Michael Nixon

I was born in Cape Town, and liked to spend my time on Signal Hill and at Boat Bay with my brothers, mixing up cakes or knitting with my mother, and discussing passing sea traffic and evolution with my grandfather. These activities were interrupted by schooling at Loreto Convent, Sea Point, and further disrupted by a move to Windhoek, and another soon thereafter to Pretoria, following my auditor father’s career moves. A diagnosis of high blood pressure spared me from military service. It was brought on by outrage at the notion of spending any time in the SA army; friends and I had already been helping hide and care for a principled deserter from the army. Abandoning my earlier plans to become a fireman or a theatre director, I began preparing for a musical career, working by day as a judge’s clerk, as a bookseller, and a hatha yoga instructor, studying for a BA with Unisa by night, listening to live music in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and taking music lessons over weekends.

The most generous, accomplished and creative musicians in South Africa, India, and the USA taught me Indian classical music, and I continue this study today. In the early 1970s, I assisted Jeram and Jaydevi Bhana run music, art and pottery classes at MK Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm south of Johannesburg. We cared for this historic resistance site, where we welcomed many thousands of visitors. From 1977–1986, I studied music in Chennai, India. Alongside performance, I sought to make theoretical and historical sense of India’s vast musical tradition, producing a number of publications with my teacher, Savithri Rajan, and co-founding Sampradaya (a performance, research and archival project) with Ludwig Pesch. Thirty years later, this project and its archive are housed in Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts, Chennai, where they inform the curriculum, and form a basis for research.

Studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, I produced an unpublished thesis on an important South Indian musical-dramatic work, Gopalakrishna Bharatiyar’s Nantanar Carittiram. This 19th-century Tamil work deals in an original, imaginative, humane way with a Dalit saint’s life. In the 20th century, the story and the songs caught the imagination of the Indian nationalist movement, and of Indian South Africans, who found in it parallels with their personal and political conundrums.

Studying at Wesleyan and later at the University of Washington, Seattle enabled me to further develop my interest in African musics. Besides lecturing in the USA, at the University of Durban-Westville, and now at UCT, I have been involved with audiovisual archives and museums since 1980, including Sampradaya, the University of Washington World Music Archives, and the District Six Museum. I find curating the Percival R Kirby Collection of Musical Instruments at UCT an exciting stretch of skills and intellect. My PhD research on Kirby and his collection involves writing biographies of the collector and the collection, which spills over well beyond the field of music. When not working on research or teaching, I can be found practising the vina, that lute found in the hands of Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge.