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South African Vocal Tradition

By Sihle Mthembu

South African popular music is built on a foundation of traditional Southern African Nguni rhythms. These are a reflection of a myriad of cultures in the region and often mutate to accommodate the languages and cultural sensibilities found in a specific area. Historically, these rhythms have been passed down from generation to generation in a bid to emphasize their continued relevance.

Music is presented not as an art, but as an extension of everyday life.

The South African oral tradition is unique in its emphasis of the ceremonial. Music presents itself as being functional, whether as a tool to rally the troops before a fierce battle or a way of calling down fire and appeasing the ancestors before a wedding. Music is presented not as an art, but as an extension of everyday life. This is part of galvanizing everyone to participate in defining the song and making music participatory and communal. Hence in South African music of the past, there is a strong emphasis on call and response, whereby a song leader or group servant takes the main role in singing a call to which an audience or community responds; with each response, the servant extends the song and the story often by improvising in a humorous way.

These traditional songs were historically shared by word of mouth, with the responses varying from place to place. The community would enter its own personal DNA into the gaps, while the main rhythm ultimately remained the same; even if the words and the context of a song were altered, the shared rhythm still provided a sense of familiarity to foster participation.

The importance of this learned and shared oral tradition can be seen in the music of South Africa’s struggle. Often when protesters and South Africans enraged by the injustice of Apartheid took to the streets, they could he heard chanting and singing. These were songs of freedom that were accompanied by a neo-military stomp. Many of these songs were not formally composed, but were born organically from the community meetings that took place as people of color met to discuss how to end minority rule. These songs would be sung at the beginning and end of meetings as a way of galvanizing involvement in the anti-Apartheid struggle.

As the documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony points out, music played an important role in documenting the realities of the struggle. These songs that were chanted during the protests on the township streets were very much in the vein of the oral and vocal tradition, also passed on organically by word of mouth and thus not censored or stopped by the Apartheid government. They were initially not available on record or any physical format, making them impossible to destroy. They existed purely in the consciousness of the communities singing them. This ancient oral tradition had found a way to make itself relevant in the contemporary political context and was extremely poignant as a tool for rallying support and even passing messages between politically active groups.

In contemporary South African music, a new generation uses the oral rhythms of the past, tweaking and decoding them to make them a part of a new wave of music. The music remains functional, while also being adjusted in order to make itself relevant—one of the most defining characteristics of South Africa’s vocal tradition.

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