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Where Singing Matters

Song and Struggle in South Africa
By Helen Q. Kivnick

One reason progressive commentators are drawn to South Africa is that morality is so unambiguous there. However impossible unknotting apartheid may prove, progressive action against it clearly matters--even when it's only "cultural" action. As a progressive who loves singing, Helen Q. Kivnick is doubly motivated, because whereas most African music is preeminently rhythmic, southern Africans are heirs to as complex a set of vocal traditions as any people in the world. A social psychologist who has coproduced two renowned field recordings that this book in effect chronicles, Kivnick puts flesh on the truism that in black Africa, music is inextricable from everyday life. At religious services, union meetings, weddings, parties, teas, newfound acquaintances break into song without notice, reinforcing African identity whether by affirming tribal traditions or by bridging them. Miss Kivnick establishes the political relevance of her cultural passion beyond doubt--the songs she describes so fluidly serve as crucial sources of pride, solace, solidarity, and direct or metaphorical protest. Her folkie disdain for the entertainment industry and her tendency to brush past inconvenient contradictions--the divisive potential of the oft-noted Zulu self-praise tradition, for instance, or the extent to which choral societies drain energy that might serve more unequivocally political ends--in no way diminish her insight into apartheid's perverse structural details (especially homelands policy) and the astonishing resilience and diversity of its intended victims. This is an overdue addition to a body of political analysis that fails to give South Africa's popular arts the attention they amply reward.

New York Times Book Review, 1991