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Black Melting Pot:
Sounds of the City in South Africa

South Africa's Black City Music and Theatre
by David B. Coplan

There is no more fascinating test case in the politics of culture than South Africa. Torn but not yet destroyed by an internationally disparaged system, South Africa tolerates considerable freedom of expression for a police state. Tl convince local liberals they live in a democracy and prevent harsh words from turning into meaningful action among civil liberties fetishists the world over, the regime customarily (although not consistently, since a dose of governmental caprice keeps troublemakers looking over their shoulders) averts its gaze from Marxist scholarship, underground perodicals, experimental drama, and the like. Why ban works outright if you control work permits, travel permits, assembly permits, and the airwaves? When selecting circuses to go with the black majority's bread, however, Pretoria is less devil-may-care--anything deemed likely to reach a large black audience inspires paranoid scrutiny. Forbidden is any piece of pop culture that might stir up the natives' unfortunate propensity for sex and violence, or focus their attention on African politics, or plant the seed of animosity against those who happen to have white skin. At the same time, Pretoria encourages art that fosters the right kind of black pride--especially tribal pride, which by definition accentuates the differences between Africans and reinforces their suspicion that cities are the white man's foolishness.

Has Pretoria hit upon an effective compromise between a repression it can't afford politically or economically and the freedom its lip service insults? Is its censorship policy another half-measure under duress that can only delay the inevitable? Is the object of its scrutiny all superstructure, pretty much irrelevant to the substance of the apartheid struggle? The unavoidability of such questions compels anyone who writes about South African culture to take sides--not merely to oppose apartheid, but to try and understand the historical shape of this battle of form, content, style, and syncretic innovation, and to make tactical judgments about its future.

This is a big responsibility for a white American scholar who arrived at his speciality almost by accident. In 1975, David B. Coplan was studying West African drumming while acquiring a master's in anthropology from the University of Ghana when an acquaintance asked him to research a film on South African music. Soon he was hooked, pursuing his graduate work at the University of witwatersrand in Johannesburg and also appearing part-time with the black-consciousness band Malombo. Waiting to drive some musicians home to Soweto without the proper permit one night, he was stopped by police and detained, as they say, for three weeks; though eventually he was permitted to return to school, his residence permit wasn't renewed. So he spent the next year in the border states (and with exiles in London) continuing to research his Ph.D. thesis, which he rewrote as In Township Tonight!, a "history of South Africa's black city music and theatre." His next book will examine black goldminers' music in Lesotho.

Trained as an anthropologist, Coplan works with real historiographical sophistication, adding th extensive interviews such primary sources as police blotters and colonial records as well as the published reports of anyone who's been there, from black newspapermen to European memoirists. He owes his grounding in these methods to such South African labor specialists as Charles van Onselen and Shula Marks rather than any school of journalistic narrative or cultural history. Yet he writes with a lively sense of detail, and he's mastered the journalists's trick of recapitulating received facts in a way that will neither confuse the ignorant nor bore the knowledgeable, couched as it is in a fresh, clear contextual framework, in this case that of black cultural history. And he writes as a musician who's disinclined to reduce the significance of a performance to its ostensible ideology. He thinks good art is good for people, and while he worries that apartheid's hegemony will cut into black South Africans' creative capacity, his instinct is to trust the people. For 50 years Pretoria's foes have found in this mongrel-to-hybrid world of postfolk performance very much what the oppressors found: inferiority feelings, imitation, frivolity, decadence, escape. Coplan finds Africans thrust into a new situation and defining their own prerogatives within it.

As a result, the chief fascination of In Township Tonight! isn't political--it's artistic, or rather cultural. By filling in just enough economic and political background, Coplan helps the novice see what an amazing place South Africa is. With its temperate climate, long colonization, extensive development, and complex juxtaposition of tribes and immigrant groups, it's unique in sub-Saharan Africa, as much like the U.S. as it is like Ghana. Demographically, it's a basically biracial melting pot, with blacks having the numbers but never the power of America's whites, while "coloureds" and Indians assume minority roles like Hispanics and Asians here. Despite the Dutch influence, its Anglo-African mix recalls both the British West Indies and the American South--with continuous, immediate African input. On top of this, South Africa is a living challenge to elitist aesthetics. Even at their most well-meaning, the colonizers' efforts to civilize blacks with respectable European culture only serve to emphasize the depth and necessity of the popular syntheses forever welling up in the locations and townships--syntheses that seized upon Afrikaner folk music dismissed by Boer-baiting English do-gooders and imperialists, or discerned the higher civilization of American Negro spirituals and jazz, or put into practice a spontaneous pan-Africanism. And the African culture in the broad anthropological sense, as the sum of human creation, rather than sticking to the arts per se.

