Decolonizing music studies at South African universities.

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For these reasons, the emerging consensus is that our institutions must undergo a process of decolonization both of knowledge and of the university as an institution. The task before us is to give content to this call – which requires that we be clear about what we are talking about.

Achille Mbembe

(This post is informed by two documents: the paper delivered by Achille Mbembe at Stellenbosch University on 30 April 2015, and a ‘work in progress’ article by George King, as well as discussion of these documents at a meeting of the MusicSymposiumSA on 14 May 2015. Both documents are available on request).

Something is brewing at our universities. Students are defacing statues; they are staging silent protests; they are staging loud protests; they are handing over memorandums. The students are raising their voices. And it is high time.

One might ask, why now? Have learners at our institutions of higher learning suddenly become disenchanted with the status quo, or have these discontents been simmering for the past twenty-one years? Is there something particular about the present historical moment that facilitates or enables these instances of dissent?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, nor do I want to try to engage with them in general. This blog deals specifically with music in South Africa, and this post with music education at South African tertiary institutions. And what is true, I believe, is that the present historical moment presents us with an opportunity: to answer the appeal articulated so well by Achille Mbembe, to ‘give content’ to the call for transformation and change at our institutions of higher learning.

It is perhaps inevitable that the first post on this blog will be a contentious one, dealing as it does with issues of music teaching practice at South African universities. We are, however, admittedly living in interesting times, and these issues need exploring. The ideas put forward here are ‘unfinished’, and this post does not attempt to present a single thesis or viewpoint. I welcome engagement with all the points made here.

Three assumptions inform this post. One: curricula, approaches to teaching and course content at music departments in our universities are in serious need of transformation. Two: such transformation is being actively resisted by members of music departments at our universities. Three: there are ideological reasons for this protection of the status quo.

Dissenting voices from within South African music academe have been present for a while. George King mentions that, already in 1983, Chris Ballantine from the University of KwaZulu Natal (University of Natal back then) raised a number of issues relating to what he saw as the future for music studies in South Africa. In a paper presentation at the Fourth Symposium on Ethnomusicology, Ballantine proposed that music departments in South Africa respond to the radical and progressive restructuring of South African society by asking the question: ‘how could we orientate ourselves academically, how would we find our bearing, if we should decide to align ourselves with the progressive movements for social change in the 80s?’

More than twenty years on, Ballantine’s call for academic re-orientation, for a shift in paradigm at South African music departments, does not appear to have resulted in the kind of debate, transformation or change he had envisioned. His own department was one of the very few to implement significant curriculum changes before the 1990s; during the past twenty or thirty years, most music departments have been resistant to curriculum changes that would shift the focus from Western Art Music to include popular and indigenous musics within their BMus offerings. Although most departments now do include jazz, indigenous and popular music in their courses, the emphasis remains in most cases on Western Art Music. Traditional Western music theory based on the so-called ‘common practice’ period dominates music theory curricula, with little or no space for alternative approaches (and in spite of the fact that this kind of common practice theory has little or no bearing on composition, performance and music-making practices carried out by most South Africans today). ‘Music history’ deals, in most cases, with the history of Western art music, and few attempts are made to discover and include alternative ‘histories’ of music, particularly histories from our own continent and country, in the curriculum. Africa is not a-historical, nor is its music history something which should be relegated to the realm of ‘ethnomusicology’ or ‘cultural studies’ alone – it has a history that simply has not yet been actively researched and articulated.

Why is there such active resistance to transformation and change in our music departments? Why is there such active investment in the protection of a monoculture that favours Western art music above all other musics? Different scholars have suggested possible answers to this question; it is certainly too big a question to attempt to answer in this space. My doctoral dissertation offers some possibilities; it can be viewed here

Mbembe argues that universities tend to view knowledge as separated from the knower: the idea that knowledge can not only be taught from the top down, but generated by those actively involved in the knowledge project, seems anathema to many university lecturers. If we could manage to make a paradigm shift in this regard, and search for ways to provide students with tools for learning rather than just information, we might go a long way towards evening out the power imbalances that exist at our institutions.

How could this be done? In music, a holistic approach where academic and practical work is seen as integrated, mutually informative and equally significant parts of the education process could yield much. This could mean that, for example, a piano student would learn about composition techniques by interrogating the techniques present in the works she is performing: Messaien’s approach to rhythm ceases to be an abstract concept, and becomes something the pianist is intimately acquainted with. Or: the same piano student, after being exposed to Zimbabwean mbira music in an ethnomusicology seminar, experiments with improvisations on the piano incorporating similar scales and rhythmic patterns. Same pianist searches for ways to use performance to interrogate social issues such as accessibility to concert performances, by staging performances outside of the traditional concert hall. There are many possibilities; what these three examples have in common is the notion that learning can happen ‘from the ground up’, through discovery and experimentation, and that knowledge does not necessarily have to be delivered ‘from the top down’.

Such holism could further enable also a bridging of the typical juxtaposition of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ approaches to music, allowing music students to be (in the words of Sol Plaatje) both ‘global actors and local citizens’. The hierarchy between ‘Western art music’ and ‘the rest’s music’ must be broken down – on a level playing field, engagement with all musics becomes possible. It is time to move out of the strictures of inherited practices and approaches, and into a space of experimentation: is it more important for a music student to know the correct way to notate a chord progression on a music stave? Or perhaps rather to be enabled to compose a piece of music, using improvisation, electronic resources, found objects or (and) musical instruments? An experimental space allows for new ideas, new ways of knowing to be constructed, rather than existing knowledges to be simply transferred or delivered, ready-made.

Students at South African universities are insisting on change. As role-players in music academe and the music world at large, we have the opportunity to take up this call for transformation and change, for their sake as well as ours. We cannot afford to miss such an opportunity again.

(Mareli Stolp, 15 May 2015).

86 thoughts on “Decolonizing music studies at South African universities.

    Aryan Kaganof said:
    May 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Mareli may I have your permission to re-post this excellent article on the kagablog please?


    Martin Watt said:
    May 15, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    This is insane.


      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 20, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      We don’t just embrace Insanity here.

      We feel it up, French kiss it, and then buy it a drink. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    Zani Ludick said:
    May 15, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Response to “Decolonizing music studies at South African universities.”

    The blog post begins with a quote by Achille Mbembe, which reads, “…institutions must undergo a process of decolonization both of knowledge and of the university as an institution. The task before us is to give content to this call – which requires that we be clear about what we are talking about.”

    Though the resistance to our colonial past is understandable, and though we can change the architecture of buildings and our institutional traditions to reflect our African heritage, the concept of “decolonizing” knowledge is a ridiculous one. What exactly are we talking about? Shall we simply forget to teach our students mathematics, physics and biology and replace it with what we have been able to teach and learn for ourselves here in South Africa? Shall we have Chris Barnard teach the techniques for a heart transplant, but forget the years of medical knowledge and technology developed outside of South Africa on which these techniques were based? The word “decolonization” is currently in vogue and is flung about like a cheap internet meme.

    The blog continues to ask whether “there [is] something particular about the present historical moment that facilitates or enables these instances of dissent?” Yes, there absolutely is. And though it may be veiled in politics and racial debate, what we are seeing are the results of extremely poor schooling, where students feel threatened and overwhelmed by the expectations of universities, because they have not been equipped by South African schools to handle the sheer volume and complexity of the information that they are presented with at university. They want to continue to make posters (in groups where they feel safe) with glitter and glue. This is not a tertiary institution problem, but a primary and secondary school issue. We will be throwing our babies out with the bathwater if we are overly accommodating to the demands of a popular decolonization movement, which is only a symptom of a systemic problem caused by illiteracy.

    As for the call for changes to teaching approaches and curricula at music departments: all curricula must be renewed and transformed as more knowledge is gained and collected in a particular field. Stagnation in the presence of movement is inexcusable. However, resistance to certain curriculum changes by music departments may seem (and sometimes truly is) rooted in outdated ideology, but not all that is old, is bad. How much actual musical knowledge has been gained about South African/African music alone to warrant replacing the majority of the Western Music curriculum? If the extent of indigenous knowledge can be taught in a semester’s work, then of course the rest of the degree will be filled up with Western music, since there is so much more of it documented. Note: I am saying that more Western music and history has been captured and therefore more of it is realistically teachable at a high standard. This might be the main point of contention, but what does the writer of the blog propose as a rigorous alternative?

    As for jazz, when it is taught and performed properly it is a very difficult art form, and is perhaps not being presented at certain tertiary institutions, simply because so few individuals are qualified to teach it. And without the basis of classical theory, it would be beyond the ability of most poorly-schooled South African students. As for pop music, the producers who work on band-generated materials all have B.Mus degrees. They are the ones adding harmonies and deleting the parallel fifths. Pop music is a hobby, not a form that should be indulged by a university.

    The statement that “common practice theory has little or no bearing on composition, performance and music-making practices carried out by most South Africans today” is not one that can be used in an any argument. Simply because Homo-Habilis did not use fire, does not mean that fire would not be useful to future versions of mankind. Are we interested in growing, or simply maintaining and propagating the status quo? Yes, Kurt Darren and Skwatta Kamp are popular, but do we want to keep copying their music or do we want to equip our students to grow beyond these musical forms and develop new forms? If new musical forms are preferred, then none of this can happen without knowing the fundamentals of musical construction. I defy anyone to design a better spacecraft than Apollo 11 (old technology deliberately chosen) without fundamental calculus. The biggest problem facing musicians in this country, and perhaps the world, is that music has moved out of the realm of “serious” science and art, which requires skill and work, and is regarded as owned by everyman and therefore should be dictated to by everyman. However, I am sure that everyman would not want the person designing aircraft, or the doctor operating on them, to have followed a “more accessible” curriculum. Why should this be the case with music?

    As for African music having a “history that simply has not yet been actively researched and articulated”: how does the writer of this blog propose that this subject, as yet insufficiently researched, be (rigorously) taught at tertiary level?

    Mbembe’s idea that knowledge can be generated by those actively involved in the knowledge project, is a legitimate one, but the reason it “seems anathema to many university lecturers” lies in its application. How do we assess this “generated” knowledge? What level of base knowledge do we assume in order to evaluate the knowledge generated? What if the knowledge generated by a group of students in two hours can be taught in five minutes? Shall we make students roll stones down the hill in an attempt to reinvent the wheel for an entire semester or degree? What have we then achieved? Will these students truly be at the same level as those who received and accepted certain truths and continued their education from an established base?

    Equipping students with “tools for learning rather than just information,[…] might go a long way towards evening out the power imbalances that exist at our institutions.” I agree, but this is again a schooling problem, not a tertiary institution problem.

    A holistic approach to music teaching as mentioned in this blog is as beautiful and idealistic as Marxism, especially when we no longer have one master teaching two or three students; but where a lecturer has to teach forty or fifty students and evaluate them all using the same criteria. It also ignores the simple truth that students choose the path of least resistance, which would be to learn the Messiaen, perform it, and move on to something new, such as watching Game of Thrones. This “holistic” approach will work with only the elite few who are motivated and talented enough; a difficult task even for a student with a good schooling background.

    The idea that knowledge “can happen ‘from the ground up’, through discovery and experimentation, and that knowledge does not necessarily have to be delivered ‘from the top down’”, is idealistic and impractical. If students do not yet have full control over their instruments or mastery of the repertoire, how can they be expected to develop new and groundbreaking techniques, compositions and improvisations? How will they know that the harmonic progression they just ‘discovered’ is not some new art-form, but was actually written by Mozart and performed by several thousand musicians, before they came up with it?

    Knowledge must be transferred in order for evolution to take place. Otherwise, stagnation, and sadly even regression, is inevitable. It would be lovely to delete our colonial history, but that would mean giving up on the German engineering of our Mercedes-Benz cars and Roman plumbing too.

