PERFORMANCE/MUSIC, CAPE TOWN, Tia Maji at Theatre Arts Admin, Observatory, October 2,3,4, 2019

Tia Maji- preview

Performers/co-creators: Bronwen Clacherty and Qondiswa James

Dates: October 2,3,4, 2019 at 7.30pm

Tickets: R80 and R50 for students

Bookings:… or WhatsApp (0836954188) or email (

Tia Maji is a cross-arts piece which includes field recordings, physical theatre and live improvised music. Bronwen Clacherty and Qondiswa James have co-curated the piece, in which they explore lives of women from Zanzibar – contemporary and from the past. They have distilled images and recordings from Clacherty’s doctoral research in Zanzibar. In the performance, they use materials such as string and fabric; their bodies; voices and Clacherty’s field recordings.

This is an exciting collaboration between these two artists. Clacherty is a graduate B.Mus. (jazz performance) of The South African College of Music, University of Cape Town and has a Masters in Community Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London. She is currently doing her PhD in Ethnomusicology at UCT.

Qondiswa James is a Black, Queer, Femme from the Transkei. She is a theatre-maker, performance artist, film and theatre performer, writer and activist.

Insights into Tia Maji- keep reading until near the end and immerse yourself in James’ reflections, working with this material – For instance, she says: “We try to make these women, often invisibilised as most rural women’s stories are, as present as possible without ‘representing’ them”. That’s just a taster, read on:

TheCapeRobyn: How did this collaboration come about? You both come from different areas of practice?

Bronwen Clacherty: Last year (2018) I was commissioned by the Re-Centring AfroAsia project along with some other musicians and artists (Mark Aranha, Cara Stacey and Kristy Stone) to create a performance that incorporated all of our research about the history of trade and musical interaction across the Indian Ocean before the 1100s. This production became Ife and Bilal: Songs on a Journey and for a narrator someone recommended that we ask Qondiswa. Qondiswa adapted the script that was originally written by Karen Press. She performed with us for the premier of Ife and Bilal at the Nunnery at WITS and then the follow up season at Theatre Arts Admin Collective.

When I knew that I had to create a performance that incorporated my PhD research I knew I needed an ally and friend to create the piece with me. I felt that Qondiswa would be the right person to help me navigate the challenge of reflexively presenting research in performance. I felt it was very important to have someone involved who understood that I needed to acknowledge – through the performance – the political and complex issues of power and representation relating to ethnographic research. I was also interested in how, as different artistic practitioners, we could create a performance piece together. I feel that, with very different approaches and backgrounds we were able to co-create a piece of artwork that I feel represents my research but also represents us.

TheCapeRobyn: In your release, you reflect that Tia Maji in the piece, refers “to pouring water – a sound that represents the lives of women long ago and now, women who work, who mother, who laugh, who love and who assert their power through their song.” I take it that water and pouring of fluid is a physical image and sound image that we see/hear in this piece and that it is used metaphorically in the piece?

Bronwen Clacherty: Tia Maji literally translates as “pour water”.

Water is a sonic symbol the recurs throughout the performance, because working close to the sea is such a large part of women’s lives in the village Jambiani where my research was based.

Water is explored mostly sonically but there are elements of water that are explored visually, with some movements we make with our bodies throughout.

The following words are in the programme notes:

Tia Maji, are the words taken from a song that forms part of Bronwen’s doctoral research. This song hides it’s meaning in metaphor, metaphor that protects the singer for saying what she thinks.

Haina ma dandaro we There is no dandaro
Kamba inambigija The rope is strangling her
Tia maji Pour water

Here the water is the singer’s way of asking for more freedom in her marriage, which is like a rope tightening around her.

Tia Maji (pour water) is a theme that recurs throughout women’s lives, when they fetch water to drink from the caves; when they harvest seashells from the beach, when they harvest seaweed from the shallows, the tide dictating the pace of the day.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you talk about the piece – how it manifests on stage? Is there a script/narrative in which you tell stories of women or is it a bricolage of physical movement, music, word – layered to conjure up a sense of place and space?

Bronwen Clacherty: A bricolage is probably the best word to describe the piece.

With regards to a script, Qondiswa wrote a treatment based off of discussions about my fieldwork and my ideas of what I wanted the performance to explore. There is no spoken word -apart from a few simple greeting exchanges- in the piece from stage, only from the recordings played. The treatment lays out three movements that explore different aspects of the work.

The first movement involves us laying out string on the stage in the shape of a “map” of my movements around Stone Town and Zanzibar. This “map” is layered and intertwines so as to show the many routes taken during fieldwork, not only physical routes but routes through research topics, following the information that is provided by research participants and also where the threads followed get knotted and pull at each other…this image extends also to explore the politics of translation which is a big feature in research done in Swahili but written about in English.

While the string is laid out, a sound recording of water being collected from a cave is played with the voice of historian Babu Bindu is overlaid on top. Babu Bindu is telling the historical story of the eight women who formed different villages around Zanzibar with their families. To this day, there are still caves named after these women in the villages they started. So for example in Charawe, Zanzibar there is a cave name Mwatima Ali.

The second movement incorporates many field recordings from Stone Town, people talking, scooters driving past, the call to prayer, someone sweeping in the neighbourhood. These sounds are intertwined recorded piano and vibraphone and voice performed live.

While the recording plays I mime and move to show the different things I did throughout the day when I first arrived in Zanzibar.

The third movement visually explores the work that women do as seaweed farmers. Qondiswa and I tie fabric to the string which represents the string the women use to plant their seaweed in the shallow sea. The recording played during this movement incorporates sounds of the sea, of women walking through water, harvesting seaweed and also the sounds of women speaking and sings. The recordings of the women singing and speaking are all taken from my field recordings that I used to analyse the songs that I write about in my dissertation.

