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Reviewed by:
  • Radio Soundings: South Africa and the Black Modern by Liz Gunner
  • Loren Kruger
Radio Soundings: South Africa and the Black Modern BY LIZ GUNNER Cambridge UP, 2019. xiv + 224 pp. ISBN 9781108470643 cloth.

The "sound of Africa" has inspired several significant studies of music and other forms of performance in South Africa, from David Coplan's In Township Tonight! (1985/2008) through Veit Erlmann's Night Song (1996) to Louise Meintjies's Sound of Africa! (2003), Christopher Ballantine's Marabi Nights (1993/2012), and Tsitsi Jaji's Africa in Stereo (2014). While these discuss recording and sometimes also musical performance disseminated by radio and occasionally film, Liz Gunner is the first to demonstrate the central role of radio in giving voice to African impresarios, writers, and listeners who created and sustained the diverse sounds of black modernity even as the apartheid government insisted on maintaining the fiction of distinct tribal identities to rationalize segregation. While acknowledging earlier studies' attention to the modernity of night music (ingoma ebusuku—the Zulu term since the 1920s for performance by professionals or aspiring professionals in urban venues for cash paid predominantly by working men in their evening leisure hours), Gunner encourages readers to tune in to the everyday modernity of radio, which has been and continues to be consumed by women as well as men during days as well as evenings of work and leisure. The cover for Radio Soundings, a photograph by Paul Weinberg, aptly captures this crucial extension. It shows a Zulu woman doing the laundry accompanied by a battery-operated portable radio in the foreground of an apparently rural space—as the caption tells us "Roosboom, near Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal" (back cover). The photograph foregrounds the domestic listening habits of women as well as the modern provenance of the portable receiver, whose "international" label on the front highlights its transnational [End Page 209] as well as local appeal. This picture directs the viewer to the topographical as well as oral (voiced), and aural (listening), components of Gunner's study, grounded in the culture of KwaZulu while also tracing the migration of radio, producers, and listeners to and from South African urban centers as well as points of exile in Europe and beyond.

It is precisely this combination of sounding and placing that makes this study unique. Gunner begins part one well before the first radio broadcasts in the 1920s, with the sound of war music and language associated with the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, whose forms such as amahubo empi (war anthems) and izibongo (praises) found their way into Zulu experiences of modernity from service in World War I to migrant labor thereafter (32) and informed the work of pioneer educators such as turn-of-the-century John Dube and his mid-20th-century student King Edward Masinga. Masinga in particular deployed izibongo to persuade reluctant broadcasters in Durban to hire him to create a regular Zulu program, starting with news of World War II in 1941 (36), continuing with cultural programs including musical versions of Zulu folk tales and Zulu translations of Shakespeare, and concluding with untranslated "praises" for his apartheid boss in 1970 that Zulus would have understood as sharp critique. Chapter two continues the account of "communication though the back door" (49), which black employees of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had to use, with the career of Alexius Buthelezi who managed, despite apartheid promotion of an imagined rural Zuluness, to use the intimacy of radio and especially the thoroughly syncretic forms of music drama and transnational sources such as Buchan's Pilgrim's Progress as well as major Zulu writers such as C. L. S. Nyembezi, to forge a modern sense of identity among diverse Zulu audiences from recent migrants to the aspirant black middle class, male industrial workers, and female domestic workers (55).

Part three updates this exploration of "drama, language and everyday life" (113) in radio serials (imidlalo yomoya—plays of the air—or amastori-stories) and their creation of a forum for listeners' responses not only to the twists and turns of serial drama, but also, indirectly but forcefully, to the political upheaval of the 1970s and especially state violence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2044
Print ISSN
0034-5210
Pages
pp. 209-211
Launched on MUSE
2020-07-17
Open Access
No
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