"The Head & the Load is about Africa and Africans in the First World War. That is to say about all the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism that were heated and compressed by the circumstances of the war. It is about historical incomprehension (and inaudibility and invisibility). The colonial logic towards the black participants could be summed up: ‘Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded.’ The Head & the Load aims to recognise and record." — William Kentridge
Every project has to be a coming together of two things: an intriguing thematic idea, and a material form through which to think about it. In this case, our thinking is embodied in projections on a screen, the words of performers, music that is played, the movement of bodies.
The test is really to find an approach that is not an analytic dissection of a historical moment, but which doesn’t avoid the questions of history. Can one find the truth in the fragmented and incomplete? Can one think about history as collage, rather than as narrative?
We are aided in the history itself. If you’re thinking of the war in Europe, you’re thinking about high modernism. The Dada movement of 1916 is an essential part of the project. One of the striking aspects of colonialism is Europe’s incomprehension of Africa – not being able to hear the very clear language that was being spoken by Africa to Europe. There is the sense of language breaking down into nonsense, which is what Dadaism was very much about.
Carrying through the idea of history as collage, the libretto of The Head & the Load is largely constructed from texts and phrases from a range of writers and sources, cut-up, interleaved and expanded. Frantz Fanon translated into siSwati; Tristan Tzara in isiZulu; Wilfred Owen in French and dog-barking; the conference of Berlin, which divided up Africa, rendered as sections from Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate; phrases from a handbook of military drills; Setswana proverbs from Sol Plaatje’s 1920 collection; some lines from Aimé Césaire.
Likewise, the original music by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi includes transformed traditional African songs as well as quotations from European composers from the time of the war like Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg.
& THUTHUKA SIBISI
During the First World War, the English Committee for the Welfare of Africans sent hymn books, harmonicas, gramophones and banjos to the African battalions so that they could entertain themselves. What songs of war, love and longing might have been made by these African men in the trenches on the Western Front or in the camps of East Africa?
In the early twentieth century, composers such as Hindemith, Schoenberg and Ravel sounded the siren for the end of Romanticism and the beginning of a new modernism. From this arose a musical shift toward atonality and serialism. Is it possible that the Swahili phrase books and dictionaries published for the colonial commanders were as absurdist to the ear of a Kenyan soldier as the nonsense poetry of Kurt Schwitters?
The sounds of war are violent and unpredictable. This was the sonic reality of every soldier, porter and civilian caught up in the war, in Europe and Africa. Using collage as a tool we move from a cabaret song by Schoenberg, intercut with percussive slaps on hymn books, to a Viennese waltz by Fritz Kreisler. Amidst this tension and instability, Africa talks back to Europe through rhythmic war songs and chants, deliberately resisting the raucous musical soundscapes of the European avant-garde.
What did the Great War sound like to the African soldiers and carriers who fought in it? Their experiences were not considered significant enough to be recorded or archived. We can only imagine the noises they heard or the music they made, through the multitude of voices and sounds we have created in The Head & the Load.