For over half of its 496 pages In Township Tonight moves like an epic. The book covers the history of black music in South Africa from the 1800s to the recent past. It flies through the decades at a swift pace, densely-packed, expansive, introducing new pieces of information and building on old ones. The cast is large. There is Enoch M. Sontonga, composer of the original “Nkosi Siklel’ iAfrika”, which today serves as the national anthem of several countries. There is the versatile Reuben Caluza. There is the Reverend Mr. Hargraves, who complained in 1900 that members of his African flock were causing trouble with their “night tea-parties”, at which singers and songs were auctioned off to the crowd and fights sometimes broke out.
There is H. I. E. Dhlomo, the ambitious Zulu author who wrote about those tea-parties in the prose of an educated Englishman. People who bid on singers “were either ‘Romeos’ trying to win some ‘Juliets’s’ hand, or Agamemnons and Ajaxes actively trying to disgrace the opposing Hectors and Parises. Still others were either secret agents trying to build up the reputation of their favourite choir, of fifth-columnists sabotaging the work of groups they did not like.” During fights, “pandemonium reigned … bottles and sticks whizzing in the air and furniture wrecked.”
There is a critic named Mark Radebe who called jazz, “a perversion of the remarkable syncopating rhythms to be found in the Native music of many races. The Negroes, we are told, contributed some, but it is a libel upon our brethren to lay the crime of jazz upon them.” That was in 1933. There is the Zulu-Zionist selfmade Messiah Isaiah Shembe who wrote bestselling hymns that introduced local rhythm to European songs.
There are people who go unnamed. There are groups and movements. There is the unexpected legacy of Scottish marching bands. There are the MaRussia, the Sotho gangsters who called themselves Russians because they believed that Russians scared the British. There are the women who brewed beer and held stokvel gatherings. There are the Zulu, the Sotho, the Xhosa, the Tswana. There are the Afrikaners, the British, the Cape Coloureds. There are touring minstrel shows from the US. There are missionaries. There are the middle-class Africans struggling upwards and frustrated by the glass ceiling of prejudice. There are the working-class Africans, living in slums. There is the destruction of Sophiatown and the establishment of Soweto. There is marabi and kwela and tickey draai. There are the singers known as songbirds, Miriam Makeba among them, and Dolly Rathebe.
There is the movement of populations from the country to the city, the tension between the rural past and the urban present, and the questions that arose from it. If we are no longer bound by our village and our local chief, then what are we and how should we conduct ourselves? This topic is a book in itself, and David Coplan integrates it into the main subject line of Township with clarity and intelligence. In the city, he suggests, Africans were defined less by the work they did than by the entertainments they participated in. Their choice of employment was narrow, “often lacking”, dictated to them by outsiders, but entertainment was something they could choose. There they were not simply low-skilled mine workers or domestic servants. They could decide to be dancers, skilled pennywhistlers, or the most demonstrative fans of a particular singer. A person at play could make themselves singular.
If he had kept up this intense tone for the entire length of the book then In Township Tonight would be more than a worthy summary of South African black music history. It would be a book that should interest anyone, no matter if they cared about music or not. The author adores his subject without being seduced by it. He is so much in love with everything that he seems impartial. It’s not until he starts to write about the past two decades that the book begins to weaken.
Born in the US, Coplan arrived in South Africa in the early 1970s thinking that he would spend a little time there doing some research. Instead, he wound up making friends with black musicians, dodging the apartheid police, being interrogated, and then deported. During this exile he lived for a period across the border in Lesotho and wrote about the music there. The first edition of In Township Tonight came out in 1985. After the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s, he was allowed to return to South Africa where today he chairs the Anthropology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
He is generous to his contemporaries and the modern performers he enjoys, and it’s this that makes the last part of the book less compelling then the start. All of a sudden it’s not enough for him to tell us that a musician simply exists. He has to spend time trying to coax us into believing that they’re “wonderful” or “amazing” or “stunning”. Their performances are “as colourful and enrapturing as a Cape sunset”, they leave audiences “open-mouthed”, “on the edges of their seats”, and one of them bathetically “liberates the hidden sorrows of her listeners like doves from a cage.” Busi Mhlongo “embrac[es] the latest techniques fostered by today’s most advanced music technology,” he assures us, as if we might have thought that she recorded UrbanZulu off in the bundu somewhere with a tin can and a bit of string. He issues so much praise that praise loses its force and turns into background noise.
The craftsmanship of the earlier part of the book is still there, but now it’s coloured by this scattershot fannishness and by the author’s bias towards jazz. Whenever he’s on the subject of jazz his language flows with confidence, he sounds relaxed, and the information he gives is detailed and useful. Sibongile Khumalo, he points out, sounds better in person than on any of her recordings, which explains to me why I’ve never been able to understand why South Africans rave about her. Obviously I need to hear her live and stop listening to my copy of Immortal Secrets which makes her sound sleepy.
On other kinds of modern music Coplan is not so confident. He spends a chapter struggling to say something polite about the rise of kwaito pop that followed the fall of apartheid. Under the strain of this compulsive niceness, the old clarity of his language starts to melt into academicese. What “appears simply to be about sex is really about the high-pressure, productive re-negotiations surrounding gender relations in the post-apartheid urban generation,” he insists, and as evidence offers up a description of a song called “Fohloza”. “Fohloza”‘s video shows a group of men choosing plump-thighed women over thin ones at a beauty contest. I’m not sure what this proves. Were the male musicians making a joke about the idea of men judging women in general, which might indeed be evidence of some “productive re-negotiations”, or were they telling their audience that they didn’t like skinny chicks? Had they just spent too long listening to “Baby Got Back”? The reader doesn’t know, and we’re left to suspect that the author might not, either. These re-negotiated gender relations could be all in his head. You can feel him exhale with relief when he gets back onto the subject of jazz.
Theatre seems to be a less fertile field than music, or at least Coplan doesn’t find as much to say about it. The theatre chapters are like a small book tucked inside a larger one. He gives us a brief run-down of South African radio as well, and television, and popular comedy acts. Here the fan-language falls away and the book regains its drive and power just before it ends. The impression it leaves behind is of an intelligent omnivorousness, the work of a man who wants to leave nothing out.
In Township Tonight sometimes sags under the soggy weight of too much praise, but the whole thing is so good that the distraction is forgivable. It’s an irritating niggle rather than a full-scale derailment. There are other books out there that go into greater detail on specific subjects that Coplan covers—isicathamiya, or the story of Solomon Linda’s Evening Birds—but if you’re looking for a comprehensive overview then you’ll have to search hard to find a better one than this.