    Zani Ludick, Lecturer in Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science, consort singer, lover of the music of Lady Gaga, Bach, James MacMillan and anything but light jazz, and firm supporter of intelligence.


      williamfourie said:
      May 16, 2015 at 11:16 am

      Response to Zani Ludick’s response on post

      Firstly, thanks to Ludick for the thought-provoking comment. Here is my response.

      I am not sure whether Ludick’s first question, ‘What exactly are we talking about?’, is a rhetorical question or not, but I do believe that it warrants an answer. As far as I understand it, the project of decolonizing knowledge refers to process of critically engaging with the hegemony of western epistemologies, a hegemony that has not been generated from the merit of what it achieves, but merely been imposed because of the perceived lack of appropriate knowledge systems. And this has happened quite often in colonies, usually under the guise of a ‘civilizing’ strategy. Decolonizing knowledge then attempts to look into this void where ideologies of appropriateness substitute intellectual engagement (I hope that Ludick will then see that we are ultimately on the same side, and even if this critique gets rough, please don’t forget that. None of this is a personal attack.)

      So (rhetorical) question no. 2. No, we should not forget anything and I do not see how the post suggests that. This question seems like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, as has been the case with much popular response to the ‘vogue’ of decolonization. But on the note of internet memes: One should not discredit something just because it has moved into the popular domain. Some of the greatest discoveries in music and evolution where made when Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, went viral on Youtube. Maybe the fact that the notion of decolonization has final moved into the public domain offers us a unique moment to interrogate it, as Ludick is clearly doing?

      Now on to my real concerns with Ludick’s response and the second paragraph holds the key here. Ludick is making the argument that students ‘want to continue to make posters (in groups where they feel safe) with glitter and glue’ and then goes on to make the argument that ‘more Western music and history has been captured and therefore more of it is realistically teachable at a high standard’. This is deeply concerning because it presupposes, on the one hand, that students are scared of change (and later on in the argument it develops into laziness via the ‘path of least resistance’) but, on the other hand, it smacks of fear and laziness on the part of the lecturers because the lecturers only teach what is readily available and easily accessible. I struggle to see how this is not a case of projection, where lecturers are in fact only interpreting what students want as an imposition of their own desires? I know that the qualification, ‘to a high standard’, supposedly still stands. My question to that would be that does the content really determine the standard with which it can be engaged? I am especially thinking about Laporte’s high standard work on the history of shit.

      On that note, I wish to touch on this particular turn of phrase, ‘Pop music is a hobby, not a form that should be indulged by a university’. I am not sure why South Africans (and I am not presuming that Ludick is a South African, but I am and I have seen this statement time and time again) have this view? For people who champion western epistemologies, they sure are selective. Popular music studies is one of the dominant forces in western music scholarship. It has been for ages and I am very willing to bet that it will be for ages. The simple argument for this is that music is not something that we became aware of thanks to some transcendental (Kant) being, who keeps it to herself in some transcendental cave in some a priori universe. Music is a cultural object: Bach and Miley Cyrus are on exactly the same playing field there. What happens after that is anyone’s business.

      Next I would like to look at this analogy: ‘Simply because Homo-Habilis did not use fire, does not mean that fire would not be useful to future versions of mankind.’ Common-practice theory, in this case, is more like the problems that fire helped solve for future mankind. The only place where textbook common-practice theory, as it is taught in SA, can be found in its entirety is either in textbooks (sorry) or in compositions that are so boring that they have not only fallen out of the canon, they have fallen out of the remit of human interest. Lets take an example here: We are taught that parallel fifths and octaves are not good. Beethoven’s 5th symphony starts with a parallel octave movement between the violins and the celli. Now, my average lecturer would just say that that is a matter of orchestration and not theory. My response: you are creating a convenient difference that does not exist in any common performance of Beethoven’s 5th. When you play the thing, you play both the theory and the orchestration and that divide does not exist. Second example: the 20th century. Where in the twentieth century is common-practice theory executed in a real situation? Amongst others, we have Schönberg’s twelve tone technique (and there are very few examples were Schönberg actually uses it in its exact conceptualization, but lets let that slide). This technique was developed exactly because common-practice (tonal) theory had become such a nuisance to humanity, that he had no choice but to abolish it (he probably did, but he didn’t think so) by negating tonality and then having a huge problem of form with no harmonic structure. While the twelve tone technique did not have much longevity, the challenge of common-practice theory here yielded some of the most miraculous innovations in western music history. Is common-practice theory really then equitable to the invention of fire, or is it maybe not more analogous to raw meat?

      But this does not solve the following problem the author highlights: ‘I defy anyone to design a better spacecraft than Apollo 11 (old technology deliberately chosen) without fundamental calculus.’ What I would say to this is that I defy anyone to design a better spacecraft than Apollo 13, where the combination of human error and fundamental calculus does not end in the explosion of a SM oxygen tank. The problem here is not calculus, it is that we need to find forms of mathematics (or music) that fundamentally functions accurately when brought into contact with human beings. And yes, if the problems posed to doctors became easier and more accessible, and the possibility could exist where they effectively transcended those problems in their first years, then maybe that would stop killing so many people.

      I think what may be the problem here is that Ludick is conflating issues of standards and the status of knowledge. I do not read that the article proposes that we drop standards. I read instead that the argument being made is for finding ways to improve the status of knowledge – standards are assumed in Stolp’s argument. To make arguments against issues of standards is then to attack straw men. But if we do decide that standards are the object of the argument here, then we should examine the claim, ‘the biggest problem facing musicians in this country, and perhaps the world, is that music has moved out of the realm of “serious” science and art, which requires skill and work’. The habitual clinging to a curriculum just because it is the most thoroughly documented (I would love to see how one would substantiate this) and the most practical to teach (and one could say that we know it the best) is to say that the standards (skill and work) of our researchers and lecturer have dropped. Case in point is this one (especially concerning skill and work of teaching): ‘What if the knowledge generated by a group of students in two hours can be taught in five minutes?’ Does teaching something in five minutes automatically result in students understanding it to the same degree as what they would have if they took two hours to figure it out? We can even turn it around. Is to be assumed that the student did not understand the concept that the lecturer took 2 hours to explain, in 5 minutes? I am concerned that the level of understanding is not taking into account here. And if it is, if we presume that a student should understand the concept in the 5 minutes the lecturer explains it (to ensure standards) then, as a student who usually understood the 2 hour concept in 5 minutes, I would hold that lecturers should be fired on the spot if a student ever feels that they are moving to slowly (and this would not help anyone). Equally, I would provide an answer for Ludick’s question, ‘how does the writer of this blog propose that this subject, as yet insufficiently researched, be (rigorously) taught at tertiary level?’ a) We do the work and we research it. b) We keep our students up to date with the most cutting edge research that we, as skilled lecturers, are doing, like most people do in the rest of the world. The idea here is not to ‘delete’ knowledge that came with colonisation (neither King, Mbembe, nor Stolp propose this). What all of them are proposing is that we move ‘human history’ (as Mbembe put it) forward but not whilst uncritically subscribing to western epistemes. From this point one can see that the western epistemologies are not the problem; the way that we engage with them and teach them is. And those problems should not be treated with the lazy response of, ‘going further is just not practical’ (rhetorical quote- not Ludick).

      In fact, and to conclude, that approach speaks directly to a very important point in both King and Mbembe’s papers. In reading King’s chapter, I was struck by the way that music curricula in SA seem to speak of a way of teaching that would ensure that the lecturer stays in power over the student at all times. This is then reflected in Mbembe’s paper where he labels a main mechanism of the colonial knowledge enterprise as a form of chauvinism. I can’t help but to detect this same language present in Ludick’s response, when the author writes of the master and the student and presumes a unilateral transmission of knowledge from master to student, and that the implications of that movement fall outside of the remit of teaching. This is not an ad hominem attack. Instead, I am trying to highlight that responses toward the questioning of the hegemony of western knowledge (and in the case of music, often out dated knowledge and teaching methods) problematically are met by a reversion to the question of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Something in SA teaching is horribly broken and it is time that we start finding out what.

      William Fourie, kind of between things

      Liked by 2 people

        Zani Ludick said:
        May 17, 2015 at 9:32 pm

        Response to William Fourie

        My first question “What exactly “are” we talking about?” was flippant and perhaps a little rhetorical. Italics don’t seem to work in this blog. But thank you for clarifying the meaning of decolonization in this context, which Stolp failed to do.

        My statement about the posters and glitter was snarky, but more of a judgement of current school systems, which leave the majority of students with a lack of individuality in their work and thought processes, than the students themselves.

        As for the “path of least resistance” – having had the privilege of teaching at university level in another field while studying undergraduate music – I stand by that statement wholeheartedly. (There are exceptions, but universities have long since stopped catering to the exceptions.)

        My main issue with the concept of “knowledge generation” is that a certain amount of pre-knowledge should exist in order for this to be useful. This approach might work at a post-graduate level, where the assumption would be that the students are all at the same “level” when starting the degree. However, at undergraduate level, it is a fact that universities are taking in students of widely varying abilities and knowledge, and therefore it is difficult to establish a baseline from which knowledge can be judged to have been generated.

        I agree that teaching methods in certain areas of music in South Africa need an overhaul to reflect our unique South African identity, but perhaps the decolonization debate has been conflating the methods with the material?


      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 16, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      Zani, I disagree with you, but nevertheless think it’s great that you’re participating.

      The extent of indigenous musical knowledge long already exceeds the confines of one semester’s work. The captured or documented information that is available is more than sufficient for structuring and teaching a highly professionalised undergraduate course.

      I can also add that a decolonised music curriculum would not be insular, and that it would take account of much, much more than just South African / African music. The entire heritage of world musics (which includes Western classical music as a tiny fraction) could keep undergraduates busy for a thousand years.


        Zani Ludick said:
        May 17, 2015 at 9:56 pm

        I am glad that I was wrong about the amount of research on indigenous music that has been undertaken. Perhaps students can then be given a choice as to which stream of music education to follow?


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 17, 2015 at 11:08 pm

        Hi Zani, I can’t find the REPLY button below your response, so I’m answering your question here.

        Various South African university music departments already incorporate module choices into their curriculum. This allows students the opportunity to streamline an education according to their own individual preferences. Unfortunately there remains a pronounced bias towards making many arcane modules in Western classical music compulsory. (They’re inevitably argued to offer an indispensible grounding in so-called fundamentals, apparently thus making the music qualification legitimate.)

        If you mean that South African students might be allowed to choose entirely between one of several BMus degrees that each specialise exclusively in specific streams like Western classical music, indigenous/African music, or jazz and popular music, then the argument against such a variety of choices is almost always going to be one of drastic budgetary shortcomings.

        At any rate, the whole point with decolonising the curricula of South African music departments is to cater for specialisations that meet our own country’s pluralistic cultural needs.

        Students who want to specialise exclusively in Western classical music should feel free study abroad. Places like London and Berlin will offer them a much better education in Western classical music than they could ever hope to achieve in a former colony like South Africa.


        Zani Ludick said:
        May 18, 2015 at 5:43 am

        Hi Etienne, I appreciate and understand your point, but do you not think that “decolonising the curricula of South African music departments is to cater for specialisations that meet our own country’s pluralistic cultural needs” would make our students perfectly suited to cater to the South African market, while placing them at a serious disadvantage on a global playing field?

        I can see that we disagree on what is considered fundamentals, but I worry that if these aspects are removed from the curriculum, we will remove a certain “common understanding” with musicians in other parts of the world. This might propagate insular thought and creative material, due to a lack in ability to communicate ideas effectively.

        If we are speaking about the teaching of history alone, I would give Western classical music the exact same amount of space as I do the history of indigenous musics, pop and jazz. But when we are talking about the nuts and bolts – concepts of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint (and form to a lesser extent – some musicians might kill me for this) I become afraid that in the attempt to decolonise our teaching, we would be glossing over many technical aspects of music in our fear of coming across as ‘too Western’.


