Following is a paper written for a class called The Healing Ecstasy of Sound, led by Jennifer Berezan in spring 2009. In it, I explore the role of music in social healing and reconciliation, using two examples from southern Africa. The first is the healing rituals of indigenous African hunter-gatherers known as the Kung, and the second example is provided by the anti-apartheid movement in modern South Africa.

Since completing graduate studies this year, I’ve become ever more curious about the role of the arts in cultural transformation, and how artistic modes of expression may contribute to cultural renaissance and human awakening to the community of life. This paper represents some of my early explorations of this question.

Music and song in social healing and reconciliation

Musical sounds and vocalizations, from singing to chanting to glossalia, have been used throughout human history for the purposes of healing individual psychological, spiritual and physical ailments (Campbell, 1991, 1992, 1997; Gass, 1999), but what role has music played in community or social healing and reconciliation?  I will describe two examples of music, song and community healing from southern Africa, and present a few ideas on the role that music played in healing.

All-night rituals for community healing and reconciliation are woven into the fabric of the lives of the traditional Kung society of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, who are one of the few remaining human groups to live by foraging, “which was, until 12,000 years ago, the universal mode of human existence” (Katz, 1982, p. ix).

The Kung believe that humans carry incipient illness at all times, and must therefore maintain their well-being through regular community healing rituals.  The Kung healing rituals, and specifically the Giraffe ritual, function to build community cohesion and repair damaged or strained relations, as much as provide treatments for the physical, spiritual and emotional complaints of individuals.

For the Kung, healing is more than curing, more than the application of medicine.  Healing seeks to establish health and growth on physical, psychological, social and spiritual levels; it involves work on the individual, the group and the surrounding environment and cosmos (Katz, 1982, p. 34).

Just as the traditional Kung society is egalitarian, with women and men having relatively equal access to prestige and power, Kung healing is also broadly egalitarian.  Any man or woman is eligible to become a healer without special qualifications or status, and one’s role as a healer co-exists alongside all other tribal statuses or identities.  There is no special shaman or healer class, although special training and mentoring is mandatory for those who seek to channel the cosmic energy, which the Kung call num.

Num is the basis of the healing dance.  Though the word num has been translated by others as “medicine,” I believe that translation is too limited. …[I]ts meaning seems far broader,  more profound.  A clearer translation is “energy.”  …[But t]here  many referents for num…[and] it appears in many different things, both animate and inanimate.  Its effects are varied, both beneficent and maleficent…[and] consistently felt as strong.

Num is said to be “invisible,” though it can be “seen” and “picked up” by those experiencing kia (defined later).  Otherwise, num is only known by its actions and effects.  It is located only by its existence in a particular form, whether it be a person, a song, or a bee.  Num is not personalized or personified.  No one can possess it exclusively nor control it completely.  Num’s “invisibility” enhances its power (Katz, 1982, pp. 93-4).

For num to become a healing power, it must be activated in a ritual manner, through the use of song, dance and rattling.  The Kung describe activated num as “boiling num,” which brings about a state referred to as kia.  Katz (1982) explains that kia is “not a unitary, unidimensional, linear experience,” but rather, it is “an altered state of consciousness, which at different times in different or the same persons may function at different levels. …[K]ia refers to certain kinds of thoughts, feelings and physical actions” (p. 95).

Kia is a transcendent experience, in which the Kung healers enter into an enhanced or expanded state of consciousness, “characterized by a certain level of profundity in perception and knowledge” (Katz, 1982, p. 93).  In order to activate num, enter kia and apply that energy to healing, the healer’s heart must be opened, which is accomplished through the communal singing of num songs, as well as dancing with rattles, which “help heat up the healer’s num,” (Katz, 1982, p. 94), so that it will boil.  Without the opening of the heart, and the cultivation of clear perception during kia, the num is just intense energy, and is without its profound healing effects.

While dramatic cures of serious medical conditions do occur, and Kung healing ceremonies are even sought out by neighboring Black tribes for their potency, the “healing” which the Kung rituals generate is less of an individualistic concept, and the measure of its success extends to include the balance and health of the community as a whole.  The egalitarian relationships which form the basis of the Kung social structure exemplify a culture with what Ruth Benedict (1972) calls high synergy.

