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Of White Africans and White Elephants

[Published in “Leadership”, Cape Town under the title “A New Note”. 18th Feb, 1986]

Like many white South Africans of my generation I was brought up to think I was European. I went to live in Europe and found this was not true. I returned to Africa and was disappointed to find I could not really regard myself as African. Who and what are White Africans?

One of the biggest crises facing whites (and perhaps urban blacks) in this country today is that of identity. The removal of apartheid will see the removal of the last barrier in our transition from colonialism to nationhood. Those who do not want to see it go have an understandable tribal fear of loss of identity. But for those who do look forward to a nation freed from apartheid, the problem of identity still exists. Clearly, if our new nation is to be something more than a conglomerate of co-existing tribes, a new and LOCAL culture has to be fostered which connects rather than separates the different sectors of our society.

But where to begin? To attempt to abandon our European heritage would be stilted and forced. Like some others of my generation, I became convinced that if we were finally to adapt to our environment, we would have to embark on a reconciliation of African and European aesthetics, of the western and African spirit.

This is not a task to be undertaken in ignorance. It is as important in cultural as in political relations that we do not paper over deep-seated differences – we do not need an African cosmetic job. If we accept Sir Herbert Read’s comment that “Tradition is not a body of beliefs, but a knowledge of skills”, then a new tradition must involve new skills.

Before attempting to reconcile or integrate western or African cultures it is important to have a sound knowledge of their differences, both technically and conceptually. I propose therefore to present an idealised and very generalised picture of the dividing line between the two (obviously there are numerous parallels, but I will ignore these for the time being) and I will centre my argument on the perhaps less familiar realm of music.

Western “art” music specialises in what I would describe as “the magic carpet effect” – it refers to social situations beyond those in which it is performed. For example, a great deal of the music is derived from dance music, but in a concert situation, it is the music that dances – the audience does not. A connoisseur of music rarely taps his foot (thank goodness). The music mentally transports the audience in time and space. As far as the music is concerned, the venue, the time and place of the performance, has little relevance. Beethoven is essentially the same listened to by an audience of thousands in the Albert Hall or alone in your living room in Boksburg.

African music on the other hand, is primarily “folk” music and is inextricably tied up with not only the immediate social situation in which it is performed, but also the social relationships within the cultural group itself.

Panpipe music is a good example. The Pedi dinaka dance is played by eleven men. One plays the drum, the others each have one pipe which plays one note. Each performer must play his note at the right moment interlocked with the others, while executing elaborate dance steps. Clearly a more economical way could have been found to play the same music.

To an outsider, this may look like a primitive version of the modern symphony orchestra. But there are very important differences. Firstly, in the panpipe ensemble, each player is as important as the other, each part is different from the other, there is no “doubling”, there are no 1st, 2nd, or 3rd pipes, there are no hierarchies. The music stresses the role of the individual within the group and the need for working closely together if everything is not to fall apart.

Some chamber music approaches this ideal, particularly in pre-Classical music, but modern musical practice is dominated by Romantic concepts inherited from the nineteenth century. We as Westerners admire much more the man who can do the work of ten men, than ten men working as one. The cult of the virtuoso flowered in the Romantic concerto where the soloist pits himself against the whole orchestra and, of course, wins. This is still the most popular genre in “serious” music. And this Faust figure dominates wherever you look – the pop star/multi-millionaire, for example: who does not stand in awe of Michael Jackson’s wealth, if not his musical ability? Quite different from traditional African societies where a desire for personal wealth is frowned upon as a sign of weakness of character!

Westerners admire uniqueness and individualism, which dominates the whole, not which serves it. Try to find an orchestral musician who is content to play only one pitch in a piece even if he is the only one allowed to play that note.

An African sense of uniqueness/individualism/differentiation seems to run through all aspects of music making:

Certain pieces of music may only be performed by certain members of the society, with distinctions made between different ranks, ages and sexes. Many performers play their own music. Some Zulu guitarists I have spoken to found the idea of playing someone else’s music hilarious. No Zulu tribe or regiment would sing the anthem (iHubo) of another. Each Zulu child has his own lullaby composed for him by his mother before he is born.

Similarly, there is a highly personal approach to instruments and instrument building. Instruments are often given a name and are individually decorated. Western ignorance assumes a lack of standardisation is a sign of lack of technical expertise. The Mbira dza Vadzimu, for example (often revealingly called the “thumb piano”) is a highly developed, precisely constructed and tuned virtuoso instrument, whose origins go back further than the piano. Each instrument is directly associated with its owner’s ancestors. As with most instruments of this kind, rattles are attached to it, and it is played wedged into a calabash resonator. This serves not only to amplify the instrument, but also to give it a very individual sound. Furthermore, it leads to an irregularity within the tone colour of the instrument itself – different rattles vibrate in sympathy with different pitches and intervals and give each a unique voice. This is a highly sought after quality, not a virtue made of necessity. The tuning system is not standardised, but it is also not random. One player can often identify where another comes from by the tuning of his instrument.

