Skip to main content
April 28, 2010

The "Success" of San Music


There exist as many different musical legacies as there are different populations of San people; nevertheless, they share many traits. Their music is characterized by complex contrapuntic polyphonies based on the superposition of different voices, each with divergent melody and rhythm. From these multiple voices emerges the yodelling procedure, which alternates between chest voice and head voice. The voices are accompanied by hand clapping and rattles, which mark the beat as well as many superimposed rhythmic figures for a strongly polyrhythmic effect.

To produce a sound that they would call "delicious"--a performance corresponding to the San musical esthetic--the singers must constantly renew their voices to create complexity and variety. They have thus developed an elaborate system of variations whereby each singer varies his/her voice in a unique way so that no two voices are identical. It is up to each performer to adjust his or her voice in real time and in relation to the others. The song is created step by step through the interaction of diverse participants.

The San also use instruments. Most common are the stringed instruments, the bow, the single-stringed zither, and the four- and five-stringed pluriarcs; the thumb piano; and sometimes the drum, borrowed in recent decades from neighboring Bantu-speaking peoples.

The songs are organized in ensembles connected to specific social circumstances like healing, initiation, hunting rituals, and the melon toss game or other diversions. Each of these ensembles refers to one or more categories determined by distinctive musical features. The San musical heritage is thus organized in a rigorous manner according to both social and musical criteria. But this rigor is in no way synonymous with rigidity. Music is, for the San, a living art encompassing the processes of creation, disappearance, transformation, and recomposition. From one generation to the next, songs and instrumental pieces are abandoned and others are created. San musicians borrow instruments from other cultures, a testimony to their ongoing relations with neighboring peoples. And their neighbors’ music can be transformed and integrated into the San musical system and esthetic. The San musical heritage may thus be recomposed. Vocal songs that fall into disuse are transposed into the instrumental repertory; ritual songs may pass into the realm of the profane and become diversions. New rituals--such as collective male initiation--appear along with new songs and dances, while others--like some rituals tied to hunting--disappear, their music gradually falling to disuse. And musical forms fall in and out of fashion; certain powerful songs become very popular (like "hits") and are frequently played for healing rituals as well as for entertainment. After a while, however, they are replaced by new, even more powerful healing compositions.

In San society, as in so many others, everyone in the community can participate in singing, hand-clapping, dancing, or playing an instrument. The concepts of a "concert" or a "concert-going public" do not exist. Nevertheless, San musicians (particularly Ju|’hoansi) have participated in recent years in regional and national competitions, as well as festivals and concerts abroad. And the world music industry, avidly searching for novelty, has seized on their polyphonic sounds. Today we find a dozen CDs of San music, from original recordings in the field by researchers to remixed melodies by Western pop musicians, on the market.

In September 1998, five Ju musicans were invited for the first time to perform outside of their homeland. They represented Namibia at the Festival Interculturel de Mayotte and at the Festival d’Art Metis in Réunion, France. The first concert took place in a stadium with more than 10,000 people in attendance. For most of the spectators, the film The Gods Must be Crazy was probably their only previous exposure to the San. But the concert gave them an entirely different perspective. Many were seduced by the music to discover the complex culture in which it was embedded. "It was a shock, an extraordinary encounter with a culture of incredible richness," enthused the Quotitien de la Réunion’s critic. "Their voices, escaping from the infinity of the desert, encoiled themselves into our Western souls. . . . The result [was] sheer magic."

The artistic director of La Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris then invited the group to France in the Spring of 1999. They gave five concerts there, appeared on national television, were interviewed on the radio, inaugurated an exhibit on San culture at the Musée de l’Homme, and were the subject of a film documentary. Other Ju|’hoan musicians subsequently performed in June 2000 at the Hanover World’s Fair and in July 2001 at the Festival des Jeu-nesses Musicales de France.

What the San seem to be looking for in these performances, beyond a not insignificant source of revenue, is a form of recognition. In carefully choosing songs and instrumental pieces most representative of their heritage, and in interpreting them "in the manner of the elders," they want to be appreciated by Western audiences. Dressed in their most beautiful traditional costumes, they want to be seen by others in the full richness of their culture. They also see these overseas trips as an adventure--a way of visiting other cultures and participating in musical exchanges. In return, their trips have enriched their own music; the lyrics of new songs narrate their experiences during the course of their travels.

This recent phenomenon raises important questions about how Western culture is carried to and received by the San. But it also raises questions about their own culture and which of its elements they want to disclose to a neophyte foreign public. For the Ju|’hoansi, for example, musicians who are also shamans refuse to enter trance during a concert. The San are thus in a position to reflect on the notion of culture and tradition, and on how these can be expressed when the ritual is decontextualized and presented to distant societies. The concert creates in an enclosed space a dichotomy between active musicians and a passive public. San music, frozen in some way as the performance, may risk becoming a purely esthetic object. What, then, are the repercussions for the vitality of its practice?

Translated by Harriet Rosenberg.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.