Sian Sullivan, Welhemina Suro Ganuses, Emmanuelle Olivier and Fredrick ǁHawaxab 
(July 2021)

Abstract. Polyphonic music played by ensembles of male flautists and accompanied by song-stories sung primarily by women has been recorded historically over the last 500 years for Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples in southern Africa. Fragmented and disrupted through dramatic changes wrought by the expanding frontier of the Cape Colony, and later in Namibia through colonialism and apartheid, 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 – ǂhā – was recorded in Sesfontein was in 1999 by ethnomusicologists Emmanuelle Olivier from France and the late Minette Mans from the University of Namibia. Twelve digitised recordings of Nama-Damara flautists and accompanying vocal performances are now catalogued in Olivier’s Namibia collection in the British Library Sound Archive. Initial engagement with this audio material suggests continuity with several dimensions of the Khoe / Nama flute music known from around forty 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 made carefully to sound at 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 / Mans recordings and accompanying images have been returned to contemporary 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 reflects listeners’ observation that when the songs start to flow easily the women get the ‘taste’ (ǁhoaba) of the music, the experience of which enables them to improvise more easily with their harmonies. This paper incorporates audio and images to share something 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 close by discussing possibilities and constraints regarding the restitution, recovery and possible recomposition of the Sesfontein flute music today.

 

Key words. Khoe / Nama flute music (ǂhā); southern Africa; Namibia; polyphony; memory; Khoekhoegowab; Sesfontein; restitution; racism; missionaries; colonialism; displacement