Far and away the most ethnically and methodologically diverse experimental music festival I have ever attended, the now-legendary Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium and Festival 2005 turned out to be one of the key moments in my life that I keep coming back to even today. Even so, revisiting events from fifteen years ago seemed easier when I was thirty than now, when I am rapidly approaching seventy. Thus, I will apologize in advance for the lapses and mutations in my personal memory archive. I will also allow myself to operate on a first-name basis with the people I will write about here.
When the South African composer Dimitri Voudouris contacted me about coming to a new festival of electronic music in Africa, I knew right away that I had to get there.“UNYAZI Electronic Music Symposium and Festival 2005,” ArtAfrica, I had just visited the continent for the first time in May 2004 for the Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal, where the electronic artist and vocalist Pamela Z installed a sound work in the Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, hard by the famous “Door of No Return”, as well as presenting a performance at the Théâtre National Daniel Sorano in Dakar proper.Iolanda Pensa, “Art and Artists at Dak’Art 2004,” Nafas Art Magazine, May 2004, “The United States Participation In Dak’art 2004 The Biennale Of Contemporary African Art,” e-flux, May 1, 2004.
In preparation for my visit to Unyazi, I had a chance to reflect on the ties with South Africa that I had already established, beginning with two major personages who spent time in my home town of Chicago during the apartheid era. The composer, multi-instrumentalist and installation artist Douglas R. Ewart introduced me to the late Ndikho Xaba, who, while introducing audiences around the city and the country to his innovative methods of instrument and performance building, found his lifelong love and creative partner in Chicago, writer-artist Nomusa Xaba.Gwen Ansell, “Ndhiko Xaba: Way too hip,” New Frame, 22 July 2020; Nomusa Xaba, It’s Been A Long Time Coming (Broomfield, Colorado: Clearwater Publishing, 2009). Another longtime friend, Cheryl I. Harris, now professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of the now-classic Harvard Law Review article Whiteness as Property, met the poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile, possibly while working on dialogues between US legal scholars and South African lawyers during the development of South Africa’s first democratic constitution in 1994:
“My exploration of this concept began in March, 1991, when I participated in a conference on “Constitution Making in a New South Africa,” held at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa…My paper argued that American law had implicitly recognized a property interest in whiteness. The concept resonated in the South African context because of the similar and even more extreme patterns of white domination evident there.”Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1713n9.
Cheryl and Bra’ Willie established a relationship that resulted in the birth in 1994 of Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, better known to music audiences today as the rapper Earl Sweatshirt.“Earl Sweatshirt x MOCA – Conversation with Cheryl I. Harris,” Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, 20 December 2019.
In 1998 I met the visual artist Andries Botha while we were in residence at the Civitella Ranieri castle in Italy. Andries Botha He gave me an Afrikaans-language copy of Antjie Krog’s book Country of My Skull. Having lived in Amsterdam for two years in the mid-1980s, I had learned enough Dutch to be able to understand the basics of this very moving account of the development of the Truth and Reconciliation commission.Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), English-language edition. Sometime around 2000, Athol Fugard was teaching at UCSD, where I was a professor of music before moving to Columbia University in 2004. His friend and UCSD colleague, literary scholar Marianne McDonald, introduced us, although I don’t think he would remember that.
All in all, I was surprised at the breadth of my involvement with South African artists before coming to Unyazi, where I was preparing for a performance with a new version of Voyager, my computer improvising software that I had first created in 1987 as a kind of interactive virtual orchestra.George E. Lewis, “Too Many Notes: Computers, complexity and culture in Voyager,” Leonardo Music Journal 10, 2000, 33-39. My longtime associate, the computer artist and composer Damon Holzborn, a graduate of UCSD and Columbia’s doctoral program in composition, came with me to Johannesburg, where the festival lodged us in some sort of student dormitory. At first, the location seemed a bit distant from the trappings of the urban, but luckily we found a kind of market nearby where we could get AC adapter plugs for South Africa, which were not available in the US.
