Mail & Guardian, May 6 – May 12 2005

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC – Taking ownership of traditional African culture

By Malena Amusa

Appearances can be deceiving. Take Laurie Levine.

Laurie Levine is only 25, but already boasts the distinguished title of author of South Africa’s first comprehensive book on the traditional songs, ceremonies and instruments of South African tribes.

Her book, The Drum Cafe’s Traditional Music of South Africa, stands out in the list of 20 other books being celebrated in this year’s Homebru themed “Many stories One people”. This is because “the book itself is a work of art and it covers all the traditional instruments, and nothing has really been done along similar lines until now,” says Homebru coordinator Daniel Rabinowitz.

But aside from the first-ever status of her book, the process of creating this book in conjunction with the Drum Cafe project symbolises a trend of white musicians taking ownership of traditional African culture and considering themselves part of the people, not just third-person narrators of African culture.

“A lot of people find it ironic that I’m a young white female writing about black culture,” says Levine. “At the end of the day, if we can’t see beyond that [colour] at this point, then where have we come?”

Recently, the Mail & Guardian’s John Matshikiza criticized Levine, saying she and Drum Cafe tell white people: “Bang on your drum and you can forget about feeling guilty about being in Africa.” He was referring to Levine’s performance as an instructor during a showing of Drumstruck, an interactive showcase where audience members get to play the djembe drum along with the ensemble.

Matshikiza further argued that taking ownership of African drum music is akin to colonizing the African land – in both instances, a white minority capitalises on the works of black people.

The Drum Cafe’s founder and director of Drumstruck, Warren Lieberman, says he understands the criticism. But he maintains that the book, and Drumcafe’s aim to unite people through drumming, transcends the politics of who owns the right to showcase African music.

“Drumming has united a lot of cultures in South Africa through music,” Lieberman says. “When playing a drum in the audience, you don’t feel any different from anyone around you, it should not be something that breaks people apart, it’s a unifying force.”
But where Drum Cafe’s Drumstruck might tread on the lines of sharing and exploitation, the book really doesn’t. It doesn’t do many things a sceptical reader would suspect.

The book doesn’t try and claim to be a saviour of South African music, having resurrected hundreds of archives on traditional sounds and ceremonies of South African people (because it legitimately could). Nor does it imply that traditional African music, by the mere fact of being traditional, has been phased out in some broader evolution of music and now needs a hero to rescue it from the past.

Rather, the book champions a we-are-all-people-so-let’s-share-idealism, most evident in the book’s introduction, which states: “Music, by its very nature, nurtures the idea of ngumuntu [a Xhosa concept meaning sharing and collectivity]”.

While it’s all about the music, the book refreshingly avoids contemporary issues of race and brings to the surface more topical debates on the use of the terms “traditional versus modern” and “on the merits of ethnic classifications” because the book is broken up into chapters based on language groups.

Eleven chapters are dedicated to South African tribes, with the most in-depth chapter discussing Zulu ceremonies and history.

Because of the history, the book at times reads like a piece of academia as it summarises events shaping the music of the tribes. But reading the book, one can tell Laurie spent late nights contextualizing the significance of each instrument (and she did), and so the book gains a sense of depth and integrity.

“The purpose of the history is for when tourists buy the book, they need context to know who the people are. For example, the Zulu history is steeped in war and this comes through in their music. Readers won’t know that unless they know the history,” says Levine.

In addition to this, the 286-page book features many black-and-white and full-colour photographs of tribal ceremonies. It also includes a CD with 54 sound bites of traditional sounds and songs. The CD is made to be played as the reader ventures into the book and journeys to the land of many different tribes.

Whether you are a music lover or not this book is good to keep around the house or classroom and can satisfy the National Geographic explorer in us all. Most importantly, reading the book reminds us, like it did Levine, that it’s really all about the music and learning about it is the only means of preserving it.