Improvising Khoi’npsalms

Music performances designed as decolonial music crossings

"The sonic enactment moved from harm, through mourning, to re-imagining the past into the present, despite our unshared histories."

Improvising Khoi’npsalms


In this compilation that we call Improvising Khoi’npsalms, we as musicians reflect on some of the lingering effects that Khoi’npsalms deposited with us. In March 2018 a series of four music performances, Khoi’npsalms, (Khoi-and-psalms) portrayed South African Khoi ‘memory music’ on bow, saxophone and blik’nsnaar (extended 1, see end of page), played by Garth Erasmus. Garth's music laced into shards of 16th century Genevan psalm melodies played, on flute (extended 2), by Marietjie Pauw and, on organ (extended 3), by Francois Blom. The ‘Woordfees’ arts festival in Stellenbosch programmed these performances. Programme notes suggested the concept (extended 4) to the audience. Aryan Kaganof was commissioned to produce an artistic response to the live performances of Khoi'npsalms. He produced two films, Khoi'npsalm45 and Nege fragmente uit ses Khoi'npsalms (extended 5).

Music performances were designed as decolonial music crossings (extended 6) that pointed to South African colonial histories of violence that continue to resonate into current contexts. The sonic enactment moved from harm, through mourning, to re-imagining the past into the present, despite our unshared histories. In the enactment, Khoi’npsalms did not only conceptualise through minds, but played out through our bodies. We were enveloped by the senses and human ‘sensing’ through sound, gesture and emotion, thereby performing decolonial aesthesis through music. Decolonial aesthesis, as suggested by Walter Mignolo (2012: xvii), works from wounds to healing, activating aspects of human vulnerability and precariousness. Each of the four performances, on four consecutive mornings and with a duration of approximately 45 minutes, played out in a different church building in Stellenbosch, all within a 5 kilometer radius. Audiences who attended the events amounted to a total of approximately 400 people, comprising arts festival visitors and the town’s inhabitants, including members of the congregations where the performances took place.

Each venue deposited on us a history of ‘race’-memory (extended 7), ‘race’-exclusion, and ‘race’-inclusion legislated onto place, as a deplorable aftermath of South African and colonial history. Our instruments signified the remnants of unshared musics of the Khoi and the Dutch; musics that met one another, but did not play together at the Cape of Storms of 1652. In this writing-up we reflect on our embodied experiences, in relation to place. Our individual reflections, photographs and sound recordings can be found by following the links to the Rhenish congregation (of the Uniting Reformed Church) adjacent to the Braak in central Stellenbosch, the Stellenbosch VGK (Uniting Reformed Church) in Cloetesville, St Mark’s Catholic Church in Ida’s Valley, and Moederkerk Dutch Reformed Church in central Stellenbosch. Our reflections (in writing) included moments of waiting, listening, taking the lead, and at other times holding back, performing together the task of presenting our impressions. What kept us hesitant throughout this mode of artistic research (extended 8) as we enmeshed conceptualising, playing, writing and leaning on other sources, was the closeness of our art and our musician selves to topics of harm. GE’s poetic texts that he wrote in response to one of our early concept documents reminded us of the power of art to allude.

Hier op die steiltes sit ek en hou my op hoogte van sake waar ek afkyk op die veldbrand en my hart is in my keel vas. Die stilte is hartroerend mooi soos fynbos en ek wentel afdraand tussen die swart uitgebrande takkies en elke kraak is ’n hartslag van verlore verledes, naasbestaandes en blootgesteldes. Die wolke is ook blootgestel aan my aarde. Ek kom tuis maar ek betree ’n aasvoël se ekstase. My skoene kry seer en ook die vere van my vlerk. Ek droom soos ’n inboorling in sy land sonder ’n linkerledemaat. My niere is geskaaf van die drank. My oë is omsingel deur ’n bose bende en glinster lemme. My silwer maan is in ballingskap en in eensaamheid soos ek die nag binne tree. Ek onthou my kinderstem skree maar wie gaan my lippe verniel met ’n soen?

— Garth Erasmus (see translation in extension 9)

We invite site visitors to browse through our uploaded material, as well as consider the conclusions we draw (extended 10). We suggest that visitors find their own ways of making sense of effects that not only linger, but haunt: troubled spaces in relation to precarious embodiments, rain after drought, and silence after the organ and flute have stopped playing, whilst the blik’nsnaar has also quietened.

