Too Late for the Prayers: Music by Justinian Tamusuza & Michael Blake. Owanjula Kw’ Endere for solo flute (1995); Shoowa Panel for vibraphone and marimba(2007); Umngqokolo for solo alto flute (2018); Naakutendanga Emirembe Gyonna for vibraphone and marimba (2015). AOI CD02, 2020.
When the American-based Kronos Quartet released their CD Pieces of Africa in 1992 it created a sensation. With this CD Kronos became “the only act to have an album at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Classical and World Music charts simultaneously” and by the end of 1995 it had already sold 85,000 copies (Bambarger 1995, 5). Writing in The Washington Post at the time of the disc’s release, Geoffrey Himes said that the album “sounds like a gimmick – four Westerners on safari hunting for exotic tribal tunes to spice up their concert programs – but it turns out not to be. All of the Africans are very deliberate composers and they meet the Kronos members as peers, art-music professionals seeking players to perform new music” (Himes 1992).
Despite these accolades, however, the six black composers represented on the album have remained virtually unknown. The remaining composer on the disc, Kevin Volans – a white South African-born Irish composer and pianist – is the sole figure from this group who has subsequently made an impact (and a considerable one) on the international world of new music. According to Michael Blake, of all the composers represented on the album “only Tamusuza chose to remain in Africa, living and working as a new music composer in Uganda, where there is no new music scene and no performers or ensembles of new music” (Blake 2018, 44) – this despite Tamusuza having spent time studying in the West and gaining postgraduate degrees in music at the University of Belfast (UK) and Northwestern University (USA), in addition to his initial studies in Kampala where he is professor of music at Makerere University.
A bleak outlook for Tamusuza, one might think – that is, until Blake invited him to be composer-in-residence at the New Music Indaba in July 2005, an event that offered South African musicians a chance of meeting the composer, working with him and hearing some of his music. The Indaba was held during the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (then called Grahamstown) and examined the music of Africa under the theme “Reimagining Africa” (SA Yearbook 05/06: Arts and Culture). According to the Too Late for the Prayers CD liner notes this event led to a commission for both Tamusuza and Blake from Ensemble Reconsil Wien for a programme of African and Viennese new music.
Blake himself has been active during a long career as a composer, teacher and promoter of his fellow composers’ music. He was founder of the New Music Indaba and its director from 2000 to 2006, nurturing young black composers in particular. One of the most notable initiatives arising from this time was The Bow Project (2002 to 2005), for which he commissioned works from young South African composers in response to traditional African bow music. More recently he has been active in arranging residential workshops for composers at Nirox, in the Kromdraai area of Gauteng (close to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site). Lately his work has reached an increasingly international audience, with performances in North and South America, Australia, Asia, and a number of European countries. Nonetheless, Blake remains better known and more famous outside his home country than in South Africa.
It’s no accident, then, that this disc features the two composers Justinian Tamusuza and Michael Blake. Tamusuza is hardly known outside his country and his music is still unknown within his own country except among his students. Blake wrote an extensive article on him for South African Music Studies in 2018 (SAMUS vol. 38) which probably provides the fullest discussion of his music in existence, but beyond that very little information on him is to be found on the Internet; even now, three years later, the Wikipedia article on him remains a stub – even despite the huge success of the CD Pieces of Africa by the Kronos Quartet (7559-79275-2) released nearly thirty years ago. What seems clear is that Tamusuza’s music draws on two musical cultures: traditional Ganda music and Western classical music, “in particular the minimalism of Steve Reich” (Blake 2018, 51). Brought up in the Roman Catholic Church and having held church posts as organist and music director in Kampala, he wrote his earlier music mostly for his local community and in particular for church use, including works for choir and organ. These pieces, we learn, “were more influenced by Western classical music than the traditional Ganda music he grew up with and played himself” (Blake 2018, 51-53). But even so, in his earlier music (music from the 1980s and 90s) there is much evidence of traditional Ganda musical influences, as Lwanga (2012) has shown. In particular, Blake (2018, 53) draws attention to Tamusuza’s use of interlocking and the pentatonic pitch system which was prevalent in Africa before colonization.
In his book Downtown Music Kyle Gann refers to what was called Uptown and Downtown music in New York during the second half of the twentieth century. Uptown music was the kind of music written during the 1960s and 70s by the city’s composers (such as Milton Babbitt and Jacob Druckman) who were working in terms of European precedents dominated by serial techniques. On the other hand Downtown music, which started from about 1960 when Yoko Ono hosted a concert series organized by La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield, was “simpler and less pretentious” (Gann 2006, xiii). Its pieces “failed or succeeded according to their own inherent principles”, with “no prohibitions, no justifying precedents” (Gann 2006, xvii). The two primary Downtown movements, Gann tells us further, were conceptualism and minimalism (Gann 2006, xiii).
Despite obvious differences in their respective approaches to composition, neither of these two composer friends Tamusuza and Blake could remotely be seen (or rather, heard) as creating Uptown music. Each of them is represented here by two works, one of which is a response to the other composer’s piece; this gives rise to an artistic conversation between two mutually respectful equals. So we find on this disc a work for solo flute and one for marimba and vibraphone by each of these figures, and the comparisons are fascinating.
