Music as cultural expression has strong currency, yet the transformative social power of music and its political symbolism is often overshadowed by its more immediate aesthetic consequences. Music is most commonly associated with the pursuit of leisure and entertainment and while these aspects are important, the role of music in the broader making and re-production of cultural life has been proven to be an important medium for social change.
In the Cape specifically, the legacy of colonialism is starkly outlined by the loss of memory and lack of documentation of musical forms dating back to as early as the 1650s when the first wave of formal colonialism hit the region, to as recently as the 1960s when apartheid social engineering sought to obliterate certain kinds of cultural memory. The erasure of indigenous practices, which includes musical practices, and value systems was a key tool of colonialism. Interestingly, the first recorded description of European reaction to African music and the first known written record of musical acculturation occurred in 1497 when Vasco da Gama, on meeting with a group of Khoikhoi in Mossel Bay noted that they ‘…at once began to play on four or five flutes, and some of them played high and others played low, harmonising together very well for blacks from whom music is not expected’.
Virtually no records exist of the musical tradition of the people of the early Cape slave settlement, but information can be gleaned from a close reading of personal and travel accounts and of paintings and sketches. The slave economy in Cape Town and rural surrounding areas simultaneously provided a highly regulated and policed public space as well as dynamic clandestine space for the syncretic blending of cultures and art forms from places as far afield as Mozambique, Indonesia, India, parts of West Africa and Europe with local indigenous music. Over time and with the increasing development of a distinctive Cape culture , a strong merging of musical traditions coalesced to form a rich Cape musical tradition. Music was a major leisure pastime for the colonising clusters at the Cape , and slaves were recruited to perform European music pieces in orchestras for households and at public functions . No sheet music or recordings of slave orchestras survive, but one can imagine that possibly as a subtle form of resistance, slaves may have played in a style or rhythm that echoed musical traditions of an exiled home, or in the case of Cape-born slaves, of a link to an ancestral home.
Although scattered examples of musical expression have been collected from the records, the overwhelming situation seems to have consisted of a proscribed set of musical practices paralleled with sanctioned musical expression for the benefit of colonists and slave owners. Early slave ordinances prohibited even the sound of whistling slaves at night! The symbolic power of music and dancing and its links to political power and social change is echoed by the fact that in almost all visual depictions of the emancipation of slaves at the Cape in 1838, freed people are depicted as dancing, singing or participating in a musical event. In addition, the performance of music was translated into economic value at the Cape, with slave traders demanding higher prices for talented slave musicians.
While much of the musical history of Cape Town and its surrounding areas is firmly rooted in the traditions built up through centuries, relatively recent musical forms like jazz impressed an indelible stamp on the cultural landscape. Jazz in District Six was inextricably linked with a sense of freedom that belied the political realities of the time and the apartheid agenda of segregation. As Vincent Kolbe in an interview in 1998 explains:
“…And I tell you something, when I eventually got to the stage [and] we started playing jazz and so, even the audience was from all sectors of the community…and it really brought people together from all walks of life. That is why it became a victim. Because when the regime started passing laws like no mixed dancing, no mixed dining, no mixed playing and no mixed bands, how the hell do you run a jazz club? So that made it impossible for culture, for the art to flourish.”
The variety of musical traditions and innovation in District Six was not limited to carnival and jazz, but included a wide array of dance music, band music, choral music, opera and orchestral music. Part of the work of restitution of District Six and the honouring of various legacies of the Cape is to focus on the memory work of these musical expressions, to re-imagine ways of working with musical legacies and to record the knowledge and creativity.
So the memories that the old people had and that they passed onto you gives you the picture of how they spent their leisure time, how they lived, how they worked, how they raised their kids, the songs they sang, the dances they did, the food they ate, the dresses they wore. And it is all picked up from their memories and it reflects the time in which they lived and it is almost like seeing an old movie.For example, my granny would say [that] when they danced on the weekends it was right through the night."
The Museum recognises the profound importance that music and expressive culture have played in articulating the aspirations of oppressed and dispossessed people in South Africa. The work of highlighting musical heritage is therefore integral to a larger process of healing and redress now occurring in urban diaspora communities on the Cape Flats and in rural areas of the Western Cape.