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 18, 2015 at 9:26 am


        I actually think that the present system puts South African music students at a disadvantage… Regardless of what they learn here, music students who specialise exclusively in Western classical music always seem to need further overseas studies, before they have any shot at achieving recognition and success on the global playing field. If they had gone abroad to begin with, their time would have been better spent and less resources would have been wasted.

        In turn, there is nothing wrong with only expecting South Africa to create the world experts in Southern African indigenous musics, Southern African popular musics and Southern African art musics. I don’t expect that a decolonised syllabus would arrest all teaching of things like harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and form. These and other technical fundamentals are often just as much a part of types of music that aren’t Western classical. They could, however, be taught in ways that are better applied to local music.

        Your suggestion to give Western classical music, indigenous music and South African popular music the exact same amount of teaching space as one another is already a vast improvement on current teaching practice, where Western classical music almost always occupies the lion’s share of the university music syllabus.

        Liked by 1 person

      Douglas Scott said:
      May 20, 2015 at 9:50 am

      There is so much right with this response it is hard to know where to begin. Maybe just a few points to echo:

      1) Knowledge is at once universal (the Pythagorean theorem does not change in Roman hands) and is sometimes useful in spite of being arbitrary (there is no way to understand certain symbols and concepts without being taught).

      Both of these facts argue against “decolonisation”. New perspectives? Yes. Fresh eyes? Absolutely. Forgetting everything we know? No.

      After all, what would our modern world have looked like had the medievals eschewed knowledge from the Islamic world (who were at the time still intent on colonising large swathes of Europe)?

      2) Primary education is indeed where South Africa is failing. By the time high school rolls along it is already too late. Universities can only help here in real terms by improving the quality of and standards of that education.

      3) In my experience, University education at undergraduate level (or, if I’m honest, higher levels too) is not about generating knowledge. I do think that this is an error and must be changed. But I also believe that knowledge generation can be taught and even evaluated. However, doing so requires an even more rigorous approach to learning technical minutiae than simply rote learning the contents of a textbook.


    Ryan Hill said:
    May 16, 2015 at 10:30 am

    “As for pop music, the producers who work on band-generated materials all have B.Mus degrees. They are the ones adding harmonies and deleting the parallel fifths. Pop music is a hobby, not a form that should be indulged by a university.”

    Zani, please substantiate your comments regards pop producers all having BMus degrees. And deleting parallel fifths? I think you are living in an academic cloud cuckooland. Pop music is as much a hobby as any classical or jazz performer’s activity – it’s simply a matter of level of engagement.
    If a University chooses not to include Pop music in its curriculum then it chooses irrelevance in the music market to an unsustainable degree and does a disservice to young musicians. Western Classical degrees are limiting in the market. Jazz opens up more options in South Africa.
    Your comparison of classical music to fire and pop performers to more primitive humanoids is elitist, unenlightened and frankly very rude.
    Ryan Hill

    Liked by 1 person

      Zani Ludick said:
      May 17, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Allow me to draw your attention to the following sentence in my initial response: “As for jazz, when it is taught and performed properly it is a very difficult art form, and is perhaps not being presented at certain tertiary institutions, simply because so few individuals are qualified to teach it.” I agree that jazz opens up many opportunities. I was defending the choice of many institutions to not teach it.

      As for your claim that I am elitist and unenlightened, please reread the paragraph where the fire analogy was used, and you will hopefully deduce that no such comparison was being made.


    Etienne Viviers said:
    May 16, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Christopher Ballantine on decolonising music departments
    (A short and summarised extract from his iconic 1983 paper “Taking Sides”)

    In a paper delivered at the Fourth Symposium on Ethnomusicology, called “Taking Sides: or music, music departments and the deepening crisis in South Africa”, Christopher Ballantine (1983:52-5) identified a likely sea change inside the musicological discipline from the mid-1980s onwards. Owing to the volatile political situation in South Africa at that time, he foresaw the likely formation of positional sides within disciplines, universities, and individual departments. The increasing politicisation of aesthetics, he argued, necessitated a choice from scholars as to where they located themselves in the social and intellectual ferment”: i.e. “taking sides” in relation to issues and ideas. Battles that were being waged at that time in English departments would eventually migrate to music departments: advocates of critical theory would, for instance, oppose themselves to empiricists, who took the dominant status of their own method of practical criticism for granted; the introduction of so-called low culture into university curricula would spark heated debates between populists and elitists; and the formation by universities of various social responsibility agendas would polarise university senates into political factions (Ballantine 1983:53).

    With regard to music, Ballantine understood the developing situation in a context where South African music departments are considered to be copies of European ones:

    “University music departments in South Africa are typical colonial institutions: the traditions, practices and objectives of European music departments – as well as their sense of what constitutes the proper study of music – all these have migrated practically unchanged to the African sub-continent; like their European parent institutions, music departments here take an important part of their function to be the preservation of a certain set of values, and indeed a certain way of life” (Ballantine 1983:53).

    Any challenge to this paradigm, he argued, would inevitably play out in a tug of war between left and right: “on the one hand, those social groupings seeking some kind of conservation of the established order, and on the other hand those seeking the creation of a new social dispensation” (Ballantine 1983:54). In such an environment everything that was taught would have political connotations.

    “Musicology, for instance, will lose its taken-for-granted character: urgent questions are likely to be raised about not only its scope – the objects it deems worthy of study – but also about its methodology: in other words about the extent to which it maintains its conservative, positivistic traditions, or engages with other, more critical, more self-reflexive, more sociological approaches. The practice of composition within our departments will also be interrogated, under a barrage of questions about the inherent Eurocentricity of most South African composition, its lack of any deep, structural engagement with our social, historical and geographical predicament, or with the indigenous music of our land. Not even musical performance will be exempt from such questions – questions asked for instance about the training of performers in the execution only of European instruments, and in the execution of an exclusively Eurocentric repertoire. And similarly for music education: every one of these questions is likely to be aimed at our music-education programmes, as we are called on to account for the particular set of biases that we require our prospective school-music teachers to impose on future generations of unsuspecting school-children” (Ballantine 1983:54).

    Liked by 1 person

    stolpm responded:
    May 18, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Thanks to all who have participated in this thread. Please feel free to send any blogposts relating to this topic or other music-related topics to me at and I will happily place them here.


    George King said:
    May 18, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    These days a lot of British music departments and a number in Europe (as well as elsewhere) include a wider spectrum of musics in their degree courses than WAM alone. It’s not possible to become a really informed musicologist today without having studied a degree of diversity. Jordi Savall’s work as an active musician (who performs Monteverdi, Bach and Beethoven to high critical acclaim) is an extreme example of a multi-layered musician who is constantly presenting concerts in Europe and the USA, often featuring (in the same programme) Middle Eastern, Andalusian, and European musics. And our own Peter van der Merwe (*Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music*, publ. OUP) has drawn attention to the cross-fertilization of WAM from a variety of popular sources, including the Middle East. It’s good to know something about these musics even when specializing in WAM. And not becoming acquainted with at least some of our indigenous music genres (such as black choral music) is a denial of who and where we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    Analyst said:
    May 19, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    This is a reply to the thread in general; not to one specific comment.
    As I learn about the significant role music and culture played in the struggle – what importance the ANC ascribed to it during the seventies and eighties – I cannot help but feel that the post-94 order has failed/betrayed us all, black and white alike. How is it possible that for so long after ’94, few music students in SA know Hugh Masekela, Sipho Mabuse, Brenda Fassie, Kippie Moeketse and so many others? The few music students who do know them/their music have not learned about them at university. I certainly didn’t. Not in my undergrad years, at least. I still don’t claim to have any comprehensive/reliable knowledge of our local music cultures; what I continue to discover is that some so-called “untrained” musicians produce music of a standard higher than most BMus graduates can muster. Why were these histories, our musics, not introduced by force into South African music curricula?
    Why we were even allowed to continue teaching the curriculum just as we did before is beyond me! Was it because we still believed WAM to be superior, more sophisticated? Or was it mere disinterest on the part of authorities, because there were other, more important issues (economic redress) to focus on? Whatever changes we’ve made to our music curricula appears to me to be nothing other than redress. And that is a problem. Redress is not transformation. Redress is easy. Transformation, on the other hand, real transformation of all sectors of society and all their institutions and practices… It almost appears to be impossible. Especially since we cannot agree on what real transformation should look like, what it should entail, what it should be.
    I am relieved, however, that we have finally started to talk frank about these issues in public discourse; that we have finally abandoned the make-believe of rainbow-nation rhetoric, substituting it with dialogues that are real, raw and sometimes frightening.

