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Oedipal Carrot! Gwen Ansell on In Township Tonight

In Township TonightBecause of its extremely mixed nature, reviews like this one by Gwen Ansell in the Mail & Guardian, of David Coplan’s In Township Tonight (republished last year by Jacana), make the “carrot” vs. “stick” dialectic just too tight by far.

Ansell begins the review highlighting the discomforting nature of her position: “There is something Oedipal about reviewing David Coplan’s masterwork. In a sense, he is the patriarch of academic studies into South African urban culture. The first edition of In Township Tonight, published by Ravan in 1985, was the first academic book to acknowledge that it was a worthwhile field of study, and to begin to do it justice with factually detailed, theoretically nuanced analysis.”

There’s more in this vein:

As collections such as Christine Lucia’s The World of South African Music demonstrate, it was not the first attempt to assert or seriously debate the subject matter. African music scholars and journalists had begun the enterprise more than a century earlier; white ideologues and folklorists had joined in as the significance of culture for black urban identity formation became (to some, threateningly) clear. Coplan’s book made accessible materials from a dazzlingly diverse range of sources, including these, and gave them context and framing with his careful sociological analysis.

But then she tells it like it is:

… there are also passages that read more like spontaneous grouchiness than measured analysis. He writes of Gloria Bosman, for example: “so caught up in complex, self-conscious attempts at vocal ornamentation that one knows not what to make of her performances. Perhaps it was that scholarship to study opera that distorted her judgement.”

That’s highly debatable — and Bosman’s most recent recordings have worried some by their conservatism rather than their risk-taking. He describes Judith Sephuma’s A Cry, A Smile, A Dance as having “American aspirations”, when many listeners find in it an authentically modern evocation of the Sepedi melodic tradition. His comments on contemporary female instrumentalists are distressingly incomplete — although they do have room for a description of Siya Makuzeni as “playing ‘a man’s instrument’”.

Ultimately, we at BOOK SA, Solomon-like judgers of book reviews, feel the piece follows the tao of the carrot for spotting the diamond in the rough.

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