Tradition, Modernity, and Cultural Identity in Contemporary South Africa: the music of Tete Mbambisa, Louis Moholo-Moholo and Zim Ngqawana.

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The 2010 IMS-SASRIM regional conference in Stellenbosch featured a composer’s panel with three key South African musicians: Tete Mbambisa, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Zim Ngqawana. Although they are all considered South African jazz musicians, have displayed similar political convictions, and share a common linguistic and cultural background – that of the amaXhosa – their musical and verbal statements display strikingly divergent relationships to the ideas of musical culture and musical identity.

As Tony Whyton (2011) has pointed out, the understanding of jazz music is too often characterised by sets of antonyms. Indeed when considering the music of Mbambisa, Moholo-Moholo and Ngqawana it is easy to concentrate on the local vs. the international. But such antonymic readings are overly reductive and miss the many insights on music, culture and identity formation that these musicians can offer.

Various notions of culture scream out from discussions on musical identity, but what does this mean for contemporary South African music in general? How are musicians tackling the idea of a positive ‘South African tradition’ in a contemporary urban society? How has the apartheid regime's co-option of rural 'tradition' for very negative ends affected this process?

As Jean-François Bayart (1996) theorized, identities are ‘at best a cultural construct, a political or ideological construct; that is, ultimately, a historical context.’ This paper will argue that the careful deployment of varying cultural and identity constructs by these three musicians provides a rich model for understanding the ways in which communities continually renegotiate their history and consequently their identity.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2012
EventHistories, aesthetics, and politics of South African jazz: An indaba convened by the Rhodes University / Mellon Jazz Heritage Project - Grahamstown, South Africa
Duration: 17 Jan 201218 Jan 2012


ConferenceHistories, aesthetics, and politics of South African jazz: An indaba convened by the Rhodes University / Mellon Jazz Heritage Project
Country/TerritorySouth Africa


  • South Africa
  • Jazz
  • Culture
  • Identity
  • Improvisation

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