Tag Archives: music

Strolling the Heidelberg Altstadt

To visit a city with as much history as Heidelberg only to spend 100% of one’s time at a conference would be a great injustice. Between my wanderings on my arrival day and this evening, I have really come to appreciate the beauty that this city presents at unexpected moments.


The lovely banks of the Neckar River

Heidelberg architecture begins its ascent in the twelfth century, with a local Benedictine monastery dating to 1130; the name “Heidelberg” didn’t appear in writing until 1196, though. Over a period of five hundred years, the Counts of the Palatinate and the Prince Electors resided in this city. A fortification on a hill overlooking the Neckar River was mentioned as early as 1303; today, this site is dominated by the ruins of a majestic castle!


A schloss by any other name…

In many respects, though, Heidelberg gained fame as a center of learning. Prince Elector Ruprecht I founded the “Ruperto Carola University” in 1386, making it the oldest university in Germany. After an early 19th century reorganization, the institution came to play an even greater role, with luminaries such as Hegel advancing philosophy while Robert Bunsen invented gas-analytical methods (and inventing the Bunsen Burner) and Hermann von Helmholtz investigated visual perception.


The old university plaza, featuring a tower from the nearby Jesuit church, was an ideal place to read a book!

For two decades in the early 19th century, Heidelberg became the focus of the “High Romanticism” literary movement. At the opening of the 20th century, the city constructed a palatial university library in the heart of its old town. In December 2014, UNESCO named Heidelberg as its tenth “City of Literature.”


The library in the old town is tremendously impressive!



The churches of the city are really striking, as well. Peterskirche, the oldest, was originally constructed in the 12th century. Its tower almost seems like a post-modern deconstruction of a Gothic chapel, with flat faces in each cardinal direction and shuttered windows flush to the surfaces below its clock dials. I would have loved to explore its insides, but its doors were shut late on Tuesday afternoon when I visited.


No nave is complete without a giant, reflective cross!

I also loved the Jesuitenkirche and its accompanying college. The church encompasses three parallel naves of equal height. I stepped inside and was delighted to see all the light pouring into the nave from the setting sun. I listened surreptitiously to an organist rehearsing for a service. I tried to set my phone down on a large table at the back so I could make an audio recording, only to realize that it was a fountain of holy water! I pulled it out of its damp case and got the recorder working properly.


Springtime on Philosopher’s Walk

Learning that the “Philosopher’s Walk” led to a beautiful vista of the castle and old city from above on the opposite bank of the Neckar River, I began my walk up the slope. What I hadn’t seen mentioned is that the Philosopher’s Walk is steep. This middle-aged professor huffed and puffed, particularly on the initial parts of the ascent. After a while, the slope calmed down and I only needed to take care of the sun, which was beating down pretty well for a day in early spring!


The Church of the Holy Spirit, as seen from Philosopher’s Walk

The climb was definitely worth it! I found a lovely flower garden at one scenic overlook, and the vision of the old city below was astonishing. To see the churches standing tall among the surrounding buildings helped separate them from the background. The castle’s architecture makes it seem like a fantasy rather than anything brooding. As I looked to the west, I saw modern Heidelberg spilling out along the riverbank. Heidelberg’s history, its legacy, and its charm make it a very appealing package.


Dar es Salaam: The Cultural Village Museum

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Natasha and I spent our last full day in Dar es Salaam visiting the Cultural Village Museum! The National Museum of Tanzania has five component institutions, but the only two institutions in Dar es Salaam are the museum we visited yesterday and the Village Museum. Visiting Zanzibar had given us a great perspective on how the Arabs and specifically the Omanis had shaped Tanzania, but Natasha wanted to understand better the indigenous chiefdoms that existed here before and after Zanzibar became a sultanate.


A 2005-2007 Toyota Spacio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 9:30 AM for our journey to the Cultural Village, wait for us at the site, and then drive us back to our hotel (for a cost of 60,000 shillings = $27.00 USD). Happily, the taxi arrived about ten minutes before the scheduled time. He was driving a Toyota Spacio, which confused me since it looked very like a Prius V that didn’t shut off its engine at traffic lights! As we moved north from downtown, we reached Ocean Road, a road curving along the shoreline. I felt a little tingle to realize that the road had been renamed “Barack Obama Drive” in the aftermath of the President’s visit to Tanzania in 2013. We saw some lovely beaches, though the sight was marred by quite a lot of rubbish. Soon we passed the old U.S. Embassy compound, closed since the terrorist attack of 1998. The new one is considerably more substantial and more secure.