Extended 1: bow, saxophone and blik'nsnaar
The pipe organ, flute and saxophone are all wind instruments and metaphorically linked to the life force of breathing. Musicians have a unique position where we animate objects by making them ‘come alive’. We breathe life into them, and in so doing perform an act of embodying. The instruments I chose for Khoi’npsalms are the Ghôrrah (a single-string bow with calabash resonator attached) and Blik’nsnaar (four mouth bows fixed in a resonator made from an automobile oil can) and both have been adapted to be amplified via electronic interfaces. I built these instruments over the years of watching, listening, working as creative artist. Elsewhere, I describe some of my young adult experiences with seeing sculptures of an ‘indigenous’ bow player in a staid museum exhibit, then realising that I wanted to work three-dimensionally as a visual artist by building the silent instruments depicted, but then, in the process, ‘sound happened’. Sound ‘took me on a path of music-making and sound and performance and culture reclamation and self-discovery’, as I explain in an interview with Valeria Geselev (Geselev, 2019). For Khoi’npsalms I also chose to play saxophone. These instruments are physical manifestations, residues, of my inner journey over the years. The journey is the embodiment of my self-realization and self-empowerment out of the system of subjugation which was Apartheid. This journey marks the path on which I shed the ‘Coloured’ racial identity moniker imposed on me and my community and re-embodied the pre-colonial with my re-identification as Khoi. These instruments are my instruments of power. They animate my life’s experience and are a metaphor for my self-diagnosed post-traumatic healing and as such these instruments embody sociology and history. Khoi’npsalms is another station on this journey: a station with four stops, with each stop being a different venue played in. Drawing on my past experience with my music instruments, I want to reproduce and maintain the effect these instruments have had on audiences. I want to create an atmosphere of reflection about our past and lost history, to imagine the country as having had an indigenous presence before the Dutch arrived, and evoke an emotional response in the audience. I ask, How has this history affected us over time? Can we recognize consequences that we can still see today? How is it reflected in our present-day context? I sense an implied answer to my questions: The instruments, as mirror reflection, are still present and therefore deposit an effect on the player and the listener. Khoi’npsalms enabled the musician-characters to not only perform on our instruments, but to perform our culture. (Garth Erasmus)

Extended 2: flute
The flute’s sound carries associations to pastorality, and lilting ease. With Khoi’npsalms my flute instead became the voice of subjugation and of disrespect at first, and later on of caring, of traumatic ripping-apart brokenness, and of being left spent, to play along with the still-living, to play of wind, the rain, the earth, a pastorality that knows of harm. At times I was allowing the flute to play out of pitch, out of tune, out of key, on moving out of the pitch, upwards, and on looping down, like a moaning. In 2015, Garth Erasmus sent me a recording that he created on his pipe-flute, called Bone Flute. Only some time into our rehearsals together did I realise that I was imitating the drooping tones of his Bone Flute for our rendition of Psalm 45. The sounds felt familiar when I played them, and yet I had never made such sounds on the flute. (Marietjie Pauw) Bone Flute (vir Marietjie)

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Extended 3: organ
Khoi’npsalms was an evolutionary improvisational project. With each performance I heard new ideas develop, many of them impulsive. Playing on the various organs, I had an array of sounds and colours to work with, each unique to the instrument and the venue. The organist is used to being a soloist, or at least a leader. In this music-making, I played in such a way as to be an equal dialogical partner, wary of over-powering the other instruments. I was also free to use dissonances and sound effects, and rhythmic interjections far beyond the styles of liturgical music that I was usually playing. (Francois Blom)

Extended 4: concept
The concept to Khoi’npsalms explored the thematic of ‘unshared’ histories, through the musicians’ sonic improvisation into first cultural meetings of the Dutch and the Khoi at the Cape of Good Hope. In a purposeful effort to re-imagine the context of colonizer and colonized, Khoi’npsalms brought together two distinct traditions, with distinct characteristics of liturgy, melody, rhythm and spirituality, from two continents. The juxtaposition of disparate structural elements within Khoi’npsalms created its meanings of re-imagining the ‘unshared’. Questions we posed, as we conceptualised our design, included whether music-making, through its metaphorical implications, could give us greater insight into our past and our current situations. We wondered how our perceptions of our past, and, indeed, our music-making selves, would become changed in the process. The narrative relied on the selection of fragments from six Genevan psalm melodies and their texts that interlaced with (what we called) Khoi ‘memory music’ to explore violence, subjugation, religious and economic justifications, thereby sounding layers of complexity that continue to influence present-day individual and communal relationships. The theatrical space afforded an opening to be able to address traumatic topics, and especially losses of history that colonialism and apartheid had covered-over. Imbalances in memory of stories, such as a history ‘written-up’ by those in power, whether by wilful ignorance, or the glacial passage of time, could be explored, and exposed in a sonic theatrical space. Our concept perhaps challenged audiences to position themselves into the histories that they are aware of and perhaps reconsider their own relations to experiences of erasure, empathy, spirituality, and power imbalance. Program Notes in English Program Notes in Afrikaans

