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.
(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 http://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/71885
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).