A tuk-tuk, courtesy of Getaway.co.za.

As we continued to the northwest, we passed into an area under extensive construction. It seemed that every block had a sizable office building or apartment tower underway, with a large sign naming the construction company (frequently in Chinese lettering). The driver said that Chinese firms had been hugely involved in construction for quite some time. Our route on Bagamoyo Road separated Oyster Bay (a very wealthy area) from the middle-class Kinondoni area. After a while, our progress slowed considerably, and a fair amount of pooled rain water had gathered on the shoulders. Through the night, we had heard several rain storms pass through the area. Insufficient drains in this area had nearly rendered the road impassible! Just the same, three-wheeled tuk-tuks were trying their best to create their own lane on the shoulder. Our taxi pushed through a large, submerged area to reach the muddy and rocky Cultural Village parking lot.

The Cultural Village Museum


Yao homes


The migrations that proliferated Bantu languages

How many ways can you make a hut? It turns out that there are plenty of different materials and designs to choose from, and the chiefdoms of Tanzania have sampled an impressive variety. The groups who had structures represented by the museum included the following: Sukuma, Zanaki, Washambaa, Swahili, Haya, Yao, Makua, Kwere/Doe, Iraqw, Rundi/Ha, Wamwera, Zaramo, Chagga, Gogo, Ngoni, Pimbwe, Fipa, Hehe, and Nyakyusa. Almost all of these groups can be described as “Bantu-speaking,” but it’s worth noting that Bantu is a highly diverse family of languages (both Zulu and isiXhosa languages from South Africa fit this category). Swahili is a widely-known African language in the world at large, but in fact it represents a combination of several Bantu languages with Arabic; it became a widespread trade language across several nations in East Africa.

I would highlight the Yao as a chiefdom that played a key role in the historic slave trade in East Africa; additionally, their commitment to Islam made this group a stalwart against European powers’ domination. The Ngoni are a group that migrated up relatively late from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa in the aftermath of the Zulu Wars. I mentioned the Fipa in connection with a one-piece carved wooden door that we saw at the museum yesterday. Depending on the type of farming, the climate of the regions they occupied, the contact they enjoyed with other groups, and so on, these chiefdoms turned to rather different approaches for home construction.


Fipa iron-smelting furnace

I would emphasize that the Bantu-speaking chiefdoms spread to cover a huge fraction of Africa because they developed iron-working technologies and had a rich and diverse agriculture to keep their populations fed. Many of the movies about African populations in the last century stereotyped them as bloodthirsty savages, but this image has little to do with reality– these groups were actively participating in international trade back in the fifteenth century and before! That’s why I was delighted that the cultural village included a smelting furnace in connection with the Fipa people. The smelting furnace, constructed almost entirely of clay, reflects that the Fipa were producing iron as far back as the seventeenth century. This process combined iron ore, charcoal, and flux (various types) at a temperature approaching 1000 degrees Celsius (~1800 degrees Fahrenheit) to produce liquid iron which could then be smithed.


The Hawa hut is an example of the “Mushonge” type.

The huts that we observed were large enough to be subdivided into several spaces, in some cases by internal walls. I particularly liked the Haya homes, called the “Mushonge” type. These banana and coffee farmers use bamboo, sticks, and grass to build round huts with an entry hall that can be divided into storage, cooking, and sleeping spaces.


The Gogo people of the Dodoma region are pastoralists.

Structures for the Washambaa, Sukuma, and others featured internal ceilings that left room for storage (or children!) above and work and sleep space below. The complexity of these homes definitely stretches well beyond what we think when we say “hut.” By the time we examined the clay walls and verandas of Mwera houses, it was clear that only a small step in complexity differentiated it from a Swahili house with plastered coral and lime walls.


The matrilineal Mwera community built homes with clay walls on wooden pole frames.

As we finished our tour of the village, Natasha and I were treated to a rousing music and dance performance by a troupe of six. They put their all into the show, even though their audience numbered only two! At the close, the group sang a local song including the words “hakuna matata” (not the Disney one), and a dancer enticed Natasha and me to join them. Each of us was adorned by cowrie shells and headdress to join them dancing.


