Billy Monama. Picture: Siphiwe Mhlambi
Billy Monama. Picture: Siphiwe Mhlambi

Billy Monama on a quest to preserve the memory of black music

By Kedibone Modise Time of article published May 31, 2021

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This Youth Month, jazz maestro Billy Monama is hosting a series of masterclasses on the South African guitar styles at the Joburg Theatre.

Monama will share his 25 years of guitar experience alongside guitar experts and facilitators, Themba Mokoena (mbhaqanga and African jazz), Mbuzeni Mkhize (maskandi), Marhoya Chauke (Xitsonga), with special guest Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse.

“In 2016, I did a national tour of workshops that I was conducting at different institutions (universities, colleges and schools).

“I then realised that there’s much need for these workshops if we ever hope to preserve the memory of the African music,” says Monama.

According to Monama, one-hour workshops were not practical, hence he decided to explore the possibility of conducting workshops over a period of five days.

“For me, this is no longer an event or annual workshops, it’s a cause ... because it has to do with education,” offers the guitar master.

“The music as a subject in South African education is given only a peripheral position, not a central position.

“Music students in South Africa are taught the Western and European curriculum,” explains Monama.

“In that curriculum, you'll find that there is only 5% of South African content. I was once a music student.

“I went through the process. I was given the assignment to go and research about maskandi guitar, I could not find anything.

“I've mentioned this thing in many of my interviews, there was nothing documented.”

It was this experience that made Monama focus on documenting the history of African music.

Billy Monama. Picture: Thami Ntuli

“The memory of the Western music has been documented.

“The world today knows everything about American music because it was documented well.

“We have to do something about the memory of our black music or the next generation will have no point of reference to our music.”

In 2014, Monama was quoted saying that the South African style of playing the guitar is fast disappearing.

“The masters are passing on very fast, the music schools are largely not teaching about these styles and many young musicians are swallowed by styles that only speak to the ‘commercial’ effort to make quick money,” said Monama.

He continued: “Even professionals who want to do research around this beautiful invention created out of our socio-political history in South Africa, struggle to find the necessary information.

“This means that important aspects of our heritage and musical legacy stand a chance of dying away.”

That has since changed as many researchers including Monama, prioritised documenting the history of the African musical heritage.

“This workshop is very special to me because is it is based on my research over the last two decades.

“And the content of the workshop is based on my upcoming tutorial book, ’Introduction to South African Guitar Styles Vol 1’.”

The book is set to be released in September.

The muso has also joined forces with the Samro Foundation to help and archive African music in a forthcoming initiative, titled “Indigenous African Music Project”.

“The project is to score the memory of the guitar. This will be documented for streaming on the Samro website and will also be made available in my forthcoming book.

The workshop is set to place at the Joburg Theatre from Tuesday, June 8, till Saturday, June 12, where all the participants will be performing for an audience.

The workshop will be streamed later on the Joburg Theatre website and social media platforms.

The workshop is targeted at music students (intermediate, advanced), musicians and aspiring musicians.

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