‘Your Rhythm Is Rebellion’: Ringing in Postcolonial Carillon Solidarity on the Sixty Bells of the University of Michigan Carillon Tower
Located in a bell tower at the City Hall and in the heart of Cape Town center is an enormous 39-bell carillon, with at least two octaves of heavy bells made of copper and tin. Cape Town’s Carillon is the only such functional instrument on the mainland African continent and serves as a colonial artifact held in plain sight and sound.
Cape Town’s Carillon was installed after the First World War to commemorate the South African Soldiers, and often overlooked, its presence signals more. It was inaugurated in 1925 on the Grand Parade, decked with a statue of King Edwards VII, and it emblematized British colonial rule. The largest of the carillon’s bells was donated by Cecil John Rhodes and bore his inscription.
Carillons were initially conceived as public symbols at the heart of the cities they were housed in. Carillon performances from the city hall could be heard far and wide by Cape Town’s inhabitants. Given South Africa’s spatial planning of racial segregation and Apartheid, the sounds of the city’s carillon indicated a very specific ‘public’ for whom its bells rang.
The history of the carillon in South Africa signifies historic racial segregation through its presence, composers, and players. How best to challenge this history in the city that sparked the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015, which brought the presence and salience of colonial statues and monuments in cities to the forefront of national and international attention? A scholar-performer at the University of Michigan and three South African composers of color are in the process of formulating ideas.
Tiffany Ng, associate professor of music and university carillonist at the University of Michigan, seeks to confront these issues in both Cape Town and Ann Arbor. Her larger project interrogates the postcolonial African history of the type of instrument she plays daily on campus. Reflecting on her career as the university carillonist, she discussed the evolution of her thinking since first taking the job in 2015. Ng reflected, “I looked at the music [I’d performed during my first year] and realized I had become a mouthpiece for creative voices of white men. My job had become reproducing the patriarchal soundscape, through playing the published carillon music on the shelves. The carillon can’t help but engage with historical context, and if we don’t think about [that context], we simply perpetuate it.” In response, Ng set out to expand the carillon repertoire by making it more inclusive.
Inclusivity, in this case, means diversifying the composers who write new music and bringing the music to people who were previously segregated from it. Indeed, Ng co-commissioned the first electroacoustic carillon piece ever written by a Black composer, Yvette Janine Jackson, and premiered the first commissioned carillon work by an African American composer, Wilbert Roget, II.
Now, Ng is championing a project to turn the representation of the carillon away from historic sonic exclusion in Cape Town and towards amplifying the creativity of Black composers. With support from the University of Michigan, she reached out to South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen to commission a carillon piece. Ndodana-Breen is an internationally critically-acclaimed composer whose trailblazing œuvre includes operas, symphonic work, and chamber and vocal work. He is also famous for his opera ‘Winnie,’ based on the life of Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela.
With support from the University of Michigan Center for World Performance Studies, Ng has also commissioned works from South African composer Chantal Willie-Petersen, who studied in carillon-saturated Belgium and toured with Zap Mama, and emerging Cape Town composer Kendall Williams. Willie-Petersen’s solemn “Kloppe Roep - Calling Bells” is dedicated to “the enslaved women at the Cape (1657),” while Williams’s dancelike “Ode to Cape Town” celebrates the carillon’s more inclusive future. Ng will premiere all three pieces at noon on Friday, April 1 on the Charles Baird Carillon in Ann Arbor. Carillonist Alexios Vicatos will perform a solidarity concert on the Cape Town City Hall’s carillon later this spring– thus symbolizing the transcontinental possibilities of engagement with decolonization and music as an expansive, encompassing, and inclusive undertaking.
Speaking with ASC in the fall of 2019, Ndodana-Breen expressed his excitement at tackling the challenge of decolonizing carillon music. He stated that “we live in an interesting time where we, as Africans, can much more forcefully interrogate colonialism.” This interrogation can occur in an expansive and prominent way, through engagement with the carillon. “My music, whether for the orchestra or string quartet, has been trying to dispel the notions of Eurocentricity in classical music. I try to take classical music out of the Eurocentric domain and make it much more inclusive.” The U-M Dutch Studies program’s engagement with this project helps challenge these oppressive structures through the arts. Ndodana-Breen reflected on this when he brought up South Africa’s Apartheid past.
The “history of South African classical music was one of the cultural weapons of Apartheid, it was exclusionary, a demonstration of the superiority of white Afrikaans culture.” The tying of classical music to white supremacy in South Africa was concretized by the establishment of the carillon, meant to represent, both physically and symbolically, this myth as reality. “I have always been driven by these myths, which we have to take down,” Ndodana-Breen stated, as he discussed the importance of creatively challenging the many inherited norms of colonialism. “The piece I am working on is very challenging because the techniques I use are from traditional African music, not only in style but also in the harmonic language. It will be a different use of the carillon.”
Discussing carillons in present-day communities of diverse listeners, Ng mentioned how “many people see and hear the carillon as a symbol of the community’s longstanding history, and also its exclusion[ary history]. Historical symbols are present in everyday lives; the repertoire carillonists play is an accumulation of hundreds of years of who was behind the keyboard, and who they played for—so engagement with this history is essential.” What better way to engage with this history than through this collaboration between Ng and Ndodana-Breen? This project seeks to engage with South Africa’s Apartheid past, emblematized in its public soundscape, its cities, and as the carillon shows, both simultaneously. Indeed the results of this exciting project will soon echo through the streets of Ann Arbor—which will bring Ndodana-Breen’s commissioned music to Burton Memorial Tower, the carillon which symbolizes the University of Michigan.
The carillon concert and accompanying panel conversation, Tools of Decolonial Art: Language and Bells, are part of the event series Dutch Studies at U-M: A Decolonial Revision, including an exhibit (digital version here) and other events as listed.
Friday, April 1, 12–1 PM
‘Your Rhythm Is Rebellion’: Ringing in Postcolonial Carillon Solidarity
Burton Memorial Tower