The Sound of the Nation – Paul Elliot

What is the role of music in the transformation of society? What is the essence of South African music? How can music be used to touch something deep in people, to forge indelible memories? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the message that can be conveyed through music better than through any other medium? These are some of the questions which were discussed in the session titled The Sound of the Nation, presented by Paul Elliott at the 28 May Park Exchange.

This speaker-session, as usual, was held at Grounded at Work, on the corner of 24th and Pierneef Street. Paul Elliott is a multi-instrumentalist, music director at Lifehouse Church and part-time photographer, and has been involved in numerous musical acts. Paul is pursuing the voice of South Africa, the sound of our nation. In his view, music is “the ultimate existential expression of harmony”. Paul is passionate about unity and South African identity, and is discovering how to pursue this ideal through the medium of music.

On Freedom Day in 2000, South Africa adopted the present coat of arms, as well as the Khoisan motto !ke e: |xarra ||ke, which translates to “diverse people unite.” It calls for the people of South Africa to unite in a common identity, for unity in diversity. The South African flag, one of the most recognisable in the world, has often been given the nickname Unity or Rainbow Flag. Although the ‘rainbow nation’ concept is rightly controversial in many contemporary circles, it is clear that our flag, like our national motto, is a symbol of unity and diversity. Paul linked these motifs of unity, diversity and togetherness that have been so central to the post-1994 South African narrative, to the music which this country can produce. In Paul’s view, the unique cultural history which South Africa possesses, forms a deep and rich quarry from which artists can draw to create music that is quintessentially and inimitably South African. Paul spoke about the ways in which the terrain and spirit of a country can influence the music, or the sound of that country. For South Africa, he used the metaphor of Table Mountain to describe our past as Devil’s Peak, our current social situation as the flat of Table Mountain, and the goal of our society as Lion’s Head; and how music can reflect that reality.

The homogenisation of music, through globalisation, the use of samples, and Western pop culture, was also discussed. Again Paul emphasised a vision to break away from borrowing from global or Western precedents set in pop music, and inventing something genuinely South African. But what is South African music, really? Obviously this is not readily ascertainable, but most of the answers from the participants came back to the same answer – honesty and personality. Music must be personal, and must be honest in what it aims to do. South African music does not have a unified sound or theme, but it has a unified character in that it can be found nowhere else in the world, and artists should pride themselves on that.

Paul’s comments on the contemporary music scene were very interesting. He mentioned the value of learning from the older generation South African greats, such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Brenda Fassie, and how the older sound could be fused with a more modern one. He noted a trend in the popular music of today to import western trends and give them a South African spin, rather than inventing something new. Of course, this is a generalisation, and Paul in no way looks down on other musicians. What I personally found to be one of Paul’s most interesting thoughts is the way in which he described music as something which can bring South Africans together like scarcely anything else can. One example is ‘Shosholoza’ which started out as a struggle song sung by miners, and subsequently became a sports anthem sung by rugby and soccer fans. According to Paul, music is something which he aspires to use as a tool to transform the country, and which will be “the resurrection of South Africa.” This was something which had not really crossed my mind before, but the thought of jamming in a small bar and bringing all the South Africans in it together through music is something truly special. If only for a moment, music is something which, I think, can cross boundaries of race, class, gender and even faith. Although music, in my opinion, can never in itself be the solution for the problems our country faces, it is a highly valuable tool which has been overlooked. The magic which can be found in music is something which artists can, and should actively use to bring us together.

by Thomas Karberg


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