Siya Makuzeni is the mothership of South African music. Her contributions to projects ranging from Marcus Wyatt’s Language12, through to her own solo work, have guaranteed her a spot in the South African song book. She is still innovating, still creating afresh. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng/This is Africa.
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Is’xaxa: How to do it for the culture — while trying to stay alive

How a collaborative music project spanning three countries over two continents was made in the depths of a global pandemic.

On 28 February this year, the National Arts Council of South Africa released a press statement on its website stating that the Chief Executive Officer, Rosemary Mangope and Chief Financial Officer, Clifton Changfoot had been suspended for mismanagement of funds related to the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP). The funds were released by the country’s president Cyril Ramaphosa to the arts and culture sector at the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic to support artists, creatives, heritage sector  and cultural workers.

“This decision follows robust engagement with management over the past weeks culminating in the Council meeting of Friday, 26 February 2021 which left the Council seriously dissatisfied with the progress on the rollout of the PESP,” the statement read. The statement further stated that a total of R300 million (approximately USD 20 million) from two streams was supposed to have been disbursed. 

“Stream One was intended to enable job retention, whilst Stream Two was for work opportunities within the arts, culture and heritage sector”.

The disbursement of the funds has been delayed and artists staged a sit-in at the National Arts Council l’s offices in Newtown demanding that the payment of funds. The council was supposed to distribute the money by the end of December, 2020 but there have been delays, which has frustrated artists.

Image of the Johannesburg studio session. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng/This is Africa.

Artists and arts organisations have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, and many have been facing dire financial challenges due to ongoing pandemic. Many arts organisations have significantly scaled down operations while others are bracing for the worst, which could include closure and insolvency.  The rollout of the employment stimulus fund will indeed make a major difference and save many organisations. However, the handling of the programme has been criticised. Questions continue to be raised whether heads will roll or if there are going to be further expulsions? More significantly, what are the long-terms ramifications of these expulsions and delays to disburse funds on the arts, culture and heritage sector as the pandemic continues? 

Arts practitioners and cultural workers worldwide have been impacted negatively by the pandemic. That a government entity with the mandate to listen to grievances of industry stakeholders and support artists and organisations in the sector failed to do so – at the height of a pandemic highlights the endemic rot that has crippled many African states since the onset of independence. 

Whilst these issues have roots in colonialism (and latter-day neo-colonialist policies), it’s also useful to think about them as-is, outside of broader causes. But I digress. 

This unfortunate outcome of events made me think about the distressing lockdown  and post-lockdown period when all large gatherings were banned. The the arts and cultural community has been reeling from the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Musicians were at a loss, as were theatre practitioners, television and stage actors, supporting crew, and others working in the arts and entertainment industry. 

Making music in the midst of a global pandemic

For the Johannesburg-based Mushroom Hour record label, the ban on inter-provincial and out-of-country travel meant that they couldn’t go to London in order to start work on a British Council-funded project called Is’xaxa. Pitched as a multimedia collaboration between Senegal, South Africa and the United Kingdom, it was bound to be a riotous labour of love. 

Faced with an uncertain future, the team had to come up with hard and fast solutions to the prevailing issue. A plan was hatched that would see the South African contingent record music and send over to the London team to build on and complete. The London team was to do the same. Two dates were set aside during which concurrent studio sessions would take place. 

Aus’ Tebza: The bassist extraordinaire was a core part of the late, great emcee HHP’s live band. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng/This is Africa.

The two studio sessions would then be recorded and the results would be sent over to the Senegalese musicians to finish up, and the music aspect of the project would be released as a collaboration. 

Nhlanhla Masondo, one of the founders alongside Nhlanhla Mngadi and Andrew Curnow, explained the filmic aspect of the project: 

“The film is essentially the outcome of [a] find. Like, oh shit, we just found some footage and some images of a session that was happening before the great cataclysm [that caused] the world to change in 2020. There were lots of humans across the world: some were in London, some were in Dakar, and some were in Joburg, and this is what they were doing”.

“It’s a fascinating futurist take on music appreciation, one that speaks to the times, and to the anxieties concerning what is to come”

The archivist/collector who discovers these archives, tracks the participants down to interview them about that time. It’s a fascinating futurist take on music appreciation, one that speaks to the times, and to the anxieties concerning what is to come.

Musician Asher Gamedze played drums on the project. His take about how things would unfold has stayed with me, and speaks very much to the South African PESP story, as well as the unfolding soft diplomacy and political discourse around who gets to be vaccinated, and when.

Drummer Asher Gamedze is of the view that the issues that came into sharp focus during the pandemic had been brewing for a while. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng/This is Africa.

“In one sense, a lot of the changes that we saw after that moment had been building for a long time in terms of people’s forms of resistance, as well as the intensification of oppression on the stateside. It was perceptible to see some of the things that did happen, changing prior to that moment,” Gamedze says.

There was a jarring transformation in daily life, he adds.

“It was a time when new forms of resistance were emerging, as well as the intensification of certain repressive aspects of the state. It was a time where a lot of the contradictions embedded in the Capitalist state came to a head, and the borders of the state were being policed very intensely. At the same time, people organised themselves in different ways, which opened up forms of autonomy and possibilities outside of the previous trajectory that we were on”.

Pianist Zoe Molelekwa spoke broadly about the goals of the project.

“Our goal was to come together through a communal practice, which is what we do as musicians, because we commune and – in a sense, we wanted to express certain feelings that weren’t so easy to put in words, and to document how we felt at the time when we were going through all the challenges we were faced with”. 

Zoe Molelekwa: Currently studying in New York, there’s no telling what levels the outstanding pianist shall ascend to when it’s all said and done. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng/This is Africa.

“What we wanted to achieve was to give a sense of hope that so many great things can come out of us coming together. When it comes to releasing the project and all the aspects of performing and touring, those weren’t things that we could consider because of the situation we were in. I think we just wanted to give off our best, and to know each other and find a way to work together under those circumstances,” Molelekwa adds.

Is’xaxa, an isiZulu word, speaks to the improvisational nature of times like these, where one has to think on their feet, to borrow the much-abused term.

Nhlanhla says: “These [musicians] come from a background of making music which is improvised. You’re always working with what you have, and you produce a sound that’s complete right there. Instinctually, for them, it’s easy to complete the picture. There is a sense of openness in the music. There is space for more, there is room for more”.

Imagine being a skilled professional, expedient at your job, but not being able to work for a full year because of a crippling pandemic. Then imagine finding out that the reason the relief fund you were asked to apply for, and haven’t received a year later, is due to government malpractice. This is the reality of artists across South Africa. 

The video features interviews with the four South African musicians involved in Is’xaxa, along with in-studio footage from the Johannesburg sessions.

The series is a creative storytelling collaboration between This is Africa and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

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