Thursday, May 30, 2024

Heritage Day: rethinking the place of the youth and folk artists

President’s Day is probably the most appropriate occasion for the leader of the country to make what the Americans refer to as the ‘state of the nation’ address.

This, without the distraction of partisan political party congresses that deprive the nation of the president’s undivided attention.
Presumably, this was the reason for separating the celebration of Sir Seretse Khama Day on July 1 from Presidents Day on the 18th, which day is set o coincide with the celebration of Nelson Mandela Day which is likely to be adopted by the African union and the united Nations. It will also be sandwiched between the celebration of the Day of the African Child on June 16 which was also inspired by events in South Africa when hector Peterson was shot at the beginning of nationwide protests in the county against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction even in ‘black’ schools.

It is believed that Sir Ketumile Masire created Presidents Day in order to unburden himself of the weight of the Khama legacy which encroached on his leadership of the country. At least twice before his retirement from the presidency, Festus Mogae celebrated President’s day in Maun and in Tshabong, setting in motion the national celebration of the culture of the peoples of Botswana who performed their poetry, music and dance on these occasions, also briefing the president about their concerns.

Celebration of the day has evolved to include arts competitions supported by relatively attractive prizes. Inevitably, the definition of the curriculum for the folk arts, was far more refined than the programme of the commercial arts, particularly, the genre of popular music.

Whereas the traditional or folk arts were carefully ÔÇô though not comprehensively ÔÇô categorised into the tsutsube, sebirwa and hosanna ceremonial dances, ‘setapa’ and ‘phathisi’, also recognising the various forms of instrumental expression including stinkane, katara and segaba .

The President’s Day gave the textile industry, basketry, photography and the graphic arts their place in the celebrations.

The same can’t be said for the contemporary ‘commercial’ music, if you like.

The competitions recognised two categories; the performers that used backing tracks and those that performed to live music.

KTM Choir made the strongest case for culture minister, Gladys Kokorwe’s plea for a national theatre, unfolding a medley of folk songs, starting with a leboko, also incorporating phathisi and musical instrumentation even as it was overwhelmed by the other elements of the programme. That looked like the beginnings of an integrated cultural presentation that could be cultivated into a national theatre group, even before the building goes up, if it ever will. Gospel was also recognised.

The bias in favour of the folk arts, deliberate or unintended, was both natural and appropriate. Where taxpayers’ money is used for the cultivation, preservation and conservation of culture, it ought to be directed at the marginalised genres of traditional and folk art which has its strongest roots away from the railway line in the most populous countryside where opportunity is most scarce.

In other words, the political motive for the development of the nation’s cultural heritage must necessarily address the relative disadvantage of the rural population which lacks access to electricity, music shops, performance venues, arts educators, communications infrastructure, information technology, paying audiences, modern instruments and trade unions.

There is also the aesthetic consideration that places the acoustic sound before the electronic, which in any case, reflects the historical progression of things. Before there was electricity ÔÇô I do not here refer to thunder and lightning ÔÇô there was the natural acoustic sound.

It is healthier for the ear and the mind. The acoustic sound is also healthier for the training and upkeep of the fingers on the instrument, and the lungs. It provides for natural harmony with the environment. It possesses healthier medicinal qualities than the thumping noises of industrial music.

From a teaching point of view ÔÇô the more complicated word is pedagogy ÔÇô the traditional and folk arts serve as the most authentic repository of the language of the various Botswana peoples, their value systems and the creative energies.
It will be agreed that the chances of successful teaching of melody are better with ‘Re bulele mo hekeng’ than with ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’.

It seems then that the rules for participation in the Presidents Day celebrations should be more stringent, directing themselves exclusively at the conservation of the folk arts. The commercial artists already get the most mileage out of the commercial radio stations. They perform for money in venues that are designed for their art form. With the money they make, they record CDs which they sell and play on the radio stations, thereby marketing themselves for hire. That way, the commercial artists have a distinct and undeserving advantage over the folk artists.

They also monopolise participation in the trade unions which negotiate with the private sector and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport for funds that should more fairly be going towards the disadvantaged sections of the arts community through the Botswana Arts Council.

The commercial artists already have the Music Awards at BOMU, and the Mascom sponsored talent shows where they also compete with young ungroomed artists who are searching for a future in the entertainment industry.

One way of eliminating the commercial artists is by closing the President’s Day celebrations to artists who already have private recordings for personal gain; recordings whose proceeds do not contribute to charity.

The argument should be made once more, for the establishment of community based cultural trusts at the country’s district administration structures through the community development units and the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi.

The community or district cultural trusts should receive a vote from the National Arts Council and the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi to run events throughout the year, also raising funds for local arts theatres and museums which will then feed into the Presidents Day celebrations. (The community development units must be returned from central government to the councils which process will make better sense of their name!)

It was also clear that the music judges at the Presidents Day celebrations had their sights on some agreed aspects of performance, unlike the nonsense that happens at the BOMU awards and the other talent shows. The criteria were somewhat convoluted and cumbersome but they were well reasoned for the purpose: Voice and melody, complementary use of accompaniment, appearance, use of the stage, rhythm and about three others.
It might have been simpler to focus on: –
ÔÇó Composition ÔÇô that would target melody, harmony and rhythm. More marks would be awarded for original compositions.
ÔÇó Interpretation ÔÇô this category would look at arrangement with particular attention to beginnings, endings and voice production including appropriate use of accompaniment.
ÔÇó Virtuosity ÔÇô that refers to mastery of the instrument also paying attention to commitment to key so that movement should not interfere with voice production or instrumental improvisation.
ÔÇó Choreography and appearance- movement should fit the mood of the song, the stage and the performers. Some music does not lend itself to senjonjo, so that misplaced gyrations of the groin should be punished.
ÔÇó Feel ÔÇô this permits the judges flexibility in responding to the emotional content of the presentation.
Each aspect of the performance would be given 20 points. It appears that this system is more in line with the natural structure of music as an art form, providing a balanced ‘marking’ framework so that each category is awarded marks equivalent to its role in the total production.
The reed orchestras of the Balete and the Bakgatla were conspicuous by their absence. Congratulations to the event organisers.


Read this week's paper