Benedict’s (1972) original use of the term synergy seems to reflect a belief that all human societies must have some form of synergy, with the main differences reflected in how much or how little synergy is provided by a culture’s patterns of relationship.  Katz (1982) describes synergy as “a pattern, a particular way in which phenomena relate to each other…. A synergistic pattern brings phenomena together, inter-relating them, creating a new and greater whole from the disparate parts” (p. 197).  In the example of Kung healing with num, this high level of synergy is reflected in the traditional Kung’s communal sharing of num with everyone, for num “is not in limited supply, individuals need not compete for its healing power” (Katz, 1982, p. 98).

The non-ownership and free distribution of num and its curative powers also reflects that the group’s energetic field is more powerful than any one individual alone, reinforcing overall social cohesion.  “The individual enhancement of kia is firmly lodged in a care-giving social context.  Healing simultaneously affirms the individual’s worth and creates cultural meaning” (Katz, 1982, p. 198).  The act of healing does not accrue worth to the individual to the exclusion of her or his entire community.

Reflecting a similarly high level of synergy, the music and songs so important to the liberation struggles against the apartheid regime of South Africa were created and shared in an egalitarian manner.  The 2003 film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony illustrated this and other aspects of the role of music in the South African struggle against the apartheid regime, which had formed out of the country’s May 28, 1948 general election.  Through interviews and dramatizations, activists, poets, musicians, freedom fighters, singers and a variety of others related the story of the liberation movement’s songs, which allowed leaders to communicate to and motivate everyone, regardless of literacy or particular political beliefs, transcending barriers to understanding and participation.  While individual singers, composers and musicians provided both leadership and international visibility for the struggle, generating crucial international solidarity, within the movement itself, the composition and singing of songs was largely communal and egalitarian.

In Africa, spirituality and singing are closely intertwined, and in the Zulu households of South Africa, children were constantly bathed in song, which parents used in response to a variety of situations, cultivating the fertile ground in which so many varied freedom songs were later sown.  While some of the songs did have particular authors, or arose from historical times, hundreds and hundreds of others which fueled the struggle arose spontaneously from individuals, and, in a sense, the songs would select themselves.  As one interviewee described the process, someone would just start singing, and others would join in and help to create the rhythm and the words, but if it wasn’t good enough to appeal to others, then someone would protest and the song would go no further in its development.

The jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, who was for many years exiled by the South African apartheid government for his staunch opposition and protest, noted that the music was not of a separate category, like “liberation music;” rather, “it was part of liberating ourselves” (Dorfman, 2003).

From the early beginnings, the song “Nkosi sikelel’i” (“The people’s anthem”), which was composed in the late 1800s, was adopted as an alternative, anti-apartheid national anthem.  People would sing it together to begin meetings and to close meetings, and the playwright and historian, Duma Ka Ndlovu related that “It’s not a revolutionary song, as one would call it, [and] some of the songs that we sang…it’s a prayer…a very soothing…very unthreatening prayer” (Dorfman, 2003).

The African National Congress (ANC) started out with a nonviolent approach to fighting for the reversal of apartheid laws, hearkening to the legacy of M.K. Gandhi, who first practiced and developed satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, amongst the Indian populations of South Africa, and following a trend in the incipient liberation movements throughout colonized Africa (Sutherland & Meyer, 2000).  The music of the struggle united and uplifted people in the face of oppression and the “schizophrenia” of apartheid, as one activist described it, for the white-controlled government could smile at the people, with its promises of fair play, and in the same instant, be murdering with impunity.  Singing en masse evoked a shared heritage and a common ground, and the songs were filled with spiritual references, as the movement aimed for justice through reconciliation and integration of the peoples of South Africa.

Then, on March 21, 1960, a civil protest against the imposition of special passbooks on black South Africans, tragically resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 people were killed, including ten children, and at least 180 injured by bullets, irreversibly altering the character of the anti-apartheid resistance (Reeves, 1966).  In response, the ANC formed a military wing, called the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), literally Spear of the Nation, as the ANC leadership decided that the apartheid government was not interested in negotiations.  The song “Thina Sizwe,” a lamentation, reflected the shock of the nation as leaders were arrested and exiled, and organizations banned.  After Nelson Mandela’s 1964 sentencing to life imprisonment, the mere act of singing a song in public could result in arrest, and dissent was successfully repressed for a decade.

Once again, the character of the songs and the music shifted to reflect the state of the people and their struggle, when in the 1970s a very simple, one-line song, “Sezenina,” which means “What have we done?” spread through the anti-apartheid movement.  With this simple, imploring song, the hearts of those both within and outside of the movement were opened and touched, and the spirit of resistance kept alive.