Some of our musicians

On the drive back to our hotel, I was startled to feel a roach crawling across my neck. I shrieked and swatted it into the air. Sadly, it was flung in Natasha’s direction. She responded with greater aplomb. When we reached the hotel room, the roach scuttled out of her backpack. I smote it with my flip-flop.

Our excellent adventure in Dar es Salaam had come to a close.  The next morning we were on a flight back south to Johannesburg and Cape Town!


Zanzibar: the Kizimbani Spice Farms

An index to this series appears at the first post.

Spice plants may not have evolved on Zanzibar, but they certainly thrived here after plants were imported from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and even farther away!  I was thrilled that we had the opportunity to visit the spice farms at Kizimbani during our second full day on the island.  Natasha and I were joined by our friend Katharina, whose luggage had finally arrived just before midnight. Through her, we met an Irish explorer named Majella, who also decided to join our planned tour. Three American gentlemen who had studied at the University of Washington signed on, as well, so our party of two had turned into a party of seven!

We set off through the winding alleys of Stone Town, and we popped out of the warren at the traffic circle at the southwest corner. From there we navigated past the ever-hopeful Miss Hellen’s gallery, and we gave the tour office a bit of a shock by our large numbers. They scrambled for a larger minibus to transport us all to the farm. Natasha and I were surprised to learn that the tour included a stop at a beach (none of us had swimwear).

The twenty minute ride to the farm was pretty uneventful. Zanzibar City sprawls outward from Stone Town for several kilometers. We passed a big market on the way, as well as any number of small businesses, traffic snarls, and even some livestock. The spice farm itself was not organized into neat, square plots, but rather adopted a more organic structure in which plantings of one type might mingle with another type.


Maturing cloves

Natasha and I paused in a grove of teak trees when we exited the bus.  Nearby were other hardwoods, such as mahogany. As the tour got underway, we saw a huge variety of spices. Zanzibar’s role in the spice trade grew massively as farms across the island planted clove trees, which had been imported to the island from Indonesia by Sultan Said when he moved his Sultanate down from Oman. Correspondingly, our first stop showed us the cloves budding on a tree. Mohammed, our guide, provided some in more mature form for us to taste.


Ruins of a Persian bath

As we returned to the stand of hardwoods, he explained the set of ruins we could see on a nearby hillside. Even a Sultan needs to keep his family happy, and we could see a set of Persian baths that he had constructed near the farm in the late nineteenth century. Another set is similarly in ruins at another site some kilometers away.  We looked  forward to seeing restored baths within Stone Town on another day.


Why did I think pineapples grew on trees?

We soon passed a series of other trees, such as oranges, bananas, litchis, and quite a variety of coconut trees. For me, the biggest surprise was the pineapple plant. Our guide explained that each plant produces only one pineapple at maturity, so the farm sprinkled pepper on the plants to keep the insects and animals at bay. Three trees that might be less familiar to people in the United States were those for breadfruit, jackfruit, and durien.


From left to right: breadfruit, jackfruit, durien

We passed by cassava plants, for which the roots are harvested as spices. We passed some massive growths of cardamom plants; Natasha noticed that only male plants were present in that particular stand. I was surprised to see coffee beans growing on a tree at this low altitude. The pepper plants provided one of the most painful taste exercises of the gardens, with pink, green, and white varieties to sample, but the starfruit removed the worst effects. I really enjoyed the taste of lemongrass, which grew in a marshy area. Nearby we sampled some leaves from curry bushes.


The cause of my burning tongue, and the sweet relief

The farm workers began putting on a bit of a show. They had weaved bits of coconut and banana leaves into ties for the men and baskets, crowns, and eyeglasses for the women. Several of us received star bracelets from these weavings, too. Our guide showed us the inside of a nutmeg. Once you peel the fruit away, the inner pit (which is ground to produce nutmeg spice) is surrounded by a red material called “mace,” a separate spice.


Nutmeg and mace come from the same fruit.

Our guide tried to play a little trick on the group when we came to a plant that had little runners with seeds trailing away from the stems on the ground. He broke the seeds open, and each of us took a taste. He asked the group which spice it was. Natasha and a couple of others answered “cardamom,” but he said “no, try again.” Natasha held onto her original answer, and he admitted that it was indeed cardamom! I was proud.


