Sunday Times

Let the music play on and intoxicate you


Watching footage of the Covid supersprea­der event that recently unfolded in downtown Nongoma reminded me of something I have been a scratched CD about for years. Music is truly a powerful narcotic that is rivalled only by heroin, cocaine and religion in its mind-altering potency. And even religion relies heavily upon music to complete its mission. I cannot think of any religion that does not have theme music to help the faithfully gathered to get in the appropriat­e mood to worship its chosen deities.

When I was at Inkamana High, back in the Eighties, a favourite funeral hymn when a member of the clergy passed on was What a friend thou art to me (My Redeemer). The sound of those sweet, angelic voices rising towards the roof of the church used to send me into a trance. And Lord forbid should Father “Pater” Alban accompany the singing with the pipe organ. Many times during these moments I came close to denouncing the earthly life, shedding my sinful garb and donning the black habit of the Benedictin­e monks.

Of course, no sooner would I get back to the dorm than someone would play Teddy Pengergras­s’s

Turn Off the Lights and I would remember that as willing as my spirit was, my flesh was weak and I wanted to fully participat­e in the mystery that is the female form.

That’s music for you. We all respond to music differentl­y. If you asked me to make a choice between never hearing music for the rest of my life and cutting off one of my fingers without an anaestheti­c, I’d be conflicted. And then I’d only ask that you use the sharpest Obsidian cleaver you could find for the swiftest amputation.

And yet I’ve accepted a lift from a senior colleague from Durban to Johannesbu­rg who had no desire to listen to any music. We drove mostly in silence, with me trying to conjure up the courage to ask for some music. Finally, somewhere between Cedara and Howick I inquired, “Would you mind terribly if we listened to some music?” He seemed genuinely confused by the request.

I swear I saw his face twitch three times. He tried to switch on the car stereo by pressing a few random buttons before he sheepishly said, “I never use that thing. You can turn it on.”

He mumbled something about how he has always found music “frivolous”. At work, he was one of the least imaginativ­e, most inflexible and most humourless colleagues around. I used to think that it was because he is a mechanical engineer. But, with that one throwaway comment, a thousand pennies dropped for me. For the rest of the journey I at least had some music in the background. Of course, on that N3 route there used to be stretches of road where every radio frequency totally disappears — except for one. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, that I bet you that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the only radio frequency he could get was Radio Sonder Grense.

This is how it came about that we drove through the Vrystaat platteland­e listening to songs about milking Jersey cows and baking melktert and koeksuster­s. But it was still music.

These thoughts congregate­d in my mind as I took in the groundswel­l of Zulu nationalis­tic sentiment and emotional reaction to the passing on of the king. My deep interest in Zulu history, norms and practices is something that makes its way into my writing quite a lot. But it is mostly because I think it is a fascinatin­g phenomenon.

A friend of three decades who I know to possess the same sensibilit­ies started bombarding my WhatsApp with video clips of Zulu amabutho chanting and singing in unison. I asked him what was going on. His response was along the lines that there is something powerful and mythical in those songs and chants. And I had to begrudging­ly admit that, having been raised within that paradigm, there were songs I was hearing that took me to places that had not been touched in a while.

That is the power of music.

And the types of songs we listen to affect us differentl­y. For instance, there is a huge house music following in SA, but its repetitive 120 beats per minutes makes me feel like I’m shedding 0.3 IQ points per beat.

You can’t fault people for their taste in music, however. This is why I don’t judge the group of women in their 40s I recently witnessed weeping in unison, singing along to That’s What Friends are For and Missing You by Tamia, Gladys Knight, Brandy and Chaka Khan, tears of pain, remembranc­e and camaraderi­e flowing down their cheeks. And I have no leg to stand on because, driving home late at night, and just to keep myself up, I was playing Tupac Shakur’s When We Ride on our Enemies. At one point I was fighting the urge to whip out my Glock Gen 5 pistol and empty the magazine on my enemies. And then I remembered that not only do I not have enemies, I don’t own a gun.

A friend of three decades who I know to possess the same sensibilit­ies bombarded my WhatsApp with clips of Zulu amabutho singing in unison

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