    Liked by 2 people

    Lance Phillip said:
    May 19, 2015 at 11:47 pm

    I would like to weigh in on this very interesting discussion, as one concerned about the practical alternatives to the status quo; improvements should always be sought to teaching methods, musical philosophies, and course content; however, these should be implemented in an efficient, academically-responsible and sustainable manner, which does not reduce students to guinea pigs.
    Regarding William Fourie’s statement on the Beethoven 5 opening in parallel octaves:
    The parallel octaves rule refers to independent voices within a musical texture, not to the doubling of a unison voice; Bach does the same thing in the Hosanna of the B minor Mass, and most writing for piccolo/double bass/contrabassoon before the 20th century will have the same function.
    To be sure, there are instances of augmented 2nds, parallel fifths and unorthodox doublings In ‘common practice’ music, but they are the exception, and in baroque music, often have some rhetorical reason for their appearance (witness Telemann’s stunning use of I bVII I, played on renaissance cornetts to represent ‘Sehet an die Exempel’ to denote the ‘old ways’). The exception proves the rule, in such cases.
    Regarding William Fourie’s statement on Schoenberg’s 12 tone system and music theory
    Schoenberg wrote a textbook on ‘common practice’ harmony (“Harmonielehre’) in 1911, less than a year before composing ‘Pierrot Lunaire’. Although he expressed reservations about figured bass realisation and certain types of voice-leading, his method is quite orthodox (in the then-prevalent Germanic/academic sense); it is also striking that he purposely insisted on rather dry, uncreative methods of voice-leading in his book, which is because he principally wanted to produce a methodical text for the average music student pupil to work through diligently in order understand chord construction and progressions of older music, not for the talented pupil (read ‘budding composer’) to sail through. It was meant to be abstract (even Schenker’s method used examples from the literature, while Schoenberg avoided them). Therefore I’m not certain we can speak of the assertion that “[t]his technique was developed exactly because common-practice (tonal) theory had become such a nuisance to humanity, that he had no choice but to abolish it.” Schoenberg, as a fine teacher, did not shirk his duties of instructing his non-composer pupils in elementary harmony, while expecting his composition pupils to follow the actual composition text (the method of composing with twelve tones).
    Regarding the differences between composition and music theory
    Similarly, no one is expecting composers (of any type) today to follow the ‘rules’ last in common use about 100 years ago, BECAUSE MUSICAL COMPOSITION HAS NO INHERENT RULES (it is perfectly simple to write a correct and boring sonata form movement), only aesthetics and schools of aesthetics, whether formal or informal (whether you are successful or even heard of, or for that matter, pass a composition exam, is another question) – but for performers of Western tonal music (and that includes any non-Western music that has been influenced by Western music), analysis is indispensable for fluent study. A mastery of music theory saves musicians time. It is as simple as that. If one were to seriously study jazz, it is necessary to study the theory of jazz chordal construction, so as to save time and ensure that your discoveries truly are discoveries. But the study of music theory, be it Western Classical, jazz, African or Indian is not a divine mystery, it is a tool, and a means to an end, much like ear training. And attacking a series of musical screwdrivers and hammers, of whatever culture, is counterintuitive (we should be grown-up enough to try and ignore Schenker or Schoenberg’s ideological rantings, and take the best from each method), and akin to telling piano students not to practise scales. Nobody would seriously argue against the fact that learning a work by Messiaen is facilitated by a study of his Technique de mon langage musical. Music theory IS a ‘tool for learning’ (Stolp); the painstaking study of this aspect of the craft is neither glamorous nor artistic – it is simply necessary for each student to not have to reinvent the wheel – there are many concepts to struggle with later, but how to avoid parallel fifths in tonal music should not be one of them; how to incorporate parallel fifths in non-tonal writing in a musically-coherent, exciting and original way – now that’s something worth losing sleep over.
    Regarding authenticity
    As George King has pointed out on another thread on this post, Western music was itself influenced by Middle Eastern- and other musics long before the ‘common practice’ era. Nobody disputes this; however, the question of musical identity arises – many African hymns written by late 19th century African composers copied the models taught by Western missionaries – are these compositions, and the South African traditions of choral singing that then not authentically African? What is the cut-off point, and who is going to define it?
    For that matter, when does Western music itself “begin”? Fourie writes that “The idea here is not to ‘delete’ knowledge that came with colonisation (neither King, Mbembe, nor Stolp propose this). What all of them are proposing is that we move ‘human history’ (as Mbembe put it) forward but not whilst uncritically subscribing to western epistemes. From this point one can see that the western epistemologies are not the problem; the way that we engage with them and teach them is.” Quite. Perhaps I’m stretching things a bit here, but would a Fourie from the Middle Ages have called the practice of copying foreign musical styles ‘exoticism’, alien and destructive of the local culture? Is Gregorian chant, the singing of which was ostensibly influenced by Byzantine chanting, really ‘authentic’ Western music, or merely representative of the self-colonisation of a native culture in the face of foreigners? What about the moral (not to say musical) practice of Handelian opera in England (a German, writing in Italian, for English audiences) – do the dissenting voices of John Dennis or Joseph Addison mark them out as philistine protectionists or as defenders of upright English Protestant values against insidious Continental frivolities, especially since ‘the Hun’ had been granted the title of King partly as protection against (foreign & dreaded) Catholicism and its trappings? Should the Spanish have similarly destroyed all symbols of Islam (I would say ‘tear down the statues of Islam’, but…) at the Reconquista, by completely demolishing the Great Mosque of Cordoba and instead building another church on its site, rather like that ostentatious Cathedral in Seville? Etc etc. These matters become messy, and before the call for reconfiguring the status of various musics, one should carefully define the boundaries of such musics – calling Handel’s music ‘English’ after he had settled in London would be debatable, at least. Therefore, it is necessary to define what constitutes authentically South African music too.
    Regarding the ‘top-down’ transfer of knowledge
    I think this is quite simple – the ‘master/apprentice’ relationship is a time-honoured one in many cultures (the guru/disciple relationship etc.), and the better students are prepared at secondary level, the better equipped they will be to debate conventional thought at tertiary level. A good lecturer can facilitate the rapid transfer of knowledge to hard-working students who have enjoyed the benefits of good schooling, resulting in the students becoming independent thinkers early on. However, the appalling state of South African secondary education in recent years (anyone disagree?) makes the job of lecturers very difficult – the low academic expectations of matriculants has to be addressed for longer periods at university level, and this requires the transfer of information – yes, top-down transfer – to students who are insufficiently literate for the study of first-year modules; in this current reality, producing independent thinkers before the third year is an increasingly-rare phenomenon.
    Regarding responsibility
    My contribution is not in the slightest a one-sided diatribe against the serious study and propagation of a native culture or against the musicological study of popular music; rather, it is a call for caution against legitimising the illegal action of a few students defacing campus statues, or representative of the views of most ordinary South Africans. If my own church, a protected heritage building, was defaced on the grounds that it was built by the British in 1863 and contained a plaque commemorating Queen Victoria, I would certainly not shrug it off as a legitimate protest against colonial oppression. We live in a democratic society, and these issues need to be dealt with in a civilised manner, and voted upon. While the author of this post (and William Fourie & Etienne Viviers) are engaging with the issue of the decolonising of the music syllabus in a decent and open forum such as this, it is regrettable that the defacing of property was not condemned in the original post, but instead seems almost to be used as a point of departure (if not explicitly) – I regret that the author did not write that resentment was brewing and the issues should be urgently addressed, but that the protests were still misguided and ill-advised.
    As to the question of the restructuring of the music syllabus, we should be constantly renewing the way we teach and learn, but not shooting in the dark; one ought to ask the following: 1. are such radical redresses (as proposed by Stolp) workable in terms of their aims?; 2. if so, what are their projected musical/cultural aims – and do these conform to long-term internationalisation aims?; 3. will the study of the proposed revised music syllabus be academically rigorous and challenging as that of an equivalent science degree, and therefore, as academically respectable? 4. what type of financial, administrative and personnel training outlay is required?; and 5. what time frame is proposed? If there is no comprehensive blueprint is proposed, you certainly will get ‘knee-jerk’ reactions from concerned lecturers who understand what such realignment entails. Really, the defacing of the statues was a criminal act, and we as lecturers should condemn such acts; using them to propose radical changes diminishes their credibility – that is just common sense.
    Finally, the original post did not define the limits of “Western art music” – it is difficult to define, of course, but if one is proposing a restructuring of the syllabus, some sort of attempt is necessary. For example, what about Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Boulez – they were all considered enfants terribles at one time, and beyond the scope of ‘normal’ Austro-German tradition – yet today many people consider them very much part of the ‘canon’ – and again, many do not, and still consider them ‘experimental’. I’m not sure we can really call the study of such a wide range of musics as representing the narrow view of a ‘monoculture’ (Stolp), when French, German, Italian, English, Hungarian and Russian elements all possess distinctive national characteristics. Yes, I suppose they can be lumped together as European, but then, should South African music be lumped together with all African music too? The problem is not that of ideology, but of practicality and real-world solutions as to how to teach a music curriculum that is relevant, and at the same time, worth studying, and academically testable – is there anyone who doesn’t believe that that musical experts operating in a specific culture will easily divide popular practice from classical practice within that culture, be that culture Western, African or any other? I don’t want to speak for your perceived detractors, but please, propose some specific, concrete & responsible alternatives to the status quo; I’m pretty sure we’re all on the sa

    Liked by 1 person

      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 21, 2015 at 3:35 pm

      Posting the same comment again to try and move my response to Lance’s post from way down below to somewhere that’s much closer to what he said. Here goes:

      Hi Lance, A short response to the paragraph where you mention my name:

      Considering the possible outcomes of referendums on gay rights and the death penalty, it’s obvious why civilised democracies have other strategies to decide on issues than only always voting about them…

      Chumani Maxwele’s defacement of the Rhodes statue was an inherently democratic way of dealing with an ongoing issue: he protested crudely against more civilised democratic processes that had quite obviously resisted meaningful transformation for decades. (Amazing how quickly Council did finally manage to vote on the issue when the world’s media began highlighting the university’s track record with black professors.)

      Perhaps the statue protests are illegal; but then again, they are also similar to historical examples of protest, like seceding from Dutch law and sovereignty because one is an Afrikaner, throwing tea into Boston harbour, going to live on Walden Pond while refusing to pay taxes, burning pass books and deliberately not sitting in the appropriate black section of a bus, having sex with someone from another race, or just plain ignoring one’s monthly E-toll account.


    stolpm responded:
    May 20, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Zani, I wholeheartedly agree that talking is separate from doing, but I do think the doing can only happen once discussions are opened – which is what is happening here, thankfully. When I refer to issues being conflated, I am referring to the way in which issues that are inherently different become viewed as ‘the same issue’, thus not allowing comprehensive engagement with either issue on its own terms. I don’t quite follow why you think ‘experimentation’ is irresponsible – if we understand that word to mean ‘trying a new idea or method without knowing exactly what the outcome would be’, then I would like to posit that NOT being willing to experiment is much more irresponsible. Remaining doggedly committed to the status quo, rather than being willing to search for new ways of thinking and doing…that’s irresponsible. And short-sighted.


    Douglas Scott said:
    May 20, 2015 at 10:31 am

    It is easy to get swept away in the politics of a matter and neglect more fundamental distinctions.

    Allow me to make my biases clear:

    1) I don’t view music as a cultural artifact. It is a universal human practice that transcends cultures. Yes, there are cultural distinctions in how it is practiced, but we study these distinctions, not in terms of them.

    2) I see “WAM” as a horrible, meaningless abomination of a term of reverse cultural imperialism which should be expunged from the vocabulary forthwith (a.k.a “I don’t really like it all that much”). Finally,

    3) Art music, western classical music, serious music, WAM (*ugh*) are differentiated by one single fact which makes it worthy of abstracted study at University level: Probably one the best and most venerable fully developed formal systems for describing any human practice available. THIS is what we are studying, NOT European cultural practices. What’s more the beauty of the system is that it is technical capable for a proficient (note that word) user to adequately manage there way around any particular culture practice in a way which no other notation system allows to such an extent.

    If you want to build bridges better, you learn use the most effective way of describing bridges and master your craft that way. Maths allows you to use such culturally imperialist concepts as negative and imaginary numbers, which are just as much products of human inventions as the fugue, to build bridges of any style in the world. It also allows people to dot the land with brutalist monstrosities and expensive yet acoustically unsound concert halls, yet we don’t blame maths for these horrors. We don’t blame the tool, we blame the wielder.

    To throw a proper technical grounding in the “craft of musical composition” out (to borrow Hindemith’s term for HIS conservative textbook) just because people dislike the fact that they have not mastered it sufficiently to describe their own practice in it and dislike how it was used by others is like throwing out evolution because Hitler believed in eugenics.

    This is not progress, it is regression. The beauty of this particular formal system is that it is still living and growing, so one is free to add anything your heart desires. There is also nothing stopping anyone from producing an entirely new system, or use one of the others (such as Indian classical notation).

    But a education without formal systems is nothing more than a glorified cheese tasting, and adding cultural relativism to the mix turn it into an asinine caricature of learning. Using rigorous methods is not imperialism, it is being respectful to your craft, and by extension yourself.

    So. Camembert or Brie? Or do we treat the study of music (of all cultures) with the honour it deserves?

    Liked by 1 person

      Douglas Scott said:
      May 20, 2015 at 10:34 am

      Argh… proofreading fail:

      *What’s more the beauty of the system is that it is technical capable for a proficient (note that word) user to adequately…

      should read:

      *What’s more the beauty of the system is that it a technically capable and proficient (note that word) user to adequately…


      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 20, 2015 at 11:13 am

      Hi Douglas, So happy to see you’ve joined in. Love the cheese tasting metaphor.


        Douglas Scott said:
        May 20, 2015 at 1:57 pm

        What you don’t know is that my whole post was just an excuse for that metaphor, hehe.

        Liked by 1 person

    stolpm responded:
    May 20, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Please read my post and response carefully…I am not arguing for the death of formal education systems. Just for a vibrant engagement with these systems, creating the space for development of these systems, and acknowledging the imperialist, colonialist and apartheid history that is inevitably enmeshed in these education systems. I am not suggesting we ‘throw out’ anything – my rather blunt statement of a ‘philosophy of more’ is just as unsophisticated as it sounds. More information, more engagement – not less. And frankly, to misread my position and then compare it to Hitler is not only incorrect; it is rather offensive.


      Douglas Scott said:
      May 20, 2015 at 11:24 am

      Oh, no I wasn’t comparing anyone to Hitler, to creationists at worst. I was referring to people who suggest one shouldn’t study evolution because Hitler was a fan of eugenics.

      It’s essentially the same argument: X is associated with bad thing Y, therefore we should re-evaluate X.

