I'm reading at the moment. Reading nearly every second. And when I'm not reading, I'm listening to every piece of South African music I own. But mostly to Karen Zoid. I finally own Chasing the Sun (courtesy of iTunes), and I keep discovering new things that fascinate me.
Have you ever heard "Danville Diva"? I can't find it in preview anywhere online, so my suggestion is that you listen to it on iTunes. There is a wonderful moment in that where Karen imitates an Afrikaans Diva accent (I think I prefer "princess" to "diva", because of the connection between "diva" and camp sensibility, but they mean roughly the same thing). I spent several hours listening to that today, thinking about how I might describe that sound, specifically to a non-South African. And then when I was searching for the song on YouTube for the purposes of this blog, I came across the wonderful recently added video from Karen's February performance in London.
The accent imitation is fascinating, but I'm also delighted by the moments of what Gary Tomlinson would call (if I remember the article I studied years ago correctly) "signifyin(g)", where she sings a fragment of a Malaika number (the final moments of "Destiny"), and Mary Mary's "Shackles". I have heard both songs often enough (if you have watched South African television station SABC 1 after about 23:00, you have probably heard them too), but don't know much about these groups. Whenever I hear the name Malaika I'm reminded of the Kenyan song by the same name, though I would hesitate to suggest that the group are deliberately referencing that. It is, however, interesting to me to hear Karen Zoid singing a gospel number about slavery in an RnB style within a "Kwaito style" (as she says at the beginning of the video clip) song. There's so much going on there!
My most recent intellectual obsession has been with describing vocal timbre, and in a recent writing exercise for Suzanne Cusick's 'Feminist and Queer Musicology' class, I discovered that language and accent are particularly good areas from which to approach this task. So that delightful litttle Karen moment got me very excited.
Then earlier I read an article by Cornelia Fales that Jason Stanyek recommended to me (if you have access to JSTOR, the link above will work, if not, you won't be able to access this particular article, and will just have to take my word on it). It's on timbre alright, and is a concerted effort to write (ethno)musicologically about timbre. But while I think the author's attempt to focus strongly on timbre rather than other aspects of music analysis is interesting, I was a bit disappointed by what I read as a collapse into references to the strongly visual. She uses spectographs to represent much of what she describes, and in the end doesn't really achieve much. I agree that the lack of vocabulary makes it impossible to talk directly on the topic, but I think that a more productive strategy, and one that I think Louise Meintjes exercises particularly effectively in Sound of Africa involves listening to how musicians (in her instance, studio technicians) talk about the sounds they're working with. It works, I think, because the writing focuses on a purpose beyond itself. She isn't writing about timbre for its own sake. She is writing about it to explain how a particular set of South African identities are constituted musically, and it works. I'm not entirely uncritical of her broader project (I think the collapsing of Zuluness, South Africanness and Africanness is the most troubling fault) but I do think she is doing the most exciting work of this nature I have encountered yet. Other related projects include Gage Averill's Four Parts, No Waiting and Aaron Fox's Real Country.
I love having an excuse to do all this good reading and listening!