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South African Musician Offers Global Fusion With African Heart

  • Darren Taylor

Courtney Gibson playing acoustic guitar, with her beloved didgeridoo at the ready, during a recent live performance in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Credit: Jacques Schutte)

A young South African musician is winning accolades for her fusion of tribal rhythms from around the world. Courtney Gibson blends Western instruments, like electric guitar, with traditional African instruments, like the djembe drum, and other indigenous instruments, like the Australian aboriginal didgeridoo, to create exceptional sounds.

Gibson said she uses instruments like the didgeridoo to mimic the sounds of Africa’s animals - like the slow, violent growl of a lion on a nighttime hunt.

“I try and pull those sounds into the didge [didgeridoo] and the drums obviously help a lot because drums is part of Africa. The beat has got the rhythm of Africa and everything that we are,” she said.

Gibson's love of Africa, its nature and its people, was inspired by her upbringing, on a farm in the mountains of Mpumalanga province. Here, villagers taught her to make music using waste materials from a local dump.

“I kind of picked up a pool pipe and started playing a pool pipe because I didn’t have money for a didgeridoo; us South Africans don’t much have money, so...” she recalled.

As a child, with a pool pipe in her mouth, Gibson dreamed of one day owning a real didgeridoo.

“I just liked the sound; I’ve always liked the sound. I always found it had a nice tribal feel to it,” she said.

Music With a Conscience

As Gibson has grown as a musician, so has her small collection of instruments, helping her create some of South Africa’s most unique contemporary music.

She said that no matter what she ever achieves as an artist, she’ll “never come close” to her hero, the great South African folk singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela.

Gibson recently saw Mahlasela at a festival, and approached him with a request.

“‘Can I please play you a song?’ And he was kind of a bit shocked… And he just said, ‘Okay; play it.’ And I played on his guitar… and it was the most amazing thing; he gave me a big hug afterward,” she said.

Like Mahlasela, Gibson makes music with a conscience.

Musician Courtney Gibson leaves the stage after another successful show with her didgeridoo, Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 27, 2016. (D. Taylor/VOA)
Musician Courtney Gibson leaves the stage after another successful show with her didgeridoo, Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 27, 2016. (D. Taylor/VOA)

While most white South African musicians try to sound like American and British indie rock bands, her art remains firmly rooted in the bush of Mpumalanga.

“I don’t see why I should be something that I’m not. I’m African; I’m born here. My soul and everything inside me, is African,” said Gibson.

Many of her songs reflect her concern about the destruction of Africa’s environment.

Gibson said she doesn’t want to be famous. She knows she’ll never win awards playing what she calls her “weird” music.

All that matters, she said, is that she’s true to herself, true to Africa, and true to the rhythms alive inside her.