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Friday, June 24, 2011


Post Office launches rare musical heritage stamps at National Arts Festival.

As part of a new partnership with the National Arts Festival, the South African Post Office will launch a new series of postage stamps featuring indigenous African musical instruments at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 3, 2011. The partnership between the Festival and the South African Post Office aims to raise awareness of indigenous music as an important South African cultural legacy. The series of ten stamps will feature a selection of rare musical instruments from various cultural groups.

“Rhythm, music, song and dance are inherent in African culture and form an integral part of most African ceremonies and rituals. Many of the musical instruments used by various cultural groups in Africa are rare and almost unknown to the Western world. This initiative by the Post Office solidifies attempts to boost awareness about a rich treasure chest of African culture,” said Festival Director Ismail Mahomed.

South African artist Hein Botha, who designed the stamps, will attend the Festival this year. The Post Office will present a specially coordinated philately exhibition at the Observatory Museum in Grahamstown. At the Albany Museum, the Post Office will support an exhibition of African musical instruments that have been drawn from the world-renowned Hugh Tracey collection. The Post Office will also partner with the International Library of African Music to present a daily series of free lunchtime concerts featuring artists who are skilled in the playing of African musical instruments.

The postage stamps will be launched at a Special Sundowner Concert in the Fountain Foyer of the 1820 Monument and will feature the Reed Pipe Dancers, the avant garde African indigenous music group Khoi Konexxion, as well a lively troupe of Xhosa dancers. During the one-hour concert, artists from the Festival’s Co/Mix exhibition will illustrate and project images of the concert simultaneously on a huge exhibition. The Chairperson of the Post Office Board, Vuyo Mahlati, will officially launch the series of postage stamps.

To coincide with the launch, the South African Post Office will also design a special canceller stamp bearing the logo of the National Arts Festival. This unique canceller is likely to become any philatelist’s collector’s item, so Festival visitors should make sure they get a copy of a unique series of Festival post cards, Faces of the Festival, which could be stamped at the concert.

The new stamps depict the following musical instruments:

//GWASHI: The //gwashi is a pluriarc, a type of stringed instrument that the !Kung San borrowed from the Ambo people of Ovamboland. There are two variations of this instrument, namely the five-stringed //gwashi, which is played by men and the four-stringed version played by women. The instrument is played by plucking the strings with the thumb and forefinger. //Gwashi music is usually accompanied by singing.

RAMKIE: The San ramkie, a plucked lute, was influenced by the Portuguese. The lower half of the body consists of a calabash over which a piece of skin is stretched to serve as a resonator. A plank of wood with strings attached from the top to the bottom of the instrument serves as the neck. The number of strings varies from three to six. It is likely that the Khoi were the first of South Africa’s inhabitants to play the instrument and to pass it on to the San. The ramkie is regarded as the equivalent of the Western guitar.

SANSA: The sansa is also known as sanza or mbira. The Bapedi version is called dipela. Outside Africa it is called a thumb piano, because the keys are plucked with the thumbs. It is believed to have originated in the Zambezi valley and is so widespread in Zimbabwe that it is accepted as the national instrument of the Shona. In South Africa, it is mainly found in the northern parts where it has been adopted by the Venda, Tsonga and Pedi and is used largely for recreation.

DRUMS: The drum, seen by many as the most representative African instrument, is still widely used today. According to some sources, every race that has inhabited South Africa has played drums at some stage, from the early Khoi playing on wooden milk jugs or clay pots, to the Venda playing on elaborately decorated wooden drums. The drums vary in shape, size and materials. Certain South African drums are difficult to find today and some have disappeared from the musical scene altogether.

BULL-ROARER: Bull-roarers are widely used in Africa and the instrument has many different names. The San bull-roarer is known as !goin!goin, while the Khoi call their instrument burubush, the Venda call it tshivhilivhi and the Bapedi call it kgabududu. It is also sometimes referred to as a spinning disc, because the instrument is swung around in circles, producing a roaring sound. It has been used to attract insects for honey production and people have likened its sound to the buzzing of bees.

HORNS: Animal horns have been adapted for use as musical instruments in many African cultures. Horns, which are played mostly by men, are usually blown through an opening in the side. In the past, horns were blown as battle signals and were generally used to summon people to the chief’s kraal. The Khoi used kelp horns as instruments.

FLUTE: In South Africa, traditional flutes are made from natural materials like small animal horns, wood, hollow bones and river reeds. Some end-blown flutes are open at both ends and the player produces a variety of notes by closing and opening the bottom end with one finger and selecting high or low pitches depending on how hard it is blown. Flutes serve a number of purposes, for example herd boys use them to signal to their cattle or to each other from a distance.

XYLOPHONE: Xylophones, also known as marimbas, are most highly developed in Mozambique, where they play an important cultural and social role. The mbila mutondo of the Venda is the only traditional marimba in South Africa. Although the instrument has been adapted by many South African cultures and has become popular over the years, the original Venda mbila is now quite rare.

RATTLES: Rattles and shakers are used to create percussion in dancing. Rattles are either handheld or worn on the ankles as part of a dance costume. In South Africa, rattles were traditionally made from cocoons, fruit shells, goat skin or palm leaves tied up and filled with stones or seeds. Ankle rattles emphasise a dancer’s leg movements and add some rhythm to a dance.

BOWS: Bows enjoyed widespread popularity in pre-colonial days, but many are no longer made or played. South African bows were traditionally made from natural materials. The stave is made from wood and the string from twisted fibre, sinew, hair or wire. Bows can be plucked with the fingers, struck with a light stick or grass stem or rubbed with a dry stick. Some bows are also activated by blowing.

(*Reference: The DrumcafĂ©’s Traditional Music of South Africa, Laurie Levine, Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2005)

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The National Arts Festival is sponsored by Standard Bank, The Eastern Cape Government, The National Arts Council, The National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, The Sunday Independent and M Net.