We need a music worth our time. What would that different music be like? And how would the culture itself have to change before conditions might arise to make such a music significant or even possible? J.D Daniels, ‘Clocking out’, in Paper Monument (1). 6 December 2010, accessed November 2019.
How does one do the work of thinking with sound in times like these? In other words, what does a study of sound and music adequate to our present look like? I ask this as I listen to the Country Conquerors’ Skering Innie Regering, a composition described as a ghoema-reggae fusion, and a piece which I do not have the musical expertise to deconstruct, nor the desire to separate it from the moment of reception and the infrastructures of listening that govern it.
If I were to analyse the piece however, I might begin with how it is that ghoema and reggae found expression in the countryside: an expression that seems contrary to the historicisation of these genres as somewhat urban, and one that dematerialises the concept of the platteland as political mythology all at once and instantaneously. We might too then turn to a long history of slavery, along with its attendant histories of mixture, miscegenation, and miscellany.
I would probably draw attention to the idea of both country and conquest in the group’s name as reminiscent of a tension between war and conquest that finds its home in the contestations of a history of slavery experienced in the present, and one that haunts what we are calling the South African nation. However, what I will do here is to turn to a different set of questions and use the piece as a catalyst for thinking about sound and the work of thinking about sound.
All too often, we ask for a music of our time; something that would offer us a referent with which to ground ourselves in our present as we attempt to both negotiate our past and imagine a future. This question simultaneously conceals and reveals a desire for a history of the present: a sound of our time, an exemplar. In the call for a diverse, multicultural nationhood to replace our what has been revealed as the naive rainbows of bonded-ness and unboundedness, a soundtrack that can resonate — that is, vibrate sympathetically — is a desire deeply rooted in that infrastructure we want to call South African-ness. What would it mean to ask for, as the epigraph opening this short editorial asks, a music worth our time? What would it mean to attend to the temporal gaps and fissures that history has no business suturing but that sound is deployed to sew up; stitch and baste into a tapestry nobody expected to hear but everybody sought to listen to?
This is therefore a short essay — perhaps a series of retorts and utterances without much elaboration — about writing about music. It responds, in part, to the Country Conquerors’ Skering Innie Regering. In part, it does not respond to that song as much as it takes its cue from it. It is about the backbeat as much as it is about a beating of the back, breaking backs, and backbreaking.
The question posed throughout what will follow is as much about taste — that network of self-referentiality whose language is genre and whose expression is often a kind of narcissism — as it is about writing about music, music-writing, inscriptions about and around that which sounds. When we rephrase the question of an appropriate sound for historical contingency we must reckon with the ways in which sound has been registered, or, in the language of Patrick Feaster in his ontology of phonographic sense-making, how it is sound has been re-presented See Feaster, Patrick. “”A Compass of Extraordinary Range”- The Forgotten Origins of Phonomanipulation.” Association for Recorded Sound Collections XLII, no. ii (2011). .
It is as much, therefore, a conversation which must come to terms with what we are calling decoloniality — recruiting bodies of literature and literal bodies, across seas and savannahs — as it is coming to terms with the promise of what Sylvia Wynter might call praxis (in her words, ‘And notice! One major implication here: humanness is no longer a noun. Being human is a praxis’), a phrasing that asks us to reconsider what it is we mean by practice as well as what we mean by technique McKittrick, Katherine, ed. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 23.. It is just as much about what we are to do with renewed calls for a decolonial music studies, a southern sound studies, or some sort of reckoning with the interwoven nature of sound and coloniality on the African continent and its various intellectual histories In particular, see Steingo, Gavin, and Jim Sykes. Remapping Sound Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019..
In my request for a music worth our time I mean a music worth our time, by which I mean a music that enunciates the fleeting nature of our temporal juncture. Put differently, I want a music that is neither of our time nor a music for our time. A music that would offer us a referent with which to gauge how far we have strayed from our past and how out of reach an imagined future might be is wholly unworkable. We need a resonant structure worth abiding by. It should be stressed that I am not suggesting that Skering Innie Regering is an exemplar of that said music. Actually, I would argue it should be read as a symptom of an obscene trend in our analysis of what it means to make noise in South Africa and what it means to be heard.
Skering Innie Regering is less of a political statement of the afterlives of colonialism than it is a commentary on how we should make sense of the music-making traditions in South Africa. How do we listen to violent scenes when we ourselves find ourselves in violent scenes? What is the appropriate way in which to transpose history into the present? My argument is that all one can and should do, is code switch.
What we are listening to with the Country Conquerors is not necessarily a fusion as much as it is an encounter: a meeting in the middle of an ocean, somewhere between the old world and the new, and slightly off kilter. Our responsibility is to stay afloat.
