Contact Us
8 July 2020
Neo Muyanga navigates the ‘maze in grace’

(Published - 8 July 2020)

“We learn struggle songs by osmosis,” reflects composer, Neo Muyanga. “I can’t remember anybody actually teaching me one … the ideas are just spontaneously combusting out there on the streets.”

Muyanga is discussing the genesis of his project  Making Grace Amazing, which premiered at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda on 29 June and is accessible to ticket holders until 16 July.

Making Grace Amazing combines music, graphics and animation, and a performance from São Paulo activist theatre group, Legítima Defesa. It aims to look critically at a song that has assumed iconic status at freedom marches and protest meetings, and through that, at the bonds and barriers around concepts such as Africanness.

It’s not Muyanga’s first engagement with liberation music. In 2013, at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), he was able to access the Mayibuye Archive of recordings and relics from those who had suffered at the hands of the apartheid regime. That awoke memories of his own experiences under apartheid and of the liberation culture enshrined “in texts, manuscripts, recordings, sometimes even in whispers”. 

The whispers intrigued the most. As a child, Muyanga chanced on an attractive-looking LP in his family home: the Grammy Award-winning 1966 An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, featuring Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. “But no sooner had it started than an elder came in and said I must take it off the player immediately. He didn’t explain why. I hadn’t realised that it was protest music, but of course it immediately became more attractive because it was all illegal.”

Music’s memory

At UWC, Muyanga started asking himself, “What is it that remains encoded in those songs? What … carries those memories that have become a part of us?” His project of searching, transcribing and “decomposing” continued at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research with the Revolting Songs project. The focus broadened to songs of popular protest in Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia, then India. His colleague there, vocalist Sumangala Damodaran, unearthed historic revolutionary songs from Kerala, but found that nobody knew how to sing them any more. Yet, when she came to South Africa, the descendants of migrants from that area recognised the songs and could sing them fluently for her. 

Alongside those travels, Muyanga was hearing historic South African songs that had been “bubbling in the shadows”, taking on a new life again, with Iyoh Solomon and Shiwelele becoming the rallying cries at Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, and others since.

“When Miriam was singing, [the land] was at the forefront of the struggle. Then, when Cyril [Ramaphosa] became president, it all came back. How come we’re still singing against apartheid? Shouldn’t those continuities make us pause, doubt and question? What work are those songs doing now, as opposed to what they did when they began?” asks Muyanga.

Amazing Grace was another song he had known “forever, and I’d always assumed it came out of the American Southern Baptist tradition”. He’d known it as an anthem of the Freedom Marches in the United States - a song whose classic version Aretha Franklin had cut, a song Barack Obama sang at the site of the Charleston church massacre, an alternative American national anthem and “a song that brings us all together”. 

But on a visit to the Tate Modern gallery in Liverpool, he learned that the song was written by an Englishman, the self-described “scoundrel and slaver” turned clergyman and abolitionist, John Newton. He wrote the hymn in thanks for the divine grace that he believed had freed him from servitude to a Sierra Leonean slave trader’s wife, helped him avoid accidentally shooting himself, and quelled a life-threatening storm at sea. (In thanks, in fact, for his own bodily salvation. After the 1748 storm, it took him more than two decades to join the abolitionists.)

Muyanga had discovered what he calls “a maze in grace”. It was time, he felt, to “stop singing it as a hymn of compassion and solidarity” and rather sing it to interrogate not only the song’s own myths, but also, because of the routes of the slave trade, the colonial geographies of where Africa begins and ends.

A multidimensional project

Making Grace Amazing does both. The video showing at the arts festival is one segment of a much bigger project, including a live performance at the São Paulo Biennale (where the venue was packed with the biggest crowd ever) and, if it happens, this year’s Liverpool Biennale, too. 

Filmed as the group set up in the empty, cavernous Oscar Niemeyer-designed modernist São Paulo Biennale pavilion, Muyanga’s soundscape twines through live action from Legítima Defesa, old photographs, sketches from the composer and images from Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves, a graphic novel about the Brazilian villages sheltering runaway slaves (these latter two animated by Bianca Turner). Rattling chains, seabirds and stormy waves splashing over a slave ship’s gunwales carry human voices that cry, protest and sing.

The ambiguities of the song’s history echo in the ambiguities of sound and image. The red dotted lines tracking the slave trade on a map clot to resemble bloodstains. The relentless pulses of strings and kettledrum could be the blows of a slaver’s knout, or the leaden steps of the enchained. Cries of pain could also be shouts of defiance; images of the here and now of the performance fade into images of the then and there of the trade – and back. Only at the conclusion does Tina Mene’s soprano give us the song “straight”, and by then we can no longer hear it straight, we are compelled to engage with its knots and contradictions.

Those ambiguities, says Muyanga, matter. “Binary positionalities of protagonist and antagonist trap us in a quicksand.” That’s true, he says, of all the oppositions that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism seeded, “and yet we continue responding to those systems of imposed order – race, class, gender – that blackness challenges”.

African versus non-African is one such, “but we still lack its bibliography”. When his work and enquiry reached Brazil, Muyanga immersed himself in Brazilian Portuguese, “a decolonisation of the colonial language”, and the Yoruba traditions of Salvador, including the Candomblé religion. “To be interested in Africa in Brazil is to be interested and curious about West Africans today,” says Muyanga, a powerful counterweight to South African prejudices about our Lusophone neighbours in Mozambique and Angola. “Miriam Makeba sang Brazilian songs. She understood the crossing of those boundaries as essential to understanding herself as an African.”

Muyanga learned how a different experience of colonial racism – “our binaries here were about racial purity, the Portuguese aimed to erase black identity through ‘miscegenation’” – had created a distinctive discourse around racial formation and blackness.

A collaboration created in call-and-response

He met Legítima Defesa five years ago during a performance of Revolting Songs in São Paulo. From the audience, they began moving around and calling out. “It was part of their project of disrupting the comfort of pervasive whiteness, and they’d identified my themes as relevant. I took their appreciation of antiphony [counter-voices] on board. This was a real call-and-response, so I began to respond.” 

Out of that rapport developed friendship and shared work on a number of projects, most recently, Making Grace Amazing. Muyanga enjoys the group’s approach of collective creation – “devised theatre” – which draws elements from the theatrical alienation pioneered by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and from Brazilian activist Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Both aim to stir audiences into thinking and challenging, rather than being carried along passively by high drama and emotion. 

In talk, counter-voices sound conflict between binaries. In music, antiphony can shape new and delightful sounds. That, for Muyanga, is one of the elusive discoveries he’s been seeking since he started delving through the Mayibuye Archives. “Music and song-making are a way of having difficult conversations. We can all speak in different voices at the same time, and say more than one thing at the same time, and out of that cacophony we can build more expansive possibilities together.”

This article was first published by New Frame.