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Doctoral study contributes to preservation of indigenous cultural practices

by Gerrit Bester As South Africans celebrate the country’s rich heritage in September during Heritage Month, a TUT staff member has just completed an interesting Doctoral study about Tshikona, a performance of Vhavenḓa’s songs that is performed through the existence of its music. It is believed that the research will significantly contribute to the government’s vision to preserve indigenous cultural practices of previously disadvantaged and marginalised cultures in South Africa.

The study, which delved into the unavailability of the analytical presentation of the textual and visual description of the performative facet (music and dance structures) of Tshikona, is authored by Thivhafuni Tshishonge. He is a New Generation of Academics Programme (NGAP) lecturer at the Department of Performing Arts (Dance Programme), Faculty of Arts and Design.

Tshikona is a Tshivenḓa indigenous royal performance that comprises music and dance and is considered one of the most unique African national cultural practices. Traditionally performed by males only, it comprises ṋanga (a reedpipe) instrument playing, drumming and dancing.

"My study centres around the ‘choreo-musicological’ structure of Tshikona, which is a performative genre for Vhavenda of the Limpopo Province," says Thivhafuni. The title of the study is The Structural and Contextual Analysis of the Performative Facet of Tshikona from Mbonakhathi ya Tshivenḓatsendekelo (Tshivenḓacentric perspective): A Triangular Study.

"In my research, I particularly looked into the two main elements of dance (body and action) that contribute to the creation of the Tshikona dance structure and explored three key elements of music (rhythm, melody and harmony) used in building the Tshikona music structure. It’s a subject that I’m deeply passionate about, and I strongly believe it holds significant importance for previously marginalised groups and contributes to the decolonisation of the performing arts curriculum," he adds.

Thivhafuni designed a graphic of a stripped tree (both in English and Tshivenḓa, included in his dissertation on page 15) to visualise the study. It visualises the structural framework of his study and, allegorically, his own life journey, during which he remained standing and unshaken amid challenges (as portrayed in the biography section).

One of the major contributions of the study is that, as far as is known, it looks at Tshikona for the first time from both the choreological (dance) and musicological (music) perspectives of the performer (former studies mainly focused on the music part).

"A lot has been written about Tshikona from an anthropological and cultural point of view and not from a technical, theoretical or structural point of view," says Thivhafuni.

The research is a new source of information for music composers and choreographers, musicians and dancers, musicologists and choreologists, traditionalists, culturalists and historians.

It is believed that the study will also address the scarce teaching material in this field. "In the arts, we often depend on teaching material from outside, also at schools. It’s time that we construct our own. But to carry weight, it must be well researched," Thivhafuni stresses.

Thivhafuni continues to say that the study generated valuable knowledge about Tshivenḓa as a culture as well as its Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

"As a by-product, the study may stimulate positive African values, which are presumed to be on the decline."

Although the dissertation is in English for accessibility purposes, the heart of the study is in Tshivenḓa. It contains a comprehensive glossary of Tshivenḓa music and dance terminology, among others. Thivhafuni has also transcribed Tshikona music into staff notation.

Asked how he would encourage current students to pursue research in the arts, he says, "They can play an important role in developing indigenous material."

Thivhafuni plans to publish books and articles about South African performative genres, involving students from previously marginalised groups in the research.

In view of Heritage Day, which will be celebrated on 24 September, Thivhafuni says it’s important to celebrate your heritage every day and not just on one day.

"Unfortunately, the current generation is not that interested in heritage and has become disconnected with their cultural identity. People don’t know their cultures anymore. It helps you understand and be conscious of other cultures."

Thivhafuni, who was born in Mbaleni Village, grew up at Maṱangari Village, and presently stays at Gokolo Village (situated in Venḓa), dedicates the study to his late father, Mr Vhuhwavho Jutas Tshishonge, and his mother, Mrs Sukumani Munzhedzi Annah Mudzanani Tshishonge, "for bringing me on this mother earth and looking after me from my childhood, even in very difficult and tough situations."

"I was trained to become a researcher by my father at the age of six. Since he had a visual impairment, he wanted me to explain any existence, occurrence, or activity in detail. He taught me how to analyse the patterns of existences, occurrences and activities, as well as how to connect the dots between the existences, occurrences and activities. He also taught me to solicit the information connected to relatedly allied existences, occurrences and activities to get to a particular conclusion."

The degree of Doctor of Arts and Design (Dance) will be conferred on Thivhafuni during one of the TUT Spring graduation ceremonies. It was promoted by a former TUT staff member, Prof George Mugovhani, as well as Advocate Doctor Pfarelo Matshidze.

Thivhafuni Tshishonge will obtain his doctorate at one of the forthcoming Spring graduation ceremonies. Here he stands in front of a graphic of a stripped tree, which does not only visualise the structural framework of his study but also points to his own life journey.


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