Native Music Research Tour of Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland >

Music as Social Action in Southern Africa

On a native music research trip to southern Africa in 2005, I encountered the deeply contextualized role of music there. The integration of music into politics, social action, economic development and other aspects of daily life in southern Africa contrasts with its compartmentalization in the West where musical performance is increasingly delegated to specialists (professionals, the “talented,”…). 

Through interviewing musicians, attending performances, and visiting arts centers and libraries, I noted the exuberant exchange of musical ideas across different ethnic and international boundaries. As cultural syncretism continues, there is and will be an inevitable loss of “purity” in traditional music.
While some native traditions are becoming diluted by external influences, at the same time Africans’ consciousness of and respect for their native musical traditions is emerging hand-in-hand with post-colonial African identity.

The increasing self-consciousness among African musicians is leading to a new preoccupation with intellectual property rights and attribution of forms and productions long regarded as “traditional” and “anonymous.” Ultimately, this trend may lead to the Western-style commodification of African music. But in the meantime, music is still functioning in southern Africa as a robust vehicle of social cohesion.

This trip convinced me that non-Western arts such as the music of southern Africa have a place in the Western curriculum, but not simply in the traditional sense of classes taught in African music per se. The function of southern African music as a cultural nexus could serve as a model for interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary explorations incorporating non-Western arts with apparently unrelated subjects like science, religion, global studies, history, and economics. Introducing unfamiliar ideas into existing paradigms can emancipate new insights and lead to the discovery of novel interdisciplinary relationships. In southern Africa, I witnessed first-hand what Sir Ken Robinson observed: “Creativity often comes about by making unusual connections. …”
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