Musical Performance on a Historical African Legacy

2 Oct 2020 - 11:30
Event Poster.
Event Poster. Courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.


On 23 July 2020, Indlela eBheke e-Azania: a journey through music went live on Goethe-Institut’s digital platform for artistic performance. The work was divided into 3 parts, namely: (1) Indlela | (2) Rhapta | (3) Kuumbi. The cast for the performance consisted of musicians from Africa and Europe, namely: Sten Ulloa Carler (Swedish classical pianist), Aurelien Gignoux (French Percussionist) and APC research associate Thokozani Mhlambi (voice) and a variety of bodily percussions. The work was composed and produced at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, where Mhlambi held an artistic residency in 2020. The work was originally scheduled as a live rendition at the Baxter Theatre, as part of the Africa Month celebrations in May. When the global pandemic broke out, it put a damper on those plans and the piece was produced in a digital format.

The work draws on research findings in the field of histories of regional migration and mobility studies in Africa, and the transnational linkages of those human movements and their implied cultural production. The story uncovered is one which emerges in a First Century AD text, The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean, written by a merchant living in that century.

Among the accounts reported in the text is a visit to the southernmost trading town of Azania, which was called Rhapta, as reference to the sewed kind of boats which used to dock there on its dunes. From the research, we know that the people of this place were great in stature, proud agriculturalists and great innovators in terms of metal-working science. They traded with the ships anchored on the bluffs of the city, who came from many parts of the world – places like Iran, Rome, India, Egypt, to mention a few.

Ancient ships relied on the movements of the monsoon, a seasonal change in direction of the strongest winds in the Indian Ocean. These winds would then act as a natural motor-power for steering the ships southwards, and then reverse movement later in the year. They came to Azania for gold, ivory, palm-oil, rhino horns, and iron bloom. These were items that were in abundance in south-east Africa. In return the Africans would receive glass beads in all kinds of colours, copper, cloth and sometimes even wines. The communities valued more the cattle that they traded with each other, significant in uniting families and building multi-lateral relationships.

Mhlambi describes the impulses and thinking behind the work:

The presentation of this work to the public, for myself as the composer, is a culmination of a long intellectual and creative process. The process may need to be highlighted to amplify the understanding of the work, but also crucially to help me pave a way forward in terms of the evolution of the piece.

I think it is fair firstly to say that creating from that which is known about, which is more developed in terms of pre-established formulas of cultural association (established in social contexts both through fact and fiction, against and within prevailing power structures) is simpler. 

The relationship between the meanings the composer tries to convey (e.g. through sound) vis-à-vis the socio-cultural interpretations of those messages by the audience is stable. Stable not in the sense that it lacks innovation, and potential disruption. Rather it is stable because it is there; it exists in the expectant habits of listening. There is something to work with for the composer. She or he has the choice either to affirm the expectancy or deviate from it. Nonetheless both choices carry explosive potential, it is not that one is more ‘creative’ than the other.

Whereas when one is creating from material that is lesser known (or unknown) by the audience (and possibly initially unknown to the composer herself) the approach is a little bit trickier. The struggle can be at the level of research for the composition, where archival material is not readily available. (For example, musical instruments are not easily found in archaeological records and are seldom identified as such.) It can also be at the level of creative development (application), arising from a lack of associative sonic devices for the scant material uncovered.

This sums up my struggle in creating the performance piece. I will now proceed to give practical examples of how the struggle emanated, and my solutions:

Firstly what I was interested in is the cave called Kuumbi. In the past, Kuumbi acted as a kind of “hotel” in the vicinity for the sojourners to Azania (Chami 2009). The cave is made of two main passages, the largest of its entrance is on the northeast. 

On the other end of the same passage there is another small entrance, which is located just beyond a freshwater spring. To access the pool one has ascend a steep ramp. In terms of the local myths that exist in Tanzania today about the cave, a spirit is believed to dwell in the cave, and people come to drink at the quiet pool, which is thought to bring good fortune. The cave has been a site of many offerings and ceremonies for those who use it. Historically, it was never a site of permanent dwelling, with people staying on short visits (Akshay Sarathi, 2014, Preliminary Report on Excavations Conducted at the Site of Kuumbi cave (Pango la Kuumbi), Zanzibar).

The word kuumbi in our local South African languages of Zulu and Xhosa, written as gumbi, is a wide-open room. The name in itself is testimony to a shared linguistic heritage, of south-and-eastern agriculturalists of sintu dialects.

Caves are known as sites of artistic and ritualistic practice. This can be seen in the rock paintings in different parts of the continent. Furthermore, evidence suggests that some spaces may have been chosen specifically for how well sound resonates or reverberates – perhaps as a way of transmitting sonic messages over long distances or for particular ritual elevated states of frequency vibration (and altered consciousness) (see “How our African ancestors made sound in the Stone Age”, The Conversation, 7 August 2019). In the composition, I wanted to reflect that experience of being in a cave by using aspects of echo and natural delay. For the pool of water, for example, I used the sound of dripping water. For the live performance, my plan was to use the distribution of loudspeakers in different parts of the concert hall, with sound coming from multi-directions for the audience.

What became clear as I was developing the work is that the shift to the digital is not seamless; especially for the kinds of works where sonorities in sound and room-effect are key in the delivery of the work. This was my challenge.

The digital format tends to prompt more of a visual focus; which defeated my objective altogether, since my aim was to help the audience to draw that picture in their own minds, by appealing to their experience of sound and space. With the shift to the digital, I lost the acoustic physicality of the room and the potential for sound to reverberate.

Yet at the same time, in the digital format my audience became exponential in terms of its location in different parts of the world as well in its linguistic diversity.


The digital performance was supported by the Afropolitan Explosiv, Baxter Theatre and Re-centring AfroAsia: Musical & Migrations in the Precolonial Period (700-1500AD) project at the University of Cape Town.