By way of contrast, western music has a standard repertoire of “masterworks”, available to anyone able to play them. They have been written increasingly (over the last century and a half or so) for standardised ensembles of standardised instruments, playing in a standardised tuning system (equal temperament – which has eliminated the irregularities in tuning of different keys) at standard pitch. This has not always been the state of affairs – over the last century and a half or so this tendency has been gaining momentum – and it is certainly not because a state of perfection has been reached. This is the result of a desire for universalism, combined with increasing industrialisation.

This has coloured Western thinking even as far as details of tone-colour, performance technique and instrument building. Contemporary musical praxis is very concerned with “ironing out” all unevenesses. If a piano does not have a perfectly regular tone in all registers, the pianist will try to compensate or demand a new instrument. After all, he has spent years eliminating any individual idiosyncrasies in his fingers. Woe the opera singer who can not make an imperceptible transition from chest to head voice and produce a smooth rounded tone in all registers. In folk music around the world a nasal vocal technique is often favoured which tends to bring out the individual physical characteristics of the singer. Already some years ago Roland Barthes bemoaned the disappearance of what he called “the grain in the voice” of Western artsong. In recent years, the recording industry has been taking an increasing toll: mention “touch” to a young pianist in Europe today and one has the impression he or she can hardly suppress a smile. Brilliance takes all – the recording engineer takes care of the rest. The ideal is an objectified, a reified sound, which transcends, even negates the material source from which it springs. What began with Wagner’s search (in his orchestration) for a more flexible, expressive medium, by blurring and blending individual instrumental sound into a less tangible whole has begun to look like it will end in a nightmare of alienation.

The prime example of this desire for an objectified, disembodied sound must be the Berlin Philharmonic under von Karajan. What characterises their sound? Smoothness, breathiness. No “attack” – that delicate, yes, grainy moment when an instrument just begins to speak – the delight of connoisseurs. Von Karajan has banished catgut, horsehair and reed from his orchestra. When they go on tour, I am told, acoustic engineers are sent in advance to remove as far as possible any quirks in the concert halls they are to be playing in. The Berlin Philharmonic must always sound the same. For “individuality”, “trade mark” has been substituted.

So far one could perhaps ascribe the differences I have set out to those between the ancient and modern worlds. But there are others, which are perhaps more profound, and to understand them we have to look closer at musical practice.

What distinguished Western music from most others is the full integration of a precise notation in musical practice. Western classical music is unthinkable without notation. This is not true of all other developed musical cultures. Notation, like any other script, allows the development of a discursive logic, extended articulated forms and an analytical approach. But not only that – in the history of western music one finds an interesting phenomenon: what was originally intended as an aid to memory and a set of performance instructions becomes, at a certain point in its development, autonomous. Quite imperceptibly the musical score frees itself from its performance. Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” or perhaps the “Well-tempered Klavier”, for example, are suddenly in a very real sense, compositions on paper. Once this happens, there is no turning back – on paper, the development of musical ideas may move forward untrammeled and unbounded, leaving its audience far behind.

Music that comes from a purely aural tradition is conceived and perceived differently. African music is usually polyphonic and cyclic; that is, it consists basically of repeat patterns. This takes various forms. One of the simplest is a call and answer type of antiphony – one person calls, the other answers, More often the two phrases overlap each other in some way. In this way the cadential feeling at the end of each phrase is suspended and theoretically the piece could go on endlessly in these cycles. There is no concept of pause in the music.

Often the polyphony is very complex, and involves elaborate variation techniques, and when this is the case, African music presents little problem for the western listener. But when, as in the case of Zulu concertina music, the bare bones are presented stripped of elaboration and exoticism, the music appears tiresomely primitive. Why? Because we believe we understand the form of the music all too easily. It’s boring. No amount of elaboration or decoration will alter our opinion.

But there is a possibility that we do not perceive form in the same way that the artist does.

John Blacking, the renowned ethnomusicologist, in his research among the Venda, apparently found that the musicians were unable to isolate an individual pattern that they were repeating, nor appeared to be aware that there were periods of time in which patterns were recurring.

This appears absurd, but it depends on how you look at it. How baffling would we find someone asking us what section of water in a waterfall is being repeated? And do we normally regard walking as the repetition of a double movement, in which one foot is placed before the other? Pursuing this line of thought, can we say ten steps are really more boring than five? If this were so, we would vary the way we walked!

That this music was repetitive appeared to be one of its most obvious features. If we accept that this is a misconception on our part, how many other unconscious and false assumptions have we made about it?

A similar body of misconceptions may surround the visual arts. Zulu culture, for example, is dominated by round forms – round huts, round baskets, kraals, even a landscape of exceptionally rounded hills. Research among Zulu children has indicated that those growing up in this traditional environment appear to have a different perception of rectangles from those who are familiar with Western architecture. There is some difficulty in drawing parallel lines, and the subdivision of a two dimensional space, as in wall decoration is often irregular and asymmetrical.

