Those who missed out on Neo Muyanga’s Sharjah Biennial 14 (SB14) performance house of MAKEdbA (2019) will be delighted to learn that the work Muyanga presented in memory of Miriam Makeba (1932–2008) has now become the first-ever vinyl record commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.
Although much has been written about Makeba as a jazz singer and intellectual, her role as primary translator of what it meant to be an African in a world of declining empire has often been reduced to a footnote. Unable to return home to South Africa due to her outspoken views on apartheid, Makeba lived for a time in ‘Muslim Africa’, performing, for example, at the 1978 Pan-African Games in Algiers. Her presence at the games elevated the minority view that North African countries should be included under the banner of Pan-African solidarity. For Muyanga, the value of Miriam Makeba today is that she points us to a global future of contingency and a questioning of the assumption that home is static, homogenous and secure.
The sound work house of MAKEdbA is Muyanga’s tribute not only to Miriam Makeba but also to Makeda, the legendary queen of Sheba. The project juxtaposes the ‘voices’ of these two figures and wonders what it would have meant for us if they had not been born over 2000 years apart but had been contemporaries who had known and talked with one another.
Muyanga’s performance during the opening week of SB14 in March 2019 activated his installation at Al Hamriyah Studios. He performed with two record players, weaving layers of Makeba’s vocals through his own compositions to create a space of healing and memory. Conducted by Muyanga, the performance also featured a chamber orchestra and four singers (Tine Mene, soprano; Siphokazi Molteno, alto; Ongama Mohlontlo, tenor; and Theo Magongoma, baritone).
In light of the ongoing global pandemic, Muyanga has penned some reflections on the work and its origins; the meaningful context it could offer to those who are feeling displaced in terms of freedom, safety and financial security; and three inspirational women who have risen above despair in dark times:
Exile, not as a durational period in one revolutionary lifespan, but as a way of quotidian life, period, has arguably become one of the defining features of contemporary reality in the 21st century. Many across the globe now live permanently as displaced citizens-in-limbo, making them members of what sociologists have termed the ‘precariat’—a class of people living under unpredictable, insecure socioeconomic conditions. As a result, many social ills, and physical illness as well, have become part of the established status quo, even in many parts of the world that are, on paper, technically not in a state of war. house of MAKEdbA is a record of a sonic meditation on the concept of exile and its concomitant phantasmagoria of horror—the threat that deep hopelessness may soon triumph. Recorded with a cohort of live singers and electronic machines based in Cape Town, South Africa, it is an attempt to look anew at the legacies gifted to us by iconic figures such as Makeda (the legendary queen of Sheba), Maxeke (the revolutionary African pedagogue) and Makeba (the inimitable African mother of song)—three women whose lives offer us a guide for how to invent hope in hopeless times.
house of MAKEdbA on vinyl is available for purchase now at SAF Shops in Al Mureijah Art Spaces and Arts Square. The album can also be ordered online by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Neo Muyanga
Neo Muyanga is a composer, musician and librettist who tours widely, both as a solo performer and in various bands. He has composed music plays, chorus songs and a number of operatic works for chamber and large ensembles.
Muyanga co-founded the live music platform and cyber-steam portal Pan African Space Station with publisher/editor Ntone Edjabe in 2008 and the acoustic soul duo Blk Sonshine with Masauko Chipembere in 1996. His recorded albums include second-hand reading (2016), toro tse sekete (2015), dipalo (2011), good life (2009), fire famine plague and earthquake (2007), the listening room (2003) and blk sonshine (1999). Among his published works are the opera heart of redness (2015), the chamber opera the flower of shembe (2012) and the music play memory of how it feels (2010).
Muyanga was composer-in-residence at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (2017) and the National Arts Festival of South Africa (2017) and a participant in the Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD (2016). He has collaborated with activist organisations Sonke Gender Justice, Equal Education and the Community Development Resource Association and worked as a research affiliate at the University of Cape Town’s Drama School and Centre for African Studies, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and the Humanities Research Institute, University of California, Irvine. He is also a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Institute.
He studied madrigal singing under choral maestro Piero Poclen at the United World College in Trieste, Italy. Born in Soweto, he currently lives and works in Cape Town.