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In the Listening Room with Neo Muyanga

This Thursday (January 15), Pan African Space Station present “Revolting Songs”,  a concert-lecture from Neo Muyanga which forms part of the Stories about Music in Africa series. Keeping time, we return to Neo’s listening room. Intro by Stacy Hardy.

Neo Muyanga is always counting. Even when he walks. He counts his paces. He counts the steps. He keeps time. He listens to the beat of the street. He counts the seconds it takes for a car (a taxi) to go down the street: 360. Then he counts the minutes until the next car (a VW Golf) goes by: 2. He keeps score. He adds the 360 seconds and the 2 minutes: 480. He counts the streetlights: 7. The steps between streetlights. He adds the trees. He likes to add dissimilar things. In school they said you can’t add apples and oranges. He doesn’t buy it. A composer, a musician, poet and critic, mathematician and ideologue, a conveyer of ideas, he sees everything as related. All form, all proportion brings up number relationships. That’s mathematics. That’s nature. That’s music.

Neo Muyanga in the listening roomSometimes he thinks if he could add up all objects, all feelings, all ideas, all creatures, he would hear it… What? The sound of the universe. Life. He hears it in pop tunes, jazz tracks, in ancient folk songs. He listens widely, across time and space, from generation to generation. Born in Soweto, the son of a longline of traditional composers and makers of the Mozambican Timbila, he studied the Italian madrigal tradition. He plays in the acoustic afro-pop duo, BLK Sonshine. He has composed music for contemporary dance and for theatre. His music collection spans the globe. He listens to mp3s, to vinyl, to CDs. He still has cassette tapes. He listens to learn, to experience, to construct frameworks for understanding. But also to party, to get down.

His studio reflects this – not a studio in the traditional sense, the clean well-lit space, the dead air of soundproofed enclosures. Muyanga’s studio is open plan, artist’s studio, a library, a lounge. A space that invites you to listen.



Gigi, “Tew Ante Sew”
(off Gigi (2001), Palm Pictures)

This stuff kills me! Gigi, Ejigayehu Shibabaw, an Ethiopian singer. Ethiopians make the most beautiful music – difficult music, but one can still dance. Listen to that. Her voice is doing incredibly sophisticated things. That melisma! But see how easy it is to nod your head.

A 6-8 rhythm. The easiest way to set this up is to toyi-toyi on the spot going left-right-left-right – that is one bar. Good. Now do it again and keep the 1-2-3-4 of the feet stomp consistent while you superimpose a triplet count so it goes: left (two-three) right (two-three) left (two-three) right (two-three). That’s it! Awkward rhythms, but they feel funky. It’s beautiful pop music that doesn’t dilute cultural knowledge or exclude an experimental mindset, but ties them together.

Thomas Mapfumo’s Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, “Mudzimu Ndiringe”
(off Take One (2006), Alula Records)

This is Thomas Mapfumo and his Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. Classic mbira music on guitars. There is no actual mbira in this music. I love that. And that name Hallelujah Chicken Run Band? What the hell is that? To play mbira on guitar is hacking the system, going down to the math then translating that into sound. The guitarist becomes a drummer, a percussive element as opposed to just the melody man. That possibility of translation always intrigues me.

I’m constantly moving back and forth between spaces, between new and old music. To live in a time machine. The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band is from the 1970s. I love listening to old music but my question is how to make it speak like you do. The Zulus always say, “make it speak Zulu”. It’s about expanding understanding across time and space, transgressing. I’d love to be able to play with some Muyangas from the 1600s. For now they live on my shoulders.

Does Mapfumo’s Chimurenga music – struggle music – still have any meaning today? Music is an incredibly powerful propaganda tool. It can change hearts and minds. But recently we’ve bought into this idea that to be serious, to be heavy, is to be uncool – this idea of music as an escape, a superficial pretence. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think we should always be dark and heavy, but I’m not interested in levity for levity’s sake. If we can rather go back and forth. I always remember my father’s words: “Why must you make difficult music?”

Huun-Huur-Tu, “Deke Jo”
(off Where Young Grass Grows (1999), Shanachie)

Huun-Huur-Tu, a music group from Tuva on the Mongolian border. It’s difficult music. They’re throat singers, the voice sings two or more distinct sounds at once. But I find them funky. This is funk for me. A straight 4-4 beat, so that goes: left-two-three-four left-two-three-four. That’s it!

At the same time though it sounds like singing as if the voice is really sore – not that it causes pain but that it is pain itself. It’s like the blues, how the bitterness of the blues beats a path straight to funk. It’s like life. It’s sad and dangerous. Fucked up. But we live under the illusion that it’s beautiful. And it is. It’s hard but beautiful. How does that happen?

I want to learn how Huun-Huur-Tu do that with their voices. Apparently the best way to learn is to listen. After a while something gets communicated, transferred by osmosis. Listening is learning. Every time you listen you move deeper. Every new listen brings new knowledge. It shows that the knowledge was always there, it’s just that you’ve become better able to understand it. Music is a tool to access the knowledge already inside you. A way to know what it is you already know.

Aaron Copland, “Zion’s Walls”
(Old American Songs, Set 2)

Aaron Copland. One of the first American classical composers to be taken seriously. Here he takes us back in time with his arrangement of an old American song.

It’s amazing. You can do pretty much anything with the human voice, anything you can do with an instrument. That fascinates me. This tool inside us can be used for inducing love, horror. We can suggest sexy, suggest innocence, piety. We under-use the voice today. Part of what I’m trying to do is get people out of that comfort zone, to discover new territory using the same old thing we’ve had since the beginning of time.

Shared histories: Wynton Marsalis, “Congo Square”
(off Congo Square: Love. Libation. Liberation – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy (2006), MP3)

Wynton Marsalis’ “Congo Square” with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy. This whole project is a gumbo. A crazy mix of different timeframes, continents, cultures. But listen how they work together. They share a common history. That’s what I love about music. This idea that you’re playing African music, Western music, you’re playing jazz, classical – no! It’s all just music. I pulled this out last week, when the xenophobic attacks started. I needed to hear it to confront the illusion that we’re separate, we’re different. We’re not.

Waltzing Muyanga: Keith Tippett Orchestra, “Fourth Thread”
(off Keith Tippett Tapestry Orchestra Live At Le Mans (2007), Edition Records)

This is one of the strangest waltz pieces I’ve ever heard. It’s Keith Tippett with Bra Louis Moholo. A smelly waltz, and for that you have to go: left-right-together left-right-together; by “together” I mean the feet are supposed to come together. Wait! Be very careful not to jump too high during the toyi-toyi, otherwise you’ll fall over right after the feet come together! That’s it.

This is ugly beautiful. One of the roles of music is to do that. It’s position is between things. In between things you can see the whole, because you can see there is no whole. It’s all still wide open. Nothing is fixed. We can always invent, change. Sometimes that means we have to destroy. That’s okay. It opens that space to build afresh. Music teaches us that. At the moment it feels like we’re in a shit space. But that bodes well for our future. What comes next? How do we get there? That’s my question.



These notes feature in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic
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