EPISODE 4 Yonela Mnana presents “Vernacularism”

Pianist, composer, intellectual and teacher Yonela Mnana, born blind in eDutywa in the Eastern Cape, uses his multiple musical talents to present a uniquely South African approach to music education or what he calls “Vernacularism.” Yonela’s musical expression accesses the intuitive heart of indigenous South African music. These are the jewels of self-discovery and the foundation for learning South African music.

A bottom-up kind of music education

Next to Alberton, at Ezibeleni High School for Physically Disabled Children in Kathlehong, Yonela holds down a teaching job. He has a wonderful working relationship with his colleagues and Head of Department, Nomthandazo Solomon. Together they have created a sense of community rather than an ‘academic’ environment, encouraging students to learn more from one other. These teachers are also grooming future musicians through intense practice.

The heart-warming experience of Ezibeleni shows the correlation between being well schooled and having an appreciation for the arts. Ezibeleni has inverted the ‘top down’ and ‘othering’ styles often employed in teacher-student relations, and built a kind of community approach whereby they learn to survive, grow, praying and play together. As Yonela says, “Music brings a type of cohesion – like Ebony and Ivory, standing side by side!”

Through community, the students relate to each other as fellow humans, and less as coming from different levels of society. This sense of togetherness and inner learning, encourages the students to rise to their best levels, beyond the horrible conditions of some of their living circumstances, such as squatter camps. Teaching is not only imparting the knowledge that you know, but it is also about reacting to the knowledge the students come with. There’s been a lot of informal teaching in South African music that hasn’t involved a lot of money.

Although South African Jazz has gained much inspiration from American jazz, Yonela’s primary concern is with his musical roots. Does being a South African mean you can only play South African music? Yonela is taking a lead in musical expression by looking inward and learning from those who have walked the path before, such as Bheki Mseleku. Yonela said, “Students who look outward become colonized in their thinking. They are taught ways of thinking about the content, and end up judging themselves as less competent against those foreign standards. So, we have to change these lenses and perceptions of ourselves through our teachings.”

Teaching is a cultural movement

The important thing that music schools do, is show the depth of our musical culture. They not only teach content, but they also create a culture. One of the great strengths of South Africans is thatwe imbibe content and we learn from one other. This has created a groundswell of great musical talent and productive people. We have seen it in the schools and teaching of the likes of Thandi Klaasen, Victor Ndlazilwana, Mimi Mthenjwa, Johnny Mekoa, and even Moses Molelekwa’s, Jerry Molelekwa. We have seen it in informal cultural movements that musicians have joined, such as vocalist Judith Sephuma, guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, drummer Tumi Mogorosi and vocalist Gabi Motuba. All these musicians have studied music academically but they mastered their talent through those cultural movements. And of course the traditional cultures, such as isicathamiya or maskanda, are learnt purely through the cultural movement.

The way of Jazz is the democratic way

The bottom-up approach is just perfect for South African Jazz. As Yonela says, “Freedom is struggle. Improvisation or jazz wants to free us from the establishment, that which holds us from moving. So jazz is about struggle; it is freedom.” And that is why we improvise, not just to play the notes but be comfortable with who I am.

One of the most important things about Jazz is the fact that it is not a top-down thing. It’s really very democratic. Take for example a melody: everyone gets to play the melody and accompany it, and everybody gets a chance to play the solo and to say what they feel about the music.

We practice jazz democracy through exercises like trading spots or trading fours. The piano player gets to play the first four bars, then the drummer the next four bars. Sharing is the highest level of education. That is the kind of sharing that tends to happen on the bandstand, but at a more intense level, because now they are not only sharing as a band, but also sharing with the audience.

Now answer the following Pre Task Questions

1. Yonela emphasizes more lateral, more communicative, more non-discriminatory, and a more cohesive approach and practice in music education. The music teaching that you received at high school and at the tertiary institution, how did it differ from Yonela’s model? How will you approach this as a band leader and an educator?

2. Some say this ‘back to your roots’ teaching is outdated, as we live in the age of the internet with multi-platforms of music education, sharing, viewing and distribution. What is your take on this debate?

3. Yonela continues his argument on music education based on the languages, the cultures and traditions of SA. In the music that you make, the instrument that you use, the music icons that you adore, how have you received SA musicians, as compared to USA/UK musicians? In your opinion, why is radio playing more Western music than our home-brewed music?

4. For Yonela, music is a question of experience. We are forced to deal with what we have. So, what do you have available to you to help you in making music?