      Acknowledging is fine, but just like it is fine to acknowledge that 70’s concert halls has terrible acoustics designed by “scientific” architects. But there is nothing more to be done about it apart from recognising that was bad practice of a good discipline and incorporate the lesson into our body of knowledge.

      There is nothing unusual or particularly noteworthy about this process, as vital as it is. It is important to remain aware of these abuses, but they were always on the periphery of good practice anyhow, for the most part. Thus we learn.


        stolpm responded:
        May 20, 2015 at 11:30 am

        I did not suggest one shouldn’t study the fundamentals of music theory because it was taught under apartheid (which is what your Hitler comparison seems to suggest). What I (and others) have suggested here is that the curriculum shows little or no development since the end of apartheid – and that this is a problem.


    Douglas Scott said:
    May 20, 2015 at 11:54 am

    It wasn’t a Hitler comparison, it was a creationism comparison.

    I accept that you aren’t advocating not studying the fundamentals, but I don’t see what the fundamentals of music theory has to do with Apartheid one way or another.

    The problem was that the fundamentals of music theory was appropriated for cultural and political purposes. Just because we are now post-apartheid does not make doing the same thing to a different end okay.

    I absolutely agree that the current syllabus is terrible (last I saw) and that a better syllabus would be more inclusive, but my approach is “Then make a better syllabus and teach it”. South African musicians are generally not well known to the general public (or University students), this applies to Arnold van Wyk as much as to Hugh Masikela. THAT is the problem I can get behind solving, strengthening our shared heritage…

    …[especially if that comes at the expense of multi-billion rand sports sponsorships, the real enemy here in my opinion :P]


    Etienne Viviers said:
    May 20, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Lots of complicated BIG WORDS from an upcoming publication of mine,
    (… so God bewaar jou as jy hierdie idees iewers aanhaal en nie behoorlik na my verwys nie…)

    In South Africa, Western art music traces its provenance to two shameful periods in the country’s history; those of colonialism and apartheid. This links with Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the ‘pudenda origo’ or shameful origin. It concerns a form of genealogical thinking, where the origins of a belief, value or practice are considered somehow bad and shameful, thus convincing intellectuals that said beliefs, values or practices need to be abandoned in a more salutary contemporary context. (This is an idea I got from Amia Srinivasan, in LRB vol. 33, no. 18., pp. 17-8.)

    Put in another way, intellectuals can mistakenly assume that a belief, value or practice that has a debased origin is necessarily therefore also false and illegitimate. A counter-argument would be to dismiss such a facile assumption as a genetic fallacy.

    It would therefore be wrong to automatically ascribe shameful social, cultural and political characteristics to Western art music in post-apartheid South Africa, based on the grounds that the tradition is assumed to have possessed the same genetic markers in colonial or apartheid South Africa. “[T]he relationship between origins on the one hand, and truth, justification and value on the other,” Srinivasan writes, “is not nearly as straightforward as many proponents of [the shameful origin] seem to think.”

    One needs to find a moderate and more responsible position in criticising the facets of Western art music that, during the style’s long history of performance and study in South Africa, were in fact informed by the ideologies of colonialism and apartheid. This is probably a form of criticism that strikes a balance between the wholesale acceptance of causal historical complicity, and the outright dismissal of problematic historical legacies on the grounds that history belongs in the past.

    Moreover – even though South African musicologists, classical musicians and music audiences now stand temporally removed from the South African time periods in which Western art music had its purported shameful origins, it still remains possible that an aesthetic paradigm of colonialist and apartheid musicology and concert practice survives to this day. Not only in the supposedly ‘evil DNA’ of the music itself, but also in arrogant universalist assumptions of cultural superiority, and the sublime value of classical music, that were inculcated among white South Africans in the colonial and apartheid eras. One needs to take these additional possibilities into account.

    Constantly posing the issue of curricular transformation, and thus problematising the veiled ideologies of classical music in the new South Africa, is a substantive way to undermine the continuation, in South Africa’s ongoing Western art music tradition, of problematic genealogies of hegemonic thought.


      Douglas Scott said:
      May 20, 2015 at 2:09 pm

      I agree with most of that, but I don’t think that classical music was ever more than a vehicle for “cultural superiority”. Intellectual superiority, yes, but only insofar as notation allows for the study of a system and some cultural practised have not been brought into the fold of notation by their own practitioners.

      Not that there is anything wrong with “intellectually inferior” music. Staying with the food metaphors, it is like what McDonald’s is to fine Thai cuisine. I love fine cuisine and am a staunch advocate thereof. At the same time I love Mackies for what IT is, and will eat it, and thoroughly enjoy it, more often. But to say that they should be treated equivalently is, frankly, a little insulting to anyone who cares even a little about food.

      Now notice I said “Thai”, but you can replace that with Indian, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Moyo’s, whatever. Good food isn’t about cultural imperialism. Saying that the only French food can be good is imperialist, and saying that people must eschew a rigorous approach to preparing food because “that’s not there culture” is the real legacy of Apartheid. That’s the “evil DNA” of Apartheid as far as I am concerned: The inculcation of the idea that some cultural practices are not worthy of the finest methods of rigorous study.

      Incidentally, I recently learnt that Japan has more Michelin stars than French.


        Douglas Scott said:
        May 20, 2015 at 2:13 pm

        Aargh!!! I need an edit button on these things (Reddit has spoiled me forever).

        Third line third word: “practitioners”
        Third para, fourth line, first word: “their”


        Liked by 1 person

        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 20, 2015 at 2:30 pm

        Oh come one; of course ‘good food’ is about cultural imperialism. Ever heard of the spice trade? 🙂


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 20, 2015 at 4:37 pm

        Random question, Douglas. You seem like someone who would know what font this blog is printed in, or at least someone who would know how to find that out. (Sorry for going so far off-topic, everyone else.)


      stolpm responded:
      May 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, Etienne. Thanks for this.


    Zani Ludick said:
    May 20, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Mareli and Etienne, I think everyone here has stated in one form or another that the curriculum needs change – this in my opinion is no longer to be debated or argued, since we all agree on that point anyway. Our main issue is not, and possibly has never been, the incorporation of our South African heritage into our teaching.

    However, the use of the recent defacing of the Rhodes statue in the blog argument as a spring-board for this discussion on musical reform does paint a rather violent picture. It brings to mind the complete tearing down of an established system, to which a violent reaction should surely be expected – whether that is what you meant by the post or not. It was however a clever choice to engender debate, and in that it has surely succeeded.

    Nevertheless, we all seem to agree on the fact that change is necessary, so if we put our emotional reactions aside, we can attempt to establish the degree to which reform is required and the steps to take in order to bring this about.

    What should now perhaps be debated just as vigorously, and which is what was touched upon in other blog posts, is a practical approach to reform. How do we keep the highly developed formal systems of western music and apply it in a way that is relevant to our South African heritage? How do we not reduce our students to guinea pigs that can be discarded as failed experiments if we find out we were wrong after all? These are the deeper questions that are most often avoided, because they get down to the nitty-gritty of the matter and are more difficult to answer.

    I certainly never suggested a “dogged commitment to the status quo”, but yes, experimenting with education can be highly unethical. Your eagerness to experiment can also be labelled as short-sighted. So let us agree that none of us can see into the future and try to meet each other midway.

    My suggestion would be for each music department to set aside their differences (if any) and to draw up a workable plan for incorporating “their idea” of cultural reform to their degrees. These should then be discussed and compared at a gathering of delegates and other experts (and here I mean discussions with the aim of producing workable solutions, not presentations where one person tries to sound more liberal than the next), keeping in mind the expertise available (or capacity for expertise development) at each institution and/or the choices of specialisation at each university for competitive positioning.

    As an aside, how much of this transformation debate is truly motivated by cultural reform and how much is rooted in the practical vs. musicological divide currently existing at music departments?

    Liked by 1 person

      stolpm responded:
      May 20, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Zani, there is a significant distinction between ‘experimenting with education’ and incorporating experimental approaches in our educational practice.
      I don’t think any reactions here have been overtly ’emotional’ – this is very gratifying, because it means we’ve been able to engage in interesting and open debate!
      As for your last question…the debate stemming from my blog psot (from my side at least) is definitely motivated by arguments for cultural reform – but the divide between practical and musicological ‘camps’ in SA music departments is a core concern of mine as well. Watch this space (and please, feel free to write a post on this topic, I will gladly place it on the blog. Email to


      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 20, 2015 at 4:35 pm

      Hi Zanie, It’s great that you’re still engaging in this discussion. Hopefully you can advertise this blog to help make it a viable national platform for future difficult discussions?

      Hopefully we can all meet, somewhere?, someday?, for an in-depth discussion (and listening to one another) about these fascinating structural problems. (And I would argue how important it is that everyone’s emotions should be welcome. Conversations about the valuing of cultural heritages are by nature deeply emotional.) Meanwhile, I appreciate your suggestions about how to practically facilitate the transformation of university music curriculums. My suspicion, though, is that there won’t be many takers among the various Heads of Department to participate in such extensive overhauls.

      University music departments have long already implemented their own diverse transformation strategies, some of them much more sincere and thorough than others. I suspect that for the time being they are all happy continuing down their present rhodes… But perhaps we should ask them?

      With regard to Maxwele’s scatological protest: It’s deeply worrying that the defacement of one university statue with excrement gets equated so EFFORTLESSLY with the destruction of an entire established university system. The established, and supposedly ‘healthy’, university system would not be so terribly fragile if there weren’t a deep underlying social problem.

      Liked by 2 people

        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 20, 2015 at 4:38 pm

        Jammer. Zani.


        Douglas Scott said:
        May 20, 2015 at 8:25 pm

        Replying in the wrong place here, but Word says the font is Helvetica.


    Marnus Nieuwoudt said:
    May 20, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I shall only touch on a few of the points raised in the discussion and I also want to say that I am delighted that people are engaging with these issues.

    On conflation: it is difficult, albeit impossible, that any issue in our (South African) society can be discussed without it becoming conflated. As with most things, timing is essential, as it provides the context of perception. Although the purpose of Ms Stolp’s initial post was not to address the ‘methods of protest’ with regards to transformation at universities, they form an integral part of the current discussions on said transformation in the country (people on either side of that issue are very upset). Protests might not even have entered the discussion had this been posted, for argument’s sake, in November 2014. The first thing that comes to mind to anyone who reads a newspaper or follows the news when they see the word “Decolonizing” is the image of Mr Chumani Maxwele and the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. With the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ issue as a current topic of heated debate on anything to do with colonialism, it is (dare I say it) irresponsible not to read the post with that in mind. The same conflation is prevelant in Willem Boshoff’s work at the Venice Biennale. The reason it is such a stirring issue is because of the timing.

    On experimentation: yes, by all means it is how things progress and how knowledge is acquired, but concerning the matter of experimentation within education (and here again we have a contextual issue), was OBE’s initial stage of implementation not experimental, treating the learners that were part of that first stage as guinea-pigs? Standards was also a point raised earlier, and can we agree that OBE failed miserably at upholding just that as a result of its experimental nature? With our country’s education system as context do we not also immediately (albeit wrongly) assume that anything experimental is an attempt to lower standards and make things easier (Mathematical Literacy as opposed to traditional Mathematics)? The concept of the Master-Student relationship is a central part of music teaching, why else would one even start taking cello lessons if you think you can figure it out yourself by experimenting with the instrument (I am well aware that there are many musicians whose initial stages of musical development were largely self-taught, but they are the exception). As for the issue of African music and WAM (apologies to Mr Scott, but I could not resist), a possible reason for African music to be treated differently perhaps lies with its scholars (past and present): almost without fail one reads in articles paragraphs starting with “In musicology and ethnomusicology”. This illustrates that even among scholars, regardless of their speciality, there is an apparent need to separate the two disciplines, implying that the one is removed from the other.

