for unaccompanied cello
(commissioned by SAMRO)
This composition lets the cello pay homage to one of its oldest ancestors and Africa’s most important stringed instrument – the musical bow. The title refers specifically to the Zulu Ugubhu as well as the characteristic use of two notes (and chords) a semitone apart in traditional Zulu songs. This idiomatic trait is seminal for the harmonic development within the work, which furthermore indulges in asymmetrical rhythmical patterns, borrowed from traditional African music.
The work opens with an atmospheric and exact imitation of Ugubhu playing. (The effect obtained by hitting the stringcol legno at the very tip of the bow, sounds remarkably similar to the original!) All formal development is achieved by means of additive rhythmic structuring, following an African method of elaborating on an elementary pulse. Contrary to the conventional Western concept of symmetrically dividing a metre into beats and rhythmical patterns, this technique allows for much greater rhythmical flexibility, as two or three notes may randomly be grouped together, without having to comply to the hierarchical law of overriding regular beats. In spite of their quick and frequent changes, these are no “complicated” rhythms, as all patterns relate to ongoing regular pulses, which create the characteristic uninterrupted inner swing, typical of many emanations of African music.
It might seem inconclusive to classify Ugubhu as ‘African’ music: The cello is no African instrument, and neither does an unaccompanied instrumental piece comply with any of the traditional African musical genres. Furthermore the composition’s purpose as a concert piece fully contradicts indigenous concepts of musical performance practices. And finally it might be observed that a tinge of the shadow of the Bach’s Suites for unaccompanied cello invariably falls on any work using the instrument in this manner – as a connotation with Western Baroque, which simply cannot be escaped. However, as idiomatically African principles essentially determine structure, form, technique and mode of expression of the work, it rather consistently defies most Western musical conventions and seems to call for the interstice of a category of its own.
This of course holds true for previously rigidly separated categories themselves. As not only the first world, but also African countries are changing rapidly, it can no longer be appropriate to classify only ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ music to be genuinely ‘African’. Speaking for and from contemporary Africa, Ugubhu very definitely is an African piece.