Diasporic musical landscapes: Abdullah Ibrahim, Johnny Dyani, and Sathima Bea Benjamin in an African Space Program (1969-1980)
First recorded in South Africa in the mid 1970s on the album African Songbird that was recently reissued by Matsuli Music (UK) the song Africa evocatively transports us into a landscape of African diasporic musical iteration. Three originals by South African born singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, Africa, African Songbird, and Music fill the two sides of the long-playing record. In 1976 Sathima recorded the three songs in Johannesburg with a substantial group of South African male musicians, though she would make other versions of each of these songs after she went into exile just a few months later.
The song is striking for the rather generalized notions of “Africa” conveyed in the words, and the musical setting masterfully plays with conventional diasporic tropes of “African” musical representation: it is percussive, the rhythms are contrapuntal, and there is a powerful bass line, both bowed and plucked. In one of our early conversations, Sathima recalled how the compositions Music and Africa came to her.
Music surfaced in 1974 when I was on a visit to South Africa. Maybe it was being back on the African soil, being with family, and looking at my life from another perspective. Having been there, gone away, and gone back. I was also going through a lot of personal difficulty, keeping a marriage together, having a four-year-old son, and not being able to sing… As for Africa, that song expresses how I imagined we would feel when we did finally go back home—as it became possible to do in the 1990s. I once tried to sing that in Cape Town in the 1970s. Somebody wrote a review and said, “Well we don’t know exactly what Africa she’s singing about.” And I said to Abdullah, “Now I know one thing, it is time to leave. It is definitely time to leave.” But I would sing it in the United States and people would understand. It’s funny how things work out (From Muller and Benjamin 2011, 201-2).
And I have to agree with Sathima: I have seen the anthem-like quality of Africa pull powerful emotional responses from American audiences, particularly among those who identify with Africa as heritage, or home. And yet, it is probably her rendition of Motherless Child, the old African American spiritual, which she used to sing at funerals, that articulates the deep feelings of loss often associated with the old African diaspora. Singing this song when people died provided the strongest sense of Sathima’s membership in that community.
Here is a brief excerpt from her Windsong LP (1985).
Motherless Child (start at 1:55 to 3:28)
I didn’t originally propose including Sathima Bea Benjamin in this article because with the publication of the book, Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz that we co-authored, I planned to present new materials focused on the music of Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani. In the wake of Sathima’s unexpected death in Cape Town on August 20, 2013, however, it just didn’t seem right to do an article without the presence of her voice: both in song and in the richness of her ideas about music. It is my hope that to honor her extraordinary life and music you will keep the sound of her voice in your heads and hearts through the remainder of this article, and hopefully well beyond.
So, how exactly are we going to explore the ideas about music and landscape in the recordings of Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani from 1969 to 1980? My pathway into thinking about this relationship has gone in the direction of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010). Because Ibrahim and Dyani were living in what I have elsewhere called a period of “jazz migrancy” in Europe, South and North America (Abdullah also traveled to South Africa but Dyani never returned home after leaving in 1964), landscape as a solid, reassuring, material entity, that would provide a feeling of the familiar, of location, and of comfort simply didn’t exist in any sustainable form for these musicians. This was both because they were in a constant state of movement, and because of the changing political conditions at home. In these years the physical and human landscape in South Africa began to fragment and rupture with state violence, community removals, and increasing fear for communities of colour. Such ruptures and absences pose a methodological challenge: how might we situate/locate the music making of South Africans abroad without a fixed sense of place, context, or landscape, the conventional explanatory mechanisms in ethnomusicology?
One pathway to thinking critically about the loss of landscape would have been to theorize its absence. The alternative route was to move away from the solidity and stability of landscape into a more contingent set of ideas formed around what Bennett calls “vibrant matter.” While Bennett does not reference the arts at all, I am suggesting that her ruminations on “vibrant matter” provide a set of possibilities for thinking about music making in diaspora as a kind of political ecology of sound.
Thinking in ecological terms permits a greater flexibility and intimacy for understanding musicians making music in a constant state of flux than the more monumental entity of landscape suggests.