    This brings us back to the issue of standards. Let’s imagine for a moment that two BMus graduates from two different institutions apply for a post that requires said qualification. The curricula at the respective institutions differed in that the one had a considerable focus on popular and African music in comparison to the other’s traditional WAM (wink) approach. The student with the pop/African background lands the job and on his first day is confronted with a complex WAM problem. Would it be fair of his employer to dismiss him? Is he now responsible for introducing new experimental approaches to his WAM environment and in so doing revolutionize it by breaking down its standards? Or does he have the responsibility to write a letter of resignation stating that he is perhaps not a good fit for this environment? Now it becomes an ethical matter to which I think there is no answer and, of course, I am in danger of appearing ‘elitist, unenlightened’ and posibly essentialist, by suggesting that perhaps pop or African music do not have the same standing as their WAM (sickening, isn’t it?) counterpart. Which brings me to the issue of responsibility. Is it not responsible (or possibly self-preserving?) to at least present a possible alternative to that which is subject to critical assessment? You’ve poked the dragon, it’s awake, what are you going to do about it?

    Liked by 1 person

      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 20, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      Hi Marnus, I don’t understand your concluding thought experiment. Academics confront complex intellectual problems on a daily basis. When the answers to specific problems lie outside of their field of expertise, they simply go looking for the answer in the appropriate place, usually by reading and discovering, or otherwise by asking a colleague to explain.


        Marnus Nieuwoudt said:
        May 20, 2015 at 8:03 pm

        That may be the case in most academic fields Mr Viviers, but based on that a music teacher who was trained as a cellist could merely research or ask a colleague (maybe a pianist) to assist them in answering an oboe student’s question regarding embouchure (how essentialist of me!). No, I believe the issue at hand is once again that of context: what do we consider music to be in our society (universities)? Do we see it as a craft, something that requires skill, discipline and (dare I say it) some degree of talent? Or has it become a mere topic of “intellectual” discussion wherein academics theorize over potential meanings of the practice in relation to its audience? By stating that I am in danger of being accused of missing the point of musicological enquiry.

        As I see it, (and who am I, you may ask) is that the intellectualization of an act, concept or practice is irrelevant without the act itself. Musicology would not exist without music (the practice), this is obvious to all of us. Would it then be fair of me to state that music is not merely an intellectual practice informed by books and research, but it is very much a practice based on craftsmanship that requires enormous effort (physical, as in sitting in a room and mastering a difficult passage) that is separate from its meaning, at least for that moment in the process of mastering? You will find (from the purely “intellectual” perspective) that there is now a big, gaping hole in my argument. But that aside, if we look at the abovementioned experiment purely from the academic (intellectual) view, the issue presented to the candidate then isn’t solely an intellectual one, but rather one of competence.

        A topic I did not engage with in my previous comment was the point of musical theory and the parallel octaves debacle which Mr Phillip so eloquently laid to rest (at least in my mind). I would like to add to that by taking an example from the visual arts. Picasso had to (and did so quite vigorously) study traditional painting and drawing techniques. Last week a cubist masterpiece by the Spanish master sold for $179mil. That painting’s meaning and value (social and monetary) would not have been what it is if it had not been for the artist’s background, whether he rebelled against the traditional approaches or not, they shaped his innovations. Those innovations were in turn influenced by the tradition of the artist’s training and did not seek to abolish it. I am not suggesting that Ms Stolp proposed that we rid the world of WAM (choke), I am merely supporting Mr Phillip’s argument that the tradition is there for a very specific and useful role in the contemporary.


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 20, 2015 at 9:48 pm

        Thanks for responding.
        If you’re comfortable with it, then of course you’re welcome to call me by my first name.

        I don’t understand how asking / rather not asking a pianist about embouchure is essentialist. The point I tried to make was that if a specialist in African musics were required to find out about a complex WAM problem, like for example something related to the oboe’s embouchure, then she wouldn’t have to resign her job or be fired due to incompetence, because reading about embouchure or asking another experienced oboist about embouchure would be other available options.

        What we consider music to be in our society? This is open to a thousand different interpretations. I know that a cellist like Hans Huyssen eagerly portrays music as a craft (something that involves ‘poiesis’ or making) to bring across the necessity for a sincere and involved musicianship. But he also then theorises about music in highly complex intellectual ways that foreground music’s humanising effect in relation to its audience. I’m sure that his holistic approach to music involves multiple other layers of meaning as well.

        You’re allowed to state anything, and consequently you’re allowed to be accused of missing any point. I am deeply interested in how you see things. As for perhaps asking who you are: I know that you’re a South African musician who’s interested in participating in this discussion, and therefor you’re someone whose opinions I want to listen to.

        I don’t think there’s any gaping hole in your intellectual argument about the significance of musical practice. Among other things, musicology does indeed rely on music to conduct its business. And among other things, music also relies on musicology to conduct its business. Perhaps I can point out that musicology is not only a theoretical/intellectual activity, and that gaining competence in musicology also involves doing craftsmanlike things, like mastering mundane tasks before grand meanings can emerge. The holy grail is of course to try and find creative avenues of musical scholarship that integrate doing music and thinking about music, so that the habitual academic divides between musical practice and musical intellectualisation can be eroded. There are a number of highly competent practitioner-scholars on both sides of the music/musicology divide who are already doing this.

        Your Picasso example seems to embrace an idea that practice needs to be informed by additional intellectual (musicological?) studies. Traditional approaches are valuable topics for study in many scenarios where some sort of thing is being made. But they don’t usually overwhelm the practitioners into constructing some kind of time capsule approach to craftsmanship because more contemporary and contextually immediate ways of doing the creative thing are being ignored. To rephrase: Yes, Picasso proves that studying traditions can have an enormous impact on modernistic artistic practices. But where are the South African classical musicians who took Bach’s cello sonatas and rebelled against their tradition to present drastically innovative, updated and altered versions of them?

        Wishing you well.


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 21, 2015 at 5:27 pm

        Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
        I did not know that BWV’s 1027-9 were originally for the viola da gamba.

        The real problem with ever achieving the meaningful transformation of a university music curriculum obviously then is that cellists already meet with the demands of a revolution when they change the intensity of their bow pressure.

        If one insists on demanding that specialists in African music should have extensive practical knowledge of Western art music, to extent that they would have to resign or be fired if they couldn’t teach cello lessons, then one can also fire all the piano teachers for not being able to teach music librarianship, and fire the music librarians for not being able to redesign the building’s heating system, and fire the building’s maintenance men for not curing cancer. It’s a hypothetical reduction to absurdity that doesn’t correspond with how universities normally operate.

        Liked by 1 person

      williamfourie said:
      May 20, 2015 at 8:01 pm

      Hi Marnus,

      Thanks for joining in. I just want to zoom in on two things that you mention in your response. The first is the following:

      “…almost without fail one reads in articles paragraphs starting with “In musicology and ethnomusicology”. This illustrates that even among scholars, regardless of their speciality, there is an apparent need to separate the two disciplines, implying that the one is removed from the other.”

      I struggled this exact problem when I was writing an article on interdisciplinarity in musicology. One of the main ideas in Western knowledge systems that deal with either Western music or its Other is that when dealing with the former it is termed musicology and when dealing with the latter it is ethnomusicology. However, since the significant shifts in musicology that occurred in the 80s, this idea has been struggling to maintain the traction it once had. The main reason for this is that ethnomusicology and musicology have been released from the shackles of their content (namely western and other musics) and has rather been distilled into configurations of various methodologies. Once this had happened scholars on both sides of the divide started wondering whether the methodologies used to understand one type of music might not be used to understand another (given that, as Doug put it, music is “a universal human practice that transcends cultures” – and we should add privilege, race, power etc too). There are two texts that I am thinking of in particular here. The first is Agawu’s “African Music as Text” and the second is Cook’s “We are all (ethno)musicologist now”. In both these texts, it becomes apparent that methods of musicology (theoretical and textual analysis at the fore front) became necessary to debunk the patronising approach colonial ethnomusicologist took in studying ‘African music’ and, similarly, methods (participant-observation, field notes, profiling etc) of ethnomusicology became necessary relocate WAM, and everything that comes with it, as one of many cultural practices in the world.

      But then comes the next twist in the tale. Because of this intermingling of methods and content, new methodologies started to appear that solicited a thorough integration across the schism of former divide. These approaches are still relatively new, but I, for instance, remember speaking at an interdisciplinary conference (like seriously – I was the only ‘musicologist’) last year and an anthropologist said she was really glad to hear that anthropology played such a big role in music studies. The next question came from someone in cultural studies who said that that was strange because they understood it as a form of text analysis. Both of these were strange views for me because I was trained in a seminar group that drew on almost every methodological stance imaginable and we could all speak to each other. So why would I not use ethnographic and textual analytic approaches? Point of the story is that the disciplinary boundaries demarcated by methodology are beginning to loosen. But this important: I am not saying do away with disciplinary boundaries and abandon fixed methodologies. I am still of the view that if you want to fine tune certain methodological approaches, then do it within the discipline. But if a methodology works to make sense of what you are trying to understand, then great – so i.e. don’t use Schenkarian analysis to tell me something about Schubert’s sexuality. But what is happening is that scholars across the globe are starting to experiment beyond the (ideological, dogmatic) ‘truisms’ that are embedded in their respective disciplines.

      When I read Stolp’s post, I can’t help to think that maybe this is the strategy we should be looking at when we seek about decolonising music studies. Maybe the colonial aspect of music studies is exactly the aspect that seeks to maintain a known and ‘appropriate’ control on the manner in which we approach content, despite their not being much of a rational basis for doing so. Maybe decolonising music studies would then suppose equipping students with tools (methodologies) with which they might tackle the problems they are interested in, regardless of the strictures of disciplinary convention. And if you are worried about the standards then all I can say is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of the experiment. If, at the end of the day, we are able to look at the results that have been yielded by the research and say ‘that makes sense’, then I don’t see how standards have dropped.

      Secondly, on your point of appointments. I don’t think what you are proposing would ever exist. In my experience when people are appointed they either get given certain classes (usually only undergrad) that they must prepare and that’s what they do, they go and hit the books. The other option (usually more common at really high-end institutions) is that you are hired because you produce oodles of publications and it is in the interest of the research networks and projects at their institution to hire you. If you really can’t teach undergrad courses, then they offer you a postgrad seminar on your field of expertise.

      Liked by 2 people

        Marnus Nieuwoudt said:
        May 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm

        Perhaps my cellist vs. embouchure analogy was not the best example to illustrate what I meant, Mr Viviers. Let my attempt to rephrase: Do you find it responsible for a “qualified individual” to have to ask around and acquire book knowledge of a practical matter? Allow me to clarify, as I read it, (and Ms Stolp, if I misinterpreted, please correct me) the original ‘decolonization’ was predominantly intended for undergraduate programs, (note predominantly, NOT exclusively). Specialization is a postgraduate matter at MOST institutions, as Mr Fourie also briefly mentioned in his reply above (I now foresee a list of ‘examples’ or ‘relativities’ being pointed out to me of institutions where it is not the case, I will then refer back to the issue of context). Back to the matter at hand: earlier we discussed secondary schooling and standards. One of the biggest challenges music departments in this country are facing is acquiring new students that meet their criteria. Part of the reason is that some music teachers (“veral op die platteland”) take on the challenge of teaching instruments that they were not trained in, the intentions are irrelevant to my point, as a result the standard of a prospective cello student taught by a piano teacher (phoning friends and reading up) would differ from that of one taught by a trained cellist (I am very sure there are exceptions, but as with most things, can we please look at the overarching statistics or odds here). Now, the focus of the discussion was primarily tertiary, but teachers are trained/qualified at universities (mostly) so would it then be very wrong (unethical, elitist, unenlightened, etc.) to suggest that if the tertiary level starts becoming experimental and creating a culture of ‘self-informism’ (I know that’s not an actual word, but bare with me) when a problem is presented to find a solution by asking around or reading up about it because it wasn’t covered in the initial (basic) training, doesn’t that system start chipping away at the standards it seeks to instill? Before anyone wants to ask whether I am implying that oboe embouchure should now become part of the basic structure of a BMus degree, let me remind you that I merely used that scenario to (attempt to) prove a point. Yes, by all means, do research, discuss, argue, cry and agonize when you are faced with a problem that you cannot immediately tackle solely with the knowledge you already acquired, but that prospect is also relative. With my background I am not going to start tackling cancer or the intricacies of where to strategically place the artichokes in a greengrocer store by reading up or asking my colleagues about it. In that respect I would simply not be competent.