Far from stodgy, Coplan's story avoids knee-jerk populism as well: even though some of its most exciting moments are devoted to convivial working-class institutions like the stokfel and the shebeen, genteel mission-school Africans with arty pretensions play almost as heroic a role as rude proletarians. What's more, Coplan reports that many of the prime movers of South African city music (not theater, but for Coplan music is paramount even there) fit neither social category: as in so many other places, they're drifters and hustlers of marginally criminal tendency, their tribal identity muddled by some admixture of racist exploitation and personal quirk. Coplan certainly doesn't evade issues of class--in fact, he's exceptionally sensitive to them. But he's convinced that everything else in South Africa is swallowed up by race--and that thus the black middle class is betrayed into something very much like poverty by whites who groom uppity kaffirs as a buffer against the hordes below only to cut them loose when a particular crisis stabilizes. He's also enough of an aesthete to understand that class analysis in itself rarely does justice to the vagaries of form and style that define particular musical or theatrical pieces, much less the vagaries of context, motive, use, and insight that inform particular acts of appreciation.

Ever sine the first Dutch colonists reached Cape Town in 1652, a nonwhite underclass has performed and adapted the masters' music. Though Xhosa, Zulu, Tawana, and Sotho migrants as well as West African slaves have long been part of Cape life, the natives of the region were nomadic, brown-skinned Khoi-khoi, and most of the imported slaves were Malays who added their own melismatic cadences to the Euro-Khoi music that inevitably evolved. As the Boers trekked north and east after the British seized the Cape in the early 19th century, Bantu-speaking blacks were introduced to this music on hybrid instruments. By the time diamonds were found inland around Kimberley in 1867, the styles of coloured entertainers were ripe for further Africanization by musicians among the black "dressed people" or abaphakathi (Zulu: "those in the middle"), who rejected both middle-class Christianity and tribal traditions. The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886 assured South Africa's wealth and urbanization, and after the Boer War ended in 1902 black dispersion from rural areas and mission settlements went into full swing.

By then such trade-store instruments as guitar, concertina, harmonica, and violin were so thoroughly integrated into tribal music that they were shunned by urban African Christians. American minstrels had inspired the coloured Cape Coon Carnival, which still exists, as well as a middle-class African Native Choir milked for local and international profits by white impressarios. Zulu clan rivalries were spurring men without women to unprecedented heights in institutionalized miners' dance competitions previously dominated by Mozambicans. The Durban parades of a secret society of urban Zulus called the Ninevites made prominent use of harmonica, which never caught on like the penny whistle favored by the Ninevites' successors, the young Johannesburg outlaws known as the Amalaita. And none of this is even to mention the influx of European folk and popular styles, or the missionary-taught tonic sol-fa notation mastered most conspicuously by the Xhosas, or the Afrikaner usages toward which uneducated African musicians gravitated. South Africa was already host to a musical culture of unchartable complexity.

What Coplan posits as the underlying theme or goal of this culture is an old favorite of writers with a weakness for dance music, race mixing, and the great narrative of human progress: urbanization. The complication is that South Africa is a society which for almost four decades has been organized to keep blacks away from its cities. By stifling community life in the townships and making it onerous if not illegal for blacks to travel to and within urban areas, Pretoria deliberately exacerbates the apprehension city life always arouses in recent arrivals; by segregating not only races but, when possible, tribes, it stanches the diversity that is the city's fundamental educational opportunity. It's hard to say just what urbanization means in such a place. Is the "homeland" black who schemes for a Jo'burg work permit truly rural? Is an mbaqanga show satirizing the pretensions of neourban blacks legitimate expression or tribalist propaganda? Do black playwrights' unflattering depictions of the black underworld serve the state or help define black pride? All that's certain is that apartheid's victims have been impelled to forge rural-urban syntheses that could have unanticipated uses in a world where the conflicts of urbanization are rarely resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. And though these syntheses are often cultural in the anthropological rather than aesthetic sense, the African integration of art and everyday life soon comes to bear on them.

An example is the speakeasies that the Irish cops of Cape Town christened with the Gaelic word shebeen Since "in traditional Southern African societies, beer is an economic and social currency as well as a nourishing food," the African women of Capt Town and Johannesburg were quick to transform their slumyard quarters into bars for municipal and domestic workers, joined on weekends by miners in for a blowout. By the '20s, amateur music-making in these illegal drinking houses had given way to the wedding, courting, and walking songs of semiprofessional Zulu abaqhafi musicians, who frequently dressed in cowboy garb copied from the movies, and Mozambican Shangaans playing Portuguese guitar music. A somewhat more respectable variant was the stokfel, in which five or six women banded together in mutual assistance associations inspired by both the Southern African pastoral tradition of beer-drinking cooperative work parties, and, it would appear, the rotating English "stock-fairs" of the Eastern Cape. In these credit rings, which began with the Cape Town Xhosas and were developed in Johannesburg mostly by northern Tawanas, women would take turns collecting payments and then use the capital to finance what amounted to rent parties. "If a woman contributed liberally to the club and her husband spent freely at parties, they became popular and did well when she held her own party. Such participation built prestige and a reputation for generosity, reliability, and community-mindedness. Club hostesses added music, making it more profitable and entertaining through the bidding custom."