Cardamom in its natural state


All-natural lipstick!

I was curious about a plant we encountered with little spiky red seedpods. The guide handed each of us a pod that had been split open and explained that these were frequently called “lipstick” because the seeds were covered in a red paste (the dye quickly got everywhere, including the trigger of my camera). Our visit to the cinnamon tree was interesting. The idea of slicing a bit of bark off a tree and then smelling that pleasant bite seemed otherworldly. The guide also sliced a bit of cinnamon root, which produces a different flavor. What a versatile tree! Seeing ginger produced from a root pulled form the ground was also a bit otherworldly for a man who is accustomed to seeing his spices in a bottle from a grocery.


The Butterfly in action

At this point, the tour jumped the shark. A gentleman nicknamed “The Butterfly” climbed to the top of a coconut tree using only a figure-eight loop of rope. On his way down, the group broke into a call and response as he capered on the tree trunk. The coconuts he dislodged produced lovely coconut water and chunks of fruit. More and more products of leaf weaving appeared, and then the dunning for tips began. The first attendant to come to me with a leaf cup received a tip. Then he asked me again for more, this time for “The Butterfly.” I turned him down. Another person soon approached me for a tip. As we approached the bus, a troupe of three boys hounded Natasha for money until I came to her relief. We then drove to our lunch location, where we sat for more than twenty minutes near a rack of spices for sale. A team of four boys repeatedly asked each of us where we were from, just trying out their language skills on us and begging us to buy spice. Eventually, I and others left the “buying zone” to walk to where our guide had vanished, much to the dismay of the boys whose job it was to get us buying.

Lunch was some heavily spiced rice pilau, a tasty spinach, onion, and potato combination, and an okra, cassava, and coconut milk curry with chapati breads. It was awkward eating with a team of guys staring at us; I couldn’t understand why they were present. Our group was feeling a bit burned about being dunned repeatedly for cash on top of the fee we had paid for the tour. We declined the visit to the beach and voted for a drive straight to the hotel instead.

Four of us set out again to reach the nearby ATM, and it’s good that we were in a squad, because a persistent hawker was pestering Natasha and Majella quite aggressively. I steered directly for him and peeled him away from the women. I think I am a bit confrontational where unwanted attention is concerned. After our ATM trip, Natasha and I retired to the hotel for a nap.

Our evening started without a plan, but it was very rewarding. I wanted to see some of the paintings that we had watched our neighbors producing in an art studio adjoining a pumpkin patch beside the Anglican cathedral. I liked the work; it was more original than what one generally sees in a tourist shop. I decided not to buy, though, and we walked further to an art shop next to Freddie Mercury’s house. I found two watercolors that Natasha and I liked a lot, one of a dhow and one of a street scene in Stone Town. We acquired from the artist himself, who seemed delighted that some of his work was coming back to Cape Town, a city he knows and loves.


An energetic artist

Natasha and I spoiled ourselves by visiting the Spice Route Indian Restaurant. The Maitre d’ was wearing an amazing military turban and uniform.

We walked along the shore to the old Customs House, between the marina and the palace complex. We realized that they were hosting a music concert by the Culture Musical Club that began in just a few minutes! The concert lasted approximately an hour and featured several examples of traditional taarab music. I recorded just a snippet to remember the sound. It was an Arabic style, using five instruments: a stringed qanun (zither), violin, oud (Arabic lute), a drum that looked like a djembe, and accordion. The group featured three women as soloists. I was very surprised when one of them sang a song with a chorus ending in the English phrase “I love you,” and then she pulled me on stage to dance beside her! As many of my friends would attest, middle-eastern dance is not my forte!


The qanun player had amazing skills!

With another very full day behind us, Natasha and I caught a friendly taxi ride back to the hotel.

Zanzibar: Stone Town!

An index to this series appears at the first post.

December 31, 2017

Stone Town is the crown jewel of Zanzibar.  It has just about everything a tourist would want, with new mystery around each corner, other-worldly charm, and a well-developed history.  When I visited Venice in the 1990s, I loved wandering until I got lost in the maze of passageways, and Stone Town offers a very similar experience.  I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of this remarkable place!