Extended 5: films
Aryan Kaganof produced two artistic responses to the performances. A short film, with title Khoi’npsalm 45, was shot at the final rehearsal (2018, Duration 6’50”). A longer film, with title Nege fragmente uit ses Khoi’npsalms, was shot during performances (2018, Duration 20’59”). The commissioned film response was initially envisaged as a subsequent stage to our performances, created as a separate interpretation by a filmmaker. However, in our experience, the films became a complimentary part of Khoi’npsalms so that the films could no longer be detached from phases that could have been described as ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ the performances. As one interpretation, we propose that the films suggest a decolonial art that engages large-scale matrixes of trauma, but is focussed through human proximity, and (in Khoi’npsalms) expose musicians’ acts of making and intimate relating. By not engaging with geo-political locality overtly, but instead focussing on sonic intimacy, the films bring human sensing, as decolonial aestheSis, to the fore. We do not further engage with the content, impact, approach or aesthetics of the films in this submission, but believe that the films are rich in content for later engagements. The Encounters Documentary Film Festival described and imaged the film as follows:

Extended 6: decolonial crossings
Performances of Khoi’npsalms were a creative expressive from a Southern geo-locality. We were telling stories of ‘this place’, enmeshing theory and practice, and acknowledging the presence of ‘afterlives’, all aspects that decolonial scholar Nick Shepherd reminds decolonial art is capable of doing (Shepherd quoted in Marietjie Pauw, 2015: 227-228). The images (and sounds) of a Khoi bow and calabash with a European (classical) flute-and-organ in four different church spaces, as well as a home-crafted blik’nsnaar of which only one such instrument exists, playing music together in four spaces (with their individual histories of place) act out as a sonic intervention into space and spaces. Previously unshared histories became mutual decolonial crossings that merged genres, aesthetics, aural knowledges and cultural dialogues. Decolonial art’s intentions of seeking for symbolic merging of human wholeness – all the senses – are expressed in the co-joined phrase ‘sensing-doing-thinking-being’ through art, as suggested by Walter Mignolo&Rolando Vázquez (2013), and Walter Mignolo&Catherine Walsh (2018). For Mignolo, decoloniality opens to notions of making room for a ‘pluriversality’ of options, enabling healing spaces for both perpetrators and victims of subaltern settings with colonial pasts of rupture, othering and classification. Recognising the decolonial energies that influenced our music-making practices, we now think of Khoi’npsalms as an enactment of crossings, especially enabled by the mechanism of music-making that we used, namely free improvising. We suggest that improvisation perhaps created sensing, not only of cultural dialogue, but also of nurturing empathy, as a ritual of enactment. Nelson Maldonado-Torres reminds that decolonial art ‘involves an aesthetic, erotic, and spiritual decolonial turn’ (2019: 26). Decolonial art can ‘shape and reshape’ dimensions ‘of passionate and intimate body-to-body encounter which is a critical part of forming communities of loving and understanding’ (2019:27). Maldonado-Torres goes on to note that the capacity of decolonial music to ‘interrupt the logic of space and make subjects experience multiple forms of time through various rhythms’, so that dramatic performances are not singularly directed, but are open to becoming ‘rituals’ of enacting a world with many options (Maldonado-Torres 2019:27-28). To illustrate Maldonado-Torres’s notion of the ritualistic capacity of decolonial music, we suggest that our sonic rituals of ‘crossing’ were not only located in the instruments (or melodies, harmonies and rhythms) employed, but in the acts of inter-weaving dialogical improvisation as forms of engaging human togetherness.

Extended 7: race memory
A note on terminology: Visitors not familiar with South African histories of apartheid may find our reference to derogatory terms such as ‘Coloured’ and ‘White’ disturbing. Throughout our texts, we signal the offensive, abrasive notion and aftermath of ‘race’ classification by capitalising and quote-marking words such as ‘Coloured’ and ‘White’.

