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African music has caused much debate and confusion amongst scholars. What is African music? How do you define it? What makes it different from other kinds of music? It is certainly not confined to those CDs sold as ‘World Music’ in local music stores, nor does it consist solely of non-diatonic chants and drumming. One of the most pertinent questions of all, however, is whether the West should be more exposed to the diversity of African music?
These debates seem to leave the makers of this music unfazed. Situated at the tip of Africa, South Africa continues to make unique music, music that entertains both locals and foreigners. Its more popular genres can be heard all over the world, yet the ‘traditional’ sounds of South Africa remain untouched by the global market.
House music is quickly growing into South Africa’s most popular and most distinctive sound. It features the addictive, relentless beat of any good house music, yet South African house has a distinctive South African flavor to it. This flavor is created through various means – at times it is the obvious kwaito influence or the use of more traditional African instruments; and at other times the use of South African languages or incorporation of lyrics, political ideas and even humor unique to South Africa.
A good idea of South African house is found in the mixes of DJ Fresh, a pioneer of the style; and that of Aphreme Octave Moods, admired for his ability to create fresh musical atmospheres. South African house and its influences can be heard in dance clubs and other venues all over the world. This exposure does not seem to have been detrimental to this music, however. The genre has not increased its accessibility to Western audiences in order to gain a greater following, but has remained true to its distinctive ‘South African-ness’.
Nevertheless, in comparison to the more traditional side of South African music, house music seems to be more accessible to non-South Africans. This could be due to strong similarities between South African house and other international dialects of the genre. The rich and diverse tradition of music and music-making in the rural communities of the country is often overlooked by the international audience.
The diversity of this music promises much entertainment to a wide variety of listeners. Each area and tribe within South Africa has its own way of making music – even the instruments and style of singing differ remarkably between various groups. Thus a lack of exposure to these traditional forms of music can deprive many curious audiences of a rich and unique musical tradition.
From the colorful minstrel groups of the Cape to the sound of gumboot dancing and traditional Zulu songs, this variety of music has its own history and blend of sounds, different from any other music out there. Some of it remains untouched by external influences such as colonization. This music’s isolation from the world at large may be beneficial to its makers, then – the world cannot intrude on the purity of this music. Yet the pros and cons of such a situation are debatable.
There have been developments to record and share this traditional music with others. One major initiative is the International Library of African Music (ILAM), founded by Hugh Tracey in the twentieth century. Establishing this project was not an easy feat, as the lack of mass appeal and commercial value of African music made funding possibilities for Tracey’s project very scarce. Yet this initiative found generous support in the time and donations of prominent figures in the South African music scene, such as Eric Gallo and Dr Winifred Hoernle.
A handful of record companies are now also recording and distributing more traditional styles of South African music. The Putumayo collection has been helpful in the distribution of a variety of African styles. One start-up company, which goes by the name of Thukela Records, is recording music from rural areas in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, for distribution to tourists and visitors.
The Managing Director of this company, however, is of the opinion that African traditional music, having not been intended for the international market, or any market beyond its own community, will not necessarily benefit from a more global audience. The music is not intended for exposure to the capitalist market, and as such can enjoy the benefit of independence from that market. The West, on the other hand, would benefit from learning more about the variety of musics and cultures found in Africa. The distribution of African music can thus be argued to be solely for the benefit of a Western audience.
The internet has been a great source of exposure for African music. A blog known as the Pan African Space Station (PASS) is one such example. It showcases a wide variety of music from all over Africa, placing great emphasis on the more experimental genres and musicians. One of PASS’s main intentions is to make the global audience more aware of the diversity in African music, offering the listener a glimpse into the ‘real’ world of African music. PASS definitely exposes this music to a greater audience – an audience that it might not have received otherwise.
The more an audience is exposed to a foreign musical style, the more accessible this style will become to the audience. In order for a greater variety of South African music to reach a global audience, more initiatives and projects like these are necessary. The question remains as to whether this traditional music’s isolation is something to be supported or questioned, yet the world could truly benefit from greater access to the South African musical realm.