But it was the 1976 Soweto Uprising which ushered in the return of song and music with a vengeance, as youth were arrested and shot down in resisting the apartheid regime’s attempt to force all school instruction to be in the language of Afrikaans.  Thousands of youth left the townships to join the MK, to train for armed struggle, and as the 1980s progressed, the apartheid regime declared an emergency and “The People’s War” developed through the militarization of the townships themselves.  The songs became more aggressive, with references to the Bible being replaced with references to machine guns, as one Amandla! interviewee commented.

A combination of song and dance called Toyi-Toyi emerged from the MK training fields in Zimbabwe, which dramatically served to strengthen the hearts, minds and resolve of all who were involved in the resistance, and to frighten their opponents in the apartheid regime. There was no certainty or guarantee that their efforts were leading to liberation, and the Toyi-Toyi formed a formidable sight at civil protests, where protestors faced down the well-armed South African militia and their armed personnel carriers, guns and tear gas, with only their bodies and the Toyi-Toyi.  The activist Vincent Vena noted that the civilian resistance had no tear gas, no weapons, no war technology, and the Toyi-Toyi became like a weapon of war for those in the movement (Dorfman, 2003).

Since the music and the songs were a part of the liberation from apartheid, they necessarily reflected the state of the struggle, and evolved through the participation of countless thousands of people, who maintained a sense of social cohesion, community and common purpose in the face of an increasingly repressive regime.  The songs kept the connection between the people and the movement’s jailed and exiled leaders strong; the singing kept the leaders alive in hearts and minds, even as they had been banned from sight.

Both the premodern traditional Kung tribe and the modern era anti-apartheid movement have used song and music for healing and reconciliation, simultaneously addressing the needs of their own groups, and their groups’ relationships with larger entities, both seen and unseen.  For an exploration of how music supports, affects and directly impacts the success of the healing in these two examples, I will turn to the work of musician and student of psychology, Robert Gass (1999).  Through his involvement with the study of chanting and spiritual music for over thirty years, Gass has come to believe that the act of group chanting or singing works on human consciousness on five levels, which he labels as anchoring, entrainment, breath, sonic effects and intent.   Of these, anchoring, entrainment and intent seem to speak most to the power of music and song in these two cases.

Anchoring in particular is easy to see in both the Kung and the anti-apartheid liberation struggle.  Anchoring occurs “as memories become associated with different chants or melodies, [and] are released in a flood of feeling and energy whenever we sing or hear those same chants” (Gass, 1999, p. 48).  The Kung use special num songs to activate num and induce kia states, while, from the beginning, the anti-apartheid movement used some older songs from history to evoke feelings of solidarity, and to remember their ancestors, as they struggled against neo-colonialism in the wake of World War Two.  As the anti-apartheid struggle continued and the songs changed or evolved, they carried with them the memories, feelings and energy of each stage of the movement, and maintained the sense of continuity so important to successful liberation movements.

Gass (1999) uses the example of chanting in particular, as he describes entrainment’s effect on the individual: “The repetitive nature of chant facilitates the entraining of our body and psyche to its rhythms and mood” (p. 48).   But the same thing can occur to group energetic fields, which Gass (1999) describes as being like a “living organism…[changing] moment to moment, never exactly the same…diffusing and sharpening, intensifying and calming” (p. 142).  Thus viewed from the level of a group energetic field, I would describe the entrainment happening in the Giraffe ritual of the Kung, and in the freedom singing of the struggle against apartheid, as more of individuals entraining to a group “body and psyche,” through sharing a rhythm, and the mood evoked by a particular song.  “In opening ourselves to the experience of music,” Gass (1999) writes of entrainment, “we have to some degree become the music” (p. 51).   When this becoming is shared by a group in an emotionally tense and difficult situation, it seems that the power of merging with the music and the group is also intensified, perhaps especially within cultures which have cultivated a more highly synergistic consciousness.

The power of intention seems to figure most prominently in both the case of Kung healing and the South African liberation struggle.  In addressing the modern, Western medical model’s skepticism towards non-Western healing modalities, Katz (1982) repeatedly emphasizes that he thinks it is the Kung’s belief in num and the healing power of kia states, which “causes” healing to occur.  Gass (1999) quotes the meditation master who brought Siddha yoga to the West, Swami Muktananda, as saying, “”Only if the goal of mantra is present in your mind will it bear fruit’” (p. 60).

