Musical masters fuse Western and traditional music

By Michelle Galloway

A South African composer, Michael Blake and Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza, talk about the fusion of western and traditional music, cultural appropriation and finding their “voice”.

Justinian Tamusuza is a Ugandan composer of contemporary classical music. His music combines elements of traditional Ugandan music and Western music. He is based at the Department of Performing Arts and Film (PAF) at Makerere University. Michael Blake is a South African contemporary classical music composer who was born in Cape Town. He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and lectured at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and is a member of the Africa Open Institute at Stellenbosch University.

Although coming from different starting points, both Blake and Tamusuza combine influences from ethnic, traditional and classical western music styles into their compositions. The two composers spoke during a seminar at Stellenbosch University while Tamusuza was in residence at The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

“We have many things in common as composers, we are both interested in the coming together of Western and ethnic African music. We have both worked with Western ensembles and studied Western theory, and one of our first influences was church music. We speak the same musical language,” said Tamusuza.

The rich seminar was interspersed with audio examples from traditional music as well as some of their compositions for string quartet. This included Tamusuza’s composition for Pieces of Africa, which reached No 1 on the Billboard Classical and World Music Charts in 1992.  Blake and Tamusuza explained the overall differences in techniques between Western and traditional African music and their experiences of merging the two.

“Justinian grew up with traditional music. He played the instruments and was immersed in the traditions from a young age,” said Blake. “Traditional music was not initially part of my training and instrumental composition. I chose to incorporate it into my work. Justinian is influenced by theatre, dance and drama. I’m more influenced by the visual arts, literature and film.”

Tamusuza said that a composer’s musical voice is influenced by a wealth of factors including home background, cultural music practices, education, schools and institutions they attend, their teachers and their friends, to name a few. But even if two composers grew up in the same environment, their musical language would not necessarily be the same.

“The way they express themselves in their music is, in most cases, quite unique,” said Tamusuza.

Blake studied classical music but since the mid-1970s he has engaged with some of the traditional music of South Africa, notably Xhosa bow music and overtone singing from the Eastern Cape. Tamusuza first learned traditional Ganda music in Uganda and continues to practise and teach Ganda music composition at Makerere University. Both are masters of classical music in their own right.

Marriage of cultures

Tamusuza said to him contemporary art music is a “marriage of two musical cultures”. Kiganda of the Baganda in Uganda and western music shaped his musical performance and creativity for the last 40 years.

“The materials you work with depend on the music you want to make. I make Western instruments speak my language,” said Tamusuza

Blake said hearing his first traditional bow player in Grahamstown, Nofinishi Dywili the renowned traditional Xhosa musician, was a major turning point in his work. “Nofinishi Dywili was an expert player of the Uhadi bow, truly a master musician. She was part of a traditional group that also specialised in overtone singing. They came from a desperately poor rural area but eventually did concert tours throughout the world supporting their community along the way. I call it my ‘Damascus Road’ experience because it profoundly influenced the direction of my work from there on,” said Blake.

Blake and Tamusuza described African traditional music as having specific characteristics – often a descending melody, a 5, 6 or 7-note scale and usually a more cyclical, repetitive structure compared to more linear Western classical music. “But it is the rhythm that is the most sophisticated characteristic of traditional music and definitely influences what I do,” said Blake.

“Somewhere in the texture of all my music are these rhythms and textures. Xhosa musicians also talk about ‘putting the salt into the songs’ using added notes, variations and handclaps.”

“It’s sometimes a challenge to create continuity whilst including the spice,” added Tamusuza. “It’s also about using intonation to enhance meaning. Just like in spoken language, in music you need to take care of the intonation or you can cause confusion.”

In discussion, the two addressed the issue of cultural appropriation. Tamusuza said his only goal is to have his music communicate a message.  “I don’t care about appropriation or being accused of speaking in colonial language. I use Western instruments and idioms to communicate to my satisfaction.”

Blake said he searched for “his voice” for a long time. “I originally dabbled in different styles and influences while looking for my voice. I found indigenous music fired me up. I wouldn’t be sitting here without African music. I created music by synthesising different music traditions. I guess I am guilty of cultural appropriation,” he said.

During his time at The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, Blake will work on a composition treatise which draws on his earlier publication Afrikosmos which is a course of study for pianists and a compendium of composition techniques synthesising traditional African and Western art music. Tamusuza will complete a vocal artwork entitled: Ggwe Tulinda Atutuuseeko (The Messiah we have been waiting for has arrived).

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Michelle Galloway

Michelle Galloway is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader and media and communications consultant with over 20 years of experience in the science, health and academic editing field. Highlights in her career include working as Communication Manager for the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative, as Managing Editor of the AIDS Bulletin (which she co-founded) for the […]

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