Resonating Rocks

Early humans knew a thing or two about music, reveals WILLEM PRETORIUS, and at Babylonstoren we can now hear how rock music was first made.

THE AFRICAN ROCK GONG at the beautiful farm Babylonstoren in Simondium represents the oldest manmade musical instrument we know of. It is the latest addition to the already impressive rock collection at the farm, which is celebrated every year by an exhibition in the shaded walkway known as the Puffadder. The rocks in the collection have been chosen for their geological and archaeological significance or as objects of art in the ancient oriental tradition.

The rock gong comprises a cairn of resonating rocks and sounds are made by striking it with smaller rocks as a drummer in a band would. Scientists call it a gong, but to me it is more like an ancient rock piano that was played by early humans.

The rocks are dolerite (also known as ironstone), which is abundant in the Karoo and is typically volcanic, weathering to look like a bale of wool. Many of these cairns can be found in the Karoo.

Every stone in the cairn differs in size and shape and has its own resonant quality. Therefore, as early humans realised, it can be used as a musical instrument. Dull patches that can be seen on the original rocks clearly indicate the impact of smaller stones that were used as clappers. They also show that more than one player made music simultaneously.

These gong cairns are abundant near rock carvings and both are remnants of San culture in the Karoo.

They were not stacked by humans, but appear to be randomly ordered by nature. Rock gongs are also found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe.

Archaeologist Renée Rust believes that when players struck depressions in the rocks with smaller stones, they could have been doing so to mimic thunder and thus contributed to the ceremony of rainmaking. |Xam stories and myths abound among the engraved rocks. According to Renée, the important point is that stories, and especially those that entailed the use of rocks, involved the religious as well as the cultural and historical past of peoples throughout southern Africa and that rocks were sacred and endowed with healing properties.

Research by Neil Rusch, which he has described in his book Karoo Cosmos, also suggests that rock gongs situated on adjoining hills could mean that these gongs were used to ‘talk’ to each other.

The construction of the rock gong at Babylonstoren was the result of more than two years of extensive research that incorporated the input of various experts whom Ernst van Jaarsveld consulted for this special project. The search for resonant rocks to include in the gong took place in various parts of the Karoo. The locations where they were found will not be revealed for fear that those remaining will be covered in graffiti or otherwise vandalised.

On 13 March 2023 the first of the three huge rocks that would serve as the soundboard of the gong – the base on which the music-producing rocks would be placed – was moved from Fisantekraal by truck. As the heaviest of these enormous rocks weighed 29 tonnes and had an overlap of a metre on either side of the truck, special permits were needed to move it by road.

Then a crane truck was stationed on the other side of the river to the left of the vegetable garden and rockery. Sixty tonnes of stabiliser were needed to prevent it from tipping when the big rock was swung about 24m to the designated site.

The positioning and stabilising of the first rock was important as it would form the base of the cairn. But it was not an easy task, as a swinging rock is not easily stopped by humans. By 7pm, as darkness fell, work had to be stopped because it was becoming too dangerous.

On 22 March it was time to build the cairn and an enthusiastic group gathered to help with the placing of the dolerite rocks to extract the best sound. This involved the expert advice of a sound engineer who tapped the rocks with smaller rocks to test the sound as a baker would check if a cake is ready to be taken out of the oven.

A rock was moved a few inches here, another balanced there to get the best sound. As different parts of a rock produce different sounds, it was like tuning the various instruments in an orchestra. Watching the group listening in wonder as they tapped the rocks and extracted a tune, was inspiring. Musicians who have since come to experience the sound of the rocks are in awe and, I am sure, will return to play and create wonderful new songs. Some rocks have meanwhile been added and some moved to extract better sound.

Visitors to Babylonstoren will be able to play the rock gong (or piano). It is easy and a lot of fun; you just hit the big rocks with the smaller ones until you find your inner Elton John. V