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Singing songs of AIDS in Venda, South Africa: performance, pollution and ethnomusicology in a ‘neo-liberal’ setting

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Ethnomusicologists and anthropologists of sub-Saharan Africa have long argued that music is securely positioned within specific social contexts: delineating life-cycle stages, political allegiances, or gender positions. The performance of songs and dances has also been shown to be a mechanism in the creation of identities. A subsequent generation of scholars, more interested in migrant and/or popular forms, has examined the ways in which music can be deployed to transcend its social positioning. The paper challenges and extends these approaches by examining the contradictory roles of music in a ‘neo-liberal’ South African setting with high rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence. As mostly young, unmarried and unemployed women, female HIV/AIDS peer group educators in Venda embrace their new-found identity as quasi-social workers and, ultimately, aim for employment in the governmental health sector. In part, this identity is predicated upon their promotion of biomedical understandings of the virus: but this occurs in an environment in which, like many other parts of rural South Africa, causes of death rarely become public knowledge and unsubstantiated accounts of illness circulate through gossip, accusations, rumour and various ‘backstage’ settings. Music is fundamental to these educators’ enterprise, as they claim to ‘sing about what they cannot talk about’. Sanctioned by international funding agencies, peer educators’ account of AIDS is centred on the promotion of prevention and treatment, and they use existing musical genres such as initiation school, ‘struggle’ and gospel songs to communicate their message to the wider public. Peer educators advertise state-funded services such as voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) and anti-retroviral therapy (ART) through their weekly musical performances. The contrast between peer educators’ songs and the commentary provided by male dominated zwilombe guitar music reveals two very divergent and historically constituted understandings of the virus and its prevention. Textual analysis of zwilombe guitar songs demonstrates that the actions and songs of peer educators have quite unintended – and potentially counter-productive – consequences. By public association with HIV/AIDS, they have simultaneously implicated themselves in harbouring pollution and distributing the virus – with important implications for the promotion of condom use. The positive identity they seem to have constructed must thus be read through gendered and generational perspectives through which peer education speaks directly to a patriarchal ‘folk model’ of sexual illness.

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