        Furthermore, I am very glad you brought up musicians that use the intellectual to inform the practical and vice versa, that is the type of musician I aspired to be. There ought to be no distinction between the two elements, apart from the apparent physical ones of course. On reinvention/reinterpretation: I must clarify that Bach did not write cello sonatas, he did however write sonatas for the viola da gamba that are now played on the cello. He also wrote six suites for solo cello. Mr Vivier, to what degree would you define “drastically innovative, updated and altered versions of them”? Because for a cellist, even the slightest changes in interpretation in Bach (be it one chord, note, the bowings or the string pressure) could seem revolutionary. This, however, might not be the case for a Bach-loving oncologist sitting in the audience. Here, the matter of experimentation becomes one of context and relativity.

        Liked by 1 person

    Kerri Wayne said:
    May 21, 2015 at 2:38 am

    I don’t think that a decolonised approach to music education requires a shift from one centralised culture to another. These debates so often deteriorate into “either – or” statements. I find that disheartening and I think it detracts from (and sometimes stifles) necessary discussions. I agree with you that it is not our role to shape culture in this way, but I think that leaving the system in its current state is equally irresponsible. I definitely don’t think that exposing youth to WAM and WAM inspired pedagogy inculcates facility and technical efficiency better than other musics/approaches. Many international scholars, particularly in music education, are writing about that misconception and looking to other sources (Africa included) to discover approaches that are less inhibiting (of musicality/ technical facility) and exclusionary.

    Although I agree that serious changes need to be made, I entirely disagree with Ettiene’s suggestion that Western classical music should be reserved for study abroad. Multiplicity of identity (of South Africans, of musicians, of musicians in South Africa) has been mentioned in this thread a few times. People from various different backgrounds in South Africa identify with Western classical music. Should students who identify with this music entirely remove themselves from this continent (if they can somehow afford to)? Should students simply not be given the opportunity to identify with this music at all?

    Another thing that often comes up in these discussions is an insistence that something must be done right now. I think that talking and questioning is very important. But I also think that we sometimes overlook the concrete suggestions that are being formed while we are talking. For example, Mareli Stolp’s suggestion that students be encouraged to engage critically with the content and to consider its history and ideology is very concrete and is something I would have benefited from. I believe that experimentation is an essential part of education at every level, but I do agree that it should not be done in ways that are rash. The best way to avoid this is to talk before doing. Perhaps this platform (or something similar) can be developed so that the various contributions can be interrogated and eventually expanded into an outline, such as the one put forth by Lance Phillip.

    I think to simply insist that the problem is at the secondary and primary level is a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong – I completely agree that a lot has to change at these levels. But how will those changes happen if our teachers are not equipped (during their tertiary studies) to think about or implement changes? Similarly, who are the policy-makers at that level and what are their connections to our universities? I also think that better relationships need to be built between school-level teachers and scholars – there are very few opportunities for such exchanges in South Africa.

    Zani mentions the need for our universities and music departments to work together. This is one of my greatest concerns. It seems to me that gaps in this regard are growing wider on a daily basis, fueled by petty and unprofessional public arguments. I don’t know how we will ever achieve transformation in our music departments without some form of solidarity, and I don’t know how solidarity can ever be achieved when such arguments feed polarisation. I am grateful for a platform like this where thoughtful debates can unfold and agreeing or disagreeing (hopefully) does not put one into this or that “camp”.

    Liked by 2 people

      stolpm responded:
      May 21, 2015 at 4:33 am

      Thanks for joining in Kerri, and thanks for this excellent response.


      Etienne Viviers said:
      May 21, 2015 at 9:25 am

      Hi Kerry, The point I made was that South African music students who want to focus EXCLUSIVELY on Western classical music could rather study abroad. They would gain much better experience there working within a curriculum and cultural environment that met with their specific requirements. The South African university music syllabus could, in its turn, equip students with a pluralistic knowledge of Southern African cultures, including Western art music and its local offshoot South African art music.


        Kerri Wayne said:
        May 21, 2015 at 10:36 pm

        Hi Ettiene, thanks for clearing that up for me. As I understand it, you are not suggesting that we entirely eradicate Western classical music from the curriculum. I agree with that. I hope that in some way the Western classical training currently available to musicians in South Africa would still be available – there are many (within a limited group that have pursued it) great South African musicians that are thriving because of it. I’m still not sure exactly how that can be implemented within the changes that I believe should be made though, especially because of the historical roots of the music and the power that it thus holds.

        To refer back to a similar discussion you had with Zani: some universities already offer specialisations in African, jazz, and popular musics. So does the CAPS curriculum for high school. However, I recently conducted informal interviews for a presentation and found that many teachers don’t know how to present non-Western materials and, more disturbingly, that many students (particularly in schools with a predominantly white demographic) don’t even know that those specialisations are an option (some of these findings coincide with more thorough work by other scholars such as Herbst, de Wet, and Rijsdijk). So I understand why some people are hesitant to accept expanding specialisation options as a productive move forward.

        Most of the university programs I looked at only offered 1-2 semesters of African music study (through ethnomusicology, world music, or African music studies courses) in a 6-8 semester program. Some universities offer those courses as electives. Having come out of a school system that focused on Western classical music, I don’t think I would have elected one of those courses early in my degree, partly because I was uninformed and intimidated by music I did not know well. I thus think that at the very least African music study should be compulsory at all levels of education in the same way that aural training is. I am not suggesting that this is a solution; this is just one of the reasons why I don’t think the current elective specialisation system works at all.

        I think that Western classical music has its place, but I don’t know how it can keep its place when it ends up taking up so much space in the curriculum. In saying this, I am in no way propagating that Western classical music be removed from our curriculum. I am just wondering about how on earth we can maintain the rigorous study of Western classical music without having it overpower (and oppress?) South African musics. I am uncomfortable with simply suggesting that those who wish to specialise exclusively in Western classical music should do so overseas. I’ll keep brooding on this one for now.

        Liked by 2 people

        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 22, 2015 at 12:25 am

        Hi Kerri, This thoughtful post of yours is probably the best I’ve read on the blog so far. Thanks for all the interesting statistics you presented to back up your statements. You point out quite accurately that the university music curriculum’s current elective system has enabled pretty much all of us to dodge a thorough education in African music, often because at the time of choosing our electives we had a different worldview that didn’t spot the inherent value of local musical traditions.

        As for not forcing musicians to study abroad if they want to focus exclusively on Western classical music: One option is to only cater for a Western classical music specialisation in postgraduate studies. That means that Western classical music could occupy a much smaller chunk of a more well-rounded undergraduate music course, thus creating musicians who have a wider perspective on different kinds of local and international music (and on life in general) before they choose their postgraduate specialisation. If one then chose a postgraduate specialisation in Western classical music, one would hopefully be more sensitised to the diversity of local cultural environments, and therefor probably be much more inclined to creatively explore the boundaries between Western classical music and South African classical music.

        How’s that for a solution to your problem?


      williamfourie said:
      May 21, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Hi Kerri,

      Thanks for joining the discussion. I think that it is absolutely vital that your are taking part because you are not only one of the most intelligent people that I know, but the knowledge you bring with you from the educational sector is absolutely invaluable.

      I would also like to touch on the point of students going abroad to study WAM. Firstly, I can see why Etienne’s comment could easily be construed in the ‘you want Europe? Then fuck off out of Africa’ kind of discourse that has been emerging in a lot of the comment threads and articles in both print and social media. But that being said, I really hope that it doesn’t go that way in this discussion.

      So disclaimer lodged, I think my own experience with this issue lies a little closer to my own views on the issue of decolonising music studies SA. When I was applying for Oxford at the beginning of the year, I figured that submitting work that is more focused on Western content would be the best way to go. The only work, however, that I have produced a long these lines were essays on WAM, written during my undergrad. When I discussed these potential writing examples with colleagues and friends at the Oxford’s music department, I got the feeling that if I were to submit them, I would not get in. The main reason for this, I felt, is because despite having received grossly high grades for the essays, they were writings that conformed brilliantly to the SA (maybe read only Stellenbosch) version of WAM scholarship. But this was a huge problem because the version of WAM scholarship that I had been exposed to was thoroughly outdated in the international scene. In fact, the moments in these essays that did draw closer to the edge of more internationalised thoughts were exactly the moments that I had felt I could not amplify when I was writing the initial essay because I knew I would jeopardise my ‘good mark’. In the end I submitted two conference papers that I had almost kept secret from my lecturers during my undergrad for fear of being labelled a nut-case (in fact, I tried submitting one of these papers for an assignment at a stage and was told that I would fail if I thought this work was ‘up to standard’). Funnily though, these papers are part of what landed me a full scholarship at Oxford.

      I think what I am trying to say is that the version of WAM scholarship that is often purported in SA is of a particular brand. That brand, I feel, often resonates with some of the more conservative approaches in Western scholarship, but it usually lacks the depth and rigour that comes with trying to stand out in those hugely competitive centres (I am thinking especially of the AMS and similar conglomerates – if one wants to say something about parellel fifths there, it better be freaking mind-blowingly rigorous or else you will just become one of thousands of scholars lost in the mega institution). So in that case, I think that going abroad does give one the opportunity to get right in the thick of things, both in terms of competition and current discourse. Equally, I think that when we are speaking about decolonising even WAM scholarship in SA, it should include globalising strategies that dismantle the insular attitudes held by some our scholars.

      But taking it one step further, I would also say that going abroad to study indigenous SA music is also a great idea. My own work at Oxford will be thoroughly focused on issues of music and landscape in SA. I, however, feel that diversifying the input I get by going abroad is crucial to producing sound scholarship on South African content. I don’t think what they are doing is necessarily better, but they do pose different views than those held in SA. I would be very curious (and eager) to hear how your own studies abroad impacted on your thoughts around South African things (for lack of a better hyper-inclusive word). It is a little hard to tell from your comment, but my feeling is that the distance might have given you quite a lot of perspective (I might just be projecting my hopes/ fears about myself here)?

      Liked by 2 people

        Kerri Wayne said:
        May 21, 2015 at 11:36 pm

        Thanks, William. I think the studying abroad topic can be controversial. It is something that has really been interesting for me. I certainly found that going abroad has enabled me to think more critically about issues at home and my supervisors and lecturers here have really encouraged me to engage with that. I also agree that being abroad COULD help dismantle insular attitudes. Recently I have been wondering about where my voice fits into debates on decolonisation though. Sometimes I wish I was at home so that I could feel like I had a place in these discussions instead of considering myself exiled due to my choice to study abroad.

        There are many factors involved. I was asking many of these questions at home, but I didn’t feel that I could engage with them, partially because I didn’t have the platform (although I feel I must add that the platform was not entirely non-existent either), and partially because I wanted to avoid being associated with conflicts. I am also a graduate student now, and the faculty at my university has interests that range from global pedagogies, to popular musics, to new musicology. Oddly enough, I have found that WAM is not idolised as much here as it is at home, even though I am pretty far West. I am studying at a university that is more “academic” in nature while I take lessons at the affiliated institute that focuses on a conservatory approach. Performance students at the institute take classes at the university and I have found that this has really worked for me (and other more practically-orientated people I know) in terms of maintaining highly productive and symbiotic relationships between the practical and academic nature of our studies.

