Black Music Memorialised
Percy Mabandu comes to terms with the complex subject and curatorial achievement of a new audiovisual exhibition
To paraphrase Zegeye Abebe, where memory is contested, the act of publishing can mark and validate identities and opinions of voices that were once denied a hearing.
I remembered these words by the Ethiopian-born scholar during my labyrinthine walk through The International Exhibition of Black Music. It’s currently on at Museum Africa in Newtown, Joburg.
Though Abebe was more concerned with literature as a carrier of history, his ideas became a fitting accompaniment to my reflection on the show’s intentions and what it actually achieves.
I contend that Mondomix, the French-based production house that curated the exhibition, are publishers too in Abebe’s sense. They’ve put together a watershed document in black cultural history.
The works on show are presented digitally and audiovisually.
Visitors are given headsets and individual digital devices to access the interactive video documentaries as they enter the gallery.
This means the featured musicians generally speak for themselves and the visitors get to control the basic narrative flow.
For instance, in the first room, called Legends of Black Music, there’s a selection of monitors that project stories of pivotal personalities in the history of the music.
From Fela Kuti’s journey towards creating Afro-beat and Miles Davis’ multiple contributions to the shaping of jazz, to Miriam Makeba’s musical crusades for justice.
There are, of course, the curatorial power politics of editing and selection to contend with, though they don’t get in the way of the exhibition’s viability.
The other showrooms include The Birth Of The Black Atlantic, a representation of the transition into slavery and its implications for music.
It’s an eerie, haunted corridor that captures the uncertainty of the middle passage, at least within the limits of a gallery space.
There’s also Sacred Rights And Rhythms, which looks at the centrality of spirituality and trance in black music.
There’s a central theme that comes through the collected stories.
It’s the sense of perpetual movement and multiple reinventions that have defined the black world throughout history.
This, as a resistance against colonial restrictions, both physical and spiritual.
The results are creative cross-pollinations that artists have breathed into their art from the beginning.
Let’s call this a “Creolisation”, a mixing of idioms.
It’s evident in maloya music, which originated from African slaves on Réunion island.
The genre is represented here through the story of Danyel Waro, the man who put it on the global stage.
Maloya shares this inimitable mingling of gospel, soul and work songs with reggae music.
This creates a connection between the sugar plantations of Jamaica and those of the French slave colonies on the Indian Ocean.
So the exhibition becomes an audiovisual answer to that grand question: How did black people, oppressed, devalued and dehumanised, improvise methods of self-representation?
How did they, taking stock of their interrupted history, approach their unfolding uncertainties with a hopeful creative resolve?
Whatever it is they fashioned, as Michael Titlestad notes in his book Making the Changes, “eschews the collection, the museum, the catalogue and the register in favour of appropriation and constant reworking”.
It is a fluid alternative to establishment’s investment in stability and immobility of the oppressed.
As Titlestad elaborates further in the book: “(The oppression) project is discernible and audible in the succession of naming and classification to which the colonised are subjected.”
The music then is evidence of black people’s resilient insistence on self-representation as a will to power and to memorial dignity.
Think of Sophiatown residents singing “Meadowlands, Meadowlands” as they defied forced removals during apartheid.
It’s like Houston Baker says of the blues: they are a matrix of understanding black life.
This refers to the blues by any other name, as demonstrated by this exhibition, from maninka music of Mali to kiba or dinaka of BaPedi.
So black music as a matrix is a point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, criss-crossing impulses, always in productive transit.
Baker’s matrix resists definitions of rigidly personalised forms, like that of European classical music. Black music generally offers a nonlinear, freely associative meditation of experience.
This is why the exhibition, consumed in a similarly loose way, captures the spirit of its subjects.
» The International Exhibition of Black Music is on at Museum Africa in Newtown, Joburg, until December 12. The exhibition is part of the France South Africa Season