Addressing students at the Sorbonne in May 1968, Jean Paul Sartre said:
It is true that a cultural revolution needs to reflect on its cultural tradition … However, although on the one hand a break with tradition is necessary, on the other it is impossible to negate completely those centuries of art or those cultural forms that have before us … A cultural revolution cannot consequently be devoid of tradition, but must possess a tradition that it has shaped for itself. That is to say,
you must envisage each work of art, not as a lifeless given, but on the contrary as a minor revolution, a minor protest against previous cultural forms.Quoted in Loy 2009, 16.
In their different ways, Tamusuza and Blake each create music drawing partly on established traditions but at the same time exploring individually innovative directions, thereby creating their own minor revolutions. Just as Tamusuza composes concert music “within the limitations of the musical parameters of Ganda music, dispensing with functional harmony but making reference to tonal pentatonic centres (reference tones) for tonal variety” (Blake 2018, 48), so Blake himself is drawn more to what Martin Scherzinger calls an intercultural approach to composition, which may be seen as “an alternative or complement to modernism in its final decades” (Scherzinger 2004, 611). For Blake, it is not a matter of using Western music “as a basis, while drawing on folk or popular elements and adapting 18th-century models in ways that nod towards Stravinsky”, but rather of following his own creative instincts that draw on both Western and African modes of creativity in a personal reinterpretation of postmodernity. Writing of his output in The Musical Times ten years ago, Stephanus Muller described it as “Music not of place, but of time … He is not obsessed with Africa, nor is he chained to ‘the West’. He is perhaps the first South African composer to be unselfconsciously an African composer. His are the blueprints and stratagems of a new cosmopolitan South African sound” (Muller 2011, 92).
In his liner notes for the album, Stephanus Muller tells us about the origin of its title:
Too Late for the Prayers references an enigmatic remark by Justinian Tamusuza after attending the final recording session in the Stellenbosch University recording studio on 9 January 2019. Directed to his friend and fellow composer who work is jointly featured on this CD, Michael Blake, the phrase is redolent with a sense of irrevocability tied to divine provenance. Neither of these intimated meanings are unimportant in framing the works recorded here.
Justinian Tamusuza’s Owanjula Kw’ Endere (Introduction of the Flute) is an eleven-minute reverie for the flute, with occasional brief interjections of whistling, forcing the performer to rethink some technical aspects. The piece adopts many extended instrumental techniques from Western new music … to simulate the sound of the indigenous Kiganda flute, the endere (which has four finger holes and plays a roughly two-octave pentatonic scale): harmonics, key slaps, breathy sounds, flutter tonguing, simultaneous singing and playing, and pitch bending. His use of microtones makes it possible to recreate the traditional un-tempered tuning of the endere … (Blake 2018, 62).
The resulting music is a mesmeric, almost transcendently ecstatic evocation of a traditional African sound-world through the medium of a solo musical instrument that is entirely Western. The performance by Esther Marie Pauw is (in more than one sense) a breathtaking display of virtuosity.
Michael Blake’s two contributions to the disc are Shoowa Panel for vibraphone and marimba (a work from 2007) and Umngqokolo for solo alto flute, a more recent work from 2018. Just as Shoowa Panel can be seen as a prototype for Tamusuza’s Naakutendanga Emirembe Gyonna, so the Ugandan’s piece for solo flute with which the disc opens may be regarded as not so much a model but certainly the artistic stimulus for Blake’s solo alto flute work (as Muller’s liner notes acknowledge).
The direct inspiration for Shoowa Panel lies in the piece of woven material in Blake’s possession which I was privileged to see when he proudly displayed it to me one day in his office at Unisa at the time he was lecturing in musicology during 2007 and 2008 and when he had been engaged with composing the piece. An illustration from this remarkable cloth decorates the cover of both the CD and the insert booklet.
The Shoowa people are a very small nation within the kingdom of Kuba in what was formerly Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to information given by Amazon.com on Georges Meurant’s book Shoowa Design, the Shoowa people
have been designing and making embroidered textiles for hundreds of years. With their complex geometrical patterning and bold colours, these works of art were used in a variety of ways by the Shoowas, as status symbols, dowries, shrouds, religious vestments or as a type of currency. Genuine production ceased around 1905, with the result that they have become collectors’ items.
Blake’s strategy in this composition is to create what is described in the liner notes as “a patchwork of small musical fragments, ‘woven’ by two instrumentalists who contribute to the fabric by shadowing each other” (Muller 2020). The listener perceives this aurally as a series of constantly shifting textures in no fixed pattern. The shimmering, vibrating timbres of the two idiophones mostly complement or shadow each other. But occasionally they clash sensationally, creating a frisson of effervescent dissonance. The result is light years and a whole continent away from the modernist, jazz-inflected idiom of, say, Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone of 1947.
