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Drums, Rattles and Mbiras at the Launch of Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa

Mbiras from the Kirby CollectionPercussion instruments from the Kirby Collection

The launch of the third edition of the iconic Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa by Percival Kirby was a tremendous celebration. Leading academics and performing musicians gathered in in the foyer of the Strubenholm Building at the South African College of Music last Friday to discuss the importance of this new edition. Guests were invited to browse through The Kirby Collection, which houses 600 of the utterly remarkable instruments featured in revised edition of this classic text.

Sakhela Buhlungu and Michael NixonMusical Instruments of the Native People of South AfricaThe event formed part of the ninth annual congress of the South African Society for Research in Music, which was attended by students and academics from around the country and abroad.

University of Cape Town Dean of Humanities Sakhela Buhlungu said it was a privilege to celebrate the arrival of the third edition at UCT. He recalled growing up in the Eastern Cape, long after Percival Kirby’s magnum opus, The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa, was published by Oxford University Press in 1934.

“Already many of the instruments Kirby described had disappeared from sight and use,” he said. By the time of Buhlungu’s birth, industrialisation and urbanisation had lead to the loss of traditional instruments. He recalled the neighbour who played the harp and another who played a guitar made from an oil drum. His uncle was an accordion player, the village entertainer. “We congregated around them, running after them as children.”

He said it was a great honour to be able to see and experience the instruments he had heard of from the old people in his village, to read about them and to acknowledge the timelessness of music. Director of the College of Music Rebekka Sandmeier welcomed the relatives of Percival Kirby, his cousins, grand children and great-grandchildren present in the audience. In particular, she paid tribute to Anthea van Wieringen, Kirby’s granddaughter, who had been instrumental in the ongoing care of his legacy of instruments and archives, as well as in the book’s publication.

Anthea van WieringenAnthea van Wieringen paid tribute to her grandfather who died 45 years ago and shared her recollections. She qualified it by saying that although she remembered him very well her memories were those of a child. “He was short and rotund with a shock of white hair, a very funny man with a tremendous sense of humour and a love of jokes, wordplay and limericks. I remember him as a kindly grandfather who loved to talk,” she said.

She shared the fascinating story of his life and studies, his rich musical life as a flautist and professional timpanist, composer and conductor, and later as a collector. She spoke of the endeavours that drove him to travel around the southern African region in a Model T Ford. Van Wieringen paid tribute to the work done by her mother initially and more recently, those who had been involved in bring the book to life. In particular, she acknowledged Michael Nixon for his “meticulous curation” of the precious and irreplaceable collection of instruments which is now available to researchers.

Michael NixonNixon who serves as the curator of the collection thanked Wits University Press for the vision that enabled the publication. He praised the attractiveness and usefulness of the book in its new format, where the photos now appear right next to the text instead of as images at the back of the book. He also praised the efforts and editorial imagination of Anthea van Wieringen, who wrote the introduction to the book. Nixon wrote a brief foreword.

He noted that people raise questions about the book which required to think of how best to consider it, as an object “of its time” which needed to be read in context. He reflected on the words spoken at the opening of the SASRIM conference by Buhlungu, when he had reflected on the “tricky time” all were experiencing on campus, look at statues and curricula with a tendentious eye.

“Professor Buhlungu was saying that probably the right thing to do with regard to music performance, was to embrace the widest possible range of musics and then to excel. I think we can extend that to intellectual enquiry too, take it all on and do the very best we can,” he said.

Nixon reflected on the challenge of accessing precolonial times, which requires one to pass through the colonial archive. “Studying the heritage laid down in the South African colonial period present a panoply of issues. The colonial archive – and the Kirby Collection and this book form part of this – is marked by a strong taint that for many precludes any engagement with it. In order to work with the content of the colonial archive, it’s necessary to come to terms with this by examining things with a discriminating, critical eye,” said Nixon.

The launch ended with a dazzling performance by musicians from the College of Music’s African Music Unit, Dizu Plaatjies, Esperrinho, Joseph Weinberg and Sibahle Dladla. A series of images from the archives were projected onto a screen behind the artists while they performed, enhancing a sense of the journey taken by African music from pre-urban cultures to the contemporary encounter where pan-African and cross-cultural influences blend and merge in a vibrant, life-affirming and thoroughly entertaining manner.

The rhythm of the drums, the spontaneity and subtlety of the improvisation, the energy of each performer made the contents of this book, which is a national treasure in its own right, come to life in a real, visceral, and deeply felt way.

Rebekka Sandmeier, June Hosford, Andrew Tracey, Anthea van Wieringen, Michael Nixon and Sakhela Buhlungu


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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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by Percival Kirby

Posted by Wits University Press on Monday, 27 July 2015


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