We had just premiered the piano version of Voyager at Carnegie Hall, where it served as the soloist in a piano concerto I composed for the American Composers Orchestra — perhaps the first time that a computer program made its Carnegie Hall debut as a performer. This version would be what we presented at Unyazi:
In this work, the human improvisors are engaged in dialogue with a computer-driven, interactive “virtual pianist,” a computer program (realized in MAX/MSP by Damon Holzborn and myself) that analyzes aspects of a human improvisor’s performance in real time, using that analysis to guide the generation of complex responses to the musician’s playing, while also establishing its own independent generative and analytic behavior. Here, the improvised musical encounter is constructed as a negotiation between players, some of whom are people, others not…I am particularly pleased to be performing once again with one of the world’s greatest drummers, Louis Moholo.Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005, available at:
I think it was Dimitri who found out that Louis was back in South Africa, living not so far from Johannesburg. I don’t quite remember when and where I first met Louis; it might have been at the Moers Festival in Germany in 1976, my first visit to that country, when I was performing with Anthony Braxton and heard Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of BreathProgram Archives with Louis, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, and bassists Harry Miller and Johnny Dyani, among others. I was living in Europe between 1982 and 1988, active as a composer and trombonist, and I frequently encountered Harry (who tragically passed away in a car accident in the Netherlands in 1983), the utterly ebullient Dudu, and the gentle giant, the late saxophonist Sean Bergin. Because of Joseph Jarman and Irene Schweizer, I met Johnny from time to time as well. I also seem to recall a concert in Antwerp, probably after 1985, with Louis, Misha Mengelberg, and Marion Brown.
In Dakar, I had been rendered a bit dizzy by all the new sights, sounds, and smells, but I remember the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor assuring me that compared to Lagos, Dakar was “a rather gentle introduction to Africa for you.” I didn’t get the full sense of what he meant until I arrived in Johannesburg. While the festival was held mostly on the verdant campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits University, when Louis took me around the area surrounding the Wits campus, a different reality began to stand out, one that resonated with Aryan Kaganof’s 2007 film, Unyazi of the Bushveld, which described right from the outset the challenges of inviting an international cohort of electronic composers, artists, and tech geeks to “the crime capital of the world.”Aryan Kaganof, Unyazi of the Bushveld (film), Indeed, Louis remarked that my clothing made us both stand out more than we would want to, so I bought some different shirts, which I think worked better from his point of view.
Even Louis seemed a bit unsure about his place in the new South Africa. He had been living in London up to this point, and while we were standing under a monumentally fortress-like Wits building, I naively asked him when was the last time he had visited this campus. “It was in 1964,” I remember him saying. After a short pause, he went on: “They chased us off with dogs.”
Forty-one years later, he was back at “home.” Apartheid had been dead for about a decade, but my impression was that everyday student life in the cafeteria and around the campus seemed somewhat like what I remembered from my undergraduate days in the United States in the 1970s, where blacks and whites had their own tables and moved in separate circles.
I had already tried the Voyager software with percussion. In the late 1980s, Derek Bailey introduced me to the South African percussionist Thebe Lepere, who was living in London.Setjhaba Mofokeng, “Legend said to pass on the legacy: Jazz percussionist to share world of knowledge with upcoming artists,” Soweto Urban, 8 December 2016, Later, I performed and recorded with Thebe on the Evan Parker recording Synergetics / Phonomanie III (1996), which took place in Austria.
These included two duets with Thebe and Voyager,Evan Parker, “Synergetics-Phonomanie III,” Leo Records CD LR239/240, 2 compact discs, 1996. You can hear two recordings of Voyager with Thebe Lipere from this collection at. The writer Gwen Ansell, who I met at Unyazi, quotes Thebe about our meeting in Austria in Ansell, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa (New York and London: Continuum, 2004), 243. which in some ways reminded me of Cirkus Toccata (1983), the famous conga and tape piece by Cuban composer Juan Blanco.Cirkus Toccata
Our Johannesburg performance with Louis might have been the first performance of Voyager, the pianist, after the Carnegie Hall premiere. Rather than the MIDI-controlled Yamaha acoustic concert grand we used at Carnegie, this pianist would be electronic, as part of a trio of Louis on drums and me on trombone. I had never before presented my music in Africa, and I was hoping that the South African audience would recognize this hopeful aspect of it:
My work in this area has always been bound up not only with the need to create a sonorous and sensuous experience, but also, and equally importantly, to create a critical space for musicians and listeners to empathize in considering the nature of human interaction. This goal connects my work with the black Atlantic sonic tradition, as part of what African art historian Robert Farris Thompson calls “songs and dances of social allusion.”Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005, The reference is to Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage, 1983), xiii.
