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Review of Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio


By Kevin Dawe

Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South Africa Studio by Louise Meintjes. Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2003. 335pp. ISBN 0822330148 (pb). £16.95. (Illustrated, with musical transcriptions.)

To the best of my knowledge, Louise Meintjes has not published very much over the past thirteen years, that is, since her seminal study of Paul Simon’s Graceland project in 1990. Not that she has been idle. She has been Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Duke University in the USA, and Sound of Africa! is based upon exhaustive and intensive ethnographic research carried out during the early 1990s in South Africa; it is a highly involved study of Zulu music production in the South African music industry. The outcome of many years of work, it weaves theoretical deliberation with her extraordinary experiences as a fieldworker among South African musicians and producers, and at recording sessions and live concerts; the result is a book that glows with the warmth of fine scholarship and its humanity shines through. It asks questions of the academy as much as of music business in South Africa. Perhaps we are reminded once again of the importance of ethnomusicology to twenty-first century musical scholarship. Here we have an ethnomusicologist involved in the study of a highly commercial music that is inextricably caught up in a modernising, globalising, changing soundscape yet rooted in a context where cultural difference is still marked, negotiated, and contested. Perhaps ethnomusicology has matured or broadened out enough to cope with the study of early twenty-first century global musical flows, that is, moving beyond the legacy of mostly village-based studies in Africa and on to fine-grain analyses of commercial musical operations in urban centres? For here, in Sound of Africa!, we have a worked out case study which details the ways in which ‘the global’ is very clearly apprehended in local terms and where a local stamp is put upon a globally mediated musical production. These processes and operations are played out in mbaqanga, the Zulu popular musical form that is the focus of this book. Mbaqanga has a distinctive style, featuring a bass solo voice and soaring harmonies of a female frontline over electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drum set. Mbaqanga has clearly made its mark on the history of late twentieth century popular music, and not just through its appearance on the Graceland album.

Within an African context, Louise Meintjes builds on approaches to the study of popular music developed, in particular, by Christopher Waterman in his book on jùjú bands in Nigeria (Waterman, 1990) and Viet Erlmann in his work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians (Erlmann, 1996, 1999). These highly detailed ethnographic studies document the ways in which local music business comes under the aegis of international socio-economic forces (multinationals) whilst still being caught up in the legacy of colonial hegemonies and infrastructures and subject to the demands of new nationalism. Recent studies of the music of Africa, not only detail the musical rituals that mark rites of passage in village settings then but also include finely-grained accounts of musical entrepreneurialism at work as African musicians and producers continue to try to break further into the global music market. Indeed, as Meintjes notes, ‘black producers were crucial figures on whom the South African music industry depended in order to effect its expansion within the framework of apartheid’ (60). The all-white owners of the domestic and foreign record companies who sought to exploit the local market ‘could not but rely on their black employees to find and select material, and to promote and distribute products among black South Africans, their major market’ (ibid).

Louise Meintjes takes us into mostly black lives lived in recording studios in Johannesburg where ‘downtown…taunts the promises and exposes the risks of fast change, slow change, wrong change, no change’ (4). The studio may seem cut off from the outside world but it is not. In the studio tensions run high, mirroring life outside, fretting and teasing inside, shootings out on the streets. The flow of events in the studio described as takes, cuts and mixes provide our rites of passage into studio life as well as the model for the eventual structural dynamic of Meintjes’s book. The introduction is the demo tape, the chapters the cuts, the concluding chapter the final mix, the print through an update on the musicians featured. The book revolves around the recording and mixing of an album by Izintombi Zesimanje but also touches on the work of their historically rival group the Mahotella Queens. Characters leap out of the pages as the work patterns of the mostly professional musicians, producers and engineers who make up the community of the recording studio are detailed. The vivid photographs taken by TJ Lemon also bring the book to life.

Despite of or because of its success, mbaqanga, has been subject to appropriation and multiple interpretation. As Meintjes notes:

''Mbaqanga music recorded in state-of-the-art studios played a significant part in the popularization of Zuluness, that is, in the shaping and circulation of particular images of the Zulu at the height of the Africa-centred World Music boom and in the transition from apartheid to democracy. Such images were shaped dialectically: they embodied “deep Zulu” cultural values but were constructed interactively by collectivities and interest groups that were professionally, politically, economically, and/or artistically invested in Zuluness. These individuals and collectivities included those who identified themselves as Zulus, black and white South Africans, and locals and foreigners involved in the World Music industry.''(Meintjes, 2003:7)

In Meintjes’s study we find out how mbaqanga’s success has been sustained by those monitoring the demands of both local and non-local markets, tweaking the controls of the mixing disk this way and that depending on the subtle requirements for anticipated commercial success and audience expectations. Studio producers shape more than the timbres and textures of a song. Egos and artistic sensibilities are inextricably caught up ‘In the process of crafting ethnicity into a reified concept, some realms of experience (a history of subjugation, for example) are cast into the background while others (bodily expressivity, for example) are overgeneralized in celebrated public display’ (255). Not only played out in recording studios but in live concerts and television studios, Meintjes reveals how music and identity ‘are blended into one groove’ (ibid). Black South African producers continue to try and exploit the music market as much as it exploits them. The suffocating and stifling atmosphere of the recording studios of downtown Johannesburg clearly reflect aspects of South African society at large at a time of transition; one hopes that Meintjes work to bring about a revolution in music studies reflects changes in South African society at large.


Erlmann, Veit (1996) Nightsong: Performance, power and practice in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                    (1999) Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination: South Africa  and the West. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meintjes, Louise (1990) ‘Paul Simon’s Graceland: South Africa and the mediation of musical meaning’. Ethnomusicology 34, no.1: 37-73.

Waterman, Christopher (1990) Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 74-76]

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