Traditional treasure trove

STAR TONIGHT April 28, 2005
Traditional treasure trove

By Charles de Olim

Appearances can be deceiving. Take Laurie Levine.

She strikes you as everything you’d not expect a person to be, who has written the first comprehensive reference book on South African traditional music. Young, white, female and without an academic background on her book’s subject, she’s the antithesis of the stuffy, bearded scholar or an impassioned, intellectual black Africanist, you’d expect.

Levine admits that because of this, she was not initially comfortable when Warren Lieberman, the co-founder of the Drum Cafe, first approached her.

“We expected that to come up when the book was first published. As it happens I am a white, 25-year-old female. But is it so important? As I started the research process, I began to see the subject matter like any other subject matter, as long as you approach something sensitively and carefully,” she says.

Lieberman’s brain child, The Drumcafé’s Traditional Music of South Africa was a natural extension of the Drum Cafe’s philosophy of promoting African culture, while preserving the known and uncovering our unknown heritage. It also filled a gap in the market where there’s a thirst for accessible information on traditional music.

Levine plays down the fact of the book’s uniqueness. “It is a collation of what is already out there – we weren’t breaking ground. We took the existing research that was usually only addressed at other academics and rewrote it, making it more accessible for the layperson. Luckily I had Professor Andrew Tracey (from the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown) to help me if I misconstrued any aspects of the rituals.”

A musician in her own right, this singer-songwriter believes that a shared love for music cuts across all boundaries and genres. This belief was also a driving factor in the book’s writing. In fact, this experience has shaped her own musical career: “After writing the book I feel like I need to move in another direction. I would like to incorporate some of these influences, take them from the paper and make them come alive. I am not losing my own identity but I’m incorporating my Western adult contemporary folk influences to that of my country. Before, I was so sheltered by the music I had heard all my life. I’m seeing things from a new perspective,” she reflects.

The writing process took close on two years. Daunted, she initially worked with Anthony Caplan who assisted with the research and set up an archive of rare musical recordings for the Drum Cafe, as well as compiling the 54-track CD that accompanies the book.

“It felt like we were covering so much. But I had to keep reminding myself that it was an overview,” she says. Her degrees in Drama, English Literature and Publishing Studies were also factors which guided her in compiling this vast subject.

“By standardising it in language groups there was enough information to thread it together, because of the variety within each group,” she says.

Levine found the San the most interesting. She attributes this to a large body of research available, as a result of the modern interest in trance dance and altered states of consciousness and their relevance for exploring alternative healing.

On the opposite end of the scale, she discovered very little on the rituals of the amaNdebele and the Batswana. Experts too appeared stumped by this anomaly. The author believes that either this is because the culture is not thriving or because there is little previous work to base their research on.

To make this collation of our musical heritage come alive, Levine is planning to promote it with talks and live performances.

* The Drumcafé’s Traditional Music of South Africa is published by Jacana and is available nationwide for R220.