Is it my imagination, or are a great many South African singers today singing with American accents irrespective of the kind of material they are performing?
It makes some kind of cultural sense for local singers to try to evoke an American voice and landscape – the US, after all, is where rock ‘n roll was born, and most of the blues most South Africans know originated from there also, even if the music of African slaves was largely responsible for its development.
But on another level it often doesn’t ring true, unless it is done self-consciously to create a character or a persona.
Music must evoke something if it is to convince – a place, an atmosphere, a mood. It uses melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics to do this. But there should be more: there has to be a willingness for something uniquely personal to come to the fore, something more personal than mere technique, say, or the ability to imitate a master.
A young Bobby Womack once asked the great soul singer Sam Cooke about the young Bob Dylan’s vocal technique, which he didn’t understand. Cooke responded that from now on the most important thing would no longer be whether a voice was pretty or not, but whether or not it was telling the truth.
In Dylan’s case, that “truth” doesn’t primarily refer to his early, overt social commentary. It relates to something one can hear in his voice, a willingness to inhabit his own songs and those of others. It is that generosity that strikes one about the early Dylan, and it is a quality his work has retained to this day, much as the voice itself has changed. Where it has failed him, it is immediately obvious, even to the most diehard of fans.
Songs have to be inhabited, to be lived in before they become believable. This is equally true of the most trite pop song and the most obscure opus. It is this no-man’s-land the singer must make inhabitable for the listener.
When we refer to our eclectic listening fare as popular or semi-popular music, we probably mean that it is accessible to a mass audience, often but not exclusively of young people, in ways that music hadn’t been in previous centuries. Its defining moments are everywhere around us. We quote lines from our favourite songs and hum phrases from them, try to mimick the accents and clothing of our favourite artists.
But these moments, these songs, are also in a sense nowhere. They invite us to places that are on no maps of the known world. They are from a no-man’s-land where two worlds of experience – that of a performer and of a listener – meet for a moment in a place without a name, and something real and inimitable is exchanged.