History of African Music Scores

African choral music

African choral music began to emerge as a genre in late-18th-century southern Africa after the arrival of European missionaries. Traditional vocal solo and ensemble music, often accompanied by instruments as well as clapping and dancing, was already well established in the region, making the voice the predominant traditional ‘instrument’ (Tracey 1996, 8). Then the missions brought hymns, psalms and British tonic solfa notation (with the fixed doh – rather than the European solfege with moveable doh). Through a process of cultural transference, often quite violent, new forms of indigenous vocal harmony and texture gradually began to emerge, consolidated in compositions that an increasing number of indigenous composers throughout the region wrote in tonic solfa.


John Knox Bokwe stands “at the head of the tradition of black choralism” as Grant Olwage has observed (NewMusicSA Bulletin Issues 9/10, 2010/2011, 18-19). Bokwe’s first notated composition, Msindisi Wa Boni (Saviour Prophets) was published in 1875 and 30 other pieces followed, published between 1875 and 1922 by Lovedale Press. All Bokwe’s manuscripts, held in Rhodes University Cory Library for Historical Research, are in staff notation, for it was fairly normal for musically talented pupils in African mission schools to receive additional instruction in staff notation and piano or harmonium. Strongly influenced by British Victorian and American revivalist hymns, Bokwe established certain norms in the genre of African choral music that have persisted with little change until fairly recently: composers were often self-taught, they were conductors and/or teachers, their choirs were church or school based and their music was often spiritual in nature. 

Ntsikana’s Great Hymn

Bokwe also left us with another first: he wrote down some fragments of ’traditional’ Christian music that he heard people singing, that date back to the first Xhosa convert, Chief Ntsikana Gaba (c.1780-1821). These fragments have become known as ‘Ntsikana’s Great Hymn’ and include Ulo Tixo Mkulu (Thou Great God).

Ex. 1: Extracts from Ntsikana’s Hymn: Ulo Tixo Mkulu – Thou Great God (arr. By J.K. Bokwe, c1904)

Use of folksong and traditional bow harmonies 

The musical extract from Ntsikana’s Hymn shows a strong link with indigenous music of the Eastern Cape: in its use of solo call followed by choral response; in the sharpened 4th note of the doh scale (‘fe’ or ‘ba’) as well as the normal ‘f’; in the way the lowest notes are often ‘r’ and ‘d’; and in the way it avoids using the 7th note of the scale, ‘t’. Both melody and harmony, then, have some roots in music for the Xhosa uhadi or umrhubhe bow. Bokwe’s own music sometimes has these traces as well as using 4-part hymn style. This combination of indigenous and foreign (sometimes called ‘exogenous’) musical elements was there at the beginning of African choral music, runs throughout Mohapeloa’s music of the 1930s (for example) and re-emerged in the 1950s “with the upsurge of nationalism among Africans”; indeed, as Khabi Mngoma points out, it is in works based on folksong that “the African composer in South Africa is most successful. He composes with self assurance and confidence and thereby reveals himself as one with Universal Man” (Mngoma 1981).

The rise of printed music in tonic solfa

Several printing presses to publish this music were set up by mission churches, including Lovedale Press in the Eastern Cape (Methodist), Morija Sesuto Book Depot in Lesotho (Evangelical Lutheran), and Mazenod Institute in Lesotho (Catholic). In the 20th century educational publishers such as Shooter and Shuter in Pietermaritzburg and even Oxford University Press in Cape Town, have also published tonic solfa scores. Publishers supplied these solfa books of African choral music for use in the State school system in South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho and even further afield in Africa. There are several more recent examples of choral music publications in dual solfa-staff notation, including SAMRO’s series South Africa Sings (Khumalo 1998, 

The rise of choral music practice

The history of African choral music publications relates intimately to its history as a practice, and this history is closely bound with the 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 training college choirs. Music was prescribed, and this 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. 

Languages used in choral music

European choral music in South Africa is mostly written in Afrikaans or English and draws on both sacred and secular traditions from Europe and other regions of the world. African choral music uses texts in all eleven official languages of South Africa, some of which are also spoken in the two countries surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. These languages are Afrikaans and English, and nine ‘Bantu’ languages, all of them tonal: isiNdebele, Sepedi (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Siswati (Swazi), Setswana, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. Until the mid twentieth century, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu tended to dominate the choral repertoire because of the prevalence of mission schools that used those languages, but composers are now much more conscious of – and take pride in – their regional languages. Four languages are in the Nguni group (isiZulu, isiXhosa, Seswati, isiNdebele), three are Sotho-Tswana (Sepedi, Sesotho, and Setswana), and Tsonga is a Tswa-Ronga language. This means that Zulu speakers have no trouble understanding a Xhosa song text (for example) but may have some difficulty with a Setswana text. It depends where composers live, and how they have been educated. Occasionally composers use more than one language in a song. 