In this article I will spend some time outlining core ideas in Bennett’s writing on vibrant matter and political ecology, and then extend these ideas about South African jazz as vibrant matter/living form to the creative work of Ibrahim and Dyani. I suggest that the absence of familiar landscape on one hand, and hegemonic discourses of racial purity from South Africa, and the dominance of African Americans in the world of improvised music making in Europe and America, pushed Ibrahim and Dyani to imaginatively constitute new “African” narratives of human belonging articulated through musical exploration and improvisation. Their new “African” musical narratives restore significant people, places, and events to the narration of a South African story performed abroad.
These three characteristics – people, place, and events – are examined in a handful of recording projects created after both Ibrahim and Dyani converted to Islam. They experimented with reconstructing a specifically (South) African sound and story through improvised music in one solo and three collaborative explorations: Ibrahim’s African Sketchbook (1969). African Space Program (1973), Good News from Africa (1973), and Echoes from Africa (1979). Each recording constituted a different kind of musical ecosystem in terms of who played, how they performed individually and collectively, and the music created. I use these projects to reflect on, and open discussion about, the possibilities and challenges afforded by a shift in the intellectual lens required by diasporic living: from notions of ‘context’, ‘environment’, ‘soundscape’/landscape in ethnomusicology/ecomusicology to vibrant matter in a political ecology of improvised music.
Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)
Vibrant Matter is really a book about the liveliness Bennett attributes to material objects, it is not at all a theory related to sound. She writes the book in response to a question: how would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of non-human entities or things? By vitality Bennett means the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—to impede or block human will, but also to act as agents or forces with trajectories, propensities and tendencies of their own. She is concerned with the material agency or effectivity of non-human or not-quite-human things. In examining the human to non-human relationship, she posits a greater focus upon the horizontal – more of a continuum between people and things – than the vertical relationship that has allowed man to dominate the non-human world.
Arguing for the vitality of non-human things, Bennett draws on Latour’s discussion of the idea of actants: actants are a source of action, action that can be human or non-human or a combination of both. Bennett illustrates this agency of the non-human on the human by invoking the concept of deodand, a legal entity in English law from 1200-1846. In a case where there was an accidental injury or death, the instrument of the accident—the knife that kills a person, or the carriage that tramples someone’s legs—was labeled “deodand”—that which must be given to God. A thing with a certain agency and peculiar efficacy, a “materiality ‘suspended between human and thing’ was surrendered to the crown to be used or sold to compensate for the harm done.” This was not a person but a nonhuman material object that operated as an actant, inflicting harm on a person.
Bennett goes on to argue that just as non-human objects have a certain ability to act upon the world, human beings also contain elements of non-human materiality. She provides the example of Manuel De Landa’s evolutionary account of the emergence of human bones. About 500 million years ago, soft tissue was the reigning matter. At some point, this soft tissue went through a process of mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures evolved: bone. Such mineralization made new forms of movement control possible among animals, setting them in motion. In other words, mineralization was the actant; reshaping the lives of living things, including human beings.
Bennett continues by citing Lyotard who argues, “Humankind is taken for a complex material system.” (cited in Bennett page 11). The ethical task at hand then is to “cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it,” (p.14); to be continually surprised by what we see, or as I will suggest in the case of music as vibrant matter, by what we hear. These non-human actants do not act alone. Rather, Bennett argues for a theory of distributive agency i.e., if all bodies have a kind of agency, then all things are continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies. Each of these bodies then is able to form alliances and enter assemblages—ad hoc groupings of diverse elements of vibrant materials of all sorts. There is no single head of an assemblage; rather the effects generated are emergent properties.
Bennett provides an example of the power of non-human assemblages with the story of the 2003 energy blackout because of fluctuations in the grid: a web of transmission lines, power generating plants and substations. This was a massive power outage that spread across North America because of a “flutter” in the heart of the grid, one after another of the generating plants separated from the grid, causing enormous stress on the system. While the impact on North America was enormous–tens of thousands of people lost power; what puzzles scientists is not the failure of the grid, but rather the inexplicable reversal of the process of shutting down—what caused the system to suddenly stop the shutdown process? What we learnt, writes Bennett, is that “electricity … is always on the move, always going somewhere, though where this will be is not entirely predictable. Electricity sometimes goes where we send it, and sometimes it chooses its path on the spot, in response to the other bodies it encounters and the surprising opportunities for actions and interactions that they afford.” There is, she argues, a certain creativity of agency, the capacity to make something new appear or occur with non-human actants.
