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Notes on the Music by Ari Sitas

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Chimurenga is about to publish my reflections on music.

It is being called Music Notebook and I am thrilled that Ntone Edjabe has taken my musings seriously. He and Graeme Arendse have done so much in promoting Africa’s serious musicality.

I am sure they will produce the book with care and send it off to the printers with great trimmings. The book in the final instance can help as a guide as to what we tried to do in the last decade. The “we” I am referring to is the Insurrections Ensemble and its AfroAsian offspring! Its pages trace how, from a chance encounter with Sumangala Damodaran in Delhi around politics and song, we ended up carting giraffes across the AfroAsianseas to a China of 1414.

How does this work link to my idiosyncratic readings of John Coltrane, Sazi Dlamini’s reading of the Blue Notes and his critique of DuBois, of Zimology, or how they all meet and clash with Tagore and India’s liberation archive? I gave it a try and time will tell. Hopefully, it is all there, ghosts and chancing quips! Many people have listened to the music and witnessed the pluri-medial shows we have concocted. We boasted that we are serious and thinking creators, so the book captures my thinking. It is not only about what Sumangala has called the “radical impulse”, there is some method in the madness.

I am deeply thankful for the privilege to have worked with such creative writers, composers and musicians. I am paging through Vivek Narayanan’s After, a 700 page-or-so of a re-work of Ramayana. Yes, the same guy who puts down lyrics on throwing stones and riots since 2010 and without warning evokes goddesses like Aranyani. And on the music side, I do not think that you can find better exponents on the instruments that we have used. Ahsan Ali, Pritam Ghosal, Tlale Makhene, Brydon Bolton. Whether it is the sarangi or the Nguni bow, or the guitar and the sarod. In the last project, Giraffe Humming, we also learnt a lot from Ehru and Guzheng maestri from China. What Reza Khota and Sazi Dlamini can do on guitars can get them arrested. It is quite spectacular.

Despite the Ensemble having such musical monsters on its platform, its primary task was and is to create landscapes for songs. Somehow the lyrics in English, isiZulu, siSwati, Swahili, Hindi and Malayalam, or even if it were Crow-language, have to be served well. We have moved away from the South Africa-meets-India origins of the group to encompass Amharic, Swahili and Mandarin. We are stretching the project out slowly on South-to-South pathways, because encounters need their time. Due to European hegemony the distance between traditions had increased since the 17th Century. We had to go back in time when music moved from Baghdad to Vladivostok, from Beijing to Malindi. We had to dig below the bridges Orientalists constructed and re-assess their work.

I keep telling myself- all the elements are here and there to be regathered- what Max Weber called dismissively the Non-West’s “random agglomeration of semi-tones”. We needed to construct ways to what Lorca called the “Dark Song” at the heart of all laments. We know too well that the West’s serious music renewed itself by borrowing elements from our Souths: Messiaen, Cage, Xenakis, Ligeti and even Boulez, sampled such soundscapes to good intent. Good for them. But that should not be our task. Our craft should move away from being useful for samples. Moving away too from being “sampleable” or being (to use a Greek word) “digmata” for a Western conception of World Music.

We do not have to “sample” ragas, we have to work through them and try and find bridges between heptatonic and pentatonic scales. We have to study Yared’s hymnody and Ngoma variations, and how they morphed when they crossed seas towards Russia or India. Here Jazz has been a more generous inspiration, but we have to read it “upside down” – how Coltrane, Mingus, Taylor and the Music Liberation Orchestra were read with local lenses and listened to with local ears. How Ngozi and Moholo-Moholo for example, worked with the canon. There was a point in jazz’s evolution after Bebop when jazz opened up its windows to Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Despite scripting for our first album, “from Johnny Dyani to Commandante Hani/an era ends/since then it’s Money…Money…Money…Money”, I have to confess that there are fresh winds blowing through South African jazz. I appreciate the ambition in Mlangeni’s or Mohorosi’s recent work, but let me stop there; there are too many maestri on the go and I am scared I will not pay tribute to all of them. I am more than convinced there is a posse here completing what the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath had left unfinished.

Finally, I have to make a point about class struggle in music, because I am supposed to make such points! Of course, the South African side of the Ensemble is in awe of black working-class creativity. We explored what was possible at the beginning of 2023. Our, 1973 – The Story of a Strike was a serious excavation of Durban’s 1970 musicality! We reworked how all that music related to the upsurge of strikes during February 1973. Apparently our maskanda and jazzy riffs rocked! The album will be out soonest. We are now exploring issues of race, caste, religion and class in our Must Gandhi Fall? The Radical Impulse has not left us, and we still understand how we moved from Zol to Fokkol!

Yet class struggle in music gets deeper than mere content, it digs even deeper without words: it is about breaking down barriers between elite, upper class and upper-caste and popular figurations. It is also about respecting and preserving the craft of the maestri: yes, the people who produce aesthetic values (beyond use and exchange values). To be maestri involves blood, sweat and tears, and deep discipline and training. They do work their scales fourteen to eighteen hours a day! Their infatuation with sound is beyond receiving a decent wage.

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1 Comment

Exciting to see Ntone Edjabe and Graeme Arendse embracing the depth of Africa's musical landscape through the Music Notebook project. Ari Sitas' reflections undoubtedly add rich insights into the vibrant tapestry of African music, highlighting its diversity, significance, and profound cultural impact. Popularize your songs by buying 1 million spotify plays here:

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