We think of coral as something to be preserved, but the substantial coral reefs around Zanzibar made these calcium carbonate “rocks” the most abundant building material in the area.  Large coral chunks were mixed with lime to create thick walls to keep the tropical heat and humidity out.  Buildings were constructed close together to keep the passageways shaded from the sun.  Most of the construction took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Today, motorbikes and bicycles compete with pedestrians in the warrens of Stone Town.


The wall of the Arab Fort, as seen from the inside, reveals its coral construction.

The Arab Fort is still quite a powerful sight, though it is one of the oldest stone structures in the city.  The site was first used for a Portuguese church, but the destruction of Portuguese power at the end of the seventeenth century meant that the Omanis were the ones to fortify this site.  In 1712, a Portuguese spy informed his patron that the new rulers of Zanzibar had built a “ridiculous fort” on the site of a pre-existing stone house and trading post.  Today the fort sits between the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib, 1883) and the Forodhani Gardens (1936).  Over its long history, the fort has served for defense, a prison, a slave holding area, and then a British ladies’ tennis club, staffed by volunteers from the Girl Guides (the Girl Scouts are a later parallel). It now houses a amphitheater for arts events, and the interior hosts many booths for vendors of African art, clothing, and henna tattoos.


Entrance bastion of Arab Fort at the North corner


A Zanzibar door in good repair. Many were quite worn.

As we walked through the tangle of passageways, Zanzibar’s sumptuous doors kept drawing our eyes.  They were frequently made of Burma or East African teak (the former is now quite rare in the wild).  The earliest doors, such as the ones at the Old Fort, use a rectangular frame with geometric designs.  Indian doors (end of the 19th century) generally comprise at least two parts; the “female” door incorporates the center post, and the “male” bears a chain lock.  In addition, a semicircular top is typical of Indian doors; some even feature images of flowers or animals (Sheriff pg. 21).  Some Arabic doors, particularly at the palaces, feature calligraphy from the Qur’an, perhaps emulating the door of the Ka’aba in Mecca.

Many doors feature an array of brass studs; this design element reflects grand doors in India designed to withstand the attack of a war elephant.  Many doors we examined featured a motif of clove plants, reflecting their dominance as an export for this spice island. A repeating motif on the door frame resembled the chains of slaves.  No history of Zanzibar can be complete without including its role in the slave trade.


St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral is very much in service!


Jaws Corner illustrates the state of repair for much of Stone Town.

Our tour passed east across Stone Town, and we encountered the Catholic cathedral, built at the end of the nineteenth century by French missionaries after an earlier success with a mission in the 1860s.  The church is most easily spotted from the water; the neighborhoods of Stone Town press close to it, and there’s barely a plaza in front of its entrance.  I would have loved to have seen the interior, but apparently the Old Testament art was damaged in a 2014 restoration.

Our walk passed by Jaws Corner, Zanzibar’s local traditional coffee corner.  At most hours of the day, you can watch elderly men play dominoes and solve the problems of the world.  The small plaza is surrounded by “baraza:” stone benches that are typical of Stone Town.  Small flags flutter in the breeze from lines high above the corner.  In the last couple of years, a new mural of a famous shark has been added to decorate the space.

Our navigation led us to New Mukunazini Road (where we’d found a working ATM), so soon we had reached the eastern boundary of Stone Town.  Our destination was the Former Slave Market, now a museum dedicated to memory of the lives destroyed by the East African slave trade.  The facility is supported by the World Monuments Fund.


The beauty of the grounds masks its sinister origins.

The museum is notable for the local detail that it conveys to the visitor, with historic photos of the people and places that drove the East African slave trade through this island. The boards were able to explain the complexity of the groups interacting in the African interior, such as the Angoni who fled from the violence in 1830s South Africa, or the Yao, a group that joined with the Portuguese to enslave others. The museum also names individuals who made a fortune from slavery.  “Sultan” Mlozi used an army of mercenaries to capture slaves in the Great Lakes region.  Rumaliza, Sultan of Ujiji,  became wealthy from trading both slaves and ivory (once a tusk had been cut from an elephant, the group sought slaves to carry it; both could be sold at the destination).  Tippu Tip  became outrageously wealthy in the diverse nation-scale economy he managed.