Categories of African choral competitions

In the choral competitions that developed in the second half of the twentieth century three categories emerged: traditional (African), Western (classical), and vernacular. The ‘vernacular’ choral work – now called ‘indigenous’ – caters for indigenous language texts and most of the songs are still written in tonic solfa notation. A study of the history of African choral music will show many changes in language usage, over a time frame of almost two centuries. For example in Sesotho – ‘Southern Sotho’ or simply ‘Sotho’, as it is sometimes called – which was first written down and codified by French-Swiss missionaries in the 1830s, the language used the vowel ‘o’ to represent a ‘w’ sound, and ‘e’ to represent a ‘y’ sound, resulting in words such as ‘oa’ (wa) and ‘ea’ (ya). In modern Sesotho ‘w’ and ‘y’ are often used instead. Hyphens were also a feature of Sesotho because they are common in French but have gradually disappeared, as have some of the diacritic markings. Sesotho orthography has differed in Lesotho and South Africa since 1966, when the apartheid government of South Africa introduced profound changes, rejected by Sotho speakers in Lesotho. See www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sotho_orthography 

African choral music performance

African choral music in southern Africa has since its inception (see African Choral Music – History) been associated with African churches and schools. It is a practice linked to Western institutions but with its own performative practices which, during the course of more than a century, have developed along different lines from those of white or ‘settler’ choral practices in southern Africa. The differences are marked largely by differences between church and school systems, and by the fact that after 1948 Africans operated in every sphere – including choral practice – from within the lowest economic sector of society. Even among  the different African mission-derived churches, choral music is not homogenous, because compositional styles vary according to regional histories and language differences (see African Choral Music – Languages).

What makes African choral music appear homogenous is the history of practice – the way music has been transmitted, the way it has been so closely associated with competitions. Competitions have had the most impact on performance, and it remains a highly competitive practice, having a lot in common with sport: choirs are like teams, with managers jealously guarding their success and conductors who are like coaches. Over the course of a year, prescribed and chosen pieces are rehearsed in three categories (Western, indigenous, traditional) for entry in local, regional, and provincial ‘knock-out’ rounds of the choral competitions – that are held for schools, churches, and adult communities of singers. These culminate in national finals held in the major cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, or Durban. Competitions have evolved from something organised on a fairly small scale by teacher-conductors themselves, initially in Gauteng, into ‘big business’ organised by the National Coir Festive (NCF). The NCF is organised nationally by stake-holders who are not necessarily directly involved in music, and sponsored by corporates such as the Standard Bank, First National Bank, Telkom, or Old Mutual. Large sums of money are provided by the sponsors and raised by choirs, and the economics of choral practice is one of its most interesting and least discussed aspects.

Belonging to a choir

African choral music as a daily performance practice is nevertheless firmly in the hands of its practitioners. It is as much a social practice as a musical practice: coming together for choir rehearsal and performing locally outside of a competition are acts performed by the community for the community. Joining a choir is not just s cure for loneliness but a commitment to rehearsing at least four nights a week and maybe at other times too – there is more rehearsal time involved, arguably, than for choirs in most other kinds of choral practice. This is because the choir is a social phenomenon, an obsession even – see the NCF Facebook page for daily confirmation of this. Conducting a choir is a major after-hours commitment, too, for people who also, in most cases, have a full-time job. 

Singing styles and the influence of recordings

There is no doubt that since the early history of African choral practice in the last quarter of the 19th century external influence has brought about changes, partly to the kinds of music now preferred, mainly to vocal technique. ‘White’ adjudicators have in the past (for better or worse) directly affected matters of tone production, phrasing, and intonation important to Western styles of choral singing. So (for better or worse) have recordings, for as soon as prescribed works are announced at the beginning of each year, practitioners rush to find recordings of the Western works, on which they (arguably) now spend more rehearsal time than on the African vernacular (composed or traditional) works. Listening to the recordings housed in the SABC sound archive since the early 1960s, one is aware for example how vibrato gradually entered the vocal sound during the early 1980s, when CDs first came out. Conductors may have more musical training than their predecessors fifty or even twenty years ago but memorisation of a small repertoire for competitions is still the major focus of practice, rather than learning a wide range of repertoire at a wide range of performance outlets. 

Editing African choral music

Editing African choral music from southern Africa has to take into account several facts: works are written in tonic solfa notation, original manuscripts are quite rare (but so are printed copies) 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 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. 

The importance of ‘the score’ 

Between the act of composing and the act of singing, the score as a written, literary 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 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. The score has to be studied, nurtured and preserved, at all costs, so that composers’ original work is not lost.

Copying scores

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. The majority of works exist only in manuscript, and often not in their original form in the composer’s hand.

Transcription and presentation of scores – ACE’s method

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 (e.g. 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, indication of the scoring (e.g. “for SATB a cappella”), 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 are shown in [ ].