Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Music

Music Research Seminar: February 21st 2013

Research seminar

This week’s research seminar in Lecture Theatre 1 of the School of Music will take place at 4.30pm on Thursday 21st February.

The speaker is Dr Steve Muir (University of Leeds): ‘From the Shtetl to the Gardens and beyond: identity and symbolic geography in Cape Town’s synagogue choirs’


In the popular South African tourist destination of Cape Town, Western Cape, a compact but vibrant Jewish community, supporting at least ten synagogues of varying sizes and affiliations, plays out a complex musical narrative that both reflects and projects an equally complex set of national, cultural and religious identities. In this paper I address only a small aspect of that musical narrative, as expressed by the Ashkenazy Orthodox community’s two remaining synagogue choirs. In doing so I hope to shed light for the first time on some of the ways in which, through the agency of musical practice, members of this community negotiate a variety of identities as musicians, Jews, and South Africans, and (re)construct diverging symbolic geographies from apparently similar historical and cultural backgrounds (a large majority of the South African Jewish community is of strikingly uniform Lithuanian origin).

The paper is based upon a fieldwork trip undertaken in early 2012, funded by the Worldwide Universities Network. With support from the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Cape Town, I interacted with Rabbis, Cantors and choral directors, and arranged private interviews with members of the two choirs involved. Like Abigail Wood (2010), whose account of Jerusalem’s ‘Singing Diplomat’ choir was published shortly before my South Africa visit, my ethnographic investigation emphasises the local, personal circumstances of the singers involved. As Karen Ahlquist has observed, ‘choral performance can assert artistic and educational achievement, aesthetic merit, and social, national, religious, or ethnic identity’ (2006: 2). Furthermore, she continues, choirs provide vital support mechanisms for their members, in many respects ‘fostering an idealized social system to help replace traditional mores being undermined by modernization’ (2006: 3). With these ideas in mind, the study of synagogue choral activities seemed an ideal way to ‘get under the skin’ of a community’s musical identity. The paper’s case studies demonstrate how musical choice has been incorporated into strategies addressing the threat of diminished congregations and dwindling synagogue memberships, but with strikingly different musical solutions to the complex identity issues faced by Jews in modern-day South Africa. Along the way, a number of methodological and cultural issues are addressed, some specific to the investigation of Jewish choral activities, but also some relevant to choral and ethnographic research more broadly.

All welcome as ever.

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