How does one reconcile this with the symmetrical perfection of their basketry? The answer lies in the method of production – the basket is built up in a spiral – an additive process that demands a feeling for rhythm and organic growth. The symmetrical subdivision of a space demands a Euclidean, geometrical concept of space, and it is a subdivisive process. If we admire a painted cloth or wall for its subtle asymmetry, or its unusual sense of proportion, we may be imposing a set of aesthetic values on the work which are quite irrelevant to the artist. Perception per se may be culturally determined.

Similarly, the music I have described is additive – it has no concept of pauses, it is conceived of as a flowing, unbroken movement. It, too, is not to be listened to subdivisively. It is not measured in proportioned sections, as Western music is. This would mean that there is no feeling for what one would call “directed form” in the piece. Ultimately, this would mean that the music is regarded in much the same way as nature. One cannot find the singing of birds or the buzzing of insects “too long” or “too short”. One doesn’t get irritated with a river that maintains the same basic flowing pattern and refuses to flow in another direction.

This music demands that one drop one’s western expectations. One is concerned with the intensity of the moment – one either participates, or not.

Western art and music is conceived and perceived within a Euclidean sense of space and time, which involves abstracting both from reality. A great deal of African art and music appears to spring from a very different world view – one which resembles closely the philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s description of “mythical thought”, in which it is impossible to separate “place” from “content”. It’s a mode of thought in which an abstraction such as, say, a map of a village, could not be related to the concrete reality of the village itself. (The map is a piece of paper with marks on it, the village is a set of houses with roads, etc.). Similarly time is grasped in terms of events, and in images of life and death.

The kind of music I have been describing leads inevitably to an embodiment of life itself – here and now, whereas the tendencies of western music (and culture) over the last two centuries one could interpret as increasingly striving towards a transcendence of time and place.

Having said this, I would like to say immediately that I do not think these two almost opposed nodes of thought are irreconcilable. Nor should we adopt a hands off approach to foreign cultures. Art does not recognise dogmas or taboos and a great deal of what we think is great art is blatantly eclectic.

Picasso and Stravinsky are obvious examples. But what distinguishes them is their guiltlessness and their power to transform material, and above all their unbounded love of their subject. Guilt – the feeling that obliges one to try to fulfil certain overt or unconscious expectations – stunts passion, and produces stillborn art.

But clearly reconciliation must involve modification on both sides. I have not dealt with acculturated forms, like those of black urban culture, because in nearly all cases African culture has been adapted to meet Western demands. What White Africans need to do more urgently is find ways of modifying Western culture to adapt to and integrate with African culture. To take a simple example, adding an African “feel” or a Marabi beat to a pop song helps give it a sense of local identity, but its contribution to African culture is practically nil. If anything, it helps speed up the process of Westernisation of the Blacks – I don’t think it does much for the Africanisation of Whites. Perhaps I am asking too much, for to try to penetrate the spirit of African culture requires a profound leap of imagination. But young artists like Bronwen Findlay, Peter Schutz and the dancer Tossie van Tonder, amongst others, convince me that such a leap is possible.

From our privileged position in this country we can and must learn something of the spirit of traditional African culture – the exuberance, extravagance and unexpectedness; the sense of order and pattern – the need to make every part essential to the whole; the assurance, humility and lack of guilt that comes of a knowledge of one’s place and value in society. And it works both ways – is if these qualities are lacking in our society, it’s up to artists and musicians to re-invent them and foster them.

We are free, of course, to continue fostering those art forms and styles which we brought with us when we settled here. But culture is not an importable or tradable commodity. It is the intangible product of people living, working, playing and dying together. Artworks exemplify a culture at its most developed and subtle and gives external expression to its forms. They testify to a community’s aspirations, its perception of itself and of its place in the world. Like latter-day totems, artworks are intimately bound up with a community’s sense of identity.

Imported art, when severed from the cultural environment which produced it, is likely to atrophy. What is worse, a confusion of values seems to set in: prestige becomes confused with cultural achievement. Take our new opera houses, for example. To build an opera house before there is a flourishing opera company and an avid opera-loving public crying out for a bigger venue, is much the same as planning a township and moving people in. It never seems to work, however ideal it looks on paper, and compromises have to be made from the word go. R10, 000,000 less spent on the State Opera House (if we must have one) could have commissioned at least 100 operas from the world’s leading composers. In one swoop Pretoria could have been a cultural centre – the most important city in the world for opera, and the whole course of Western music would have been changed. Or, if R10, 000,000 had been spent on a concert hall in Bloemfontein and the rest of the money invested, the interest would have comfortably paid for a concert by the finest performers from anywhere, every night of the year. Clearly, the opera houses are not intended as centres of cultural achievement. They are monuments to culture. Until a policy is adopted of commissioning and producing new works in the genre, their function will be the same as the monument to the Afrikaans language: to represent cultural achievement, not contribute to it.