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African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance.

Veit Erlmann's carefully documented study of the evolution of black musical performance in South Africa from the late nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century is a comprehensive and detailed history culled from several interviews, journals and newspapers, and his own obviously extensive knowledge as an ethnomusicologist.

Erlmann argues rather cogently that the music and culture of black South Africa are "the most resilient examples of African urban expressive culture" (1), and he establishes an important link between this "expressive culture" and the evolution of black South African identity. Tracing this evolution in some detail, he shows the extent to which it was influenced by the interrelationship of Africa and black America. Contacts between South Africa and black America were established as early as the Boer War, and they exercised, Erlmann shows, a particularly significant influence on South African literature and the performing arts.

The book, appropriately enough, begins with a discussion of the crucial years 1890 to 1898 when Orpheus McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers toured South Africa. The "vibrant vocal styles" (53) noticeable in the industrial centers of Alabama and South Africa are indebted, Erlmann explains, to McAdoo's pioneering efforts. But McAdoo's influence was not confined to performing arts. The American's reports and lectures on the educational achievements of American blacks, as well as Afro-American history and culture, helped to strengthen the developing sensibilities of young South Africans. Josiah Semouse, a post office employee in Kimberley, where McAdoo and his troupe performed in 1890, is a notable case in point. Profoundly impressed by the Americans, Semouse wrote an energetic and passionate article calling for the emancipation of black South Africans. The book also offers an excellent examination of the role of the Minstrel Show in South Africa. For instance, the form gave whites a distorted image of black Americans. Introduced to South Africa by English colonists in the 1850s, blackface minstrel shows became "the dominant form of popular white musical and theatrical entertainment in South Africa" (31). White audiences, Erlmann claims, were delighted to have their prejudices confirmed by performers who were themselves members of the race being ridiculed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century minstrel shows were losing ground to circuses and light opera performed by touring English companies, while in the century's last decade black musicians transformed the American idiom into a black South African urban tradition that influenced the modern styles of this century's early decades. The importance of black American missionaries in shaping growing African consciousness is also stressed. Erlmann establishes a link between the Jubilee Singers and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. AME leaders reshaped the Afro-American idiom and turned it "into a new African church hymnody that was relatively free of European influences" (49). While black readings of the gospel differed in both countries, the Jubilee Singers' legacy lived on in the performing arts of black South Africans. Spirituals, for example, enjoyed increasing popularity after the First World War, and the "sorrow songs" were particularly attractive to independent black churches struggling against European dominance.

Other chapters explore vital issues such as Durban's unique black musical history; the development of South African black identity through song, dance, and musical comedy; the close connection between folk music, reworking of traditional performance styles and the gritty reality of the urban ghettos; the evolution of ingoma dance from rural Zulu culture and its transformation from a militant form, which articulated the desire of the dispossessed to regain their land, to a tourist attraction; and the history of Zulu choral music. Although ingoma dancing was accepted as a legitimate art form, its alleged "uncivilized" and "heathen" past was also emphasized. Erlmann argues rather convincingly that the domestication of ingoma was the result of an attempt to exercise "social control" over blacks, thereby producing "socially adaptable and self-disciplined citizens" (111).

The book's best chapter, one feels, is devoted to the remarkable career of composer Reuben T. Caluza. Erlmann has researched Caluza's career thoroughly: there is even a detailed genealogy of Caluza's family. Erlmann's study of Caluza's songs is also penetrating. He reveals their sociopolitical nuances, and in some compositions, such as the 1924 song "We Are Being Expelled from Work," their strong critical comment. There is a good discussion of Caluza's popular "Ricksha Song" which he composed in 1917. In this composition Caluza combined topical lyrics in the vernacular and ragtime. The song, furthermore, was a subtle criticism of blacks who had sacrificed their cultural roots so that they could be accepted by white society. Caluza's revolution of Natal's black middle-class concert and stage performances is also emphasized. During the nineteenth century, powerful missionary forces found the combination of music and dance movements unacceptable. Caluza revolutionized the restrained and restricted form of stage movement that this attitude spawned. It was Caluza, Erlmann contends, who laid the foundation of a modern African musical variety show, when he combined action, costuming, Zulu lyrics, instrumental accompaniment, and humor. Erlmann attributes Caluza's decline as a composer to the emergence in America of the immensely popular dance halls, the equally popular movies of Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire, and the rise of South African jazz bands.

This is a well researched book: the bibliography is a gold mine for future researchers and Erlmann's copious notes point to the sort of admirable thoroughness one associates with sound scholarship.

But this must also be said: given the intrinsic delights of the subject-matter, the book ought to have been a good deal more engaging and indeed exhilarating. It is, instead, relentlessly intense and at times tediously academic and stodgy. A problem is Erlmann's style and language, which are turgid and ponderous. It is unfortunate that many works of scholarship tend to be written in prose that is decidedly inflated. Whether or not this is deliberate, the result is often disconcerting. Erlmann's prose is not compelling. He does not set out to analyse the "issues"; instead, his aim is to "confront" them (2). The book is full of words such as "identificatory" (134) and "missionization" (21), and the sentences, several of which are awkward and one or two of which are marred by misplaced modifiers (177), lack the lucid crispness of engaging writing. The following sentence is typical: "The early history of Zulu-speaking migrants' isicathamiya choral music clearly illustrates that the trajectories of migrant performance are less likely to be governed by processes of urban adaptation, but have to be understood as a cultural strategy corresponding with the articulation of a rural, domestic mode of production and urban wage labor" (174).

Still, if the reader is prepared to stay with Erlmann to the end, the book does shed considerable light on an important, and certainly timely, area of South African studies. Erlmann has successfully shown the extent to which "the creative and spiritual" foundations of the new South Africa were established during the early decades of this century (182).
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Author:Barratt, Harold
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1147
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