Like Tamusuza’s Okwanjula Kw’ Endere, Blake’s Umngqokolo for solo alto flute is a piece demanding unusual virtuosity on the part of the performer. If Tamusuza’s flute dances, as Muller suggests in the liner notes, “Blake’s alto flute contemplates”. But Blake’s contemplative conceit has its roots in a traditional Eastern Cape idiom – that of Xhosa overtone singing. David Dargie tells us that umngqolo refers to “a type of gruff, rasping singing or roaring … performed as a kind of vocal percussion, emphasizing the rhythm of the song”. But, he writes, “there is another kind of umngqokolo – that used by women and girls – which is a form of overtone singing” (Dargie 1991, 33). Much of Blake’s piece is taken up with the soloist (in this case, a female) simultaneously playing and singing (or whistling), creating overtones principally at the fifth but occasionally at the octave. We are transported into an ancient world of timeless tradition, but one transformed and reimagined for the 21st century.
The final work on the disc is Tamusuza’s Naakutendanga Emirembe Gyonna (I Will Praise You God Forever) for vibraphone and marimba, occasionally augmented by woodblock, dating from 2015. It is far and away the most lively of the four pieces, a rollicking, exuberant paean to the Almighty, drawing inspiration from the traditional baakisimba dance of the Baganda people, which Tamusuza’s ethnomusicologist wife Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza has researched extensively (Nannyonga-Tamusuza 2005). According to the summary of her book in SearchWorks, baakisimba was originally a royal court dance, asserting the authority of the king as the head of Baganda society. Following the abolition of kingship in 1967, baakisimba dance began to be performed in other contexts, with women sometimes playing the accompanying drums – traditionally the role of a man – and with men occasionally performing the dance. Nannyonga-Tamusuza argues that the music and dance of the Baganda people are not simply reflective of culture but that baakisimba participates in the construction of social relations (Nannyonga-Tamusuza 2005, summary). In this piece, then, Tamusuza appropriates an indigenous idiom originally associated with secular kingship for his joyous praise song to the heavenly King.
With this competently produced disc we are invited to eavesdrop on the cherished friendship of these two fellow African musician-composers, expressed through the artistry of Esther Marie Pauw’s flute virtuosity and the skill of Duo Infinite (Cherilee Adams and Dylan Tabisher); these are all superb performances entirely attuned to both the technical demands and the spirit of the music. It’s an excellent addition to the Stellenbosch University’s Africa Open Institute for Music Research and Innovation series of ground-breaking CDs. At the conclusion of his liner notes Muller observes that Tamusuza’s remark “Too late for the prayers” at the final recording session in the Stellenbosch University studio “seems to say that when all is said and done, what remains is friendship in music, and the music of friendship.” And it is indubitably the music of comrades in a benign revolution to create a new kind of African concert music: a revolution, that is, to free the music of our continent finally from the strictures and delusions of colonial influence.
Bambarger, Bradley. 1995. ‘Kronos Surveyed on Nonesuch’, Billboard 23 December 1995, 5, 107. Accessed 12 July 2021.
Blake, Michael. 2018. ‘A Piece of Africa: Tracing Justinian Tamusuza’, South African Music Studies (SAMUS), 38: 41-81.
Blake, Michael. 2021. ‘Biography.’ Michael Blake: South African New Music Composer and Performer. Accessed 16 July 2021.
Dargie, David. 1991. ‘Umngqokolo: Xhosa Overtone Singing and the Song Nondel’ekhaya’. African Music, 7/1, 33-47. Accessed 15 July 2021.
Gann, Kyle. 2006. Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Himes, Geoffrey. 1992. ‘Out of Africa: New Kronos Pieces’, The Washington Post 14 February 1992. Accessed 12 July 2021.
Loy, Stephen. 2009. ‘Music, Activism and Tradition: Louis Andriessen’s Nine Symphonies of Beethoven’, Context 34, 15-34.
Lwanga, Charles. 2012. Intercultural Compositions: An Analysis of the First Movement of Justinian Tamusuza’s Mu Kkubo Ery’Omusaalala for String Quartet and Baaksimba Ne’biggy. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Pittsburgh.
Muller, Stephanus. 2011. ‘Miniature Footprints, Spider Stratagems: A Michael Blake Retrospective at 60’, The Musical Times 152/1917 (Winter 2011), 71-92. Accessed 16 July 2021.
Muller, Stephanus. 2020. ‘Too Late for the Prayers’. Liner notes for Too Late for the Prayers: Music by Justinian Tamusuza & Michael Blake. AOI CD02, 2020.
Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Sylvia A. 2005. Baakisimba: Gender in the Music and Dance of the Baganda People of Uganda. New York: Routledge. Accessed 15 July 2021 in SearchWorks, Stanford University.
Olwage, Grant (ed.). 2008. Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
SA Yearbook 05/06: Arts and Culture. Accessed 12 July 2012.
Scherzinger, Martin. 2004. ‘Art Music in a Cross-Cultural Context: The Case of Africa.’ In The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, eds. Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
|1.||Quoted in Loy 2009, 16.|