Tasting the lost flute music of Sesfontein: memories, histories, possibilities


Sullivan, S. and Ganuses, W.S.

Abstract. Polyphonic music played by ensembles of male flautists and accompanied by song-stories sung primarily by women have been recorded historically for Khoe peoples in southern Africa for more than 600 years. Fragmented and disrupted through the dramatic changes wrought by the expanding frontier of the Cape Colony, and later in Namibia through colonial and apartheid administrations, it appears likely that the last place this flute music was played was Sesfontein / !Nani|aus in north-west Namibia. It is also likely that the last time the flute music was recorded in Sesfontein was in 1999 by French ethnomusicologist Emmanuelle Olivier. Around half an hour of recordings of Nama-Dama flautists and accompanying vocal performances are present in Olivier’s Namibia collection, which is now being archived in the British Library World Music Catalogue. Initial engagement with this audio material suggests continuity with several dimensions of the Khoe / Nama flute music known from around 40 reviewed historical and ethnographic observations. These records stretch back to Vasco da Gama’s 1497 encounter with a Khoe flute orchestra of around 200 men near Mossel Bay, South Africa. Some identified continuities include the playing of single-note and named flutes tuned carefully to specific pitches, the form and structure of the ensemble music, and the type of events and themes commemorated by a flute-music performance.

               Starting in 2017, the Olivier recordings and accompanying images have been returned to inhabitants of Sesfontein, demonstrating that although the flute music is no longer played, people remain today who remember the songs, the flautists, the contexts in which the music was played, and the meanings of the music and accompanying performances. Our title, for example, reflects the observation that when the songs start to flow easily the women get the ‘taste’ (||hoaxa) of the music, the experience of which enables them to improvise more easily with their harmonies.

               Our paper incorporates audio and images to share some of what we are learning through returning the music and images to the context in which they were made, as well as exploring connections between the recent Sesfontein flute music and Khoe / Nama flute music in time and space more broadly. We will also discuss possibilities and constraints regarding the restitution and recovery of the Sesfontein flute music into the future.

Keywords. Nama; Damara / ≠Nūkhoen; reed flutes; polyphony; Namibia; South Africa

(Now Finalising).