The Portfolio: Rob Machiri

Pungwe is many things, but it is also about the making of place. There was this mass shooting that happened in Dayton, Ohio in 2019 and to honour the victims Dave Chappelle, who lives in Ohio, organised a concert there. At some point during the event, Chappelle turned to fellow comedian Jon Stewart and said, “Now this is their memory.”

In what she calls “rituals of history” Namibian historian Memory Biwa who is a Namibian historian, also a collaborator and major contributor to the Pungwe project, revisits memory practices in Namibia. In southern Namibia, the locals have continued to re-enact the wars fought against the Germans by means of sartorial performances of guerilla warfare.

The same goes for the pungwes we have organised in Brixton in 2018 and 2019. It was about making sure that alternative performances and publics were possible. We can call it “memory work”, a production of a new memory.

Where do you go in Johannesburg to listen to music without running into the socioeconomic issues, political pressures and basic social disparities?  And yet, the contagion of sound is important in how we exchange information and in how we cohabit as people.

You can talk about sonic cartography when you talk about a pungwe because it is about space. It’s about shifting topographies. Whether or not one is a custodian of a landscape, that becomes part and parcel of how one operates in that land or industry. 

In a recent podcast episode, titled “Post-apartheid spatial futurities”, Mpho Matsipa shares her experience as an architecture student at the University of the Witwatersrand. She compares her relationship to landscape (which is that of racial dispossession) to that of her white classmates’ (custodianship of land through owning property).These disparities, she says, were evident in the grand ambitions of the projects they presented.

It is the same with culture. We can say people who control the spaces where we create our culture are the ones who own the destiny of the products of that culture.

In the beginning, when we started doing Pungwe Nights with Kapula, that was the whole impetus. Pungwe Nights was an attempt to confront that history, because we realised there was a hegemony over how music venues are established and made visible.

Within the context of the liberation movement, pungwes happened in the rural space to bring people together and to come up with a mechanism to create social spaces where people could interact and bring the morale up during the war. Pungwes became secret military points where information was exchanged and the fighters were able to know what was happening on the ground. Though they involved a lot of music, ancestral praise and worship, they were not wholly celebratory, they are surrounded by dark memories too because these were spaces of war, revolt and resistance to colonial power. 

The history of pungwe predates this, but the narratives that have become popular are of its shifts through the guerilla war and beyond Zimbabwe’s independence as it continues to change and become something else. We were more or less attempting to continue with a similar thrust in relation to art, sound and music in the contemporary. What continues currently is pungwe as a project that is mobile and always collaborative, in a sense; to propose new public spaces that are contemporaneous with liberating possibilities of existence. 

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