Giving agency to non-humans is one thing; but, Bennett asks, is there any way in which we might conceive of non-human agents and their aggregates as political entities? Can a political system be constituted as a kind of ecosystem? Drawing on Dewey’s work in The Public and its Problems, Bennett argues that a public is a “confederation of bodies” pulled together by a shared experience of harm that eventually constitutes itself as a problem. Dewey posits that the field of political action is a kind of ecology because no one body acts alone. Bennett sums up Dewey’s theory in this way (101):
A public is a cluster of bodies harmed by the actions of others or even by actions born from their own actions as these transact; harmed bodies draw near each other and seek to engage in new acts that will restore their power, protect against future harm, or compensate for damage done—in that consists their political action which … will also become conjoint action with a chain of indirect, unpredictable consequences. (2010, 102).
Latour takes Dewey’s theories about the public a step further in the direction of vital materialism. First, as suggested earlier, he posits the idea of the “actant” as a means to creating a space between action and human intentionality—because there is no single “head” making decisions, intentionality is less of a factor in the aggregation of human and non-human entities. Second, Latour collapses the conventional divide between “nature” and “culture” and replaces it with the idea of the all-encompassing “collective,” the “ecology of human and non-human elements.” Third, he suggests that political action is not about choice but rather about the “call and response” between what he terms “propositions.” Such propositions don’t make decisions but “lend weight” to or put pressure on a problem. A response to a problem is more about the “fermentation of various propositions” than it is about deliberation. Finally, he gives a certain agency to the event itself—
there is always an element of surprise in all action.
“There are events, I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do. That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, and to bifurcate” (cited in Bennett 103).
And it is here I make the intellectual jump, from things as vibrant matter in Bennett’s sense, to music as a form of vitality and emotional energy operating in a political ecology of diasporic travel and encounter. It is here that I am striving to articulate an explanatory model for thinking about the work of music (vibrant matter) in migration and in contact with a wide variety of styles and sensibilities to ask how we might listen to, and account for the music of Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani?
How are we to hear this music as South African? In the absence of topographical landmarks, like Table Mountain, or a situating musical style like marabi, which direct us to an explanation of style and its origins, can we begin to think of each recording as the outcome of a variety of kinds of political ecology in diaspora? And it is here that we turn to the music itself.
I begin with the 1969 recording African Sketchbook, a solo album by the newly converted to Islam Abdullah Ibrahim. The Sketchbook is an imaginative re-creation of an “African” historical, musical, and political landscape that tells a different story about the history of people of color and their place in contemporary South Africa from that told by the apartheid regime. This landscape recuperates a complex religious history, proudly reclaiming Islam as a liberating and unifying spiritual practice; it refuses the shame attached to being people of color, mixed, impure and unbelonging; it denies the whitewashing of colonial history by naming “Krotoa,” a young slave woman who worked as a translator of languages for Jan Van Riebeeck. Ibrahim goes further: rather than deny a slave past to those classified “Cape Coloured” as so many were doing back home, he rings out the sounds of the Slave Bell in a resonant and vibrant manner.
In later recordings he memorialized the Cape landscape with tunes titled Kramat,—tombs that honor important Muslim leaders scattered all over the Western Cape; he named important Muslim leaders like Tuan Guru. And he placed the Khoisan as a centerpiece in his narration of South African history. Ibrahim writes these forgotten and scorned people into South African history as vibrant sound, inscribing into his music the proud history of his community and people. This was an outline of the non-European, the “African” story.
I am going to play excerpts from the first track of African Sketchbook, simply titled Air. The piece occupies an anomalous place on the recording: it is something of a preface to the remaining story which is framed by the inclusive title: Salaam, Peace, Hamba Kahle. There are about six distinctive musical scenarios constituted by the flute: let’s see if you agree with me what is being African story is being musically sketched here? What landscapes might we be moving through?
Air from African Sketchbook
0-1:50 section one, slowly morphs, about 0:40 period of sustained pitch that begins to move into action;
2:10 complete shift
2:33 another shift, high register
2:54 back to the opening strains, back into lower registers
3:07 shift again, combines the first two, repeated notes very breathy, through
3:28, becomes identifiable melodic material, something familiar. Enough repetition, melodic form, out of the rush of sound, rhythm, duration, melody..into long sustained pitch.
