Black Music and the Aesthetics of Protest – Hammer Museum

“the Protester” by tafari mashingaidze

Black Music and the Aesthetics of Protest

Co-presented with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Department of Musicology

Neo Muyanga’s opera The Struggle serves as a departure point for a panel discussion exploring the role of Black opera and other genres of Black music in achieving racial justice and social change, the persistent exclusionary politics of musical genres, and the future revolutionary potential of historically defined Black genres.

Moderated by Tamara Levitz, Professor of Musicology, UCLA, the panelists will include Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African-American Studies, Duke University; Guthrie Ramsey, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professorof Music , University of Pennsylvania; Robin Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History, UCLA; Shana Redmond, Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California; and Gayle Murchison, Associate Professor of Musicology, College of William and Mary.

Supported by the UCHRI Vital Dialogue series

notes from joburg

Notes from a composer-in-residence, April & May 2015

How To Say “!ke e: /xarra //ke”

Being a fortunated minstrel moor, yours truly received an unexpected commission from the Southern African Music rights Organisation (SAMRO) foundation to compose a new prescribed work for singers to be performed by competitors in this year’s overseas scholarship competition.

The commission landed with the following brief:

“the work is to be a virtuoso piece testing the ability and skills of a singer at an advanced level.
The text to be sung: an extract from the vision statement co-authored by Njabulo Ndebele and Antjie Krog, commissioned by the NPC. Length of the work: 5 minutes”.

This was a request to make a young diva or divo sing the preamble to the National Planning Commission report – hardly a pedestrian ask for those accustomed to scaling more conventional lyrical heights! Now, i know well the poetry of both Prof’s, Ndebele and Krog: I treasure it all very much!
But this preamble business … eish – it reads more like a political position paper (necessarily) than a dexterous arioso. “No matter. That’s the gig, so let’s get on with it”, i thought.

I began by looking for a poetic (of sorts) entry into the thing. One paragraph stood out:

Our multiculturalism is a defining element of our indigeneity.
We are, because we are so many.
Our many-ness is our strength – we carry it in us throughout our lives.

It occurred to me that the motto emblazoned on our national coat of arms, !Ke e: /xarra //ke (often translated from the !Xam as “diverse people unite”), echoes the sentiments expressed in this stanza.
How better to test a virtuoso’s ability and skill than to have them vocalise this tongue-defying motto correctly under duress during a highly prestigious singing competition?!

That is how this motto became the first line in a 5 minute-long song i composed, which contained the refrain

We are Africans. in an African century”

Sadly, i cannot give you a rendition of this new work now as it is embargoed until its premiere at the overseas completion later this year.

Violence and the immigrant

As part of a conference on ‘public space, infrastructure and informality’ hosted by WISER and the University of Michigan, i convened a panel on ‘violence and the immigrant’ at the Worker’s museum in Newtown, Joburg.

This was, of course, an attempt to respond directly to the harrowing pictures and reports we keep getting concerning violence perpetrated on black and brown immigrants in South Africa by angry and disaffected South Africans in Durban, Joburg, Cape Town and other parts of the country.

The panel was conceived as a platform for seeking a more nuanced understanding of the causes and the deeper meaning of these atrocious acts of violence – nuance that is, sadly, lacking in much of the cacophonous debates we hear on our national radio and tv stations regarding ‘foreigners’ .

We hear much about how foreigners need to guarantee their safety in our communities by, for instance, volunteering to share their ‘secret’ business nous (and juju) with poor, marginalised black South Africans. The claim here being that such gracious behaviour on the part of the foreigners would help ensure their disadvantaged hosts aren’t left bereft while they (the foreigners) selfishly amass opportunities in commerce. (i am paraphrasing some of the more embarrassing pronouncements coming from members of our cabinet here, sadly).

The panel consisted of an in-detail report by journalist, Khadija Patel, on the attitudes of those who admit to having perpetrated the violence in Soweto recently. You can read her full report here:

This was followed by responses by prof. Sarah Nuttall and myself plus a selection of comments from those gathered on possible ways to think about the history and the making of Johannesburg as an African metropolis of the 21st century.

