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Archives can help transform our tertiary institutions
Author: Lizabé Lambrechts
Published: 26/10/2020

Archives, in particular music archives, can help with curriculum reform and transformation at tertiary institutions, writes Dr Lizabé Lambrechts from the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation in an opinion piece for Mail & Guardian (23 October 2020).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Lizabé Lambrechts*

This year, Heritage Month was launched under the theme, “celebrating South Africa's living human treasures," and three women, including the musician Madosini Latozi Mphaleni, were honoured for their contributions in preserving local knowledges and idioms.

Madosini is widely celebrated, yet very few tertiary institutions in South Africa include her music as part of their curriculum. The call on music departments to critically engage with their curricula in order to reflect the broader music landscape wherein they function has been raised almost 40 years ago, yet most departments remain largely set in ideological practices, value frames and conservative syllabi conceived to serve the previous dispensation.

Musicologists Willemien Froneman and Stephanus Muller recently wrote in Fault Lines: A primer on race, science and society that “institutionalised music at South African universities historically assume white cultural interests as normative," resulting in the “embrace of a canon and its constituent ethnocentric and non-representative practices that is 'neither practical nor ethically defensible'." Whereas some departments have included more diverse musics into their curricula, Froneman and Muller argue that integrating diversity into the central 'tradition' of Western art music, “does not displace or affect institutional commitment to the Western art music tradition, in fact, it props it up and serves to strengthen its holds at tertiary institutions".  

South African music studies is not alone in this debate. In a recent article entitled Music Theory and the White Racial Frame Philip Ewell from Hunter College in New York argues that music theory as it is currently taught assumes Western notation, theory and harmony as normative, ignoring the rich music theories of India, Asia, South America and Africa. While adding black and female composers to our textbooks is important, he maintains, it is not enough as it still leaves intact the epistemological frame by which value is judged. 

It is within this field of discursive engagement and political actions directed towards change, that archives can play an important role in epistemic delinking and decolonising higher education institutions. While recognising that archives work to a slower beat than what is currently demanded in debates on decolonisation in our universities, this temporal differential is important in terms of long-term institutional and curricular reform, reform that does not fall into “solutionism" and quick fixes, but commits to the questions and thinking involved in epistemic delinking.

The archive is involved in this process in two fundamental ways. On the one hand, it serves as evidence of the past, and can be deconstructed to reveal the systems and rules imposed to maintain epistemological authority. On the other, it can be used to explore alternative structures and registers through engaging with new collections or by exploring previous collections in new ways to empower multiple paradigms and epistemologies. What does it mean to think with, and through, an interrogation of archival practices? How does one delink disciplinary thinking through such archival processed-based interrogations?

These are the type of questions that we are asking at the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation through archive-centred music research projects on material preserved in the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University.

Established in 2005 by Stephanus Muller to collect, preserve, protect and promote South African music as well as advance research into this subject, DOMUS was conceptualised as an archive-centered music research project to affect change within conservative institutional spaces by promoting and gradually institutionalising forms of epistemic delinking.

This process was supported through an active expansion of the existing archive collections of mostly western art music to include jazz, indigenous African music (both orally composed and notated), opera, popular music, boeremusiek, klezmer, folk music, films and material from New Music composers. The increasingly diverse collections and projects it allowed the archive to launch, created a space for a wide spectrum of communities and musics in South Africa not accommodated within the dominant paradigms of the discipline to connect through the archive. This helped  to counter the carelessness towards individuals and communities practised by the historical and contemporary university.

From enabling academic discussions and seminars, curating a range of conversations about isiXhosa and Western art music, to recording albums and supporting avant-garde jazz and popular music concerts and events for new music composers, the projects launched through DOMUS strategically acted in expanding the academic musical imaginary while pursuing an eclectic collection strategy.

In this way, the archive not only challenges the discipline and the kinds of research and projects the discipline regulates as viable and possible through institutional structures like committees, curricula, guidelines, etc., but the execution of these projects and research starts to require different archival mechanisms of control, decision making, description practices and user strategies.

While one may argue that the archive driven projects at DOMUS has yet to fully engage with the potential of alternative ways of knowing, the pressure towards systemic change and reforming top-down instutionalised managerial systems, may point in the direction of how archives and their custodians can play a role in transforming our higher education institutions. It is through active archivists, invested in the task of decolonisation through constant evaluation of their practices and collecting material in tandem with in-depth and critical research, that our institutional doors will be opened to diversity and change as well as other ways of creating knowledge.

Embracing slower epistemic change driven by archival process-based interrogations, versus immediate changes called for by socio-political actors, will begin to cultivate long-term institutional and curricular reform. Archives are vital for the present moment of decolonisation and epistemic delinking, addressing the social and political imperatives of our time, while at the same time working towards the future by preserving the material remnants that will allow the next generation to ask the questions of the future.

*Dr Lizabé Lambrechts is a Senior Research Fellow at the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University. This article is based on her recent paper in the journal Social Dynamics titled The becoming of an archive:  perspectives on a music archive and the limits of institutionality.