Of course, I knew a bit about Halim El-Dabh from my Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music recordings, but I was gratified to find out that, pursuant to his early wire recorder piece Ta’abir al-Zaar (1944), made live in a Cairo radio studio, Halim held incontrovertible claim to being “the father of African electronic music.” This meant that there was such a thing as African electronic music, which at Unyazi was looking to be an area of rapid growth which needed a root. Halim was that root for an incipient Afrodiasporic conception of electronic music, and his keynote lecture at Unyazi was a thing of wonder.
His discussion was wide-ranging, welcoming, erudite, and intensely humanistic — the fruit of the better part of a century of deeply cosmopolitan engagement that paved the way for mothers of Afrodiasporic electronic music like the turntablist DJ Mutamassik (like Halim, of Coptic Egyptian background), Elsa M’Bala, and others.Bidoun, “A Conversation with DJ Mutamassik,” Elsa M’bala, “Crossing Boundaries of Doubt – Passer La Frontiere Des Doutes — Über die Grenze der Zweifel: A Fragmentary Narrative in Nine Chapters,”
“My life’s work in the field of electronic music,” Halim began his program note, is essentially a continuation of my experiences living among villages in Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Congo, where rituals and ceremonies allow the human voice, along with musical instruments, to transcend the boundaries of normal “musical” sound production, acquiring noise elements that infuse the air with a powerful electrical current that has the ability to heal or to summon ancestral spirits… Bringing electronic music to villages throughout Africa, I have found, thus, that my technologically-produced sounds were not strange to the inhabitants. These experiences have convinced me that any further developments in the field of electronic music must draw on this most ancient and powerful sonic source, found in the very heart of the African continent. In their traditional societies, Africans do not need to “plug in” to connect to this source; they already have the power of “unyazi” within them.Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005.
Halim’s concert, a hybrid improvised-composed Gesamtkunstwerk of sound and movement accomplished the task of embodying social allusion, making music with another great musician I discovered, Pops Mohamed. I accepted my small part in it, playing both Michael and the Dragon:
This work, created at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, depicts the battle between the Archangel Michael and a fearsome dragon. The sounds include fire-breathing white noise elements which are countered by trombone-like blasts. In this evening’s performance, trombone and electronic music virtuoso George Lewis will interact with the original recording, playing the parts of both Michael and the dragon.Ibid.
Even ten years after the fall of apartheid, a new awakening seemed very much a work in progress: how could the decades of depredation and resistance be so easily disentangled from the bodies and minds of so many people I met, both former exiles and those who endured differently by staying?
Willie Kgositsile, who had tremendous understanding of all kinds of music, was gracious enough to come to my concert with Louis, where we met some of Louis’s young friends, entrepreneurs who viewed the new South Africa in the most optimistic terms, and who also had heard about my AACM book project three years before it was actually published.George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Later in the week Willie picked me up at the dormitory and took me to his home in Soweto, where I met his wonderful wife, Baby, and saw the numerous awards on the walls that her son, the kwaito artist Bouga Luv (Kabelo Mabalane), had garnered.On the Africa Channel in the United States, one can still watch reruns of the intriguing soap opera The Wild, featuring Mabalane’s wife Gail Nkoane.
The amazing income inequalities I witnessed there would have been more shocking had I not grown up in the black community of Woodlawn in Chicago. Bra Willie, who had now become the Poet Laureate of South Africa, took me to a wonderful lunch and introduced me to many delicious new foods that I am unfortunately at pains to remember now. As we parted, he gave me two of his recent books, This Way I Salute You and If I Could Sing, the latter a most ironic title given Willie’s great love of music and resonant poetic performing voice.
Unyazi was one of the key moments in my life that I keep coming back to, even today. No new music festival in the world up to that time would have included both Halim El-Dabh and Pauline Oliveros as keynote speakers.
So many Unyazi performances resonate strongly in my mind’s eyes and ears, such as the audacious intermedia improvisation with “Third Viennese School” members Michaela Grill and Billy Roisz (video), and Martin Siewert, Christof Kurzmann, and Burkhard Stangl (sound); Lukas Ligeti’s electronic percussion; the music of saxophonist and composer Luc Houtkamp,
with whom I had performed in the Netherlands; and Francisco López’s epic sound journey, totally captivating, even life-changing.
