Yesterday morning, I attended a performance by the Bandura Express marimba group, an ensemble from Northwest University who performed as part of the Sasrim African Music Meeting. These eight young performers were riveting: polished, energetic, utterly convincing. The ensemble includes marimbas, electric guitar, drum kit and saxophone, and their repertoire ranges from traditional music to arrangements of songs by R. Kelly and Sting and the Police. The venue for this performance was the university organ room… which meant the backdrop to the marimba ensemble was constituted of silver organ pipes reaching up to the ceiling; the audience were required to remain seated in formal auditorium-style throughout the performance, even though the impulse was to get up and dance along.
As I sat there, spellbound, I found myself thinking how truly extraordinary this experience in fact was. I am old enough to remember a time when it would have been unthinkable to have an African instrumental ensemble perform in the hallowed halls of the Conservatory, especially at what we now euphemistically call ‘historically privileged institutions’. And these young people were not performing music that would in any narrow sense be considered ‘traditional’ by an ethnomusicologist from yonder years: the members of Bandura Express are performing traditional music, yes, but they are also playing modern tunes that they like, that they enjoy listening to daily, but re-imagined and re-made for an ensemble of mostly traditional instruments. On Friday morning, they were making this music in a room designed for Bach and Buxtehude, and their audience was eating it up.
I probably make too much of this aspect of the event, this what I perceive as a disconnect of historical traces connected to the music, musicians, venue – but I was raised in a classical music tradition, in a very conservative institution and during what was in fact still a very conservative time, even though apartheid had officially ended five years before I entered university. I was taught that Western art music is the only music of real import; at the place where I went as a young adult to study music, only one kind of music was on offer, and all other musics were relegated to spaces very much outside of the hallowed halls of music academe.
And so as I reflect now on the Sasrim annual congress of 2017, I am energised by thinking how far music studies and performance practice in South Africa have come, certainly since the days when I first started practising music formally in an institution. I listened during these last days to a marimba ensemble playing pop music, but I also heard the world premiere of four new score-based compositions by South Africans in their twenties, performances of traditional music from Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland… papers on African music in tertiary education, spectralism in Nguni music, music and the curatorial turn, music and conflict resolution, music and politics, South African music, European music, world music…and when it all became a bit much, I raised a glass with my friends and colleagues while relaxing to DJ Charles Leonard’s incredible collection of African music on vinyl. It has been days of challenging thinking and heated argument, but also openness and shared experience. It has been especially gratifying to welcome several colleagues from across the African continent to Sasrim this year, and engage with their unique perspectives and experiences. It has also been profoundly rewarding to once again welcome many students at the conference, who bring to our programme brave, fresh and original ideas and arguments that infuse our offering with potentialities for our shared future.
The current Exco has crossed its halfway mark, and although some of our goals have to a degree been attained, much work remains to be done. We remain committed to meeting the mandate we received from you, the members of our Society, in 2015: to expand our membership to become more inclusive and representative, to facilitate more students in becoming involved with Sasrim, to include music and performance in our conference offerings. All these aspects present significant logistical challenges, and it is becoming clear that some of these issues are of a financial nature: in a time when austerity measures are enforced on most of our university campuses and the economic outlook for the country is considered by many to be bleak, we have to search for ways to generate more financial means to accommodate performers, students, and visitors from outside of South Africa at our conferences. Part of the Exco’s mission for 2018 then is to search for creative ways to generate the funds we need to continue to expand our conference offering and increase the support we are able to give to conference participants. This year, Sasrim received significant financial support from Northwest University, whose involvement helped make not only the African Music Meeting possible, but also the New Music Meeting that preceded the conference. We are enormously grateful to our colleagues here in Potchefstroom, without whom many aspects of the 2017 conference would not have been possible. It seems clear that collaboration, interaction and mutual support between Sasrim and the universities who constitute our membership is the way forward.
It may seem at times that the thread that connects us all is thin: we come from different backgrounds (musical, academic, social, cultural), and exist in vastly different spaces. Yet the connection remains strong enough for us all to come together for days such as these to share insight and knowledge, argument and outcome. Music has that capacity: to connect, without binding. And it is my hope that we may continue to remain connected to each other, through our common passions, and that we will continue to grow and expand our society and our field, through an embrace of a philosophy of musical and intellectual abundance.
Early on during this conference, I had a discussion with a colleague from Mozambique who asked me what I thought was meant by the word ‘decolonisation’, a concept that came up several times in conversation and in engagements with presenters. I told him that my interpretation of the term would probably not be considered entirely correct by most people, but it is this: I consider decolonisation as a philosophy of ‘more’. More ideas, more questions, more context, more content. It is an attempt to present challenges to the legacies of coloniality, which excluded so much essential knowledge and devalued so much of importance, by doing more research, expanding the curriculum, and destabilising the center-periphery constructs that were enforced under colonial conditions. I may be wrong, but I’m sticking to my idea: we should continue to search for more. More music, more discussion, more ideas, more arguments. I hope that you will leave the 2017 conference with much more than what you arrived with! Thank you for being here; I look forward to welcoming you again in Durban 2018.