Sonata Claptrapico

That the classical music scene would be hit by the current round of race-carding seems obvious now. The wonder is that it took so long, actually. I remember something of the fuss Hendrik Hofmeyr created by daring to name a work Sinfonia africana, even though this work was deemed to be devoid of “African” material. Whatever that may be. After that unpleasantness, things mostly cooled down, and the country become rapidly distracted by allegations of corruption surrounding the arms deal, and the ensuing brouhaha at Polokwane. Until last month, that is, because Mokale Koapeng and Shadrack Bokaba of the embattled JPO have seen fit to go head to head in the press over “black” music and its position in South African society.

As usual, both parties miss the mark by a wide margin, and the community of South African musicians (black and white) pay the greatest price for their bad shooting. Mokale, fresh from having been selected as the first composer in residence for the Johannesburg Mozart Festival, fired the first shots, accusing the JPO of ignoring black composers and doing nothing for developing black music in the country. Explaining the lack of black faces at the Linder Auditorium, Koapeng pulled no punches. “I blame the JPO for that,” he said. “Black people worldwide have made significant contributions to (Western) classical music … and groups like the JPO have been ‘agents’ – to quote Julius Malema – of ‘mis-educating’ blacks of that fact. They have done them a serious disservice.”

See more of the same at

Shadrack Bokaba of the JPO shot back and accused Koapeng of not even realizing that the Wits School of Music, with which Koapeng works, had been involved with the JPO’s outreach programme, and insinuated that Koapeng was being big-headed and voor-op-die-wa. From here things rapidly descended into incoherence, the spat coming to rest in that condition on the arts pages of the Mail and Guardian. Pedigrees and lineages were trotted out, but little sense seemed to prevail.

Koapeng accused Bokaba of missing the point. “It’s not whether you are doing it, it’s how you are doing it,” is what he says, in essence. Why are there no black composers or soloists being given a share of the limelight?

Well, I thought the answer to that one should have been obvious. Women have been asking a similar question for years – so long, in fact, that they seem to have given up in the last while. So, for those of you who may, in a fit of acute white conscientiousness, be taken in by both Koapeng and Bokaba, here it is in very short sentences:

  1. “Classical” music comes from Europe. It was first made by Europeans and is part of the tradition of European culture. Modern orchestras are the inheritors of the tradition.
  2. During the time at which most of the music which now dominates the concert hall was created, communication with Africa was of a very special, colonial kind. The figures of Bridgetower, Ignazio Sancho and the Chevalier de St. George (the last two are by far more important than the first) are evidence of this. The fact is that Koapeng is completely wrong in pointing to “significant contributions” made by blacks to European music in the Era of Common Practise. One finds a complete lack of Indonesian influence in European music during the same period for exactly the same reason. Geography, doos. Poor Bridgetower lived the life of a black performing artist in Europe in defiance of monstrous odds, and probably wrote what little music he did as a way of keeping his profile up. The Sonata mullatica, known to us only by its title, speaks volumes in just two words. But I digress.
  3. Modern orchestras all over the world have, since the late 1980s, found themselves dealing with an ever-shrinking audience and budget. The JPO is among many who have responded by closing the laager and sticking to a meat-and-two-veg programming strategy, which keeps the blue-rinse brigade happy and has the added advantage of not being too challenging musically.
  4. South African orchestras (since their inception) have been slaves to fashion, and incorrigible hangers-on to anything First World. It is part of our pronounced national inferiority complex. We fawn and fall over anything in tails that has a ticket stamped Rome or St. Petersburg, with scant regard to the actual talent of said creature. Many a great South African artist has had to watch as lesser mortals with only a glossier passport and unpronounceable surname to their credit have usurped a stage which was rightfully theirs.
  5. Furthermore, and as a result of the above, a Catch-22 situation has developed whereby South African composers and soloists leave the country, unable to find decent employment here.  This lowers the local standard of South African music, which does wonders for our self-confidence during our formative years.

Ergo: Black composers had little or no chance to begin with. And that’s not even taking Apartheid into account. So any finger-wagging on Koapeng’s part is laughable. It takes 20 years (at least!) to train a violinist. You do the maff. His logic is also a little wonky – if all of the outreach programmes he seems to hold in high regard were so great, they surely must have produced some artists of stature. So how can he complain about a lack of black artists?

Also, the JPO does seem to be guilty of some window dressing, and this is an accusation that was leveled at it by the very people it was supposed to be developing. This was during a tumultuous period of several stressful months which finally culminated in

So caveat lector when reading the JPO’s press releases. They still haven’t explained adequately why South African artists (black and white – and there are more than a few of the former) feature so sparingly in their programmes.

The whole argument brings into light a depressing trend in the criticism of South African music – and that is to ignore completely the musical and to focus on the political. New “New” South African works are reported on in terms of their subject matter (invariably political) and little else. It seems that the average music critic and his/her editor believes the South African public to be entirely incapable of forming musical opinions; that they are, in short, tasteless. In fact, of late it seems that South African works are concieved in political terms, and musical considerations are secondary. Surely we can’t all be so politically obsessed that the only music worth listening to endlessly rehashes our history of struggle (in one form or another)? Speed the day when South African composers produce South African works of music which have at least as much to do with the inner life of the artist or the pursuit of an aesthetic principle!


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