Re-reading the festival program confirmed my recollection of an amazing array of artists of different generations, languages, regions and artistic inclinations, all coming together in the canteen of the Wits Theatre, where I discovered to my great delight that this region of South Africa combined the very best of my two favorite snack cultures: the Dutch-influenced bitterballen and the English Cornish pasties. I met the composers Michael Blake, a founder of NewMusicSA, which took a leading role in the excellent planning and execution of Unyazi 2005, and Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, professor of composition at Wits and the first woman to obtain a doctorate in composition in South Africa. Critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg, originally from South Africa, gave me an introduction to theorist Achille Mbembe, whom I visited at the Wits Institute for Social Research. Achille and David share a love of music, and my lunch at WISER with Achille left me — well, wiser.
In the aftermath of Unyazi, connections with South Africa continued to come from seemingly everywhere. Back at home in New York, in 2007 I was able to obtain a fair sum from the Columbia University Office of the President, which enabled me to connect New York with people I met at Unyazi.“Global Jazz in Harlem,” The Record 33, no. 2, 19 September 2007. We were able to bring Gwen Ansell to the Columbia Journalism School to participate in a session on “Jazz in the Global Imagination,” where many American jazz writers seemed nonplussed to discover that New York and the United States had been displaced from its perch as the undisputed genetic metropole of jazz. To emphasize the point, we put on a double bill of Zim Ngqawana and his all-South Africa quartet with Steve Coleman’s Mystic Rhythm Society, presenting multiple manifestations of the Afrodiasporic.
Zim’s passing was especially upsetting for me,Howard Mandel, “South African jazz hero Zim Nqgawana dies, age 52,” Jazz Beyond Jazz: Howard Mandel’s Urban Improvisation, 11 May 2011. since we had just met twice on both continents, and he was planning to work with one of my AACM colleagues, Ernest Khabeer Dawkins, who has himself, along with saxophonist-composer Salim Washington, forged extensive connections with South Africa music and culture.Mark Corroto, “Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble: Jo’burg Jump,” All About Jazz, 1 December 2011. I met scholar-musician Sazi Dlamini at Unyazi, and in 2007 we presented a telematic performance between Sazi, Ndikho Xaba and guitarist Madala Kunene at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Douglas Ewart. J.D. Parran and Warren Smith, performing at the Harlem School of the Arts. Despite the supposed issues with network latency, these musicians had no difficulty at all keeping a tight beat going.
Under the auspices of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, in 2008 we held a series of talks on South Africa jazz and popular music featuring Brett Pyper (now Head of School at Wits School of Arts), singer (and exponent of the “Southern Touch”) Sathima Bea Benjamin, University of Pennsylvania ethnomusicologist Carol Muller, and Gwen Ansell, who gave very popular and extensively researched courses at Columbia as the Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Music.Jazz Studies Around that same time, I even had two rather brilliant South African students: Johannesburg native Seton Hawkins, writing his undergraduate thesis on Sathima, and graduate composer Andile Khumalo, whose work is now receiving worldwide attention in contemporary music circles; and now, there is the Pretoria-born PhD-bound musicologist Mike Loubser Ford, who publishes in both English and Afrikaans.Hawkins is now Manager of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as host of a Sirius XM show on South African Jazz. Khumalo is now Senior Lecturer in Music at the Wits School of Arts.
Later, Douglas Ewart and I encountered Nhlanhla Masondo’s 2016 film Shwabada: The Music of Ndikho Xaba, which presents a portrait of African experimental music unlike any in my experience.Nhlanhla Masondo, director, Shwabada: The Music of Ndikho Xaba, (trailer). The film shows a brief excerpt from the 2007 telematic performance between New York and Durban. Rarely had a film been made about a black experimental musician with such a lack of genre imprisonment; the film showed how Ndikho’s influence and ability to be influenced flowed across genres and practices with alacrity. In October 2016 I was able to present a screening of this film and a Skype interview with the director (the requisite visa for an in-person visit being annoyingly not forthcoming from US immigration) at the Institute for Contemporary Art Philadelphia.Icaphila.
