Bowscapes review: album celebrates new traditions in South Africa’s ancient bow music
Composers are keeping bow music alive through electronic music and other experiments.
Musical bows are among the oldest instruments in southern Africa. Musicologists think the “ping” a bowstring makes when an arrow is released inspired early hunters (as far back as the Khoi and San nations) to use it for music-making in ritual and, later, other contexts.
The passing, in 2022, of South Africa’s bow virtuoso Latozi “Madosini” Mpahleni reminded South Africans of traditional bow music’s significance in the region’s intangible cultural heritage.
When you pluck, strike or stroke the string of a musical bow, you get not only one note but extra sounds (called overtones), created by the air vibrating around it. Using various techniques – such as adding a gourd resonator, or placing the end of the bow in their mouths – bow players can amplify and manipulate those sounds to shape complex music.
The work of veteran and younger bow musicians, scholars and audiences all keep these traditions alive and stimulate new repertoire. But the fascination bow music holds for the international New Music community (modern, innovative concert composers), and the options for using electronic composing techniques with bow sounds, have been less documented.
Now a new compilation CD, Bow Project 2: Bowscapes, brings that impact to the fore. Released by the Africa Open Institute for Music Innovation and Research at Stellenbosch University, its 21 newly-composed electronic tracks illustrate how heritage and innovation can interact in “traditional” music. And how composers, whether inside or outside its communities of origin, should treat it.
Tribute to Jürgen Bräuninger
Bowscapes is a tribute to the late German-born, South African-based composer and music professor Jürgen Bräuninger, who died in 2019. Bräuninger advocated innovation in composing and playing. When I interviewed some of the composers who had contributed tracks to the album for this review, it became clear how influential working with him had been.
South African composer Njabulo Phungula, a former student of Bräuninger, recalls:
“Jürgen would encourage me to be more ‘curious’ in my musical explorations … much of my recent music has to do with creating seemingly incompatible musical ideas and contexts in which they make sense, appealing to that curiosity.”
South African composer Michael Blake, professor at Africa Open, co-ordinated the album as well as contributing a track. He had helmed the first Bow Project album in 2010, a collection of mostly string quartet works honouring the musicianship of traditional bow master the late NoFinishi Dywili. To that, Bräuninger contributed the only electronic soundscape, Tsiki’s Got a Headache, which opens this new recording. Blake told me that after Bräuninger’s death he was looking for a way to honour him:
“I thought back to that ‘bowscape’, as he called it, and started imagining a whole CD … of new ones.”
Blake contacted composers across the world, sending South African bow samples on request. In the end, he had 21 short electronic pieces, half from South Africa and half from places as diverse as Mozambique, Nigeria, Mexico, Germany, Uruguay, the Faroe Islands and more.
Bow music and struggle music
On the CD, those two groups of composers sit on either side of an extended centrepiece: Walking Song by Dlamini, Houtcamp and Sitas. Its lyrics are based on verses from struggle era trade unionist and poet Alfred Temba Qabula.
Walking Song pays homage to two traditions: bow music and struggle music. Diverse musicians, including accomplished bow players, used music as part of their activism against apartheid, as individuals or in trade union and political party choirs and theatre groups.
Sitas explains that the three were determined that:
“We were not going to use the bow as a decoration or quotation – we were going to compose with it.”
He sought permission from Qabula’s daughter to add contemporary allusions to the poem.
Composing with bow
Those processes indicate what went into making the album. Contributors acknowledged bow music as a legitimate compositional language, not an exotic ornament to be appropriated. Conversations about who “owns” and has the right to work with traditional music have been an important part of the decolonisation debate. South African composer, performer and scholar Neo Muyanga, who made the track uNontoUzavunywa, reflects that borrowing is unavoidable, because cultural workers have always drawn from older music to convey new and sometimes subversive messages. But “it’s important to announce our sources and pay homage to them in every way possible.”
Muyanga’s work flips the gender message of a song from another bow maestro, Mantombi Matotiyana. He says that when she first came across that song, “all power and ownership were invariably presumed to vest in the man”.
Phungula’s track Montage layers and contrasts the isolation of studio electronic composing with “an element that contained a multitude of sounds” – a family wedding recording he had made some years earlier. It invokes the spirit of community music-making in which bow traditions are rooted.
In many such communities, women (such as Madosini, Dyiwili and Matotiyana) remain the leading composers and performers. Three women composers feature on the album: London-born Galina Juritz, Christina Oorebeek from the US and South African Cara Stacey.
Stacey, herself a bow player, here applies guitar effects to the instrument: “Bows were earlier; guitars came in and replaced them. I liked the idea of flipping that and replacing the guitar … with bows.”
But her cyclical track, Rounds, also interrogates the stereotype that “tradition” and its exponents are “static or fixed in any way. My experience from my research in Eswatini and with different bow players is that they’re keen to experiment. They already do experiment – and did in the past.”
Blake relishes the album’s diversity of approaches, languages and sounds. In the community of music-makers he’s drawn together, Bowscapes reflects both the community roots of bow music and the collaborative processes Bräuninger fostered. DM/ML
The CD is available from Africa Open and will soon be available as a download
Gwen Ansell is an Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science at the University of Pretoria.