Editing African choral music from southern Africa has to take into account several facts: works are written in tonic solfa notation, original manuscripts are rare, even published scores are; and the music belongs to a strong tradition of practice. Just as with editing (early) western music, in editing African composed music there may be problems reconciling notation and practice, or as American musicologist Richard Taruskin has put it, ‘text and act’. In the practice of African choral music, ‘act’ frames the score: scores are not prescriptions so much as records of what composers have in many cases tried out with their choirs already, music imagined or dreamed. Once committed to paper, choirs often learn the composer’s music by rote, and it is very quickly internalised, becoming a ‘sung object’. The entire tradition of choral singing out of which compositions emerge is seen by everyone — conductors, choralists, festival and competition organisers, broadcasters, adjudicators — as very much a singing, not a composing, tradition.

Between these two acts of ‘vocalisation’, the score as written object, whether published or in manuscript, plays a somewhat fleeting role. The fact that even after so many years of national choral competitions there is no centralised library of scores that have been prescribed over the years, for example; the fact that composers lend their scores and then they disappear (as happened to our national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika); the way scores are copied wantonly as if there was no copyright law: all these are indicators of the low value of the music as score. Tonic solfa scores are nevertheless reliable and detailed, although writing practice has changed over the years and some codes have to be deciphered; the way they solfa is understood as a script may not now be universal. The double octave sign d” can also be written as d2 for example, or the way lyrics fit the notes might be left rather vague in the score, or occasionally it is not clear if a 5th voice is an extra Alto or extra Tenor.

From its inception by John Knox Bokwe in the 1870s, the oral transmission of African choral music has co-existed with the (usually unlicensed) copying of scores. Copying may be made by hand, by the composer, or by someone else, with all the possibilities for typos, additions, and adaptations that come along with this. From the early 20th century copies were also made by machine: roneo, gestetner, or photocopier. Because music paper is not required and because songs in the early days were often short, hand copying endured for a long time. The main publishers of African choral music have been Lovedale Press and Morija Sesuto Book Depot (‘Morija Press’), where there were typesetters who carefully typeset and proof-read the music before it appeared in print. Nevertheless, mistakes occur even here. But most works exist only in manuscript, not always in their original form in the composer’s hand.

This is the raw material editors work with: a manuscript that, if it exists is held in a private collection, or a published score that is hard to come by because it may be out of print, and an oral tradition that exists in memory and in recordings: aside from the few private recordings that may exist, by far the largest repository of valuable recordings of African choirs over many decades exists in the Sound Archives of SABC radio in Johannesburg. Most of the recordings have been digitised, and can be used to check act against text if necessary.

The process of editing means transcribing music from tonic solfa open score to staff notation open score plus a piano reduction for rehearsal purposes. It means translating vernacular texts into English, and correcting any errors that might have crept in when music was copied or printed. Editors are preparing legible scores that choirs unfamiliar with the African choral tradition (as well as those within it) can rehearse and perform from, so a score has to contain the following: cover pages with title, translation, vernacular text & translation, copyright details, place and year of publication and name of publisher (African Composers Edition), end pages with notes on the song, pronunciation tips, lists of other works available. The score of the song itself should contain the following: full title of the work & translation, scoring (e.g. “for SATB a capella”), name of the composer (and his/her dates, so that one can see whether or not the music is still in copyright), a suggested overall tempo and dynamic if there are none anywhere in the score, melismas in both the solfa and the staff notation (but not in the text), texts in every voice part (even though these may not be shown in the original), bar numbers, verse numbers where there is more than one. All editorial additions to the score are shown in [ ].

Every score has been prepared in two versions: both are in staff notation but one also has tonic solfa notation added. Most choirs outside southern Africa do not need solfa, but it has been added (back) into the score for the sake of choirs in South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland who still only read solfa. (Choirs who want to read staff notation should buy Music Notation: A South African Guide by Christine Lucia (Unisa Press, 2011; it costs R170 and you can order it from any bookshop or theart [at] unisa [dot] ac [dot] za (direct from Unisa)).