Chair’s Address 2018, University of KwaZulu Natal, Howard College Durban
Three years ago, I had the privilege of attending a keynote address by Professor Chris Ballantine, presented at the South African College of Music in Cape Town. He was speaking at the 9th Annual Congress of our South African Society of Research in Music; his topic: ‘On Being Undone by Music: thoughts towards a South African Future worth having’. He spoke of the immensely important social role that music can play, especially in troubled times; he spoke of music’s capacity to mediate difficult social relations; of how music has the power to ‘loosen’ identity, to undo the rigid categories that so much of South African society today has become beholden to. His message, at least in part, was that music could enable connections and reciprocities between South Africans of different colour, language, culture, history – thereby mediating some of the ruptures that have become so prevalent in our society.
I was deeply touched by his contribution. It spoke to me on a very personal level: even the most devoted sceptic had to, even if only for a moment, appreciate the optimism in his message. His words entered into my own consciousness at what I understood – and continue to understand – as a moment of profound crisis, not only in music studies but in South Africa more broadly. I also heard his message as an encouragement to act. And so, when later during that conference a new Executive Committee was elected, I decided against my earlier judgment to declare myself available to act as Chair of Sasrim for the next three years. I wanted to work at finding that future worth having that Chris was speaking of; I wanted to do the work, through music, that could enable such a future.
This work began with a directive received by the new Exco at the 2015 Sasrim AGM. Matters that our membership raised that urgently needed to be addressed included: greater student participation at conferences; more equitable membership demographics; conference offerings that were more inclusive of different fields of interest and specialisation and more equitable in terms of participant demographics; and conference programmes that could showcase performances alongside academic work. These were some of the things the incumbent exco were asked to attempt, and we were happy to accept the mandate given to us in 2015. Three years later, I am gratified to look around me and see that a third of our 2018 delegates are students, not only postgraduate but also undergraduate; I am happy to look back at the 2018 programme and to see presentations in African music, Jazz, education, sacred music, popular music, Western art music, composition, analysis, cultural studies, gender studies, ethnomusicology; we heard papers, attended workshops, were invited into joyful worlds of performance of African music, bow musics from three continents, Jazz ensemble and big band, world premieres of new music composed by young South Africans. It’s been an incredibly rich few days – challenging, stimulating, and deeply rewarding.
The 2018 conference builds on the work done by the three preceding exco’s, who have all embraced the challenges of developing a new society from the heritage of the Ethnomusicology Symposium and the Southern African Musicological Society. An important journey began when these two societies were amalgamated: their joining represented a commitment to challenging the separation, the split between musical identities that were forged and enforced in South Africa’s past. Music allows us to do transformative work in practical and pragmatic ways. The loosening of identity and its concomitant limitations that Ballantine argued for in 2015 happens in very real ways when a series of academic papers on Western art music analysis is followed by a performance on the berimbau and free improvisation with flute and electronics; when a young Jazz scholar delivers a keynote address on Todd Matshikiza after a panel on Timbila and sessions on opera, Afrikaans ‘Koortjie’ music, interdisciplinary engagements with music and photography, discussions on foundation phase music and academic literacy for community musicians. A platform that welcomes all musics as equally valuable, equally important, challenges in very real ways the separations enforced on South African cultures under colonialism and apartheid, while at the same time suggesting a future worth having, as Ballantine encouraged three years ago. So many things seem to become real possibilities when, at a conference such as this, we observe first-hand the energies generated from musical interactions, sharing of cultures, challenging meetings of musical minds, in a spirit of openness and kindness.
Today a new Exco is invited to take over the reins, to continue the work towards a better future and to do that work through, with, in music. Music allows us to understand ourselves and our place in the world; it allows us to construct a place in the world where we can live well, with conviction; it allows us to mediate difference and also celebrate it, to appreciate the many different soundings of our individual lives in a world where there is often more heat than light, more noise than music. The many young people that join this community for the first time this year will, hopefully, take ownership of this society, push it even further into a position where the musics made, discussed and analysed here will resonate in a broader South African society. I am thankful for having had the opportunity to participate, in some small way, in the work towards a better future. I am excited to continue this work, and firm in my belief that this better future is real, possible, and worth working hard for.