Iphupho L’ka Biko

Iphupho L’Ka Biko perform at Slipstream as part of the Fringe programme. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

Aged 25 when the South African Students Organisation presented a paper describing Black
Consciousness, Stephen Bantu Biko’s words encouraged a rehabilitation of one’s consciousness – the driving force in an emancipatory programme.
“It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life”, describes the SASO document authored by Biko in 1971. In 2018, South Africans battle each other on the meaning of blacks-only, decolonial spaces, in the broader context of a constitutionally regulated non-racial society. It is within this context that Iphupho L’Ka Biko – Biko’s Dream – appears on the Fringe program of the National Arts Festival.

“A pan-Afrikan band [fusing] traditional Afrikan music, gospel, jazz and classical music, critically seeking a spiritual awakening of the people”. I entered a windowless and smoky room, at the Slipstream Sportsbar, to receive the sermon delivered through what the ears recognised as a mixed brew of choral, soul, and jazz music. Led by bandleader Nhlanhla Ngqaqu on bass, we were encouraged to fall into the pan-Afrikan dream-state by the opening tune, “Buyelekhaya” – homecoming. The tune featured some righteous guitar play, which was a highlight throughout the show. The warm tone of the f-holed guitar, delivered a warm tone that balanced out the at times overbearing sound of a band this size. It was likely the sound-engineering as the keys, holding up the left end of the stage, seemed to fade off into the alcove of technical equipment at that end – the keyboard player receiving little audio payback for all the physical work he appeared to be doing.

What I heard of the keys, indicates that there is surely some skill there but the play seemed too intent on going for complicated runs, instead of sticking closer to melody – leaving the keys distant from much of the action. From a homecoming, the set moved to the opening chapters from the book of life. “Ekuqaleni” saw the introduction of vocals, in the key of “g” – gospel or more particularly, the operatic intonation of Choral music.

Powerful vocals which kept up with the strength of the instruments, the vocals were
off pitch at a few moments – this worked well on a soul-stirring wail on the tune memorialising the death of Sandra Bland who sparked the “#SayHerName” movement. Interpreting the circumstances around the death of the African American woman hanged while in police custody (“arrested after a routine traffic stop”), the song opened with a mournful bass guitar solo. This led the way for the tenor saxophone to carry the rest of the players into a stirring meditation on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States of America. Occurring in 2015, the year that discussion about student protests were consolidated into “#FeesMustFall”, the piece makes a bold statement for the
solidarity of black struggles throughout the world.

Rounding out the performance with a tune that featured a “Biko noSobukwe” chant, the set
elaborated little on the meaning of Iphupho. Perhaps the intention is to invite the listener to finally see and hear the contributions of those confined to the fringe of society. A subliminal message to accept the significance of the philosophies of Black Consciousness and Pan-Afrikanism which preceded it. Perhaps it is best expressed through the words of the Robert Sobukwe:

“Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Afrika. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree. Sons and Daughters of Afrika”

By Mandisa Mpulo