Extended 8: artistic research
Artistic research offered us an enmeshing of various art-making-and-researching methods, both experience-based and communicative (reading, discussing), to find out things we did not know. Research was communal and improvisational, searching for and perhaps finding musically expressive, and bodily expressive ways of conveying concepts, emotions and imagination without the inclusion of live spoken commentary by actors. (In lieu of spoken text, the design and writing of programme notes, as a form of interpretation and direction, documented our concepts and informed our live improvisations.) Research included experimenting with instruments, tactility, body gestures and play with imagination, and included being open to discovery of things in sound and in human sensing that had perhaps not been planned. One such discovery was the power of the uttering human voice, in a brief moment, when Garth Erasmus spoke into his calabash to symbolically reference not only the coloniser’s language, but also reclaim a mostly forgotten Khoi language. Research conducted by Marietjie Pauw and Francois Blom over eight months surveyed the Genevan psalter’s history of translations and adaptations in melodies and 150 texts, and archival material about the Dutch colonial history at the Cape. For this music production, extracts from six Genevan psalter’s Afrikaans texts of 1937 (that followed on New-French, old-Dutch and new-Dutch translations) were selected to provide a narration to our artistic re-enactment. For the selection of psalms, we relied on the familiarity of the Genevan melodies and harmonies (for Afrikaans speaking audiences in Reformed and Protestant church traditions) to create a possible sense of recognition amongst some audiences. Aspects such as distortion and dissonance were then utilised to provide commentary on alternative readings that could be heard through the hearing of these (perhaps familiar) psalm melodies’ texts. In addition to utilising the first three psalms in our live performance to voice an imagined colonial power, the music production’s dramatic narrative voiced the last three selected psalms as texts by an imagined Khoi voice. Artistic research as experimentation allowed us as improvising musicians to rely less on prior sonic ideas and planned preparation in sound (as a classical, score-based performance would), and more acutely on immediate give and take, through live sound. Elsewhere, in discussion with curator Valeria Geselev, Garth Erasmus refers to the process of free improvisation as a creating endeavour where ‘every individual has equal standing, and all inputs, no matter what, are equal in value and contribute equally to the whole. There is no instruction and there is no expectation but to start […] We’re all dealing with our accumulated yearnings and our dreams – these are the invisible things that make you feel what you feel. So, how you play a note is just as important as what the note is’ (Geselev, 2019). The process of research was animated by the vulnerability of not knowing, before-hand, whether our concept could be played out in sound in such a way that the theatrical aspects would not become forced or reductionist. The coupling between space, history, text, and melodies and sounds that punctured the theatrical spaces where we played, perhaps transformed the spaces into sites of sensing: mourning, revolt, and a longing for how things could have been different. The desire for making-different inspired crossings and linkages, some of which we explored in relation to decolonial art (as discussed elsewhere in this article compilation). Looking back on our music-making, we acknowledge the importance of disseminating our art, and our reflections, to communities of artists and scholars. Elsewhere, we have co-written an article (focusing on the notion of collaboration) on an online platform for artistic research (Francois Blom, Garth Erasmus, Marietjie Pauw, 2020, forthcoming). We found the process of reflection and dissemination challenging and more difficult to do than the art-making. As authors of this submission for the Ellipses Journal, we noted to one another, that the ‘doing’ of the live event came with urgency, based on trusting our musicianship, the topic, months-long planning and prior rehearsals. This urgency lay in the acts of ‘making’, so that ‘animacy’ and a ‘dance of agency’ were put into play, to quote anthropologist Tim Ingold (2013, 100-101). We hoped that our writing, reflecting and re-showing of material afterwards, would carry similar urgency. Our artistic research’s dissemination drew on concept, performance, theory, practice, and art documents such as poetry, recordings, photographs and two artistic response films made by Aryan Kaganof. The material used in our research dissemination wove into our memories. These memories, portrayed on an online site such as this, now perhaps open up to the unique connections that site visitors are able to make as they ‘improvise’ their individual responses to Khoi’npsalms. As we engaged our memories in individual and communal reflexivity, our verbal communicative resources, and as we moved between concept, actual performance, theory, practice, and art documents, such as poetry, recordings, photographs and two artistic responses as films made by Aryan Kaganof.

Extended 9: english translation
Gazing down at the veld in flames, my heart jars in my throat. The silence is poignant like fynbos and I slip downhill in between blackened twigs with every crack a heartbeat of lost pasts, relatives, exposed and vulnerable. The clouds are unprotected from my earth. I come home, but walk into a vultures' ecstasy. My shoes, the feathers of my wing, hurt. I dream like a native in his land - with an amputated limb. My kidneys are chaffed with drink; my eyes closed-in by a menacing gang and glittering knives. My silver moon is in exile and loneliness as I enter the night. I remember my child-memory voice wailing, but who will injure my lips with a kiss? (translation from Afrikaans by Marietjie Pauw)

