Main Article Content

Tracing tribe: Hugh Tracey and the cultural politics of retribalisation.

G Felber


The enclosed essay challenges the impulse of Hugh Tracey apologists who argue that the South African musicologist’s work in cultural preservation absolves his resistance to musical syncretism, which in many ways bolstered the retribalisation efforts of apartheid South Africa. By viewing musical hybridity as culturally impure, Tracey resisted recording and preserving the sounds of an urban, non-tribal, working class, and instead helped to create a divisive and often imagined tribal world that fetishized ethnic purity. The apartheid government resisted missionaries’ assimilative (though equally paternalistic) efforts through the creation of tribal reserves and the marriage of such reserves with cultural aspects of retribalisation such as carefully managed sport and recreation. Tracey was deeply entrenched in the engineering of one such recreation, mine dancing, which was portrayed as a glimpse at unfettered African primitivism. The maintenance of such mine camps undid the gains of female economic independence offered by urbanization, separated men from their families, and created a system of forced labor migration. Tracey also held prominent positions in the recording and radio industry at Gallo Records and the SABC, choosing to eschew significant musical achievements such as marabi and jazz in favour of ‘pure’ music of the official homelands. To be unwilling to “judge Tracey by today’s standards”, as some critics have proposed, is to be complicit in subverting the story of forced migration, Sophiatown’s urban removals, and the cultural and political loss brought about by retribalisation, as well as an oversimplification of one of South Africa’s most noted musicologists and cultural preservationists.

Journal Identifiers

print ISSN: 2223-635X