Ngoma aesthetics after apartheid

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Louise Meintjes (2017) Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brian Larkin (2008) Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dust of the Zulu

The image of Zulu men dancing, singing and drumming carries heavy symbolic weight. For black South Africans and white outsiders alike, this image represents “real” African culture, evoking a glorious warrior culture. Cultural brokers (entrepreneurs, musicians, and politicians) “wager on the warrior” (Meintjes 2017, 241) to evoke this romantic past. However, colonizers have appropriated this same image to justify the dehumanization and exploitation of African bodies for labor. Ngoma dancers themselves use the “long past” to relieve the painful burden of the immediate past, and to reach for an “undetermined future” (255), in the face of the risk of playing into colonizers’ fetishistic stereotypes. This risk is magnified when ngoma moves onto the world stage, losing its context.

Ngoma dance arises out of a “struggle masculinity” (13) arising from the tension between the machismo of hard labor and the lack of employment opportunities that support it, playing out against a backdrop of dehumanizing living conditions. Masculinity is further pressured by HIV/AIDS. Ngoma’s socioeconomic conditions are much like the ones that gave rise to hip-hop in urban America, and like hip-hop artists, Zulu dancers and musicians must constantly negotiate the tension between embodying an authentic form of their culture and playing into stereotypes imposed from the outside.

Meintjes shows how struggle masculinity shapes ngoma music with a study of Umzansi Zulu Dancers in the recording studio. The musicians seemingly waste considerable expensive studio time working hard on the nuances of a bass temp track that will be replaced anyway. They aspire to a professional quality product that will open up opportunities for them, but they also make production decisions that are at odds with this goal. We can resolve these apparent contradictions by understanding that recording songs is not the only work being done in the studio. The musicians are also cultivating sociality, creating a sense of home, both in the song and in the studio.

In the way these deliberations unfold, the musicians perform their professional experience with recording to one another… [Creating the bass temp track] in this arduous collaborative way provides the musicians with the opportunity to compose, arrange, and rehearse. It is a creative process through which they perform competence to one another as fellow musicians, as ngoma and maskanda artists with studio experience, and as friends (220-221).

When the musicians overdub sound to the point that the tracks are overcrowded and muddy, they recreate the density of their sociality, both in the studio and in their public performances. The resulting sonic density “demonstrates the intimacy of being together in both places” (230).

Umzansi Zulu Dancers’ recordings are examples of the aesthetic of marginalized people’s informal infrastructure, “a set of formal qualities that generate a particular sensorial experience of media marked by poor transmission, interference, and noise” (Larkin 2008, 218–19). When poor production quality is invested with social value, it becomes a resource, not just a limitation. Here, too, there is a parallel in American hip-hop. The dirty, lo-fi cassette sound of the Wu-Tang Clan speaks to cheap recording equipment in makeshift spaces, but also to the autonomy and control that such equipment affords the musicians. It is a way to preempt the expected rejection of the mainstream pop music industry by not adhering to its glossy aesthetic standards (though the Wu-Tang Clan found substantial commercial success anyway.)

Just as we might metaphorize song as danced speech, so too can we understand ngoma dancers as speaking with the body. A dancer is not speechless if he holds some control over his own representation” (Meintjes 2017, 13). A dancer with a voice can establish narrative authority over their circumstances and future, and also claim an audience. However, not all ngoma dancers are equally able to find that audience. When I searched online for videos of ngoma, I found a number of videos of dance troupes that conspicuously included a white man, Johnny Clegg. I assumed that Clegg was simply another white cultural appropriator akin to Paul Simon. But “Clegg the Story” (271) is a complex and ambiguous one. Clegg is scrupulously anti-colonialist, a member of Zulu culture as much as a white man can be, and he is respected by that culture for his fight against its exploitation. Still, it is difficult to imagine a black Zulu attaining Clegg’s international pop stardom, entrepreneurial success, or academic stature. Certainly Clegg’s stature is a stark contrast to Umzansi Zulu Dancers, who “are like the many wage laborers who have become expendable to the South African state” (213). As with so many “ethnic” musics around the world, the global pop market’s interest in a sound too often fails to benefit the makers of that music.

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