Neither the Kung nor those who put their lives on the line for freedom from apartheid are singing and dancing just for “entertainment,” or without a conscious intention in mind, and it is the presence of conscious intention which likely makes their rituals and social engagement so transformative.  In absence of conscious intention, the creation of ritual space itself will not effect a transformation (Moore, 1984), and results in a liminoid phenomenon, rather than a liminal one.  From limen, Latin for “threshold,” liminality is the quality of a space which is transformative, where a creative destruction occurs.

Liminality is…a space/time pod in which the individual is ritually unbound from the binding power of social norms and conventions, and is ritually rebound.  In the liminal experience, new meanings and symbols are often introduced, or new ways of embellishing old modes of living, so as to renew interest in them, are portrayed.  The danger of the liminal phase is conceded and respected by demarcating it with ritual interdictions and taboos.

Liminoid phenomena…are more typical of modern societies.  Rather than being collective products, they are often individual products, with meanings not shared normatively or universally throughout the culture by all members of the society.  These meanings are marginal to the dominant symbols and cultural institutions, [often] associated with leisure time or play” (Smith, 1997, p. 51).

            The Kung healing ritual is easily described as liminal rather than liminoid, but in the case of the movement against apartheid, all members of South African society did not universally regard their actions in the same way, and yet the movement did succeed in transforming that society as a whole by their efforts.  Guided by a powerful intention, which would ultimately benefit all in South Africa, the efforts of the resistance successfully challenged and ultimately led to the dissolution of prevailing social norms and conventions, so that something new could be created.   The music, the songs and the struggle did work to heal and strengthen the communities in the movement, but were also intended to heal the apartheid regime in a synergistic fashion.

“Human transformative experience requires heterogeneity in the experience of space,” Robert Moore (1984, p. 132) asserts by way of the scholarship of Mircea Eliade.  “It is [a] break in ordinary, profane space which allows the world to be regenerated,” (Moore, p. 129) through contact with what Eliade calls “sacred space and time,” which is qualitatively different from the profane, for it contains “a center for orientation, a fixed point grounded in absolute reality,” (p. 129) which profane space does not.

The sustained protest and struggle against apartheid did shatter the consensus trance of reality in apartheid South Africa, preventing easy complacency and acceptance of rank injustice from all sides.  The human spirit which burst forth in the songs of the struggle, and that special assertion of the human right to exist, especially as portrayed in archival footage of mass protests in the film Amandla! did evoke in me a sense of being in the presence of the sacred.  Whether the destruction of the apartheid regime would be a creative act depended heavily upon good leadership, for it is up to the leadership to tell a new creation myth which will unite the country after apartheid has ended, and which individuals must then enact in their daily lives and in the healing and building of new, healthy social institutions and relationships.

Both of these examples of the use of music and song in social healing and reconciliation reinforce for me that the direct, felt experience of belonging to something larger than one’s own individual self is necessary to the continued survival of the human species (Rappaport, 1978), and yield useful insights into the facility of music, song and dance for the purpose of such a transformation in perception.


Benedict, R. (1970). Synergy: Some notes of Ruth Benedict. American Anthropologist, 72(2), 320-333.

Campbell, D. (1991).  Music: Physician for times to come. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Campbell, D. (1992). Music and miracles. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Campbell, D. (1997). The Mozart effect. New York: Avon Books.

Dorfman, J. (Producer). Hirsch, L. (Director). (2003) Amandla! A revolution in four part harmony. (Motion picture). South Africa: ATO Pictures.

Gass, R. (1999). Chanting: Discovering spirit in sound. New York: Broadway Books.

Katz, R. (1982). Boiling energy: Community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.

Moore, R. (1984) Space and transformation in human experience. In R. Moore and F.E. Reynolds (Eds.) Anthropology and the study of religion. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Rappaport, R. A. (1978). Adaptation and the structure of ritual. In N. Blurton Jones and V. Reynolds (Eds.), Human behaviour and adaptation, volume 18. London: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Reeves, Rev. A. (1966). The Sharpeville Massacre – A watershed in South Africa. South African History Online Library. Retrieved from

Smith, C. M. (1997). Jung and shamanism in dialogue: Retrieving the soul/ retrieving the sacred. New York: Paulist Press.

Sutherland, B. & Meyer, M. (2000). Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African insights on nonviolence, armed struggle and liberation. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.