My most enjoyable and effective musical performances are those that take place in my kitchen or living room. This is primarily because of the close proximity between my audience and me. There is a dynamic interactivity involved in such an intimate space that cannot truly be achieved in larger performance spaces. My family and I can actually feel the vibrations from the resonance of the instruments – udu, berimbau/umakhweyana, metallic flour tin, glass bowls, calabash water drums, didgeridoo, kalimba, gong, etc. Also, there is an unspoken agreement between me and my ‘audience’ that they will not be passive. In this sense rooted in an African sensibility, they are not really an audience in the Western classical convention. My audience is actively engaged by virtue of being alive, rhythmically alert, attuned and dedicated to the success of my performance – because we are both inhaling the spirit of this performance blessed with the outcome of collective possibilities. There is a generosity of spirit that permeates the performance, taking it beyond a conventional performance and into that significant dimension of ritual. This becomes a ceremonial act in which we are all equally engaged, the musician being – for the strict purposes of the so-called performance – an appropriately gifted and practiced custodian and positive manipulator of the hidden forces of musical inspiration, who has been ‘chosen’ or ‘sent’ (isithunywa, in our accepted parlance with Nduduzo) to act as a conduit for the flow of creative spirit through the gathered community, thus facilitating the cleansing that we all need to function properly and with the guided wisdom of the ancients in our continual emergence into ourselves.
Something else to consider and remember is that in traditional African societies the organic musical instruments fashioned from locally available natural materials are played within a close circle, unamplified beyond the innovative use of gourd resonators and suchlike, but where everyone present can physically feel the vibration and resonance of the instruments and singing. This traditional practice is what leads to the deep understanding and application of the vibrational healing effects of sound. Consider the African wisdom whereby it is known that everything has a fundamental resonant frequency (this spiritual resonance can also be regarded as ‘idlozi’ of the entity). This means that every organ in our bodies bears a fundamental note that can be vibrationally communicated with to create a resonance of wellness (or illness in the case of sorcery). It has been proven that this form of healing is superior to the pharmaceutical nonsense that our bodies are bombarded with. It is my belief that the negative effects of abnormal cell growth in the human body can be reversed through the conscious, intelligent, careful and sustained use of this ancient method (which has been also understood in China for a very long time).
I recall in the eighties, shortly after I arrived in England, living briefly on a farm in Cornwall. I came to know a beautiful woman who suffered from cancer. A mutual friend introduced us and arranged for me to visit her in the hospice. I would take my Ghanaian marimba and play pentatonic music for her for hours. Her family and friends noticed that after a while of my playing a smile shone from her otherwise drawn face. I had a few sessions with the woman during which there was noticeable improvement in her condition. Unfortunately there arose a complication in the relationship between her family and the management of the hospice, which led to the cessation of our sessions.
I remember another interesting episode of my unfolding life that evolved over a few decades. In the seventies, when I was active in the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko, I became deeply motivated by the desire to learn ever more about our African cultural traditions that were suppressed by white western colonial impositions (Menzi Maseko, this is around the time I became fascinated by John S. Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy, which I recently mentioned to you and Nduduzo Makhathini). In my quest I came across mention in the Bible (As a young man I devoured the Bible, Quran and Bhagavadgita voraciously in my search for answers to the ontological mysteries that besieged me) of the use of jars that were placed beneath the seating in amphitheatres. It took me many years of research to find the truth about this seemingly strange feature of ancient society.
It wasn’t until 2006, after I had taken a trip to Enugu in the eastern region of Nigeria to meet and film the Igbo women potters towards my Udu Project, that I casually discovered the missing piece to the puzzle that I had begun to assemble back in my youth. I was in London showing a few friends the Nigeria footage on my laptop and explaining the physics of the resonance of the Igbo women’s ceremonial ceramic drums. Suddenly one of the English women exclaimed that the udus reminded her of the earthen jars that Cistercian monks used centuries ago in Rievaulx Abbey in a valley of the North York Moors in England. My jaw dropped! She told us that the monks placed these jars beneath the benches in the monastery to act as resonators during plainsong. I quizzed her as to the exact location of this abbey that I had not heard of. She gave me directions and told me that there was also Fountains Abbey, which was not far from Rievaulx. I convinced Azra and the kids and the next day we piled into our VW Golf and drove to the Yorkshire. The trip proved too much for our battered car and we broke down on the way, but eventually made it.
Magically, just as we presented ourselves at the reception counter of the Rievaulx Abbey Heritage site, we were told that the site’s expert, who was doing her PhD on the very subject of my research, was just leaving for the ruins. I ran to her…
Basically, the jars mentioned in the Bible date back to the ancient African practice of placing different sizes of ceramic pots beneath the seating in an amphitheatre. These would act as resonators to amplify the sound generated by musicians, actors or orators. The resonators would range from very small to very large, covering the entire spectrum of possible sounds produced in a performance or presentation. I believe this technique travelled to Greece and beyond in the fashion of many forms of knowledge that originated in Africa.
Nduduzo, please forgive me for going this far in my response to your inspiring and thought-provoking post. May the harvest of the fruits of your gifts be ever more abundant.