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Deconstructing the "indestructible" beat 

A Duke ethnomusicology professor explores how sound and society interact in a South African recording studio

As a child growing up in suburban Pretoria during the 1970s, Louise Meintjes (MAIN-keys) vividly remembers hearing the growling male vocals, insistent female choruses and driving electric beats of South African mbaqanga music blaring out of domestic workers' and gardeners' radios.

"Only later did I realize how odd it was," Meintjes, who is South African, recalled over coffee on 9th Street in Durham. "There was this other sort of music going on that had nothing to do with my life and yet had utterly infiltrated my life."

For Meintjes, now a professor of ethnomusicology at Duke, the music has not only infiltrated her life, it has become central to her work. In Sound of Africa: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio (Duke University Press, 2003), Meintjes tells the story of her fieldwork during the early and mid-1990s in the South African recording facility Downtown Studios, expanding from the details of creating an album of the classic South African pop music form mbaqanga (best known practitioners to Americans are probably Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens) to issues of globalization, ethnic nationalism, technology, creativity, and the production not only of sound, but of knowledge.

Sound of Africa is most of all a story of the interaction of aesthetics and politics as they extend their reach deep into the technological womb of the studio, out into the cities and townships of South Africa, and beyond to the international world music market. Interviewing producers such as Hamilton Mzimande and West Nkosi, musicians such as the group Isigqi Sesimanje, and engineers such as Neil Kuny and Peter Pearlson, as well as listening to and watching recording sessions in progress, Meintjes reveals the complex negotiations of meaning and memory, performance and power, recording and reckoning, during the transitional years from apartheid to a new South African society.

"South Africa was a highly politicized place in the early 1990s in this transition period," Meintjes explains. "There were so many spaces that were overtly about racial politics. One of the things I found fascinating about the studio itself is that the race, class, and gender politics in their historical moment all got talked about through talking about sound and through talking about technology. It came out through the way sound got shaped, and through struggle for control over technological manipulation."

To grapple with the non-linear process of sound recording in all its social significance, Meintjes' book is inventively organized like a recording session, beginning with a "demo tape" introduction, and proceeding through six thematic chapters known as "cuts," each containing "takes," "remixes," and "playbacks." The book concludes with a "final mix" as a conclusion. This clever structure allows Meintjes to circle around her themes, letting their multidimensionality and even contradictory elements emerge, as well as letting the different voices in her text be heard without privileging any one participant.

Meintjes takes us from the soundproof walls, blinking lights and humming cables of Downtown Studios in Johannesburg to conflicts on township streets in Alexandria and KwaZulu-Natal to a performance at an American rock club and back again, returning to the studio as a key electronic crossroads in the struggles for equality, pleasure, and beauty in modern South Africa--and in an increasingly connected world.

For Meintjes, the studio, "gives you a prism into ways that people are negotiating their positions of power and their social relationships. It gives you an acute look into that because of the investment in the aesthetics. You can see it as a kind of microcosm of the larger South Africa. One thing I really liked about being in the studio was that it's so much about process, so much more a creative and technological process, and about social process." Emphasizing that in the studio, music is not merely recorded, but created, Meintjes believes, "It's not just about being a reflection of what's going on outside, but you actually see these ideas and these social and political positions being worked out and being produced in the making of the sound."

From her experiences working on Sound of Africa, Meintjes has done much thinking about the role ethnomusicologists can play in illuminating the unfolding story of globalization. She is especially keen not to position participants in musical globalization as evil villains, passive victims or triumphant heroes. "What often gets lost in music studies is the sense of play," she comments. "In my case, a musician will rhetorically speak as a Zulu person, or a black person, or a woman, when it's useful. They're all aware of this because they're performers. But that's only part of it. There's also so much intuitive play that I think needs to be balanced against understanding the ways musicians are political agents."

Suffering continues, and as she begins her next project on Zulu ngoma song, dance and masculinity in rural Kwazulu-Natal--in a community located at the epicenter of the continent's HIV/AIDS epidemic--she says that the sounds of mbaqanga continue to remind her of the need to match up joyous music with just social conditions.

"The World Music industry creates a sort of global party music," Meintjes says. "But it's often global party music based upon the backs of people who struggle. Those are not necessarily people who benefit enough from the global party." EndBlock

On Monday, Mar. 1 at 5:30 p.m., Louise Meintjes will be the keynote speaker at a seminar on The Translation of Sounds in the Global Market Economy: Can Music Be Decolonizing? as part of the ongoing series, Translation and Globalization. The seminar is open to the public and takes place in room 28 at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center, 2204 Erwin Road, Durham; admission is free. For more information, visit www.jhfc.duke.edu , or call (919) 684-2765.

  • A Duke ethnomusicology professor explores how sound and society interact in a South African recording studio

More by Michael J. Kramer

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