Exhibit from National Museum of Tanzania

I was moved to learn that the United States served as a principal driver for the ivory trade, since ivory played a similar role to that of plastic in today’s economy.  One source estimated that 80% of the soft ivory exported from Zanzibar in 1894 was bound for the United States. The museum has quite a lot to say about the end of the slave trade (only the third treaty for this purpose “stuck” in Zanzibar: 1873). I was saddened to learn that the government never worked out a proper plan for how to improve the lives of former slaves. For most, repatriation was unlikely (slaves abducted as children might not be able to detail their former homes), and concubines might find that accepting freedom meant leaving the children they bore for former masters. The museum houses two storage cellars where slaves were once secured, and a chain is still there to tell the story of physical bondage for resistant slaves.


Beyond claustrophobic

With that, we returned the area outside the museum, and we were in the Anglican cathedral yard. On this Sunday, the church was full of parishioners singing Christmas songs! We stepped inside, and I recorded some of the lovely singing we had enjoyed from the nearby Riverman Hotel.  Construction of the cathedral came in 1879, just six years after the closure of the slave market.


Minarets and steeples live side by side in Zanzibar.

From there, we walked into a modern market along Creek Road.  I haven’t had a lot of exposure to duriens or jackfruit from my years in the United States, so I was delighted to see them in person.  We stuck with purchasing more cool water; durien fruit, in particular, does not smell particularly nice, even if it tastes good.  Our next stop was the British Darajani Market, built in 1904, with divisions for fish, beef / goat meat, and a world of fruits and spices. it was glorious, once we got past the fly-ridden meat areas!  The spice section seemed to have every possible flavoring on display.  I was reminded of the shop we had passed earlier in the day that distributes a red spice made from baobab seeds.  We acquired a bag to munch later.


The 1904 Darajani Market, with the Anglican cathedral spire at the left

As we passed from the market stalls behind Darajani, we passed the Emerson Hotel on Hurumzi.  Our guide mentioned that a museum dedicated to Princess Salme was next door, and Natasha and I made a mental note to check into it later in the week.  Our path meandered past the rear portions of the beachfront palace, and then we had arrived at the House of Wonders!


The House of Wonders desperately needs its current restoration.

The second sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, constructed the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib) in 1883 as a ceremonial palace and reception hall.  The building was named the House of Wonders due to its inclusion of electric lighting and of an elevator.  Its appearance is unmistakably British colonial, perhaps because it was designed by a British marine engineer.  The wide verandas and tall ceilings (made possible by iron columns) make for a very distinctive shape.  Recent collapses of internal and external structures, however, have closed the history museum inside; significant restoration work was underway during our visit.


Freddy Mercury performing in 1977, by Carl Lender

We had just one more stop before the end of the tour. We came to a crowded spot on the road, and we saw signs on the wall of a hotel that explained that this was the building that Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, first called home! His parents were Persian in origin, but they lived in Zanzibar at the time of his birth. His original name was Farrokh Bulsara. Mercury’s origins help to explain some of the lyrics used in his songs, such as “bismillah,” which means “in the name of God.”

After lunch at the Lukmaan Restaurant (with knock-me-over hot chai tea) and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the streets for our first swim on the island. We reached a beach right at the point of Stone Town. At 4:30 the beach was quite empty; we took turns guarding the backpack and swimming. Katharina, a German woman who had joined our tour of Stone Town, joined our group.  We had all gotten the same idea about a swim.  As the sun dipped toward the horizon, more locals came out to enjoy the water. A fair number of guys demanded the chance to talk with the women. Natasha rather enjoyed a “fat chat” with a 12 year old who wanted to practice his English. Katharina, on the hand, had to explain that the “no touching” rule would be enforced quite vigorously.

On our walk back, we enjoyed a yummy drink of sugar cane squeezings, flavored with lime. Natasha and I came back to the Lukmaan Restaurant for dinner and then retired to our room. Neither of us was awake when the New Year arrived!

Sacred sounds with the Cape Town Chamber Choir

I believe there’s a spark within each of us that turns our hearts to music.  For some, listening to beautiful (or at least catchy) tunes will be enough.  For others, though, we must try to create music, whether it comes from tapping out a beat on a makeshift drum or singing with our voices.  For some, the audience will be only shower tiles or a car interior, but others will seek to share that music with other people.  I caught this “bug” very early on, and for most of my life I have been part of one choir or another.

