Books

In Township Tonight! by David B. Coplan

Coplan's work here sometimes sags under the soggy weight of too much praise, but the whole thing is so good that the distraction is forgivable


In Township Tonight!

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Subtitle: South Africa's Black City Music and Theatre, Second Edition
Author: David B. Coplan
Price: $26.00
Length: 496
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0226115666
US publication date: 2008-04
Amazon

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.

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image