In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Questions regarding tradition and modernity in contemporary Amakwaya practice
  • Patrick Giddy (bio) and Markus Detterbeck (bio)


There is the view — we will term this the modernity thesis — that modern social developments entail a radical discontinuity in history and break with tradition. Anthony Giddens (1990:4), for example, writes that 'the modes of life brought into being by modernity have swept us away from all traditional types of social order, in quite unprecedented fashion'. The radical reflexivity which is the mark of the modern, means one can no longer appeal to tradition. Or rather, if one does justify tradition, this is 'only in the light of knowledge which is not itself authenticated by tradition'. And such justified tradition is 'tradition in sham clothing' (1990:38).

In this paper we will present what we think is a counter-example to this thesis, namely the black choral tradition, amakwaya. The picture drawn by the modernity thesis is that of a social system in which individuals are subject to, or subject themselves to, a system of rewards which disengages persons from their traditions with their internally generated criteria of excellence, isolates and individualises them, emasculating their specific motivational parameters or frameworks. With our counter-example we want to show the tenuous nature of the thesis that this is inevitable, a necessity of social and economic development. We suggest that it can be reasonably hoped that amakwaya tradition will continue to synthesise elements from other cultures without fully losing its continuity with past tradition. The way, for example, in which dress codes were adopted, and also the way in which ideas of 'progress', 'education', and so on were assimilated, points not to a capitulation to modernity (represented by the colonial powers and missionary ideas) but rather to a negotiated identity, embracing various elements and not essentially in opposition to the 'other'. [End Page 26]

In the first part of this article1 it is argued that the development of the black South African choral tradition amakwaya2 has had an integral connection with questions of cultural identity and this formation of identity can be seen to mature from one of imitation to one characterised by negotiation. The hybrid musical form of amakwaya symbolised, in restrictive political circumstances, the general political and social aspirations of black people, as is evidenced in the lyrics and performance practice, as well as in the comments of the choristers themselves. The tradition somehow gave meaning and sense to people's lives, and had a not insignificant role in the emergence of a national culture. The identity being constructed, while for the most part an open one with the potential to inspire a more embracing cultural unity, was however mixed with elements of a class stratification and exclusivity, pitting the educated middle-class and 'progress', against rural and uneducated 'traditional' folk. In the second part of the article we argue that this aspect of exclusiveness has been reinforced more recently by commercialisation, and competitiveness, even simply monetary gain, has increasingly played a distorting role in the choral practice. The evidence indicates that the African cultural practice here in question is able to resist — through assimilation — those seemingly overwhelming detraditionalising forces. An appreciation of the hybrid character of the genius of amakwaya tradition, along with its role in giving meaning, would encourage participants and leaders to be aware of, and take measures to counteract, potentially undermining elements in the present situation.

Choral singing and identity: from imitation to negotiation

We can begin with a brief vignette illustrating the impact of the missions on choral singing. Ray Phillips (1930:93-94), an American Board missionary recorded the following experience he had around 1918 when he attended a rural wedding:

We discovered on our arrival that both Christians and heathen had been invited to attend the joyous occasion. On one side of the collection of huts were assembled the heathen; on the other the Christian folk. On the heathen side the wedding dances were being put on by a long line of sparsely dressed men, young and old. They stamped and shouted and sang, looking up into heaven with staring eyes. They were evidently invoking the blessings of the spirits of the departed...


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