Allow me therefore to suggest that an adequate concept for attempting to make sense of sound — that is, sensibly approaching sound — in what has been called the south is code-switching. A linguistic category in its most used form, I deem it the most appropriate concept with which to attend to the problem of sound in the south. To code switch, I would argue, is to approach the world with an urgency of the present, an awareness of the contingent, and an improvisational politics.
Some might argue, recalling arguments around syncretism and the like, that I am merely reviving and rehearsing a call for hybridity as the mode within which to account for change in the postcolonial moment. Some might also say I am asking for a return to recognising cultural tradition and historical progress. Let me say from the outset that what I am doing is posturing for a different technology with which one would be able to appreciate and anticipate a music worth our time. I deploy the term code-switching for two reasons. The first, is that it is the curse and blessing of those who must inhabit more than one world, which is a condition that encompasses the entire planet as we experience it in our contemporary moment. To code switch is in a sense to acknowledge that perhaps Billy Bragg was correct to point out that the third world is just around the corner, and to ask for a consideration of the planetary as a space we might be able to live in.
The second reason is that in the context of understanding the ways in which Afrikaans as a discourse functions (considering the object that has entered our view to analyse), code switching may offer us a way out of a taxonomic oscillation between dialect and codification that has haunted and indeed captured our attempts at making sense of the history of a creole that became a language.
What sounds like culture may now be allowed to sound entirely different. I might at this point, switch over to my repressed native tongue in order to demonstrate it, but alas, I am uncertain of what that tongue speaks. Whatever it may be. Rather, you, as the reader, are patiently awaiting some or other salient truth about code switching to emerge and jokingly tap you on the shoulder, exclaiming ‘hie’s ek nou!’ There may be an expectation of another kind of hailing that will be sounded out. Who knows what power sounds like these days? The thing about code switching is that it is both incredibly private and incredibly public. Who gave you the right to name me as coloured? Who told you Althusser’s concept of interpellation would open up the vagaries of identity, ideology and power?
Code switching as an idea is productive only because it creates a gaping hole: a space, an abyss, a bridging, a skering, which must somehow be stitched up but can only really be hollered across from either edge. The Genuines said it best: the edge is, for all intents and purposes, the only place to be The Genuines, ‘The Edge’, Goema (Shifty Records, 1987).. It is in the abyss that we make sense. Code switching gets us to a different rendering of creole because it is about finding a commons from which to communicate and engage in the act of interpretation. It is by definition therefore a kind of mixing, a kind of fusion, but it is not multiculturalism nor is it multilingualism. It is not the same as the concept of diversity we have to contend with today. How dare you make yourself native, they may ask. Well, my retort would be to counter-ask, Who told you I had a choice in the matter? This is the nature of code switching, and this is, for better or worse, the infrastructure which governs how we make sense of senseless difference.
Let us briefly turn to time.
In an effort to make sense of rock and roll as the sound of ‘clocks fucking’, John Daniels implores us to think carefully about mechanized moments J.D Daniels, ‘Clocking out’, in Paper Monument (1). 6 December 2010, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/paper-monument/clocking-out/, accessed November 2019.. Moments of frozen time, or rather, these instances where we ourselves are forced to move within a tyranny of time, are moments where suffocation has a sound and where organized noise is not necessarily kind to the ear. What is more mechanized than the backbeat, Daniels asks? And what is more mechanised in our moment than the tyranny of diversity, the cry for multiculturalism?
What multiculturalism signifies is a machine – an automatization of what it means to sense difference. It is to declare I don’t need to know what is next or exactly what I want or even, exactly what I hear. It is to be completely and entirely mechanised, to do away with the joy of anticipation. It is how we deal with this mechanised technology of anticipation that I contend will be the decisive move with which to forge a study of sound in the wake of its own re-presentation.
In an essay from the early 1900s, the South African intellectual, early nationalist leader, and recording artist Sol Plaatje suggested that we must inhabit a space of encounter called the trialogue if we are to do the work of interpretation — whether legal or otherwise — in the midst of and in the wake of colonial dislocation Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016).. The trialogue is about determining unknown positions from known locations, it is about finding a midpoint that is not a compromise. It is more code-switching than it is translation, more transposition than disjuncture.
As it emerges as a term in the essay The Essential Interpreter, the term is deployed to describe the peculiarity of the colonial justice system and its aptitude for dealing with the problem of translation, particularly that between the languages of colonial subjects and colonial masters. The trialogue is critical to a set of critiques and suggested improvements of what Plaatje called the ‘art’ of efficient and conscientious court interpreting. This text, and its companion piece, Sekgoma – The Black Dreyfus, are at once statements on colonial life as they are intellectual manifestos marking a space between the object and its analysis.
