Sounding the Cape: a history of Cape Town’s Creole music

Author(s) Denis-Constant Martin
Publisher African Minds Publishers
Year 2013

Music is always much more than music. It is teaching, a reunion of people, an uplifting and healing experience. Cape Town’s music is a way of life. Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi reviews Denis-Constant Martin’s Sounding the Cape.

In this carefully researched book, Denis-Constant Martin uses the “axiological neutrality advocated by Max Weber” to capture the social and historical significance of music in the loci of South Africa and Cape Town (p. viii). To do so, he focuses on “the role and place of music in identity configurations” and, ascertaining their quality as Creole, also concentrates on “the theories of creolisation and their relevance” (p. viii).

The book is organized into two unequal, thematic sections (part one has two chapters and part two has four). The author demonstrates a close reading of the contemporary prescriptive literature and popular culture material (photographs, illustrations, summarized personal history, songs, interviews, a DVD cover, music notes, a photograph of a scribbled note, and a translation of a song). His theoretical prologue and a legacy of Creolisation is amply justified and informed by the growing scholarship and references to the Creole identity, society, and music literature from 1924 to 2012.

The author of Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present(David Philip Publishers, 2000), and a research fellow of the French National Foundation and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study at Stellenbosch University, Martin is well placed to offer a fresh and detailed history of Cape Town’s music. Martin claims, “what unfolded [in Cape Town]… … …impacted deeply on the rest of South Africa” (p. viii). When facing the terminological and typographical questions, he has followed “a most common code” reflecting “a social construct” which was previously used by other authors (p. ix). Rather than focusing on Indian music in Cape Town, he introduces us to the contribution of “what slaves of other origins brought to the mix” and consequently the topic of “Indian music” gives an impression of being neglected (p. ix).

In the introductory chapter Martin does a superb job of showing the reader theoretically how music participates in identity configuration by constructing, activating and expressing identities. Music deals with memory, space and culture, and a musical creation deals with inheritance and appropriation. Modification and transformation of a group is constituted by musical creativity. It allows multiple meanings and interpretations — ambivalences and contradictions — hence it is “better than most other media of expression”, and it inspires competing narratives — “exclusivist, chauvinistic or nationalistic”– that result from contact, exchanges and blending (p. 49). Martin concludes this chapter by saying that he, being “a lone investigator”, will use it as a “guideline” for “retelling the history of Cape Town’s music in the light of creolization” (p. 49).

Martin’s second chapter discusses the meanings and processes of creolization, metissage, hybridity and interstices. It tells the story of the emergence of a Creole culture and music amid racial segregation and apartheid. The Mother City, Cape Town, cradled this creolization and developed various genres of music. The music types “nederlandsliedjies”, “moppie”, “langarm”, “boeremusiek”, “marabi”, and “qasidah” alike were the result of constant overlapping, mixing and invention. Martin refers to this as “intensified cross-pollination” and “internal cross-fertilization” (p. 94) between original South African genres and foreign ones.

In his third chapter Martin re-postulates and re-confirms that “creolization is a never-ending process”[i]. New identities, especially in music, have been emerging since the 17th century even though people were trapped by the legacies of slavery, segregation and apartheid. During apartheid, the population faced oppression, humiliation, subjugation, and violence in terms of “forced removals, separate amenities, and prohibition of marriage or sexual relations” (p. 171). Bands, choirs, vocal groups, dance groups, and art and pop music were produced and created in these conditions by the endogenous dynamics of creation, appropriation and blending, and thereafter maintained by “the networks of cross-borrowing and cross-fertilization” (p. 172). This chapter gives way to the first interlude of Vincent Kolbe’s childhood memories. Kolbe was a librarian, a walking encyclopedia of Cape Town, an activist, and a self-taught musician who participated in the creation of MAPP (Music Action for People’s Power). He was a trustee of the District Six Museum (p. 187).

The echoes of Vincent Kolbe’s musical life pave the way for memories of other musicians, including Temmy Hawker, Jimmy Adams, Nkanuka, Christopher “Columbus” Ngcukana, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, in the fourth chapter. Martin focuses on the development of Jazz music in Cape Town, how it emerged and “made people mix and interact” (p. 213), and blossomed into its prime of “Jazz culture” (p. 215) in the 1950s. But the late 1950s also witnessed governement repression and censorship, closing down of clubs, police harassment, killing, banning of the ANC (African National Congress), SACP (South African Communist Party) and PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) followed by the arrest of 19 leaders, eight of whom, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were given life sentences in 1963.

There were many laws and regulations that affected musicians. Music, then, had become a profession of the unemployed and musicians were living in a paranoid society. Exile was to follow for brave musicians who reassessed their creations in foreign lands and experimented with fusions of rock, jazz-rock and jazz-fusion styles. The blending of political poetry and music birthed a musical freedom and revived “the cooperation between musicians and political movements” in the UDF (United Democratic Front), MAPP (Music Action for People’s Power), NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and UL (Urban League).

Chapter four is followed by the second and third interludes, which are interviews with musicians Chris McGregor and Rashid Vally, recorded by Martin in 1971 and 1983 respectively. To fully understand the significance of these interludes the reader must do a lot of reflecting.

The fifth chapter is quite interesting in that the author talks about South Africa’s “decades of freedom” (p. 267). Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and the following six years were progressive for “music-making in South Africa” (p. 267). During this time, the ANC, PAC and SACP were unbanned and apartheid laws were abolished. A white paper was also published in 1996 that acknowledged the musicians, and other artists, for their role in “the quest for democracy” (p. 268).  But on the whole the post-liberation period was one of “con(fusions)[ii]” and disorientation for musicians initially. New identities were found and reassessed; “new appropriations took place on the basis of re-appropriation and reassessment of the past” (p. 320). But the third decade of South Africa’s freedom gives direction: “Klopse and Sangkore provide the ghoema beat” (p. 320). New access to freedom has transformed the conception of identities.

Martin begins the sixth chapter with a clear statement: “The history of music in Cape Town is undeniably a history of interweaving, interlacing and cross-fertilisation; in other words, a history of creolisation” (p. 333). He then begins to demonstrate why this is the case and specifically gives details of his data, interviews and research. The important element of this chapter is that it shows that music is always much more than music. It is teaching, a way of life, a reunion of people, an uplifting and healing experience, and Cape Town’s music is a way of life. The ghoema beat, named after the ghoema drum, is part and parcel of Cape Town’s music.

Martin concludes the book with the description of a small community troupe, which is practising, and it shows how readily the members adapt to other cultures and create new music. An ideal South African society had been reconciled through music, but there is still much to consider: racial thinking, a deficient education system and negligent cultural policies. Though music is always much more than music it is not a panacea.

On the whole, the book is well written. Martin’s meticulous and thorough primary source research is a model of archival practice. There is but one criticism of this book. The consistency of providing a sort of summary or wrap-up chapter has been employed for half of the chapters only. A minor spelling error: the third last line on page number seven where “ben” is typed in place of “been” will be rectified, perhaps, in later editions.

This book is informative and worth reading. Researchers and readers who are interested in the music, politics, identity, society and history of South Africa are advised to read this book as well.

Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi is an assistant professor in the department of languages and literature at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, India.


[i]Baron, R. A., & Cara, A. C. (2011). Creolization as cultural creativity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 1-19.

[ii] Coplan, David B. and Bennetta Jules-Rosette. 2008. “‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’: Stories of an African Anthem”, in Olwage, Grant, (ed) Composing Apartheid, Music for and Against Apartheid, Johannesburg, Wits University Press: 340.

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