Considerations for the decolonisation of the related music types of Western and South African art music

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This article discusses the questioning of Western and South African art music that has taken place inside South Africa since the disbandment of legalised apartheid. More specifically, this discussion concerns a context where new and urgent ideas are being established that aim to move beyond a contemporaneous and continuing power imbalance among South Africa’s diverse cultures, thereby both challenging and displacing already established “new” South African ideologies such as reconciliation and transformation. The protest actions and violence on South African university campuses over the past two years – together with similar civil protest actions, including and since the Marikana massacre – have positioned newer, more probing ideas than reconciliation and transformation on the foreground, with the aim of finding solutions for the continuing structural inequalities that maintain any coherence in our society as cosmetic and superficial. My reference in this instance is to the ubiquitous #MustFall hashtags, but more specifically in the context of music education at universities and primary and high schools, also the so-called decolonisation of knowledge, social practices and living environments which so-called “woke” and sometimes militant activists require as a condition for social wellbeing.

With a question as to what decolonisation means for the related music types of Western and South African art music, this article examines a public discourse in which these two music types have already long been accused of Eurocentrism, or have otherwise been defended against that line of questioning in a crisis literature. Consequently, the historical and present-day positions of Western and South African art music inside the academy and society are considered, with the aim of determining to what degree these two music types and their teaching traditions can participate or not participate, in a non-hegemonic manner, in the establishment and maintenance of a decolonised music knowledge and music world.

In developing a reciprocal connection between music and society, the article makes reference to the paradigms of the British ethnomusicologist John Blacking and the South African musicologist Klaus Heimes. Holding to the axiomatic conviction of such a reciprocal connection, I maintain that where a society like the “new” South Africa is continually coming undone or falling to pieces, music and music education can make a contribution to halting and undoing such developments. Nevertheless, I argue that this music-making and education needs to be culturally sensitive, and that colonial models of music uplift work against the aims of decolonisation as an avenue towards social wellbeing.

This leads into a discussion of the colonial legacies of Western art music and South African art music. An inquiry is made into the colonial legacy of Western art music, internationally and in South Africa, with the aim of ascertaining to what degree this imported music type can be regarded as strange or familiar in a South African context. Reference is made to ideas of the South African musicologist Christopher Ballantine concerning the typical colonial nature of university music departments in South Africa. Although Ballantine’s writing in this instance was published more than three decades ago, it is discussed as remarkable that he already predicted for the 1980s a type of social and academic revolution that is similar to the current #MustFall activism and decolonisation debates. Although some of the changes Ballantine predicted in the 1980s occurred, many of his predictions read as being three decades too early within the current socio-political context. Thus reference is made to various contemporary discussions and acts of activism that aim to force the decolonisation discussion on to the agendas of university music departments. The article then focuses on a reading of the exiled South African musician Jan Buis, who already foresaw in the early 1990s how this type of activism against especially Western art music would call its very survival into question.

After my discussion of Buis’s ideas I give an overview of the crisis literature that has tried to defend Western and South African art music against accusations of Eurocentricity over the past three decades. These accusations amount to a questioning of especially Western art music, on account of how its diverse genres were originally imported from places in Europe, something that necessarily links Western art music’s foreign origins with the European origins of South Africa’s historical white settler communities. An important example of such crisis literature is located in a publication by the composer and music pedagogue Henk Temmingh’s writings for the journal South African Music Teacher. In this article it is shown how Temmingh’s intellectual strategy is to defend Western art music by simply considering it as better than other music types, and by universalising its relevance to mankind. My argument then is that any universal outlook on the relevance of specifically Western art music is incompatible with any attempts towards decolonisation, and that this music cannot shed its Eurocentricity without being defended against extinction long before it has undergone any kind of metamorphosis towards decolonisation. I argue that any hope for art music to decolonise in South Africa necessarily relies on the related music type of South African art music, and not on the Eurocentric mother culture’s Western art music. With this in mind I turn to a discussion of the American musicologist Richard Taruskin’s ideas about music and nationalism, which is then linked in the following section of the article with Frantz Fanon’s ideas about national culture.

Special focus is given to Taruskin’s idea that Western art music constitutes a form of musical colonialism that encourages the creation of ersatz national art music styles. To explain this, he makes special reference to Dvořak’s Ninth Symphony, which presents American composers with an example of how to achieve an American compositional school and American art music style. This would involve subjecting indigenous music (e.g. “American Indian” music or “Negro” spirituals) to treatment in the fashion of Western art music, which is itself an unmarked or universal mother tongue. Taruskin consequently considers Western art music and the 19th-century conservatories that propagated this music type throughout the world as colonial. Their aim, he argues, is to universalise the Germanic mother culture’s music while simultaneously encouraging non-universal or national styles of art music in other countries. In a local context this would require South African composers to unlock the themes and motives of native folk music or African music into a South African art music style. Taruskin maintains that this type of nationalism undermines the creative freedom of composers and sees it as a straightjacket to be avoided as much as other types of political nationalism. He instead makes use of the ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s argument that people and their musical cultures have become idiolectic by nature.

This leads me into a discussion of the Martinique psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s writings on national culture in his 1963 book The wretched of the earth. I construct a question around Fanonian decolonisation’s preoccupation with the national, while bearing in mind Taruskin’s criticism of any compositional style that aims to be national. In analysing Fanon’s ideas, I am particularly drawn to his suggestion that decolonial intelligentsia should bring an archaeological approach to bear on precolonial culture, and thus shore it up – post-colony – into something national. Ultimately, I argue against Taruskin’s dislike of the national and its concomitant slide into nationalism, with an idea that decolonisers may want to rediscover the colonially obliterated national aspects in their own cultures before embracing idiolects. This argument is then applied to the position of South African composers and South African art music, with a question and discussion as to whether decolonial art music composition in South Africa should be re-creatively national or rather idiolectic by nature. My view leans towards the kind of pluralism that can embrace both the national and the idiolectic. The search in this instance is for a broader and more wide-ranging definition of South African art music, but also for avenues for South African art music’s participation in the current social project of decolonisation.

Keywords: colonialism; decolonisation; Eurocentricity; Fanon, Frantz; idiolects; national culture; nationalism; South African art music; Taruskin, Richard; wellbeing; Western art music

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Oorwegings vir die dekolonisering van die verwante musieksoorte van Westerse en Suid-Afrikaanse kunsmusiek

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