances were presented alongside academic papers in a conference format that embraced the intertwinement of scholarly and performative musical practice, going some way to renegotiating the age-old divide between theory and practice. We welcomed colleagues from across the African continent; we were able to engage with new research and insights from every conceivable sub-discipline in the field of music. While remaining cognisant of the many continuing challenges that we must continue to embrace and engage with, we may perhaps also take a moment to take stock of the positive results we have achieved.

Colleagues, this ‘we’, this pronoun that I have continuously used when referring to the South African Society for Research in Music, is not a given. The community of scholars within which we position ourselves is a construct that must be regularly interrogated, but also nurtured and protected. It must become ever more a space conducive to critical engagement, vigorous debate, sensitive encounter and creative development. The Code of Conduct proposed at this AGM encapsulates some of these ideals, but by no means all. It has a been a privilege to serve this year as Chair of our Society, and it is a privilege to be able to continue the work done not only this past year, but by all those who have been committed to the fostering and development of music scholarship and music making in this country for the last decade. I leave you then with words of thanks, and words of encouragement to continue to embrace the challenges of the future and to sound the opportunities so defining of this country, in this time.

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