Music and healing: African spirituality specifically relies on music, drums, chanting, singing and dancing
I use music to heal myself and others
Recently, I was blessed enough to interact with two of SA’s illustriously prolific musicians Ernie Smith and Max-Hoba.
I must confess, the purpose of the isolated interactions was not to extract any information in and around spirituality. My aim was to get them talking about their musical prowess, their origins in music and what fans can look forward to in the context of upcoming performances. Individually, they shared incredibly profound sentiments about their spiritual connection to music.
Smith nostalgically recalled his initiation into music through the likes of Soul Brothers, Dolly Parton and Phuzekhemisi. His mother Mary Kate Smith was instrumental in planting the musical seed, piquing her son’s interest enough to play music in church while giving his life over to God.
“I became a born-again Christian and I started performing music in church where I got the opportunity to experiment with different instruments including my voice. I saw how music was able to shift people’s spirit...I realised what a gift and responsibility that is,” said Smith.
Profound! I thought. In our conversation, it was apparent that Smith realises his gift as a function of a calling. He spoke of healing himself and people through music “music fuels me, it heals me, it allows me to heal others too”.
Max-Hoba shared similar sentiments:
“I tell people that I can’t make senseless music because I use music to heal myself and others. To heal those around me, to heal communities and inspire awakening.”
I know many musical acts and artists have notoriously claimed to make music with the sole purpose of touching people’s hearts while the contents of their music are questionable at best. But as Max-Hoba spoke, I remembered a time when I was personally inundated with the duties and pressures of being a thwasa (a Sangoma initiate).
I would always turn to music and for a time there was one song I listened to multiple times, to uplift my mood and spirits. That song is Thongo Lam by Max-Hoba and Buhlebendalo Mda. That song is a plea, a cry almost for one’s guardian angels to strengthen and fight for them amid spiritual warfare. Amid the energies of negatively opinionated people’s utterances about the validity of ingulo yesintu (the calling), it is a plea for abantu abadala to really take charge or your mental, spiritual and social health. To protect you from spiritual warfare.
The song is perfectly composed with drums, chanting and other percussive sounds – it is truly a spiritual experience designed to solicit some kind of internal shift, or even awakening. It really takes your spirit to the correct vibrations. It is incredible that a person that you have never met can have so much influence on your journey by way of music.
African spirituality specifically relies on music, drums, chanting, singing and dancing for the awakening of spirit. Specific drumbeats and chants are vehicles, so to speak, for the awakening of specific spiritual clusters. For example, if my intention is to connect with my Nguni and Xhosa ancestors, I would beat the drum differently than I would if I were connecting with my Pedi side – this is taught in initiation school.
Reflecting on my conversations with Max-Hoba and Smith, I pondered – realising the scope of calling-based professions. Music is a calling-based profession. Artists who make intentionally meaningful music are not only singing for their supper, but they’re following spiritual callings.
This got me thinking deeply about the relationship between music, healing and spirituality. Entertain me for a second, I have coined the naming of a sub-genre within Amapiano. I call it “spiritual Yanos”. Spiritual Yanos are characterised by chants and lyrics that either appeal to go or ancestors and of course the heavy on the drum. Songs Like Ngixolele, IDlozi Lam etc. Often these songs will even include clan names, references to familial ancestors even the singers’ desires and wishes... I digress.
Music is an ancestral call and calling. Yes, we use it to connect but I think it offers possibilities of being a calling itself. Max-Hoba recalls a prophecy by his uncle about either he or his sister following in his footsteps to be a sangoma: “For the longest time I thought it was me. My sister ultimately ended up being the one who had to undergo initiation while I realised my calling through music.”
In that moment, I had an epiphany. I recalled watching a few videos on YouTube and interacting with a few sangomas, a while ago, about what Ubungoma means. One said to be a sangoma means to be a child of the song (ingoma). “It means music awakens spirit” they said. I remember rolling my eyes at what I then considered to be the laziest of deductions in human history. Retrospectively, they might have been onto something.
Following my interaction with Max-Hoba, I said to myself “maybe usiSangoma seNgomga” a healer whose medium is music.
Anything and everything is possible!
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