And then there was Aryan Kaganof, who was filming everything as material for Unyazi of the Bushveld. As I was writing this essay, I revisited the film, using it as an additional memory bank, a refreshed database of impressions. By no means a traditional documentary, Aryan presented sound/image collages of multiple performances rather than discrete selections from performances. You don’t know who is playing with whom—everyone appears to be playing with everyone else. The result is a soundtrack that could be spun off by itself into a soundtrack album. The poignant ending of the film, particularly the parting shot of a homeless man with balaphone accompaniment, and the little match man singing about his matches for sale, frames the world outside the festival as a kind of separate universe with its own music that is just as moving as anything we heard up to that point.
Two poems from Bra Willie Kgositsile’s books formed the basis for two recent compositions of mine, the first of which was Memorial (2015) for voice and electronics, from If I Could Sing. I don’t know if Willie ever heard Memorial. I sent him an audio file, but never heard back. In early 2018 I started composing a new work for voice and saxophone quartet based on Willie’s Where Her Eye Sits: After reading Cheryl Harris’s From the War Journals, which celebrated a mutual love for Pablo Neruda between Cheryl and Willie that they passed on to little Thebe in his very name. I was hoping that I could obtain Willie’s permission to write this, and wanted to make sure that he had heard the earlier work.
Suddenly, I found myself on YouTube, shocked to witness Cyril Ramaphosa delivering a eulogy for him. The outpouring of love for what Willie stood for, and the respect and reverence accorded him, reminded me of how modest and powerful he really was in life, as well as how many lives he had touched, not least in my Chicago. As Halim El-Dabh said, we do not need to “plug in” to connect to this source; we already have the power of “unyazi” within us.
|1.||“UNYAZI Electronic Music Symposium and Festival 2005,” ArtAfrica,|
|2.||Iolanda Pensa, “Art and Artists at Dak’Art 2004,” Nafas Art Magazine, May 2004, “The United States Participation In Dak’art 2004 The Biennale Of Contemporary African Art,” e-flux, May 1, 2004.|
|3.||Gwen Ansell, “Ndhiko Xaba: Way too hip,” New Frame, 22 July 2020; Nomusa Xaba, It’s Been A Long Time Coming (Broomfield, Colorado: Clearwater Publishing, 2009).|
|4.||Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1713n9.|
|5.||“Earl Sweatshirt x MOCA – Conversation with Cheryl I. Harris,” Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, 20 December 2019.|
|7.||Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), English-language edition.|
|8.||George E. Lewis, “Too Many Notes: Computers, complexity and culture in Voyager,” Leonardo Music Journal 10, 2000, 33-39.|
|9.||Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005, available at:|
|11.||Aryan Kaganof, Unyazi of the Bushveld (film),|
|12.||Setjhaba Mofokeng, “Legend said to pass on the legacy: Jazz percussionist to share world of knowledge with upcoming artists,” Soweto Urban, 8 December 2016,|
|13.||Evan Parker, “Synergetics-Phonomanie III,” Leo Records CD LR239/240, 2 compact discs, 1996. You can hear two recordings of Voyager with Thebe Lipere from this collection at. The writer Gwen Ansell, who I met at Unyazi, quotes Thebe about our meeting in Austria in Ansell, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa (New York and London: Continuum, 2004), 243.|
|15.||Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005, The reference is to Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage, 1983), xiii.|
|16.||Bidoun, “A Conversation with DJ Mutamassik,” Elsa M’bala, “Crossing Boundaries of Doubt – Passer La Frontiere Des Doutes — Über die Grenze der Zweifel: A Fragmentary Narrative in Nine Chapters,”|
|17.||Program, Unyazi Electronic Music Symposium And Festival 2005.|
|19.||George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008).|
|20.||On the Africa Channel in the United States, one can still watch reruns of the intriguing soap opera The Wild, featuring Mabalane’s wife Gail Nkoane.|
|21.||“Global Jazz in Harlem,” The Record 33, no. 2, 19 September 2007.|
|22.||Howard Mandel, “South African jazz hero Zim Nqgawana dies, age 52,” Jazz Beyond Jazz: Howard Mandel’s Urban Improvisation, 11 May 2011.|
|23.||Mark Corroto, “Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble: Jo’burg Jump,” All About Jazz, 1 December 2011.|
|25.||Hawkins is now Manager of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as host of a Sirius XM show on South African Jazz. Khumalo is now Senior Lecturer in Music at the Wits School of Arts.|
|26.||Nhlanhla Masondo, director, Shwabada: The Music of Ndikho Xaba, (trailer). The film shows a brief excerpt from the 2007 telematic performance between New York and Durban.|