Vernacularism by Yonela Mnana

Post Task: Piano is the instrument of the people!

Yonela sees solo piano playing as the highest form of communicating with yourself or what he calls “a testing point of destiny.”

Solo Piano offers a 360 degree worldview or is it 360 different degrees in the university of life, as the solo pianist moves from the nurturing environment of playing for ourselves into the harsh exposure of the public environment.

South Africa has an incredible tradition of solo pianists dating right back to the marabi pianists of the 1930s. They never played with a lot of instruments; yet they could entertain a whole crowd all by themselves. Just placing the piano in an ordinary house, despite all the wretchedness surrounding it, turned the house into a shebeen. Audiences would go there like on a pilgrimage, using the experience of dancing all night to the solo pianist to get themselves back towards themselves.

In South Africa, solo piano is a real people’s instrument, played in the houses and the communities. Like with the choir, when you play by yourself, you have a lot of sounds on your hand. You have time to consider, and the chance to harmonize, to use your range. Or, you have the chance to be as silent or as loud as you wish, without having to work towards specifics, like ‘We’re going to retard the music now” or “we’re stopping briefly here”, or “solo now”.

The solo pianist has a kind of a carte blanche. As s/he sits by the piano it is like an open blank canvas presenting a big challenge. And the solo pianist plays, at first, for him/herself. “It is the best way of finding our own identities,” says Yonela.

Solo piano is a journey of self-discovery and of identity. It is a high form of performance. Yonela loves to experiment in his playing. He is not a ‘piano perfectionist’ or purist by any means. He is flexible and versatile and draws on his South African vernacular like a great encyclopaedia of music to adapt to any situation he finds himself in.

The piano is not like a wind instrument you can carry around. You have to go to the piano, in the same way you would go to the temple, or to the bedroom. Yonela explained, “While playing different pianos in different spaces, you remain the same person, so there is a specific psychology which you have to assume when you sit at the piano. Pianists have to go where the piano is. There is a wrestling, a battling, a desire to own it and make it ours.”

Towards a South African Music Vernacular

Sometimes when you watch the pianist move their body whilst playing, this lends credibility to what the pianist is playing and the pianist continues to express his unfolding relationship with his instrument. It is like Bra Andile Yenana’s tapping his foot as he plays or Keith Jarret moving his body. It creates another kind of freedom – not only the freedom to harmonize but the freedom to dance, stomp and bend your body. It’s beyond playing.

The way music education is designed, does not harmonise with how we freely explore our own music. The South African concept of music is not necessarily based on notes but on sound and the idea of talking to make sound. South Africans tend to use the body to dance. South Africans talk about specific rituals. By invoking these South African principles and teaching these principles along with the notes makes it easier to understand music and develop your own personal approach.

Take the example of ‘swing’ music in Jazz. Indigenous African styles swing, such as the amaXhosa when they perform ukuxhensa, and the amaZulu when they perform amahubo.

Or, take the voice for example, the oldest instrument of all time. Choral music is deeply embedded in African ceremonies. Great South African pianists have expressed this dualism between the piano and choir. Abdullah Ibrahim took the harmony from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and played it as it is, taking the voicings from the choir. Todd Matshikiza was always being commissioned to write choral music, even a piece for Queen Victoria when she visited the then Rhodesia. Gideon Nxumalo and Chris McGregor also wrote for other instrumentations.

But what is central to the South African musical vernacular is our spiritual approach. Spirituality is respect. We learn to respect the land that we walk on. We learn to respect one another, greet one another and learn one another’s customs. Spirituality in Africa is a very practical thing, it is a choice to acknowledge what is around you and appreciate what you have.

Post Task Questions

1. Yonela exposes us to the varied layered experiences and meaning of playing as a solo musician. What is your instrument? What is the meaning of playing your instrument solo? What memorable moments have you experienced taking a solo during your band’s performance? Share with us an audio rendition.

2. Where and when have you experienced playing solo or with your band, that the music was transcending the mere screen sheets that you were following? Have you had a spiritual moment in your performance, and what was it like?

3. Jazz is seen as a genre that grows from improvisation and from sharing amongst musicians, sharing with audiences and sharing with its history and legacy. Do you agree or not? What kind of sharing are you engaged with and what kind of sharing will take you to the next level?

4. In your village, township, your informal settlement, your suburb and or your block of flats, what is the youth and cultural movement that attracts you? Are you a part of it? How does participation nurture and expose your music talent? What are the informal teachings you are learning from this exchange with other community artists?

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