District Six has a rich musical heritage. The experiences of the Sophiatown and Fietas communities before forced removals have been described as comparable. The Museum has sought to strengthen this musical legacy through a number of projects that tie together performance, imagination, research, documentation and memory in order to build and sustain a living musical archive and promote musical expression.
The Museum has developed a progressive research agenda which seeks to address the inequities of cultural development and knowledge-making, and to promote social healing through the fore-fronting of cultural memory in the Western Cape in particular. Its research methodology and documentation is based on a reflexive framework, one that continually assesses the power dynamics inherent in the research process, and which uses an empowering pedagogy. The sound archive is built on a community-focused methodology, and is involved in building long-term capacity in consolidating research on cultural and music issues, and innovative and imaginative programmatic work that is both site specific and relevant to a wide audience.
The Museum’s Sound Archive, the first of its kind in South Africa, was established in 1997 with a collection of ¼ inch reel audio tapes from the film ‘District Six’, recorded in the 1980s; raw footage from various video productions (e.g. Music in Islam in Cape Town); and a collection of jazz audio cassette and acetate disks from linguist and jazz enthusiast Ants Kirsipuu. The archival work of the Museum continues with an ongoing programme that addresses music documentation, description and research while at the same time empowering people to make music and critique cultural and social meanings. The work of the archive is also focused on encouraging and supporting individual musicians to narrate and play their life histories through stories and musical composition.
The following two-year cycle sees a consolidation of the work of the Sound Archive, which is in a sense the Museum’s central audio nerve system. The archival work of curating the aural traditions of District Six will continue through the recording of life histories and music, but it is also important to re-visit key collections in order to develop new learning materials and listen afresh to the testimonies and wisdom locked in the recordings. This period will provide the archive team with a wonderful strategic and curatorial opportunity to strengthen the collection, to be innovative with regard to accessibility and develop capacity to manage and produce high-end audio.
This series emerged from the collection of life stories of musicians in the Sound Archive. It was clear that a Cape Jazz project was required to understand the intricacies of the indigenisation of foreign musical influences and to critique the ways in which apartheid conceptions of race and culture impacted on personal and individual musical styles. This was done through collecting narratives and music of the lived experiences of approximately thirty jazz musicians in and around the city , and then expanding the methodology to working with known jazz families like the Schilder, Ngcukana and Africa families all of whom nurtured the talents of jazz luminaries like Chris Columbus Ngcukana, Tony Schilder and Mervyn Africa. The Jazz Legacies and Heritage series utilises documentation, recordings, live performances, master classes and a series of tribute evenings.
The popularity of the pennywhistle in township music has complex roots. An earlier project aimed to address that complexity through a detailed exploration with the late Robert Sithole who was the last living kwela musician in Cape Town. The project was about his life, his milieu and his unique style of composing and playing the pennywhistle. The project succeeded in recording his music onto sheet format for posterity, and documented oral histories about his music-making and life in general. The longer-term intention is to produce a CD or DVD with an accompanying booklet which will detail Robert Sithole’s life.
Langarm, Vastrap and Square dancing music has its history deeply rooted in the multiplicity of traditions in Southern Africa: from early indigenous musical traditions, to European settler history, the settlement of Africans at the Cape and the subsequent creolisation of Cape culture. For example, square dancing was imported here mostly by British colonials in the early 1800s and it developed indigenous derivatives among the local population and their descendants. A few of these square dances still survive, but local memory is dwindling with the passing of generations, and with them the unique vocabulary of tunes and descriptions used to mark the music. This project has enlisted the invaluable assistance since 1999 of Willie Jales, an active practitioner of dance band music with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and repertoire of this musical tradition from the 1920s. Together with Mr Jales*, the Museum is reconstructing a canon of the key dance bands and musicians which defined this tradition in Cape Town and in places like Johannesburg, Kimberley, Durban and Harare.
RIP: Willie Jales passed away in 2013
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