History of African Music Scores

Early history

John Knox Bokwe stands “at the head of the tradition of black choralism” in southern Africa, as Grant Olwage has observed (NewMusicSA Bulletin Issues 9/10, 2010/2011, pages 18-19). Bokwe’s first notated composition, Msindisi  Wa Boni was published in 1875 and he followed it with more than 30 pieces over as many years. With this piece and in his own practice Bokwe established certain norms in the genre of African choral music that have persisted throughout its history: he was a “self-taught composer [who] composes almost exclusively for voice [and who] is typically also a choral conductor [for] whom choral practice is a part-time activity” (Olwage); s/he also typically writes in tonic solfa notation, the mission script. Bokwe’s choral music was published between 1875 and 1922 by Lovedale Press and includes several works in the famous early collection Amaculo ase Lovedale (1885). All Bokwe’s manuscripts (at Rhodes University Cory Library for Historical Research) are however in staff notation, for it was not unusual for musically talented pupils in black mission schools to receive additional instruction in staff notation and piano or harmonium. His music was strongly influenced by British Victorian or American revivalist hymnody, resulting in an SATB choral style that Olwage calls  “resolutely metropolitan”.

Bokwe also left us with another first: fragments of music transcribed from contemporary i.e. late 19th century oral church practice that date back to an early 19th century indigenous chant by the first Xhosa convert, Chief Ntsikana Gaba (c.1780-1821). One of the fragments of what became known as ‘Ntsikana’s Great Hymn’ is Ulo Tixo Mkulu (Thou Great God; Bokwe’s spelling of the isiXhosa is used here), shown below.

Ulo Tixo Mkulu (Ntsikana-Bokwe) c1904

There is a stronger link here with indigenous music from the region than Bokwe shows in his own compositions. By stressing the sharpened 4th (‘fe’ or ‘ba’) in the harmonies and by leaving out the 7th note of the scale (‘t’), Ulo Tixo Mkulu shows its relationship to music for the Xhosa uhadi or umrhubhe bow. (See Christine Lucia’s Music Notation: A South African Guide (Unisa Press, 2011, pages 118-125) for a fuller explanation of the structure of bow harmonies.)

The 19th-century printing presses set up by mission churches, such as Lovedale Press in the Eastern Cape (Methodist), Morija Sesuto Book Depot in Lesotho (Evangelical Lutheran), and Mazenod Institute in Lesotho (Catholic) were joined in the 20th century by educational publishers, such as Shooter and Shuter in Pietermaritzburg. Publishers supplied solfa books of African choral music for use in the State school system in South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho. In 1998, the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) began publishing a series of African choral scores in dual notation, called South Africa Sings, under the general editorship of Mzilikazi Khumalo, and SAMRO has also published some individual scores.

The history of African choral music publications relates intimately to its history as a practice, and this history is closely bound with the (separate) history of black southern Africans and particularly the religious or education systems they were exposed to.


The earliest choral competitions in the 1930s were for school or teacher choirs. These prescribed music and thus encouraged new pieces, which in turn continually enriched the competitions. In practice, conductor-teachers often taught music by rote because scores were precious resources, and rehearsals were held almost daily.

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