As I have mentioned before, I first joined the Stadskoor Tygerberg, a city choir that rehearsed quite close to my workplace in Parow.  After a while, though, I found that the group’s strong penchant to converse and rehearse in Afrikaans left me feeling like an outsider.  I am sad to say my progress in that language has been abysmally slow!  I am happier in my new role with the Stadskoor; I come to their events as a photographer and videographer now.

At the start of 2017, I auditioned to join the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  The group rehearses at the Reddam House in Green Point on Monday nights.  Coincidentally, I spend my Tuesdays at the Groote Schuur campus of the University of Cape Town, so the scheduling works out nicely.  Since I recently enjoyed my two performances with the group, I wanted to share that experience with my readers!

First, I must say that the level of musical expertise in the Chamber Choir is substantial.  At my very first rehearsal with the group, I was a bit startled to see how rapidly my section picked up the rhythms and intervals of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina.  I soon learned that some of the choristers had strong connections with Cape Town’s Fine Music Radio station.  I felt grateful to have succeeded in my audition; I’d definitely bumbled the sight-reading part.

I learned a lot about the personalities of people in the choir during our weekend-long retreat in March of 2017 at Chelaya Lodge.  We had a lot of fun with the fact that three of the basses are named David (I’m not the only Professor David, either).  The site for our camp was a good complement, with its quirky English decor– I particularly liked the telephone booth.


The group enjoyed some really lovely food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  On our final night, we had a proper braai, with boerewors and singing, of course!  The retreat was not just about fun (or food), though.  We worked on our music very intently.  At the time, the group intended a formal performance including most of our repertoire in June, so we invested a lot of effort in learning the bones of all the pieces.  The group did agree to a fun group photo while we were there:


I’ve often thought that I’m not really part of a choir until I have performed with them.  Frustratingly, that seemed to take a really long time.  Our plan for a June performance fell by the wayside since some of the pieces were proving to be rather difficult to get just right.  The group scheduled a less formal church performance during June of 2017, but I was unable to take part because I was in the United States.

The piece that seemed to be the sticking point was “Benedic anima mea Domino,” by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.  The piece is an aggressively-timed six-part harmony.  Probably the most challenging aspect of the piece is its highly inconsistent time signature, starting in 3:4 but flipping to 5:4 for a single measure even before one has left the first line!  Along the way it pops to 9:8, 6:4, and 4:4 time.  Essentially, the piece is a challenging series of ever-changing eighth-note rhythms.  By the end of our March retreat, I was pretty impressed with the choir’s ability to tackle it, but we didn’t stay in that solid state for long as our attention moved to other pieces.

At long last, our director, Marijke de Villiers Roos, decided on a fixed date for our big show.  On Sunday, September 3, 2017, we would perform at St. George’s Cathedral, at the heart of downtown Cape Town!  I was particularly delighted because I would have the chance to visit the cathedral where the parents of J.R.R. Tolkien were married!  The lead up to the big event, though, would be very taxing.  on top of our usual Monday rehearsals, the group added a pair of half-day Sunday rehearsals on August 20 and 27.  We also added a “dress rehearsal” on Tuesday, August 29.  By the day of the performance, my energy levels were pretty heavily drained; I had served as a photographer for a Stadskoor Tygerberg concert on the first of September.


Photo courtesy of Elize Erasmus

I was very pleased with the concert we produced.  The cathedral filled up quite nicely for the show, and I loved seeing some young people near the front who were already acquainted with some of the pieces from our set of a dozen or so songs.  The concert was also my first chance to hear Nathan Julius perform (he appears on the front row of the picture above).  Nathan has a truly powerful countertenor voice.  He is one of the South Africans who have benefited from training at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.  His concert with us was his last in Cape Town before attending Schola Cantorum in Switzerland.  To hear a male voice embrace such high, soaring notes was really unbelievable in that space!

While I was very happy with the subtlety of most of our repertoire, I must say I felt less content with “Benedic anima mea Domino.”  Perhaps our section was rushing or we were working with a slower tempo for performance, but I didn’t feel like our rhythms “clicked” as they should.  I was happy with “The Deer’s Cry” by Arvo Pärt (which requires the choir to show restraint to give a good contrast in dynamics).  For once, our “O quam gloriosum” by T.L. de Victoria sounded like we had something to celebrate!  I left the cathedral that day feeling elated.


