July 22, 2005
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
I tend to consider other people's stories as more interesting than mine, but occasionally I can justify relating a significant moment in my life.
Aw, who am I kidding? This is a blog, where hearing oneself talk, about oneself, is the raison d'Ítre. I was in South Africa for three mind-opening weeks in May-June 1989. I was with about 40 other college (and some high-school and some graduate) students who comprised a rather spiffy youth orchestra based in New England. Most of us had traveled before, mostly due to being in this group, but only a couple of members had been to Africa. (Our Canadian-born conductor had grown up near Cape Town, where she debuted as solo violinist with the Cape Town Symphony at some ridiculously prodigious age like 14 -- and then did the same thing as solo pianist the same year. Or, it was the other way around.)
After a brief stopover in Rome and Florence, we flew to Johannesburg amid unresolved feelings. Our classmates and professors back home were protesting our trip (they felt that it counted as a cultural event that violated U.N. sanctions against the Apartheid government, while our leader's position was that it was a mission, or "church related program activities"). Trepidation about what our time in Africa would be like included such disparate topics as not knowing the level of unrest and its bearing on an increasingly fragile government (F. W. de Klerk's) and the fact that we were all suddenly on a five-week regimen of nightly quinine pills to ward off malaria. This group didn't typically use hotels; the concert venues would prepare ahead of time by having people (usually church members) sign up to board a few orchestra members in their homes for a night or two. (Note: this is an excellent way to visit a country. One sees life literally on the street, out the front window of and inside a resident's home.)
A few days into our trip, after we had come face-to-face with the stark racial divisions (my best friend and I stayed for a week with a Coloured family in a suburb that was entirely Coloured -- not Black, not White, not Indian), we were to play a morning concert at a church in Soweto. Some of us had heard of Soweto. Anyone who hadn't soon got the picture when, before our coach embarked, a liaison to local officials stepped onto the bus and said that the police had granted us permission to go there, but that we had to be out of the township 1/2-hour before dark. Period. No exceptions. Police will arrest you.
Of course, since I was a 20-year-old college upperclassman, I thought, "Cool. It's kinda dangerous." (It turns out that Bronx, NY on a Saturday night that happened to be October 31 was just as bad or worse, but that's a different story.)
The bus pulled up to a nondescript building that was the church. Oh, and we never had a crew or anything: we all divvied up the stage setup responsibilities, so we set about carrying in stands and folders. In typical situations, the hall would be empty, but this place was packed with people already. I thought it would be awkward to set up in front of them while they waited for us to play, but here's what happened.
We opened the side door that led to the front. The 600 or so assembled were singing. I can't definitively say that every person was, but every person I could see was. Old men and older women, sprouting teenagers, tired-eyed workers, and little Zulu toddlers all sang one of eight or so parts in this grand choir. They sang in English; the texts were recognizably derivative of Christian hymnal material; but the music was simply overwhelming. As the bit of press on the Downtown Partnership page indicates about Ladysmith Black Mambazo's sound, the sound was a blend of Western gospel and traditional African harmonies. We carried our things in, got the orchestra completely set up to play, and then just sat there for what was probably an hour while they sang -- and we wept. We marveled at their jovial rhythm, their woven harmony, their incredible microtonal modulation, and we spewed tears.
We were finally composed enough to strike up our bows and various horns and things, and we pitifully tried to give back something of a musical answer, but our Handel and Haydn and Mendelssohn were stuffy and downright moribund next to the angelic, organic, brilliant and extremely powerful sounds that had streamed into our ears just previously.
If you go hear Ladysmith tonight at Nightfall, you may get just a taste of what that day in Soweto was like. (You won't, however, get to hang around afterward for "soul food African-style" or to try and pronounce the Xhosa names that belong to the people you're meeting. And it's okay if you're there after dark.)
Nightfall & Riverbend | By joe lance | 10:56 AM
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