Extended 10: conclusion
The lingering effects that Khoi’npsalms deposited with us were informed by processes of to and fro. We experienced movements between initial intent and content, subsequent correspondence with the digital designers and editors, as well as engagement with materials that became hosted online. The online portrayal of our performance venues as white dots on a grey map of unmarked roads were a reminder of interventions made in the present, on a seemingly empty map without names and stories. However, stories unfolded at every location: A poignant story is that of the Rhenish Congregation, a Stellenbosch church space that refused to move from an area declared as reserved for White ownership and use. Our music-makings operated like ‘specks’ that attempt to find placings on a map of connections. Our remembrances afterwards were of sounds: Sounds, slotting into a larger context of being bodies in places, churches, neighbourhoods, a time, and a country that still balances precariously between colonialism and its pre-, and apartheid and its post-. imagined sounds to explore inclusion and exclusion in fraught contexts. Sounds loosely accompanied by photographs, films and texts to help us document connections between place and body and experience. Sound engravings that deposit etchings on ourselves and our music practices. Our research questions drew together notions of decolonial crossings within artistic research’s openness to experimental practices, hoping to find things we did not know and allowing improvisation and experience to lead us from the present into our unshared pasts. In our reflections we used vocabulary messily, allowing words such as ‘embodiment’, ‘enmeshing’ and ‘animacy’ to spin into the reader’s vocabulary and make individual connections. We engaged in self-reflexive and fluid ways of making: our theory and our practice were not separated (perhaps we became decolonial aestheSis artists who entangle practice and theory). Scholar and curator Nick Shepherd’s suggestions remained with us: We sensed that our decolonial aestheSis embraced a continuum of ‘the before, the present and the after-life’ and that our actions on this continuum carried consequences. In method we became storytellers from a Southern locality (‘this’ Stellenbosch, and ‘this’ Cape of Storms). We now know that the many effects of our collaboration also included how we remember our work: We remember our work through the film camera lens of Aryan Kaganof who made an artistic response that showed human vulnerability: a vulnerability that we had not intended to portray amidst themes of colonial genocide and apartheid engineering. We remember our work through the photographic camera lens of Hildegard Conradie who attended rehearsals and took snapshots that show interior spaces of churches where formal codes of spiritual-being is housed in walls—walls that each carry diverse memories and interpretations, also of cultural re-orientations and racialised gatherings. We remember our work through Garth’s poetry that we had forgotten about until Aryan Kaganof used Garth’s lines in his film response. We also remember our work through an online compilation that refuses to ask ‘how effective…’ and ‘how successful [was this decolonial exploration]’? We know that we have become changed, and that we now make music differently for the lingering effects of exposure and precariousness that Khoi’npsalms deposited with us. We sense vulnerability as we listen to the recordings, sometimes also briefly remembering how our bodies acted while making the sounds.

Launch Project


  • Blom, Francois, Garth Erasmus & Marietjie Pauw 2020. What do we hear and learn from listening back to Khoi’npsalms? Oxford Artistic and Practice-Based Research Platform (‘OAR’), Issue 4: ‘Working with you’ (forthcoming).
  • Encounters: International Encounters Film Festival (June 2018, The Labia, Cape Town): Director’s description of Nege fragmente uit ses khoi’npsalms
  • Geselev, Valeria. 2019. Garth Erasmus: The knots of time and place. Posted on: August 27, 2019 by Asai (Africa South Art Initiative) in On Artists, Word View. Available:
  • Conradie, Hildegard. Photographs used for Improvising Khoi'npsalms.
  • Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Kaganof, Aryan. 2018. Nege fragmente uit ses Khoi’npsalms (film). Available:
  • Kaganof, Aryan. 2018. Khoi’npsalm 45 (film). Available:
  • Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2019. Ten theses on coloniality and decoloniality. Available:
  • Mignolo, Walter D. 2012. Local histories/Global designs, 2nd edition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Mignolo, Walter & Rolando Vázquez. 2013. The decolonial aestheSis dossier. Social text journal/ Periscope. Published July 15, 2013. See also: Decolonial aestheSis: Colonial wounds/ Decolonial healings on the same URL listing.
  • Mignolo, Walter, & Catherine Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Pauw, Marietjie. 2015. Addendum 8: Nick Shepherd’s response to ‘Bones, bricks, mortar and souls’ [in] Curating South African flute compositions: Landscape as a theme of exhibition, pp 227–229. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Stellenbosch. Available at
  • Pauw, Marietjie 2018. Nege fragmente uit ses Khoi’npsalms. Paper presentation on conference: ‘De-colonisation and Re-Afrikanisation: A Conversation’. International Conference on Decoloniality, College of Human Sciences, UNISA, Pretoria, 6-8 August.