Saturday, October 01, 2005

a bit from my research report.

wow, a whole week since my last post. It has been a busy one, including, among other things, a trip to the opera with 21 music undergrads, and my GRE exam (at least that's out of the way).

Mostly, though, I've been working on my honours project. so here is a little bit from the beginning of it. Will post more as I get the referencing fixed up....

“If you have a hang-up about it, you can leave!”

It was the last thing I expected to hear from a choir master, hours before a performance. Truth was, I did have a “hang up” over what he was requiring, and I didn’t feel unjustified. The evening before, we had been instructed to “make an African-sounding noise for eight bars” at the end of a piece of music, and aside from my discomfort over the idea of noise having a nationality, I was extremely uncomfortable with something so apparently unmusical in a choir performance. I couldn’t even count eight bars without some sort of structure in that moment of performance, and I certainly couldn’t achieve any co-ordination in my usually fairly instinctual movements. I don’t know whether I actually crossed my arms and legs when the original instruction was given, but I certainly felt like doing so.

Choir rehearsals have always been a safe space for me, somewhere where I was just capable enough to be above average without standing out. I did not like feeling out of control. I wasn’t alone. The young woman sitting beside me pulled a face, and I heard a furtively whispered debate over the sanity of the conductor somewhere to my left. But there were others who stood, as if to attention, expressing solidarity with a conductor they trusted, willing to take whatever chance he considered necessary to the success of the performance. The choir was divided.

In the end, we all made the required noise, the conductor was satisfied, and the adrenaline we were feeling after an hour and a half on stage masked any lingering discomfort. Watching a video recording of the concert several weeks later, I had to concede that it was an impressive conclusion to the program. The music that preceded it built dramatically up to an explosion of sound and energy, which was followed by a spontaneous, high-energy, immensely satisfying rendition of Tshosholoza that brought the audience to their feet, and propelled us off stage in impressive fashion. The performance had been a success.

But my discomfort lingered. Whether I wanted to accept it or not, this relatively innocuous incident brought into question all my deeply felt, and unquestioned perceptions about why I sing what I sing, and even, what music is, and more specifically, what African or South African music is.

South African identity politics
The reasons individual choristers give for singing in choirs are diverse, and often revolve around issues of personal satisfaction, group interaction and creative expression. In a previous study I conducted amongst choristers of the choir of the University of the Witwatersrand, the impact of a desire for nationalized identity on choristers’ decision to participate in a particular type of racially integrated choir became apparent. This study revealed that, while choristers derive some satisfaction from the group dynamic characterized by the choir, many white and coloured choristers specifically seek out an inclusive, racially integrated, culturally mixed South African identity when choosing to sing in a choir of this nature (Hammond, 2004).

Jacklyn Cock and Alison Bernstein have cited as an explanation for the rise in “The explosion of fundamentalist movements and particularistic identities” (Cock and Bernstein, 2002) Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that we "are living through a gigantic 'cultural revolution,' an extraordinary dissolution of traditional social norms, textures and values. In this context men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain. And they find it in an identity group" (Hobsbawm, 1994, quoted in Cock and Bernstein, 2002, conclusion). While such ‘identity groups’ are frequently constructed around racial, ethnic and cultural identities, such constructions can, as Cock and Bernstein point out, be mobilized in order to divide, rather than reconcile people (Cock and Bernstein, 2002, chapter 3).

The non-racial identity projected by the ruling political party in South Africa, the ANC, is heavily invested in the “Rainbow nation” ideology, but there is an inherent tension between the government sponsored notions of South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation,” and the mainly foreign-policy motivated conception of the “African Renaissance,” primarily because of the contrasting perceptions, in each case, of South African identity. While the rainbow nation ideology, as Cock and Bernstein point out, is predicated around the notion of non-racism, or multi-racialism (Cock and Bernstein, 2002), the African renaissance is conceptualized as a “counterbalance” to Eurocentric international relations (Kornegay, Landsberg and McDonald, 2001), and hence can be interpreted as antagonistic to South African identities with historical and cultural connections to Europe.

While a simple reading of the situation would suggest, therefore, that embracing the rainbow nation conception, and abandoning African renaissance notions should be enough to stabilize notions of an inclusive South African identity group, the reality is that South Africa’s position in the international political and economic arena may be dependent on the construction of an African identity that is, if not antagonistic to Euro-American identities, at least clearly distinct from them. Cock and Bernstein point out that one of the greatest shortcomings of much contemporary social theory and activism is not its failure to recognize difference, but rather its uncritical universal application of established (and often hegemonized) structures (Cock and Bernstein, 2002). The effect of such “globalization” is potentially a degree of homogenization that may not be recognized because of the extent to which such structures are considered universal. If you believe that a structure has a universal applicability, you may not notice the changes that happen in order to make a particular body function within that structure. And no matter how effective such changes may make the functioning of the whole, the reality is that they dilute identities. In order for Africa, as a whole, and South Africa, in particular, to function at optimum efficiency on the global stage, therefore, it is necessary for us, as Cock and Bernstein suggest, to not simply fit in with the Eurocentric structures that dominate international relations, but rethink, and potentially reconfigure these structures (Cock and Bernstein, 2002). Global structures need to be developed around the needs of all participants in order to be effective. Exactly what these needs are, however, cannot be determined until clear notions of the identities of all these participants have been formulated.

What is Identity?
While the term “identity” is frequently associated with the individual, and notions of “self”, it is difficult, or even impossible, to consider the concept without reference to the collective. While post-structuralist, postcolonial theory discourages the dichotomization of complex concepts, it is fairly standard practice to conceptualize identity in terms of a “self”/ “other” dichotomy.[1] One reason for this could be that it is seldom necessary for the individual to define a personal identity unless their self-concept is challenged, and such a challenge usually exists in the form of an “other” or different identity
[1] See, for example: Sartre (1948), Sartre (1956), Fanon (1967), Born and Hesmondhalgh (2000)

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