TheCapeRobyn: I take it that you are both on stage? Do you use filmed footage on stage – screened onstage?

Bronwen Clacherty: We are both on stage, moving through the space, tying fabric, laying out string, acting out sequences that represent day to day movements or rituals.

While this is happening I [Bronwen] sings and plays Umrhubhe (isiXhosa mouth bow) at points during the performance. There is also a vibraphone player on stage playing through the performance, improvising and musically interacting with the sound recordings and us on stage. I chose to include the Umrhubhe because it is an instrument played by women and it is part of my repertoire of instruments -in a way it acknowledges my presence in this piece.

There is no filmed footage used in the performance but we do show videos in a gallery space that the audience pass through before entering the theatre. These videos are of women harvesting seaweed and of the cave that inspired the imagery of the fabric hanging. We decided to include these images so that the audience had some reference or insight into the visual representations we are working with.

TheCapeRobyn: The piece is rooted in your research in Zanzibar and from that you co-created the piece. How did you go about pulling out stories and images for a live piece of theatre – coming from very different backgrounds and practices?

Bronwen Clacherty: Everything is based on my research and my experience of doing the research: images, stories, concepts and sounds that I came across during my fieldwork. There are some movements or physical sequences that we do that are representations of a concept such as opening a suitcase and closing a suitcase which represents an archive of knowledge. My dissertation is largely about songs as archive and how these songs are passed down through generations of women in Jambiani.

TheCapeRobyn: It is great that audiences will be able to engage with stories and images from another part of Africa- gleaned from young people interacting with Zanzibar. It’s our continent and we need to embrace it and not be obsessed with looking to Europe?

Qondiswa James: I am interested in decolonial research methodologies especially in relation to ethnographic studies.

I have always been troubled by the idea that an outsider comes with a lens to dissect the indigenous in order to draw conclusions about what these ‘others’ might or might not be. Even if it is to try and understand others, I have always been troubled by the colonial gaze of ethnographic studies and have often wondered whether it might not be more honest for researchers to declare themselves present, turning the gaze on themselves as they move through this new place. In that way, the researcher does not ask of themselves to make conclusions -often blind, assumptive and politically incorrect- but accepts that what they have experienced of that place are only impressions. Feelings, pictures, smells, like memory. And that memory is the only thing they can make conclusions about, the thing that is theirs.

So my role in this piece with Bronwen is to together turn the gaze on us, the outsiders while honestly presenting what it felt like for Bronwen to be there.

I’ve been very interested in historical migration stories of black folk down the African continent at the moment where empires were being built, and borders were being drawn, and cultures were settling.

So for me, the interest in not just Zanzibar, but this particular story about resisting women through past and present, is an interest in the stories of our very long histories as black folk on this continent.

I’m always excited to find that origin stories are similar and layered, tying up some conceptual ideas about our socio-political history in relation to feminist, pan African and black consciousness ideologies as they have shaped and continue to shape history. At the centre of this piece is such an origin story, about the founding mothers of the island, now immortalised as stone caves that cradle faith, hope and courage that our mothers today go to for prayer. Perhaps with similar prayers on their tongues for stability; for more freedom, for a little bit of rest.

The telling of these stories- the researcher and the women she met in Zanzibar- together is also an attempt to shift the nucleus, to re-centre the margins in a way that the stories there can speak for themselves. So a lot of the sound material is raw footage from Bronwen’s research, and the women and other people she met in Zanzibar are speaking for themselves.

We are not ‘singing their songs’, they are singing their songs and we are singing with them. There is also video footage of one of the grandmothers who spoke to Bronwen during her time there as she works farming seaweed at the beach and singing for company. We try to make these women, often invisibilised as most rural women’s stories are, as present as possible without ‘representing’ them. As Bronwen moves through Zanzibar, she is doing so delicately, listening carefully for the voices of the women, we not speaking so that they may speak. We are holding space so they may be heard. But at the same time being honest about the fact the researcher was (is?) a mark on the landscape, who moves through and has real and meaningful experiences of people and place.

My work here, besides being an outside eye and ear, is to balance the space with Bronwen, bringing attention to the soft presence of black women everywhere, especially as women who ourselves hold space for so many others at work at home at play at school. Also to give context and frame, to be present also for Bronwen to get to grips with her story.

So this piece for me, politically is doing a lot of things. 1) Broadening my view to more directly include the continent, and include us in South Africa also as the continent. This is a soft way of speaking through afrophobic terror, to remind us all that we share a close and common history, that we have built each other and have made a community of this continent. 2) Bringing visibility to rural and historical narratives of women travelling across generations, holding worlds on their heads and babies on their backs and digging wealth with their hands. 3) Giving me an opportunity to experiment with alternative ways to present research which call also for softer research methodologies. 4) With this piece I have had the incredible opportunity to bend and break my (arts) discipline to find the magic of another’s discipline. I love playing with form, inviting myself to be more experimental and playful with my style, to work with others in new and innovative ways that take us to the place of potentially creating new forms. I love interdisciplinary work – this too is political. Besides the community building aspect that asks that you work with others in egalitarian ways, pushing against disciplinary decadence is also a way to ask about access to forms, and to talk back against hierarchies.

TheCapeRobyn: Is the season at Theatre Arts Admin, the premiere season?

Bronwen Clacherty: This is the premiere season of Tia Maji.

We are planning to continue performing the piece next year and probably adapt it for a gallery space because it would suit an art instillation set up in a gallery.