South Africa’s musicians suck

Really? I have been hearing this for years. It seems to be general consensus that our industry isn’t alive, things are going backwards, we are not the correct standard, our teachers don’t compare to Europe’s etc. Maybe it is the usual thing that the people who simply don’t know any better have the loudest voice but, this sentiment keeps coming up.

I recently decided to start classical marimba lessons. I have always loved percussion as a section and the marimba’s sound wakes something up in my brain every time I hear it. I don’t suck too much so I got involved in our school’s percussion ensemble and I have learnt that we, as South African musicians do not suck. There are a number of things that are key to the music experience that are taken for granted in this country:

  • Learning to juggle life and music. At school, it is academics, sport, music, drama, dance, parents, life, friends. As we get older it is bond payments, car payments, children, student loans…dogs. We start doing little bits of things early on and this is good. We need to learn how to juggle having a life and a vocation. I don’t know anyone who only practices one aspect of music as their sole career. Even the great performers give master classes, no? And I am sure they have hobbies too.
  • Ensemble experience. Barring a few people I have met, we do in fact have the culture of “let’s jam guys”. There are projects across the country that bring people together and let them make music. Different projects. We have a lively music culture. It may not be a genre that we like/prefer but it is there. And if you don’t like what you hear on the radio or hear when you go out, only you can change that.
  • I mentioned “different projects”. We have such variety in this country and are exposed to so much. Rich culture, mixed culture. Rich music, mixed music. I think this is possibly one of the greatest strengths we do have and gives us such vitality and colour.
  • Rhythm – maybe we each have varying degrees of  rhythm  but the ‘gees’ (spirit) is there.

Yeah, okay, so (for some) we are not as good as that Chinese kid who has had the best teacher and has only ever practised. I am not advocating that you stop practising – why drive a Polo if you can drive a Ferrari? But the Polo will still get you from A to B and you should acknowledge and accept its worth. I think the best thing is that, unlike the world which is not fair and means that especially if you are a muso you may never drive a Ferrari; in the context of life long learning you could still become a Ferrari – and the only person who has full control of that is you. Keep learning, keep practising but keep in mind the things you do have to offer. Keep in mind that by playing in band at school, going to national festivals, playing with as many people as you can, learning how to make a poster, even holding that waitressing job, is all good and is an investment in yourself.

The other point that I think is extremely important is if we keep entering the world beauty pageants knowing that we probably don’t fit in, we will keep losing and keep thinking that we suck. The greats are never remembered for doing exactly what they were told but rather for challenging perspectives and driving change. Drive change. If you want an eight piece tuba ensemble make it work. I can honestly say, that maybe you won’t have as much of an audience as Justin Bieber, but there are people out there who would feel the same fire as you. And if it makes your heart burn – do it.

Ultimately, kudos to the music teachers, music composers, music administrators, music funders, music parents, music students, music lovers, music supporters and music performers. You all make it tick and keep going. We must remember that we do have a lot to offer and that yes, at times, when funding dries up or you just can’t seem to get a gig, it feels like all that time is wasted. It isn’t and you don’t suck for doing it.

I think I am feeling a little nostalgic as we, WPPS music department, head off to the EC this month on tour. I am grateful for what I had there and look forward to sharing what we have worked on with both Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. Hopefully, I get to play in the percussion ensemble on tour too!

One thought on “South Africa’s musicians suck

  1. I enjoy that you do not apologise for your passion and encourage others to locate and pursue theirs. In a world obsessed with comparing and competing we need more honest encouragement to be real and to give it a go. There surely must be someone better than me or you, but if you and I are seeking to give our best that is what counts. What joy and wonder is found in expressing creativity that enriches others. Go for it!


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