This was followed by a very informative tour of the Worker’s museum:

Later that same evening, i invited my newest collaborators – the House of Prayer for all Nations choir (HNP) – to perform an alternative version of !Ke e: /xarra //ke at the WITS theatre.

The approach to HNP was made since many of the singers there are members of the congolese community now-living-in inner-city Joburg. The choir makes a point of collecting gospel material from across the continent and of singing in the many languages of Africa: kiSwahili, Lingala, English, Yoruba, isiZulu, French and seSotho and so on.

It occurred to many of us during this exercise of curating a presentation on immigrants in inner-city that we should think strategically about the church as an institution – regardless of whether this be space rented, per week, in a high-rise tenement, or across an unoccupied open field somewhere outside – that represents one of the more open platforms where Africans meet to collaborate and support each other today.

i leave you with this clip of the concert of that night.

Neo Muyanga
WISER/UCHRI composer-in-residence

draft advert

WiSER invites you to two events byNeo Muyanga

Panel on Violence and the Immigrant

Workers Museum, Newtown


Speakers: Khadija Patel (Journalist and WISER Fellow), Bishop Paul Verryn (Civil Rights Activist), Prof Sarah Nuttall (Director of WISER), Neo Muyanga (WISER Resident Composer)

Uniti Hymn Concert, with the House of Prayer for All Nations Choir featuring Neo Muyanga

Wits Theatre
5:30 for 6pm

The House of Prayer for all Nations Choir comprises members of the Congolese community now living in inner city Johannesburg. They perform gospel songs from the Congo, South Africa and other parts of the continent in the many languages of africa, with the express aim of fostering a spirit of collaboration between Africans in South Africa.

WiSER composer-in-residence, Neo Muyanga, collaborates with the HPN chorus in creating a new hymn – the Uniti anthem, based on the preamble to the national planning commission written by poets, Njabulo Ndebele and Antjie Krog.

The concert premier of the Uniti anthem will be recorded live to form part of an art installation at the African union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, set to open in 2015.

update on acts as composer-in-residence at WISER/ UCHRI february/march 2015

revolting music

a bourgeois sitting at the piano alongside parque augusta while an anti-gentrification sit-in plays out across the road

i received an invitation from the goethe institut, brazil, to curate an intervention to interrogate the place of protest music and art in the global south in the 21t century as part of a conference the goethe institut is hosting this year called ‘episodes of the south’.

my work in response to this invitation comes directly out of on-going research into the history of protest music in south africa and tracking how this type of aesthetic activism has been either affected or transformed in south africa since the advent of democracy in 1994.

In preparation for launching our interventionist project in sao paolo, in june 2015, i travelled to brazil and uruguay in february and march so i could begin to understand the parallels that exist between communities of artists and their song activism in these two south american countries and those in south africa.

brazil has the dubious honour of being the country with world’s largest black population outside africa, yet is accused by many locally and abroad for its perceived denialism concerning racism.

until as recently as march 1st, 2015, uruguay was known world-wide as the country with a beetle-driving, hitchhiker-lifting activist president who deftly refused to alienate himself from his working-class roots and who’s radical views on economic growth included turning his country into the first 21st century state dealer-of-marijuana.

today both these south american countries continue to hold firmly onto forms of protest music-making that remain deeply rooted in african aesthetics, having both been recipients of africans pilfered and dislocated forcefully during the trans-atlantic slave trade.

my journey there in february and march became a very fruitful reconnaissance mission and has resulted in my meeting scores of musicians, painters, architects, teachers and traders who i will be enlisting to help enliven the streets of sao paolo during the week of June 7th to 14, 2015 with stories, music, food and mass installations.

we hope this intervention, entitled “massa revoltante” (“a revolting mass”), will help engender greater collaboration between countries in south america and south africa on the theme of aesthetics in politics.

on madness

our production entitled “madness – a preliminary sketch” was programmed as the opening work at the very popular “infecting the city” arts festival in cape town this year.

following a week of very intense rehearsals in two school halls in khayelitsha during the first week of march, we performed to capacity audiences on march 9th and 10th at the historic groote kerk in church square, cape town (the legendary burial ground of cape colony founding govenor, simon van de stel).

the production design sought to elaborate on my on-going research into ways of introducing the premise for black aesthetics in genre of opera. mounting the production therefore offered an ideal opportunity to further my understanding of the ways in which opera might be a form of political posturing and subversion after taking on african forms of expression inspired by locating it within a community like khayelitsha. please find a copy of the programme note here:

attached are images and brief (and somewhat bizarre) brief captions off a blog by ashram hendricks:

A woman plays a violin during her performance known as “Madness – A Prelimenary Sketch” in Groote Kerk, Cape Town. “Madness” is a multi-media work including a choir, live music ensemble & animated visuals.

