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In a beautiful written piece for the New York Times, Trevor Noah paints a picture of his childhood with his mother

Beyond Memory, a memoir of South African Music

2009-07-17 15:14
Afterwards, conversations about the person usually go something like this:
"S/he's really boring. Sweet, though."
"Yes, s/he has a good heart... and knows a lot."
And everyone will occasionally call the person up when they're stuck to settle an argument or clarify a fact or two.
Usually, they're nice people, but nobody wants to sleep with them.

Reading Sello Galane's record of South African music history, edited together from Max Thamagana's diaries, is a bit like having dinner alone with The Person Who Knows a Lot. Thamagana, being an SABC radio DJ during a period when radio and television was entirely state-controlled, is able to give a very culturally balanced view of the local scene (with an understandable bias towards men that's also reflected in lack of album credits to backing singers, particularly on the Maskandi scene).  

With few proveable factual faults, Beyond Memory recollects all the information anyone could need as a starting point to studying our musical diversity, based on Thamagna's diaries. It also illustrates how music has always united South Africans. If Apartheid worked too well financially, it also usually failed when real passion came into play in the artisic realm, where cross-pollination happens at an instinctual level that's a big fuck you to prejudice every time. It's an inspiring piece of evidence of this, and one we desperately need now that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow still seems so damn far away from most South Africans.

Take this: Did you know that 80s pop Cinema are linked by band member Aston Jarrod's involvement with Chess, which also featured Todd Twala to a band called Baobab? Probably not. Somebody update the Chappies wrappers already!  

Unfortunately, although Beyond Memory is full of interesting stuff, it's not often interestingly told*.

The truth is that most people – the heavily autistic aside – are not, actually, computers. We do not absorb data. We absorb characters and stories and meaning, and that's what's missing from this book. It seems to have nothing inspiring to say to us overall – no sense of what drove the diarist, apart from a desperate need to save something he must have loved. It also offers no sense of the people as characters, as living, breathing, exciting stars of our musical history. It's a diffficult read.

Where are the glossy backstage black and white photos in the centre?  Who was a bastard? Who shagged everybody? Who fell in love, and how did it feel? Who said the unforgettable? Where are the feelings? Where the hell is the author's voice? It's all "and then, and later, and then..."

If, like me, you don't believe in objectivity - only in having a clear idea of the writer's subjective stance so that you can deduce your own - this book fails. Galwane has been far too respectful of Mojabelo's record-keeping, and won't entertain the average music fan enough for them to keep turning pages purely for the joy of learning something. It also falls down a bit on the indexing front, with some (for me) key figures appearing in the text, but not in the index – Busi Mhlongo springs to mind. She's in the text, as is Cinema, but you can't find the bits about either artist or band when you flick in a rush to research something you half-recall.

However that doesn't make it any less essential as a record. Every serious local music journalist or non-fiction author should read it, and anyone writing a book about South African music would find it an irreplaceable basis for research. Think of it as a textbook.

Because this book's huge and more lasting value lies in the meaning and cultural heritage that others will hopefully extract from it and make part of our african pride and networked history; something living, breathing, human, fallable and meaningful (however flawed or unfair). I'm guessing, and I'm hoping, that one day the South African Peter Biskinds (who wrote the unputdownable Easy Tigers, Raging Bulls about American film) - and the South African Bill Bryasons (who wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything about... stuff) will take Beyond Memory beyond boring.

Until then I'm just grateful that it's there at all. Solid work, Sello. And thanks so much, Max.

*I crit Sello Galane's writing and handling of this project knowing full well that publishers, subjects' families' opinions, deadlines and other constraints are often unfairly placed on writers. But this piece is about presenting the end result to a potential audience, based on my personal opinion of it.

Beyond Memory – Recording the History, Moments and Memories of South African Music is available from African Minds
We've all had dinner with someone who knows something unusual about any topic that anyone raises. They often start their sentence with "well actually..." or simply chip in with a fact they read up somewhere, often involving an obscenely accurate date. Fascinating as their information is, most people want them to say something meaningful, or get to the point.
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