'U' jazz student discusses South African improvised music's role under apartheid and today

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BY JAMIE BLOCK
Managing Arts Editor
Published January 16, 2010

In times of political and social turmoil, the arts have the power to express dissent, unite people under a common goal and sometimes even bring about change. One student well versed in this special quality of the arts is Nathaniel May, a Music, Theatre & Dance senior who spent a year in South Africa exploring the role of jazz and improvisational music during apartheid and the political recovery thereafter. May will be giving a lecture Thursday night in the Anderson room of the Michigan Union as part of the Examining Ubuntu conference taking place this week.

Nate May: "Instruments of Change: Improvised Music in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa"

Thursday, Jan. 21 at 6 p.m.
Michigan Union — Anderson Room
Free

May explained how the tone behind much of local South African music shifted drastically with the end of apartheid.

“Often, it was an attitude of aggression and anger during apartheid, during the struggle, because you have a specific goal in mind, which is freedom,” May said.

“After that it’s a process of healing," he added, "and that word ‘healing’ was brought up a lot as a way of coming to terms with one’s past and one’s identity, and how it has changed.”

But May emphasized that this healing process has come with several questions, not the least of which is the extent to which freedom has actually been attained.

“Basically, people had this long history of oppression, and then all of a sudden it was said that they now have freedom,” May said. “But to a lot of people, it was little more than words. It was some political changes, but then a lot of promises that were never kept. People are still coming to terms with ‘This is what freedom looks like.’ "

“They’re re-investigating their past, which had been sort of created or dictated for them by the government.”

Part of this government-created history, May said, was an emphasis on tribalism. And using this idea, government rhetoric was widespread, declaring which kinds of art were appropriate for the black South African population to experience.

“One of the primary tenets of apartheid was this tribalism where all black people are tribal,” May said. “So even city-dwellers, they should be listening to tribal music, traditional music, because you know, that’s their nature.”

While this view of black South Africans is obviously degrading, the appropriate artistic response was not so clear. May explained that there was some disagreement among black musicians at the time regarding what sorts of music they ought to be making.

"(There was an) interesting dialogue and struggle at the time between black South Africans wanting to make Western music to prove their worth, versus people who want to include their traditional music, but at the risk of seeming that they’re pandering to the apartheid’s perspective of what they should be doing,” May said.

And now that the rhetoric of apartheid is dissipated, musicians are facing the artistic choices they made and seeing the identities they’ve established.

“Now that the government doesn’t say ‘This is what you should be listening to,’ they’ve got to come to terms with ‘OK, this is the music that we’ve made, for these reasons, and who are we because of it?’ ” May said.

Nowadays South African identity in music is much harder to come by, May said. American and European music has taken over the airwaves, and local music is struggling for survival.

“In the places where really ancient music still exists, it’s either because it’s specifically trying to be preserved, or it’s in a place that’s remote enough that western music hasn’t entirely taken over," May said. "I think those places are very rare these days.”

While he found traditional music to be rare, May found an opportunity to work closely with it for the duration of his time in South Africa. He spent the year with a group called Khoi Khonnexion, helping the band record its first album.

The Khoisan people are the true indigenous South African population, who were in South Africa before the Bantu-speaking majority.

“They come from that perspective specifically of ‘We’re the first nation indigenous people, and we’re left with the least history because … the colonizers have most imposed their culture on us,’ ” May said.

Khoi Khonnexion’s goal is to apply the idea of healing in post-Apartheid South African music to the Khoisan identity.

“It’s all about their healing not only for themselves, but for other Khoisan people,” May said.

And Garth, a member of the group with whom May is still in correspondence, doesn’t think the healing should stop there.

“Garth says that everyone in South Africa is equally impoverished because of Apartheid, which I think is a pretty bold statement coming from someone who was definitely on the more oppressed end of that,” May explained. “But he says that their music is about healing for everyone.”

While working with Khoi Khonnexion was culturally and historically enlightening, May said much of what he learned from working with the group pertained more to a day-to-day, laid-back perspective on life.

May described the concept of “African Time,” which he said is a common term across much of the continent. It stresses the importance of taking the time to enjoy life, punctuality be damned.

“Your life is not ruled by your clock,” May said, “and there’s something really refreshing about that.”

But this concept was not an easy one to grasp right of the bat for May, as evidenced by a recording trip he went on with Khoi Khonnexion.

“Very early on, we went to this Khoi farm that was out in this rural area. We went for the whole weekend and, as I understood it, the goal for the weekend was to record in ... an ancient (Khoisan) cave with actual rock paintings that were anything from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of years old.,” May said. “I was really excited about recording in this cave.”

But it seemed that Khoi Khonnexion did not share May’s feeling of eager urgency.

“We get there and I’m like ‘Let’s go record in the cave’ and they’re like ‘Yeah, no, we’re just gonna smoke and drink coffee and talk for a while.’ ”

This lasted nearly the entire weekend, and the waiting was not without its costs.

“Just before we were about to leave, we went and recorded in the cave," May said, "and then as a result they had to miss their gig that they had planned for that evening.”

May explained how, while he was initially discouraged by the attitude and some of its consequences, he gradually came to accept it and even assimilate to it. And stopping to shoot the breeze with these South African musicians was anything but a waste of time.

“Just being around them, I also picked up on other aspects of their personal philosophies, which have a lot to do with artistic authenticity,” he said.

May said Khoi Khonnexion put an emphasis on “trueness to yourself over originality of the product.”

In a sense, this redefines what originality means in art.

“With Khoi Khonnexion … it's more important to them that what they produce has origin in themselves, in that sense of ‘originality,’ ” May said.

May looks forward to sharing his insights into the cultural and societal effects of South African music with an American audience, and these pursuits don't end with Thursday's lecture. Working with another American musician he met in South Africa, May is now part of a group seeking to educate the United States on South African jazz and improvisational music.

“We’re going to try to arrange a series of concerts in Detroit, and maybe at the Kerrytown Concert House,” May said. “And it was also brought up to maybe talk about South African jazz at the Detroit Jazz Festival.”

May hopes to one day bring the members of Khoi Khonnexion to the United States so they can tell their story firsthand and play their music live for an American audience.