During the '20s, all of this activity coalesced into marabi. Marabi was a musical style--which went almost unrecorded, Coplan believes, more out of ignorance than snobbery--that offered something for every Johannesburg black: tyickey draai, a coloured Afrikaner ricky-tick guitar style; tula n'divile, Xhosa music converted to Western keyboards; Zulu melodies; pantribal polyphony; a ceaseless rhythm derived from ragtime and Nguni wedding celebrations. But as with rock and roll, its musical boundaries were far-flung, and it wasn't just music, it was a subculture--the dances and parties where it was played were also called marabi, as were the dancers, and how can you tell the marabi from the marabi? The white elements in the synthesis signified no interest in white notions of respectability or moral uplift--on the contrary, marabi articulated a defiantly African cultural outlook determined to adapt old ways to the hard options of city life, and middle-class Africans, Coplan tells us, "did what they could to stifle" it. One response was the attempt to cultivate a "Bantu National Music" at annual festivals called Eisteddfodaus (as it happens, the term is Welsh rather than Afrikaans), where educated blacks made personal and organizational contacts and developed political strategy. Another was black music criticism as lively, committed, and insightful as any of its white counterparts in England or America. Despite dissenters typified by one such critic, Musicus--who decried the "perversion" of "the remarkable syncopating rhythms to be found in the Native music of many races"--the African middle class gradually focused its musical attention on jazz, first abjectly imitative but then more and more distinctly South African in its accents.

Although he maintains a certain distance from makwaya, a hybrid of African hymnody and European artsong, Coplan recounts all this with fannish critical enthusiasm. Arguing that politically effective black consciousness must attune itself to both daily need and geopolitical reality--that it must combine the nitty-grit practicality of the stokfel with the theoretical reach of makwaya--he's unfazed by apparent cultural contradictions. Middle-class minstrelsy evolves into full-scale musical comedy with a large white audience, which in turn influences a style of black radical theater that puts tribal ritual in a township context. Though tsotsi (from "zoot suit") thugs come under regular attack in urban performance arts, they're major music patrons whose Afrikaans-based Euro-African dialect turns into the lingua franca of working-class Africans. Jazz musicians' retreat into bebop alienation is accelerated by the fast-rand cynicism of white record entrepreneurs and their black factotums, which nevertheless induces some of them to make crucial contributions to such r&b-compatible pop styles as tsaba-tsaba, kwela, and mbaqanga.

It's no insult to Coplan's analysis to say that what's most welcome about In Township Tonight! is its descriptions of music and theater scarcely available to Americans in any other form. For just that reason, my objections must be conjectural, but toward the end the book does seem to fall victim to the myopic despondency and special pleading that often afflict popular culture histories as they near the present. Coplan sees that marabi was a turning point in South Africa's black consciousness even though it appalled progressive Africans at the time; he sees how piggish white impresarios gave individual blacks opportunities that eventually benefited the black majority as a whole. But the spectacle of authentic black expressions co-opted into a culture industry controlled by white capitalists, their racism ever more ingrained as apartheid rationalizes its state of siege, is too much for him. Although he seems to respect and enjoy the music, he can't abide the antiurban lyrics of working-class mbaqanga or the slick Americanism preferred by those who cherish fantasies of upward mobility--enforced in each case by record executives and acceded to by artists whose sense of what they can't say is no less oppressive for its accuracy.

As a result, he doesn't give the pop of the past 30 years the space it deserves in a study of this length. And for all we can know, he may be right--maybe at this point in the struggle only explicit political messages are of any political usefulness. Yet neither my own ears nor Coplan's descriptions altogether convince me that the cross-tribal style and reach of contemporary mbaqanga can't (and don't) transcend its ostensible ideology, or that for all its racism and tacit support of Pretoria the U.S. doesn't remain a progressive model in the South African context, or for that matter that the fusion and black-consciousness bands he praises are of much international appeal--which isn't to say that in South Africa they don't serve a function even more crucial than that of earlier hybridizers whose interest is now historical.

Assuming I'm right, however, the error is more of tone and shape than of substance, and though it lapses briefly into academic abstraction at the end, I know of few more compelling investigations of popular culture: it has scope, color, a sense of pace, loads of information, and an intellectual organization that does well to center around that elusive notion, urbanization. In Coplan's view, the key to any definition is choice--a luxury almost as difficult to come by in tribal life (not to mention the "homelands") as it is in townships hemmed in by pass laws, police violence, and structural unemployment. Black South Africans want more choices, and black South African culture proves it. For all their depredations, the European conquerors opened up a world of new possibilities, and the evidence of Coplan's study stuggests that those possibilities are now coming back to haunt them. I hope I won't offend orthodox cynics if I call In Township Tonight! a credible celebration of the human spirit--of men and women's indomitable need to find expressive outlet in any life situation short of total privation. The masters have to tolerate that need because they can't repress it, and sooner or later it will do them in.

Voice Literary Supplement, Dec. 1986