We feed off the spirit of the audience' : an ethnographic study of musical storytelling in the street music of South Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Street musicians in South Africa work within a challenging macrostructure. In order to maximise their success within this performance environment they must develop strategies to overcome the difficulties that South Africa's streets present. Various social issues: unemployment, crime, health and xenophobia, have a direct impact on its street musicians, who predominantly come from lower income groups. The changing tourism industry, which is a vital source of income for these musicians, also presents challenges and opportunities. Together these aspects create a unique street environment within which to examine the role of the musical storyteller, and a performance space that requires the development of specific skills by the street performer to maximaise its advantages. Watching a performance by a group of South African street musicians, telling a complex narrative to their audience, I realised that these performers might not only be fulfilling various social functions, but might also be playing a role in actively performing, and contributing to, genres of South Africa's traditional musical heritage. I wished to explore this and began to interview selected street performers, and to observe and record their performances. The boom in the South African tourism industry encourages street musicians to develop styles of performance and musical storytelling that rely heavily on styles of traditional music. However, their repertoires are extensive, and keep altering. There is no pre-established, repeated canon of material to study and draw conclusions from. I therefore had to approach this study with a different intention. I did not look for single musical narrative items, which I could then dissect and present, but rather I attempted to identify unique aspects of this performance environment and the patterns, or frames of behaviour these cause and inspire.

Includes abstract.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 119-123).