A man plays piano during a performance known as “Madness – A Prelimenary Sketch” in Groote Kerk, Cape Town.

A young woman from the choir performs during a performance known as “Madness – A Prelimenary Sketch” in Groote Kerk, Cape Town.

Overview of the performance known as “Madness – A Prelimenary Sketch” in Groote Kerk during the annual Infecting the City. This event drew over 150 people who all attended for free.

the brand new release: ‘toro tse Sekete – a myriad dreams

dear friends please visit the site ( to purchase and download the new record: ‘toro tse Sekete – a myriad dreams’, which has been over two years in-the-making.
the record features appearances by: the Kwanalytical Chamber associates (KwaCha); los Nyongos; Vhavenda tea pickers; the Joy of Africa choir and flautist, Blues Mabaso.
let us know what you think…

watch the trailer: revolting songs

please join us for a live streaming of the concert at chimu central this thursday january 15th, 2015.

a note from Renee

London-based concert pianist, Renee Reznek, brings Neo Muyanga’s “Hade Tata” to South Africa

This is my very first blog and I am not sure that I am a natural blogger! I find it interesting that whilst I play contemporary music, love modern art and architecture, read new novels and watch the latest films, I am resistant to other aspects of modern life! But wonderful Natalie Eskinazi who has built me a new website has encouraged me by creating a blog page so here goes…

I have been practising Neo Muyanga’s new piece Hade Tata (Sorry Father) which I commissioned. It is a highly evocative piece written in tribute to Nelson Mandela to commemorate the 20th anniversary in 2014 of democratic elections in South Africa. Neo lives in Cape Town and is also writing an opera about Mandela.

Perhaps this is why I have felt so reflective of late; the piece poignantly expresses sorrow and trepidation in the midst of celebration. Muyanga communicates Madiba’s anxiety that he will not live up to the expectations of the world as well as our sorrow at having “fallen short of those hopes and dreams we once held sacred”. The music constantly alternates between joy and sadness.

I was thinking about this particularly on the 21st March. In South Africa it is Human Rights Day and a public holiday in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre. But here in London it is a day which our family celebrates with joy; it is both my husband’s birthday and the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. This year I could not help but reflect on the gulf between these two yearly events which resonate in my calendar; sorrow amidst celebration again.

Again, in this anniversary year, the disparity between what we hoped for in South Africa and the present reality is painfully obvious. Yet there is still so much to be grateful for.

I will never forget the elation of returning home for the first time after the dismantling of apartheid. So on the 26th April at Homerton College in Cambridge on the eve of that extraordinary day when everyone was able to vote for the very first time in South Africa, I hope to feel part of the celebrations by giving the premiere of Hade Tata. There will be sorrow at the loss of Mandela, an iconic South African, sadness at the corruption of his legacy but celebration of a truly great man and a prayer for a better future.

  • Thu 29th January 2015 at 7:30pm

    Johannesburg International Mozart Festival

    Northwards House, Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Music by Satie, Debussy, Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Sadie Harrison and the first SA performance of Hade Tata in tribute to Nelson Mandela by Neo Muyanga
  • Tues 3rd February 2015 at 7:30pm

    Music Revival

    35 Montgomery Drive, Athlone PMB, R120
    Includes wine and coffee.Tickets:
    Booking: Call 033 3423051 or email booking

  • Sun 8th February 2015 at 4:30pm

    Endler Concert Series

    Fismer Hall,
    University of Stellenbosch,
    31 Victoria Street,
    Stellenbosch, 7600
    Price: R100
    Booking: Computicket

  • Tues 10th February 2015 at 1pm

    University of Cape Town

    University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
    Lunchtime recital.


The Indiegogo campaign is here: