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 The Sound African Safari - Where lies the Hidden History of SAfrican Sound?

The Sound African Safari - Where lies the Hidden History of SAfrican Sound?

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The Southern African music, sound & technical service industries have come a long way in a remarkably short space of time. But from where? Outside of the commercial record, broadcast & recording industries, the Sound, PA & Lighting industry is surely a unique success story. The current status of this very impressive, innovative & seemingly buoyant sector is proudly promoted in a number of recently published South African Film & Music Industry directories & journals; most notably in the dedicated MIDI Trust Music Industry Directory; & on quite a number of websites.

But there's a major missing element hear. Our Hidden History! If the Sound Industry is to look ahead & plan for the future, then the lack of information & knowledge about the industry and the many thousands it employs, formally or informally, is cause for concern. It's not the employees' fault. It's ours.

As the legendary Sound Man Stephen Temmer (Austria) put it 15 years ago: "In the technological age of communications in which we find ourselves it is easy to confuse the medium with the message. The message is MUSIC. The medium is immaterial as long as it serves to bring the message to the maximum number of people at the minimum price! Let's all work on that aspect of the message rather than expecting the consumer to assume the additional costs of financing the (record & radio) industry's hobbies."
... read Stephen Temmer article >>

3rd Ear Sound & Music has never been shy to share; with what ever we have worked on - The info was made available through News-Letters (pre-1990), the website, lectures & letters. This (3rd Ear) Sound history can not be the only one? I'm running out of material myself - from approx 1967 to about 1980, and that's it!? This is surely not the beginning or end of the SAfrican Sound Safari Story?
... read the Sound African Safari >>

The Sound / PA industry must have the least known history of any enterprise in the country - other than popular music. Why? For an industry that attracts so many young people & turns over millions annually, generating thousands of jobs in the process, it seems strange that it should remain a mystery. New generations of Sound people have no idea of where they, or we come from. So where in the world too from here? Even SAfrican plumbers have a history! And if they didn't, why would they bother to make house-calls?

Seriously though, for better or for worse, the Sound & PA Industry has played an important role - however subliminal that may be - in our colourful (excuse the pun) SAfrican music history; it remains very much part of the overall tapestry & remarkable recovery of this country - past, present & future. How else did we or do we get to hear about it?

In a recent series of Hidden History Music lessons (to young aspiring technicians & musicians) I found that most learners aren't too big on music history to start with; and given some of that past, who can blame them? Imported Pop Idol concepts, DVDs & Video have provided a distorted short-cut perspective to fame & fortune that nobody but the sponsors can afford. The failure rate in this sector must be horrendous. But alcohol, tobacco or coke should care? Roots, tradition, history is bad business from a sponsor whose market would learn from mistakes, bad habits & addictions. Their very survival depends on attracting young blood without distraction.

The only aspect of our history that the youth seem vaguely aware of - in terms of music & sound - is what has been commercially recorded, documented & broadcast. The end result, as far as I can hear, is that most of the new generation of musicians & technical support staff still seem to suffer from an inferiority complex. Not unlike many, perhaps most musicians. We have a sort of (international) Identity crisis here that the listeners & consumers pick up on. 10 years into the NSA? Proudly South Africa should mean more than an expensive colourful media campaign & a logo.

It's only at the end of the lessons, as we wade through stories & anecdotes, that the students start getting fired up enough to dig a little. Especially when they get to grasp the interactive relationship between the message, as MUSIC & the medium as sound. As Temmer said: The message is the MUSIC. The medium is really immaterial.

Problem is - where do young people who really want to find out, dig? What do they study & read to dig with? And for the few who think they know it all, the feedback & horror stories that our hidden history has buried & that rumour has spread, does not make for pretty listening or learning.

Point - I have suggested to students / learners that they try & find the fading characters of the Sound / PA industry; speak to them & interview them if possible. From Kathrees (circ 1930's) & Azam Khan, to Bothners & Musikland & all the name changes & permutations & characters in between; to the modern post 1980 sound industry & the many independents that spring up and down through the ages. Most of the stories & the characters may be more musical than technical. So what?

If you cannot find the time (or the desire?) to write your own war-stories down yourself, then perhaps allow the younger generation to talk with you. Let them collect and / or distribute this information & network further.

Suggestion - What about all the Sound (and related) Companies getting together to form a social historic association of sorts? Wishful thinking I'm afraid. This note was sent out to almost every sound person & company in the country - from those who literally turn-over millions annually, to the struggling Indies. We got 3 extremely positive & helpful replies….2 of them from the USA & UK.

If we cant write-down or document our own history & process, then some commercial sponsored academic may just re-invent or re-create history; just as they tend to do with some of our contemporary music. And although this re-invention is not necessarily intentional, it more often than not does become the gospel. And that is just because we don't' really know. (What seems to count most when re-viewing aspects of the communications & entertainment industries, in hindsight, is that some researchers - with respect - are only as accurate as their PC funders allow. That's life!)

So, start writing your own experiences down; however trivial or mundane they may seem. It's better that it comes from those who were there, while we are still here; if you think about it.

3rd Ear is in the process of initiating a similar sound-safari-story dialogue with our USA principles, that relates to the African connection. I refer here to Bill Hanley, Judi Cohen-Bernstein & Dave Freese who I worked with & for in the late 60's / early 70's - Hanley Sound from Boston - Newport, Woodstock, Shea Stadium etc. I have asked then & some of their relatives & workers, to start getting something together for my Hidden Years Story.

(It's a lot easier for them in the US, given that they have a well documented technical & sound history, thanks to an established technology media; however, the US Sound industry also tend to focus on what the mainstream puts out - and that sadly is only part of the true story. It would be wonderful to have Bill Hanley invited out to South Africa one day - an innovator in the world of sound reinforcement since the early 60's. To hear him relate some of his amazing experiences in the world of sound & how he connected with the world's greatest contemporary artists for 4 decades. This would be a fitting tribute to the man who in effect, if unintentionally, started the music sound & PA industry in this country. But that's another mission & another story.)

As proudly SAfrican we should dig & cultivate our own sound roots - NOT just to service the mainstream media with boring technicalities or to feed the retro record industry who in turn feast off the bones of the nostalgia music business; that's also another story. It's to set the record straight, as it were - & to help take the pressure off 3rd Ear?

I for one, don't want to go back there....been there done that...got the all-access passes. But there is a need to move on & build for the future; and that will always make the past relatively important. Not for the old farts perhaps....but for those who follow. As Jeremy Taylor says - remembering the past is one thing; living in it is another one all together. Zolani Mkive claims that without a yesterday there can be no tomorrow. You can't get it put simpler than that!

3rd Ear's contribution - for what it's worth - is a series of odd personal stories / anecdotes; some are posted on the website & soon to be part of the Hidden Years Story (Penguin Books, 2004). You can go direct to Sound African Safari, read a few of these tall tales & then please feel free to comment, critique, correct, add or subtract.

Hopefully this will inspire you to say (or do) something?

If you have any comments about this article, please drop us a line.

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