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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Austin C. Okigbo, Music, Culture, & the Politics of Health: Ethnography of a South African AIDS Choir


Austin Okigbo's book offers an ethnographic panorama of musical intervention in the South African HIV/AIDS miasma using the Siphithemba Choir as paradigm. The work is segmented into nine chapters including the introductory and conclusive sections. It is further garnished with illustrations, tables, abbreviations, an appendix of some scored and notated songs of the Choir as transcribed by the author, and a glossary on Zulu orthography and diction to guide the reader.

The introductory chapter presents the author's first encounter with the Siphithemba Choir and their performance, albeit in a rehearsal situation. In that context, the thematic preoccupations of the song texts were apparent, and they include ‘love, fidelity, the Black race, and Africa’, especially ‘love and fidelity in the context of HIV/AIDS’ (2). Against the backdrop of South Africa's statistical data on HIV/AIDS prevalence, particularly the high provincial figures posted by KwaZulu-Natal (the area of the research), it becomes understandable why ‘creative and expressive responses to the HIV/AIDS situation’ was necessary (4). This artistic response as exemplified by the Siphithemba Choir becomes even more pertinent and topical as a medium of public health education that has become complicated by the politics of culture, class, race and resistance. The rest of the book tries to ‘address different aspects of the[se] issues’ as highlighted in the introductory segment.

The second chapter delves into socio-cultural issues and historical circumstances that led to the formation of the Siphithemba troupe. Historically, the group was composed of individuals dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS under the aegis of a Christian Mission on the platform of the McCord Hospital. Being a health mission that catered to the Zulu community, the McCord Hospital assisted the people in coping with different outbreaks of epidemics including HIV. By the late 1990s, ‘the HIV/AIDS situation in South Africa was already becoming alarming’, hence the hospital management reasoned that ‘help in the form of spiritual counseling and social support system could be useful in helping people cope with the emotional and material burdens associated with being HIV positive’ (26). Therefore, the Sinikithemba Support Group led by Mrs Nonhlanhla Mhlongo was founded with a choral section in 1997. From Sinikithemba, meaning ‘we give hope’, the Support Group carried forth its spiritual, emotional and economic support to HIV victims which gave birth to the Siphithemba Choir.