The Bow Project

Nofinishi Dywili at Lumko Institute c. 1981

The Bow Project was launched in 2002 by Michael Blake as a project of NewMusicSA’s annual New Music Indaba at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown. The original artistic objective of the project was to encourage South African composers to engage with traditional music as a compositional resource.

Rather than simply including indigenous elements in their work, each composer was asked to make a transcription of a uhadi bow song for soprano and string quartet, and use that as the basis for their work. The uhadi songs were those of Nofinishi Dywili, legendary performer from Ngqoko Village near Lady Frere in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

Over a period of 7 years, the Bow Project developed as a platform for South African composers from many different traditions – classical, choral, jazz, rock, electronic, experimental – to reinterpret or reimagine the uhadi bow songs of the great Nofinishi Dywili, through the medium of the string quartet.

Nightingale String Quartet and Mantombi Matotiyana

The Bow Project concerts at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, with the combination of Mantombi Matotiyana or Madosini singing the original uhadi songs, and the Sontonga Quartet playing the composers reinterpretations, regularly drew full houses and required additional performances. In 2005 BBC Radio 3 recorded and broadcast a number of the works in the programme Hear and Now.

In 2009 the Bow Project made its debut in the remote Faroe Islands (north of Scotland). Several local composers contributed paraphrases and that set the scene for an extensive South African tour in 2009 – marking the tenth anniversary of NewMusicSA - and a double CD recording, which was released on the Faroe Islands label Tutl (FKT 044) in 2010.

Bow Project CD

A substantial selection of the quartets is included on this CD release played by the young Nightingale String Quartet from Denmark making their recording debut. The master herself, Nofinishi Dywili, performs the original uhadi songs which inspired the composers. Grahamstown-based sound engineer Corinne Cooper has remastered the original field recordings of Dave Dargie.

Composers Michael Blake, Mokale Koapeng, Paul Hanmer, Robert Fokkens, Lloyd Prince, Sazi Dlamini, Jürgen Bräuninger, Kristian Blak, Matteo Fargion, Atli Petersen, Martin Scherzinger, Julia Raynham and Theo Herbst are represented in a wide range of aesthetics, along Aryan Kaganof’s remix of Blake’s quartet.

Reviews and Comments

Bow Project 2009 tour program

If you want a reason for having national arts festivals, the Bow Project provided it.
Gwen Ansell, Cue - National Arts Festival newspaper, 2002
It addresses music’s capacity to bridge the chasms that seem to separate modern and traditional, spiritual and secular, or Western and African/Asian cultural spaces.
Nishlyn Ramanna, Sunday Tribune, Durban, 2 August 2009
… focusing on the performance externals of Xhosa women’s song and bow music, the project treats the tunes as intricate compositions, and unleashes the imagination of other composers to create variations on their internals: structure, harmonics and rhythms.
Gwen Ansell, Business Day, Johannesburg, 23 July 2009
It was fascinating then, to experience what for me was ultimately a striking spiritual distinction, laterally, across a cultural spectrum: a juxtaposition of aligned worlds continents apart yet demonstrating the equality and quality of value of culture and cultures that span this spectrum.
Helgé Janssen, Helgé Janssen Blog, Durban, 24 July 2009
It is the suppleness of the assemblage, the eccentricity of the whole, the splendidness of the surprise that grabs one. It is this sensation that, in listening to the convergence of the bow and string quartet, I found returning to me. Part trance, part devotion, part joy in the free-fall then sudden hovering of sound, the proved an ‘ek-stasis’, literally an outer-body experience. It is this being our of one’s body that challenges the nominal, be it selfhood, nationhood, the transnational or continental.
Ashraf Jamal, Art South Africa, Summer 2010
You have made a creative contribution to the survival of bow music.
Andrew Tracey, email to Michael Blake, 17 October 2010
In de Gegenüberstellung von Uhadi-Gesang und Quartettspiel wirken die beiden so entstandenen CDs wie ein im Hohlspiegel verdichtetes Klangbild Südafrikas.
When comparing the original uhadi singing and quartet playing on the two CDs, the resulting effect is like a concave mirror of the compressed soundscape of South Africa.
Klaus Hinrich Stahmer, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, August 2011
…one is struck by the unfamiliar sounds emerging from a string quartet, as it submerges itself into the idiom of the uhadi… It is interesting how the juxtaposition of quartet and bow sometimes offsets the Western instruments. At times they almost sound unfamiliar, even harsh, compared to the softer tones of the bow. Paradoxically, it is at these moments that the two traditions seem to take hands, when the Western instruments are coaxed into speaking a new language – that of the uhadi.
Leonore Bredenkamp, South African Music Teacher, 2012