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Zim Ngqawana: Sound, Song, and Humanity

By Published: May 12, 2011
AAJ: How has the music changed since 1994 and the decolonization of South Africa (to use your phrase)? Did it change freedom to make music or listen to music?

ZN: Generally, yes. What is happening now is people are exposed to a lot of resources. Let's take for instance a new genre of music which is an equivalent of hip-hop in the States—it's called kwaito here. Younger musicians are able to be signed by record companies in no time and make success out of it. They have their own labels and get rich. I applaud that, you know, it's empowerment. People are getting empowered.

On the other hand, creative music is suffering, because of this new dispensation that people are "free." I think people have to look for real freedom—the one that is not going to be given to them. And that's where the challenge comes. Because again... acquisition of things, amassing wealth, information can also cause stagnation based on complacency. So that hand up for people to discover themselves as a people is now being overwhelmed by what people can get—which is available already.

And I think the same thing in the States, too, you know. People before used to really play in such a deep way that you could feel that they wanted to realize themselves as people. But also now that most of the music is coming out of music schools, there isn't that edge to it. I think we're going to see that in South Africa. Already we are seeing it. There's not many of us who are practicing in this genre. What you tend to see at the so-called jazz festivals is a mixture of everything. So there isn't a specific jazz movement, and I think that can come about again by this interaction with the musicians there [in the States]. There are still great figures there. By just coming out here and do things, we'll restore that. That's necessary.

AAJ: So the changes are not necessarily positive for the music that you love and support.

ZN: Spiritually speaking, not just about the music, as I said... that goes across as effects on language. As well as now people are trading. People are busy. You know, translations are made. And English is the dominant language. Even at schools, people don't think there is a great need to keep up indigenous languages. The radio stations, also, if you listen to the DJs, how they speak... people are losing a lot of things because of this.

4. Ingoma: Music, Dance, and Healing

AAJ: I'm curious to hear how you felt playing at Mandela's inauguration, leading the drummers. What did that mean for you?

ZN: What I saw there was the possibility of creating a new orchestra. And we know where to go to create that more. Recently I visited East Africa. I came across orchestras—large orchestras—using all these old instruments in Zanzibar. They come out of a very interesting tradition. The confrontation between Egyptians, Persia, India. And what came out of that is amazing, with the African sensibility that has been retained. It's very unique. So that inauguration thing we did with Mandela has allowed me to see things in a much broader perspective. I was not only seeing a new South Africa, I'm seeing an orchestra of the continent.

If you look at the title on the Zimphonic Suites called "Ingoma Ya Kwantu," that's what it means: the music of the continent. But again that goes beyond the issue of the language. We emphasize the language. Kwantu comes from Ubuntu ("humanity"), you know. Umtu means "creation." We are trying to bring back that concept.

The challenges that are facing the country as well as the continent... renaming this country and this entire continent so it can really revelate in a positive way within its inhabitants. Because, again, language is like music. If you use certain sounds, certain pitches and nuances to evoke certain things, you may get a negative or positive result, depending on the intention behind the one who invokes all of these things. So again, careful usage of language carried by sound is necessary. We have a long way to go.

I think the issues that artists should address are how can we contribute to the political. I know they are stuck, they are struggling, trying to find ways to bring about a certain identity. But we also do know that the tendency of the political end is not to consult the artists. I say again on the album that artists are never really entertainers—they are creative thinkers! You see? And I said in terms of old and new, but they always had musicians there to inspire them, to guide the activities. But modern society does not respect that any more. I think we have ways through sound to understand just this continent, what it means.

You should backtrack and go to the album called Ingoma. You know that the whole continent understands music as Ingoma? And even understands certain instruments, and certain dances, as Ingoma? The whole concept of Ingoma means healing. And that is the true purpose of music. So we are looking forward to this celebration, so that we can quickly bring these concepts into place so that they can be implemented, and they can all become relevant within this change... where we are together with politicians, and everybody is interested in working with people who are creative. In the sense of understanding who they are, and wish to share with others. And that is the role of the true artist.

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