        Although I think changes need to happen, I am still grateful to my education for preparing me to a point where I could continue my studies abroad and engage with these questions. I think there is a lot of value in going abroad, even if it is purely to experience the exhilarating edification of discovering new cultures and perspectives (I had never left South Africa before this). On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to find the balance I have found here at home too? And wouldn’t it be nice if the people I am interacting with and presenting with in my field came in their droves to learn more about what we do in South Africa because we offer something unique instead of a watered-down version of what they (used to) do?

        Liked by 2 people

        Kerri Wayne said:
        May 26, 2015 at 9:57 pm

        Thanks, Etienne. I really like the idea of exposing all students to a more diverse curriculum, but I don’t really think your suggestion would be an ideal solution to the predicament as I have described it in my previous comments.

        The current nature of Western classical music, particularly from a performance perspective, requires students to apply themselves rigorously to its study from a very early age. Aside from that, I would still hope that South Africans who identify with this music would be able to continue exploring it here and not HAVE to go abroad to do so (which is not as easy to do as it seems). As I said before, I think this is one of the most difficult aspects for me to come to terms with. Where and how does Western classical music fit into a decolonised South African curriculum?


    Douglas Scott said:
    May 21, 2015 at 7:16 am

    Isn’t it a discussion of identity politics? What does “decolonise” mean then?

    The problem is that the culture of the vast majority of South Africans is colonised.

    WAM itself has been colonised by:

    1) European “native” traditions (Cetlic, Slavic traditions)
    2) Turkic
    3) Far Eastern Music (especially via Debussy and the Gamelan)
    4) African music via Jazz, Ragtime, and later, Minimalism
    5) Indian classical traditions (quarter-tone music)

    All of this stuff easily incorporates into the WAM tradition because it is technically capable of absorbing it.

    But WAM also has a pedagogical component, a body of material that makes teaching the techniques of the crafts easy. Of course it isn’t perfect, and lazy teachers will “teach to the test” of music exams. But this is a problem with exams (and examiners) as a pedagogical tool, not WAM.

    Meanwhile, I can almost guarantee that a good “decolonised” tutorial, method or even just set of pieces designed for children would find a very positive reception in the market, if only because the present set of materials are far from perfect.

    Yes, that’s right, classical is not a dead art, it is living and growing. People are still making new discoveries and improvements of techniques. We don’t teach kids TO play Beyonce, or Deicide, or Keith Urban, or Bongo Maffin. We teach them so that they CAN play Beyonce, or Deicide, or Keith Urban, or Bongo Maffin.

    But if we teach them to play popular and/or local music such that they are incapable of learning to play something else as they mature and their tastes change, or don’t develop their skills so that they find it hard to develop their own skills, we have done them a disservice.

    Of course, some people go through WAM training and end up completely inept and unable to play music, do music (despite doing well enough in exams). Nobody, I think, denies that. But it doesn’t change the fact that the best technical grounding one can give someone is through WAM.

    I think the children of South Africa deserve the best, and the best is not decolonisation.


      williamfourie said:
      May 21, 2015 at 7:53 am

      Doug, I hate to say it, but you are bashing your head very hard against a brick wall that you have arbitrarily invented and labelled ‘the argument at hand’. To point this out, I want to know what you understand decolonisation to be?


        Zani Ludick said:
        May 21, 2015 at 10:05 am

        William, what exactly is your point? You have already defined your concept of decolonisation and the fact that there is disagreement on the full extent (or the meaning of it) is extremely clear from the discussions in this blog. Douglas’s argument already embodies his concept of the word.

        It is clear (from your first post – unless ensuing discussions have changed your mind, which is what we hoped to accomplish) that you want to do away with the common practice theory of western music and replace it with some knowledge generation project of uncertain outcome.

        He opposes this view and instead of coming up with a concrete argument you wish to continue debating the definition of a word.

        Liked by 1 person

        williamfourie said:
        May 21, 2015 at 10:39 am

        Zani, you are absolutely right that there is disagreement, but I don’t understand that disagreement because I am not sure what other peoples ideas on decolonisation are. I mean, there is a strong tendency from those against decolonisation that assumes that decolonisation means getting rid of WAM. But in almost every reply, those for decolonisation have said that this is not the intention. So, please enlighten me as to what, from the view of those against is, if decolonisation is not dumping WAM?

        And it is not clear from my post that I want to dump common practice theory. It is clear from my posts that I am sceptical about the way that it is being taught in SA. Do you think it is being taught exactly right here? That it is perfect and complete in every conceivable way and that lecturers can do absolutely nothing but stand aside and stare with big, glossy eyes as the perfect system of South African music theory education rockets our students to the highest echelons of academe and performance?

        And yes, I do want to keep debating the word because I am not at all convinced that what is viewed as decolonisation by those opposing it, presents even a rudimentary understanding of what the project entails. I have seen zero engagement with Achille’s article. I have seen zero debunkings of Fanon’s work. Closer to home, I have not seen one attempt to even engage with the broader ideas on pluralisation of music as presented by Small. In fact, all that I am reading is mediocre attempts to engage with minute slip-ups in pro-decolonisationist arguments, nothing to do with the bigger ideas or pictures (except for Doug’s view on universal knowledge, which has left me pondering for the last few days). So Zani, I am going to keep debating the word.


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 21, 2015 at 1:32 pm

        Sorry guys. Don’t understand either of you…
        I only know about the ‘Common Practice’. What is the ‘Common Practice Theory’?


        Douglas Scott said:
        May 21, 2015 at 9:03 pm

        “Decolonisation” is a meaningless word as far as I am concerned. I would put it in the same category as “devirginalisation”.


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 21, 2015 at 10:07 pm

        Bwahaha! But South Africa has been devirginalised! Almost everyone plays the piano instead. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      Kerri Wayne said:
      May 21, 2015 at 11:48 pm

      Hi Douglas, would you mind describing what you mean by the “pedagogical component” of WAM? Could you be more specific about the “body of material” you refer to? I think I disagree with you, but I’d first like to be sure I understand what you have in mind when you refer to these things.

      I am also curious as to why you think that the best technical grounding is through WAM. Is it your personal experiences of studying it that make you feel this way, or observations you have made? I would be really interested in engaging with you on why you think this is a fact.

      Liked by 2 people

        Douglas Scott said:
        May 22, 2015 at 9:01 am

        If you look upthread you will find that I defined WAM in terms of its notation system. This is the technical grounding I am referring to.

        Sure, you can try to teach and learn by rote, but the simple fact that traditional non-notated cultural artefacts are at ever-present risk of disappearing should be evidence enough that learning without writing is not sufficient. Youtube doesn’t change this equation much, because as far as I am concerned the key is the act of translating from text to act, and vice versa (apologies to Herr Taruskin).

        Forget about the Western part of “art music”, just like we should forget about “Arabic” part (actually Indo-Arabic) when we write numbers. Numbers are not “colonised” by Muslims or Hindus, and Latins do not use Roman numerals to preserve their culture. Nor do I write in runes because I have distant Celtic ancestry long forgotten in the mists of time.

        No. We use the numbers and scripts we use because they are efficient and effective. Unlike writing, though, there simply is no fully fledged alternative to the system of notation used in all parts of the world, from Japan to the southern tip of Argentina to write music of every culture known to man. The mere fact that this system was developed in Western Europe (because of the peculiar socio-cultural requirements of the Medieval Catholic church) is neither here nor there.

        If you want to reinvent the wheel and develop a new “decolonised” system purely for African music from scratch, be my guest. That would be a wonderful and welcome addition to the sum of knowledge. But, call me a cynic if you like, I won’t be holding my breath.

        Until such time, the colonial impulse is to say that there is something other about South Africans, such that they don’t need or deserve to use the best available tools. As if they need something more appropriate to their culture. Rubbish, I say, music is a human artefact, culture is imposed on top. The things that make Art Music notation effective makes it effective for all cultures.

        [Interestingly, this is quite a different situation from that of languages, where different scripts definitely do work more effectively in different contexts and culture plays a much more powerful role. But that’s a longer, much more fascinating, discussion]


        Etienne Viviers said:
        May 22, 2015 at 9:14 am

        Douglas, You say that there’s no alternative to the (Western classical) system of musical notation, used in all parts of the world to write music of every culture known to man. And yet you also argue that Western classical music is the best possible curricular choice because other types of music (specifically African indigenous musics, in this context) aren’t notated through this system. You say that in languages different scripts do work more effectively in different contexts than with music, whereas the Western classical system of musical notation presumably has universal applications. And yet there is still the problem that you simultaneously argue against the curricular presence of types of music that are non-notated.

        Liked by 1 person

        Kerri Wayne said:
        May 22, 2015 at 3:51 pm

        Thanks, Douglas. I think we may be getting into muddy waters here, so at the risk of sounding overly pedantic, I’d still like to know what connections you are drawing between the “pedagogical component” of WAM and its notation system. What do you perceive to be the “pedagogical component” and how is it related to notation? Similarly, what do you mean by “technical grounding”? I understand that you are uncomfortable with rote systems, and that you believe that no other notation system exists that can be used in all parts of the world, but I still don’t see the connection you are making between that and music pedagogy.

        Firstly, keep in mind that a decolonised music education does not mean “let’s get rid of Western notation altogether” in the same way that a decolonised education does not mean “let’s get rid of English altogether”. I strongly urge you to read some of Kofi Agawu’s work on semiotics and representing African music if you would like to know more about the complex and multifaceted nature of postcolonial approaches to African music analysis. I am reading him at the moment and I would love to engage with others on his position.

        The rote vs note argument is extensive and controversial. Unfortunately, many of our South African universities don’t often facilitate discussions about that as much as they should. I understand your concern about the disappearance of musical artefacts. You have dismissed YouTube; will you also dismiss the Smithsonian databases and the work being done at the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown to? Also, perhaps you could have a brief look at David Dargie’s (1996) notes on how ancient songs have survived in Africa through oral traditions (this is particularly impressive when one considers how determined colonisers were to oppress these traditions because they believed them to be “evil”).

        I think that saying that the WAM system of notation (as we’re calling it for now) is the only system that can be used in all parts of the world is incorrect. Many of the world’s musics simply are not compatible with WAM notation. There are so many other systems of notation that are more adaptable, and not all of them are ancient. I disagree that culture is separate from music but that is also a BIG debate that many scholars are having internationally. However, how does your argument make WAM notation effective for Sakuhachi music, or a lead sheet effective for reading a Bach fugue?

        I am still interested in the pedagogy though. You seem to think Western pedagogy is the best and I want to know what that is to you and why you think so. If your understanding is based purely on notation, your view of pedagogy is limited and there are many flaws in your argument. Some of what we are discussing above is relevant, but studies have also proven time and again that notation often inhibits innate musicality in young children. That is why most pedagogies popular in the West (Music Learning Theory in particular, but also Orff, Kodaly, and others) use alternative ways to introduce young children to (Western Art) music. If you could search a database of dissertations in the USA you’ll likely find many dealing with alternatives to WAM-notation in the classroom because of the ways in which it has become an inhibiting factor, and the ways in which it contributes to the exclusionary nature of music at schools.

        Just to reiterate though – I am not saying we must get rid of (WAM) notation. I am definitely saying that it shouldn’t stay on its pedestal and that we should, at the very least, consider it critically and try to understand why we think the things we do about it.

        Thanks for continuing this discussion with me.

        Liked by 2 people

    Etienne Viviers said:
    May 25, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Hi Martin, Thanks for your contribution.
    I agree with you that We are not all stupid and most definitely not millionaires.


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