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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


Discipline and Choralism: The Birth of Musical Colonialism

Grant Olwage

Chapter Excerpt

Discipline is its own type of ceremony.1

In the winter of 1863 a choir of “Fingoes and Hottentots” caused quite a stir in the small Cape colonial city of Grahamstown. One of the first performances by a black choir in the Cape’s second city, it was no everyday concert, and “the elite of the musical inhabitants” accordingly turned out in their curious droves. Equally extraordinary was the lengthy review that appeared in The Grahamstown Journal, the Cape’s largest circulating paper. Less music criticism than social commentary, it discoursed on what slightly later would be called the “Native Question.” The performance illustrated “several facts of social importance . . . each of which would constitute a fertile theme for the metaphysician, or the student in moral philosophy.” In the event, the report concerned itself with the more immediate, practical lessons to be drawn:

First is demonstrated a truth of no ordinary importance, at a moment when the taming of our savage neighbors is looked upon by many as an utter impossibility, namely, the capacity of these savages for civilization. Next, we are struck by the fact that music has been able in a few short weeks to subdue and discipline natures so wild and intractable that moral teaching, law, and even our holy religion itself have laboured for years to conquer them with but very inadequate success.2

For the record, the program was packed with staples of the Victorian choral repertory. The review, as I mentioned though, was not so much concerned with the choir’s performance as with the effect that practices of choir singing had on its black members. In short, the utility of choralism was its civilizing potential, where civilizing, as my italics above indicate, was synonymous with disciplining.

The white rhetoric of civilizing–disciplining had a particular urgency to it in 1860s Grahamstown; the political stability of the eastern Cape “frontier” remained elusive,with periodic warfare continuing into the late 1870s. In the most real—and for the white colonist, important—sense, civilizing the black population was a large-scale exercise in governmentality, paving the way, went the argument, for Pax Britannica.3 The Journal summed up the concert as bearing witness to that Victorian commonplace, the “power of music to ‘calm the savage breast.’ ” But the concert’s “unprecedented success” was attributed to more than just “music.” Specifically, “credit belong[ed] to Mr. Curwen’s tonic sol-fa system of [sic] having thus far brought the savage within the pale of civilization.” From this piece of settler social commentary I want to draw one point: Practices of colonialism had their testing grounds in the metropolis. If choralism, and especially the Victorian brand founded on the sol-fa method and notation, was to offer a bulwark against the “irruption of the Kafir hordes,” it was only because of its reputed success in averting a revolution of the masses “at home.”4

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]

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