Moves between breathy-ness of living voice to the instrumental, call and response with itself, voice to instrument. If the voice had done this kind of melodic gymnastics, it would have been a voice of the avantgarde. Instrumental capacity supercedes the voice.
African Space Program takes us into a completely different kind of political and musical ecology. This is a large group free improvisation, each striving to create a place for themselves through an experience of sound as vibrant matter. We will hear Abdullah’s pianistic underscore of marabi-styled harmonic foundation, situating the often wild, and fantastic musical wandering of this group of musicians. Here musicians of old and new African diasporas explore the ideas of an AFRICAN as opposed to American or European musical landscape and sense of possibility.
Good News From Africa is a personal favorite of mine, and I wrote about it in my reflections on the new African diaspora in Musical Echoes. Suffice to say that here is the first of two extraordinary collaborative explorations between Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani. Though both are primarily instrumentalists, in this recording, we hear the raw beauty of the human voice—untrained, unspoilt, carrying the sounds of the faithful. Here, Abdullah recalled to Lars Rasmussen, they were going deep into African tradition, searching to sound a story of African musical import. Ntsikana’s Bell is one of the oldest Xhosa hymns that continues to be sung throughout the eastern Cape. Ntsikana was one of the first Xhosa speaking prophets who came out of Eastern Cape mission history. His song is sung in isiXhosa, the unaccompanied voice of Dyani, interspersed with gentle bells, and then the soft hymnlike chords of Ibrahim’s piano music moves into a duet sung between Ibrahim and Dyani. Soulful slow, each voice follows its own pathway in articulating the sounds of Eastern Cape music history. The Xhosa religious song is juxtaposed with the melodies and words of the Muslim faithful in the Allah Akbhar, once again opening up the beauty of the human voice in the articulation of faith and belonging.
Echoes from Africa. Namhlanje, further exploration with Johnny and Abdullah. Powerful moments in the wake of Sathima’s death—provided the comfort I needed, put these men in musical dialogue with her. Unexpected uses of the music in ways that would never have happened in reality.
The challenge for the work of South African jazz in exile has been the problem of too much movement, a lack of a clear community of musicians, the absence of a landscape that would provide a context for understanding the shape and sound of musical style and engagement, and no “culture” for the ethnomusicologist to observe and participate in. What we have in its place in that historical moment was a kind of political urgency—to create a music that both constituted a feeling of home in a state of displacement; and one that foregrounded a politics of race. It was in this politics that the ideas of diaspora became a productive location and resource. It was in this political space that Johnny, Sathima, and Abdullah began to dig deeply into the bodily archive of remembered sounds of home. These were the sounds of a new, more southern diasporic restoration.
And they tapped into the older story of African diaspora—the consciousness of the ties between the history of slavery and the force of apartheid on the lives of people of color; a consciousness that set two diasporic communities musically in motion: South Africans in dialog with African American experience. In the words of Sathima Bea Benjamin: both communities engaged with the improvisational language of “jazz” because African Americans were ripped away from their continent through slavery, and black South Africans had their continent ripped away from them under colonialism and apartheid. But South Africans were not always warmly welcomed by African American musicians in Europe—there are plenty of stories about the skepticism of American musicians: they could not believe that South African could be authentic jazz musicians—were they not playing “bongos” and where did they learn anyway? This was until musicians met on equal terms in places like Reprise recording studios with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Sathima, Abdullah, Johnny Gertze, and Makhaya Ntshoko in February 1963, on numerous occasions at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen with Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, and at gigs with Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Johnny Dyani, Pharoah Saunders and others at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place in London.
What diasporic consciousness doesn’t fully explain and what Bennett’s theories of vibrant matter and political ecology begin to address, is the means by which these different constituencies of musicians produced the variety of sounds they did. In the absence of a situating context or landscape, Bennett’s explanation of political ecology provides a useful frame for thinking about the varied modes of localized musical expression evident in the recordings discussed. Each musical ecosystem operates in a milieu of improvisation, and an expectation of a certain degree of freedom of expression and exploration, and yet the different combinations of people, experience, and styles yields a very different musical outcome and narration of people, places, and events.