Monday, July 15, 2013

Aesthetics in Protest

Kim Gurney
 --Johannesburg, 06 July 2013--"We live in a drastically different world. The earth has shifted below our feet. I hear of and see pictures of protest everywhere ... Many people believe we had our so-called Spring, the revolution of 1994, and others differ. But we of course have the soundtrack for our revolution, the protest songs we are very well known for."
So began South African musician Neo Muyanga's introduction of a performance with Egyptian troupe El Warsha at Goethe-Institute on 29 June, as part of the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (JWTC), an annual initiative of WISER at Wits University. The performance was the end result of an experiment with protest music, past and present, from their respective countries. The key idea was to discover what elements might be shared in the popular protest archive of two vastly different musical cultures and compose protest anew from these commonalities.
The performance to a packed auditorium included solos, duets, instrumentals and voice and was interspersed with explanatory context. El Warsha explained how storytelling had become a large part of current protest in Egypt, from graffiti to poetry, and the group has been collecting testimonies over the past couple of years, one of which they performed -- the words of a mother whose son was shot. The evening ended with a rousing performance of Senzeni Na, a hymn as Muyanga put it, "that encouraged people to walk much further than they thought they could".
Photo: Kim Gurney
This collaboration forms part of a broader research project by Muyanga, housed at the University of the Western Cape, that keys into its famous Mayibuye archives. Muyanga earlier the same week played audio clips from this archive and others that also formed part of the performance remix.
He told the audience: "We are concerned this week with the idea of aesthetics, the idea of beauty, sadness, the idea of the art form in protest. We are not going to talk about it too much today but we will perform it for you." And quite so - his words cue a larger challenge in trying to evoke any artistic performance through a linguistic lens; it has its own register and impact.
Muyanga is no stranger to JWTC -- he participated in the 2012 session too and upon reflection the two projects seem pertinently linked. Last year, he presented in July to a public audience about his new operetta The Flower of Shembe, a mythic tale about faith and destiny that is loosely based on the lives of various messiahs. Muyanga told the audience back then that imagining a new world was imperative and a revolutionary strategy we must apply with vigour. He was fascinated by the link music establishes in the world, alikening notation to a kind of journalistic shorthand. And he spoke about the operetta storyline, demonstrating the fusion of musical principles on which it hinged: "It's a story about how difficult it is to love because we are wired to self-preserve, which is a barrier to love," he said in question time.
Referring to local political skirmishes at the time, Muyanga added at last year's session: "I do wonder whether we need a messiah so our messiah asks this question. The proposal is perhaps we can be the messiah -- to transcend the self-preservation sense and to give to the world." Questioned about what kind of leader might be proposed, Muyanga said: "We have become wired to expect certain talented erudite individuals to have answers so we give them a mandate. I don't know what the new proposal is. My thinking is circumscribed by the environment. The process is trying to find a clearer question that leads to another paradigm."
Photo: Kim Gurney
Kim Gurney is a visual artist, independent curator and freelance writer affiliated to University of Cape Town's African Centre for Cities