In explaining the critical differences between ‘interpreting in court and interpreting at the sale of a cow’, Plaatje demonstrates the aptitude that is required of the court interpreter and names the linguistic space within which the interpreter must work: the ‘trialogue’. Plaatje illustrates what exactly this structure of speech might look like by noting the importance of a response that must travel via an intermediary before it will reach the presiding judge or magistrate. Indeed, as Plaatje notes, ‘it is evident that unless an efficient linguist is kept, justice may easily be miscarried in the course of this trilingual colloquialism’ Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016), 56.. This is an insistence that underscores the critical nature of the mediating function of the court interpreter.
Plaatje is interested in the particularities of practice and how an act as simple and overlooked as court interpreting, might impinge upon the juridical as it manifests in the context of colonialism. In other words, Plaatje is interested in what the political and ethical stakes are of translation, and how understanding it as an art rather than a technique might be useful. The text itself opens with a qualifying statement exclaiming the particularity of the South African ‘administration of justice’, where Plaatje notes that in Europe ‘judge, plaintiff, defendant, counsel and witnesses all speak the same language’ Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016), 51..
On a superficial level, Plaatje uses the term to provide the reader some sense of the circuitry of translation necessary in a colonial court room. On another, more complex and critical level, the trialogue is a mechanism with which to argue that translation is not interpretation. If anything, it uncovers the need for a specific paradigm of interpretation, and it is a call to combine the role of the interpreter and the listener that does not produce the translator. It is here, I would argue, that we might begin to unpack what a writing towards a music worth our time might sound like.
The trialogue as a mechanism is useful to describe the inconsistency of a certain kind of listenership in a colonial context. More broadly, it is critical to drawing out the nature of an encounter with a politics of responsibility and complicity; a politics that has perhaps become the visible hallmark of what a pedagogy in the era of decolonisation should look like. It is in this tone that I invoke it. It is however a term that has — despite its obvious sonic undertones and nods towards orality — not found its way into studies of music and studies of sound. It is towards Plaatje that literary critic Mark Sanders turns to delineate what he calls a theory of intellectual responsibility, and where he wishes to trace something like an intellectual subject who navigates the problem of complicity and responsibility with ease in the wake of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Sanders, Mark., Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (University of Natal Press, 2002).. For Sanders, the work Plaatje undertakes in The Essential Interpreter is an unfolding of how the relationship between complicity and responsibility figures a dispropriation of subjectivity.
His reading hinges on reading Plaatje as envisioning a future yet to come where the juridical was, as he puts it, ‘still taken serious[ly] by black Africans’ as a means to access a certain kind of justice within a colonial system. The text therefore hinges on what he calls a ‘secret encounter between two implied readers speaking different languages’; an encounter that acts as a mechanism of entry into the life of the intellectual and an intellectual life. The interpreter according to Sanders is figured by Plaatje as a tool or in Plaatje’s own words, a ‘human tool’. It is in this way (and productively so) that Sanders invokes the idea of a technics of interpretation, or that interpretation itself is essential precisely because it is an apparatus which affords the space for a certain kind of advocacy.
If we are to take anything from Sanders’ reading of The Essential Interpreter that would prove useful to our understanding of the work of the trialogue and to begin to clarify what it is we mean by listenership, it is the twofold assertion of the technicality of the role of the interpreter: the interpreter is, as Plaatje himself phrases it, a ‘human tool’ and thus not a party involved in the dispensing of justice, and therefore the interpreter is the only figure in the trialogue that remains unchanged by the process.
The lot of the interpreter is to inhabit the edge — to code switch. This is a responsibility shared by all who pursue a study of sound adequate to our moment.
|1.||J.D Daniels, ‘Clocking out’, in Paper Monument (1). 6 December 2010, accessed November 2019.|
|2.||See Feaster, Patrick. “”A Compass of Extraordinary Range”- The Forgotten Origins of Phonomanipulation.” Association for Recorded Sound Collections XLII, no. ii (2011).|
|3.||McKittrick, Katherine, ed. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 23.|
|4.||In particular, see Steingo, Gavin, and Jim Sykes. Remapping Sound Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.|
|5.||The Genuines, ‘The Edge’, Goema (Shifty Records, 1987).|
|6.||J.D Daniels, ‘Clocking out’, in Paper Monument (1). 6 December 2010, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/paper-monument/clocking-out/, accessed November 2019.|
|7.||Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016).|
|8.||Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016), 56.|
|9.||Plaatje, Sol., Selected Writings, edited by Willan, Brian. (Wits University Press, 2016), 51.|
|10.||Sanders, Mark., Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (University of Natal Press, 2002).|