Photo by Natasha Foley

We weren’t done performing, though!  For the next three Mondays, our choir rehearsed with special intensity because we were supporting the Cape Town Baroque Festival!  For four of the pieces presented on the opening night of the festival, specializing in the operas of the Baroque period, our choir provided the choral support.

It was a complete change of pace from the concert at St. George’s.  Our parts had us singing of the joys of love Semele enjoys in the heavens, impersonating shepherds extolling the natural loving to be found in peaceful groves, singing in French of the peaceful forests of the New World, or finally giving stern direction to the cupids guarding Dido’s tomb.  I know I really admired the voices of our soloists, and it was a genuine treat to be conducted by Erik Dippenaar, who can infuse an amazing amount of enthusiasm into the movements of his head (he conducts with his head while both his hands are busy accompanying on the spinet).

In short, I have loved singing with the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  I hope that I can keep up with the group, even as my travel schedule kicks back into gear!  Making it to rehearsal each week can be blocked when I am teaching workshops and contributing research seminars outside Cape Town.  I will just have to do my best.  Singing with these excellent performers is very rewarding!

Chasing Churchill and Singin’ a Song in the Central Drakensberg

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 9, 2017

Table Mountain is nice, but it’s not huge at roughly a kilometer in height. For big mountains in South Africa, one must look at the rim of mountains surrounding Lesotho; the eastern arc is called the Drakensberg. The very highest mountain in South Africa is Mafadi, at 3451 meters. It doesn’t get much attention, though, because it is more of a shelf than a proper peak. My day’s travels would take me into the central Drakensberg for my first encounter with this massive range.

To get there, though, required a couple hours’ drive from Pietermaritzburg. When I charged Litchi west onto the N3, though, I was doubtful. The hamster under the hood did not like the steady climb that was required of it, and it made quite the howl, in response. After the first hour, though, the road leveled considerably, and I began driving through undulating hills. From place to place I encountered areas that had been burned, I think intentionally.  Lara, who ran the bed and breakfast at Pietersmaritzburg, had mentioned the “Midlands Meander,” directly to the west, but I was headed north of that route.

IMG_0050At Mooirivier I had another adventure with a toll booth. This was was more expensive, at R46 ZAR. I handed the attendant R51, and she looked back at me and said something I couldn’t understand. When I stared at her uncomprehendingly, she shouted, “IT’S UP!” and pointed at the gate. I automatically shoved the car into first gear. I was a hundred yards away before I realized she hadn’t handed me any change.

Winston Churchill becomes a POW

An obscure fact from history had struck me the night before. In the days before Winston Churchill was prime minister during World War II, even before he had masterminded the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, he had been captured as a prisoner of war in South Africa! Churchill had finagled his way to South Africa as a journalist, and he convinced the military leadership to let him ride on an armored train running north to Colenso. When the train was derailed, he acted with great courage, but he was captured and handled as a POW because his actions were clearly partisan.

Finding the monument relating to his capture, though, was quite a problem. I knew it was near the intersection of the N3 and the R74 (this was, coincidentally, my turn-off to my next destination). I drove east from that intersection but saw nothing like the monument’s description. Continuing for about fifteen minutes, I saw no match, so I pulled into a farm store. The attendant knew nothing about the monument, but one of her coworkers said, “never mind her; she’s from the Free State.” The coworker then drew me a map. She emphasized that the only tar (paved) road leading south from the R74 (just east of the N3 intersection) was what I wanted. I found that road and headed south for ten minutes: nothing. I looped back and consulted Google Maps on my phone. This time, I saw that the little pull-off on the tar road I was following was within sight of the R74! I found it at last and took a few photos. I paused in the breeze, thinking of a young man who begged to go to war, and I said, “Churchill, you were a crazy man.”

IMG_0057Having scratched my history itch, I shot northwest to Winterton. I was able to confirm the location of my lodgings for the night, and so I headed south on the R600 into the area of Cathkin’s peak, where a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains is notable for a birds of prey center, an arts community, excellent hiking trails, and a very unusual school for boys. The R600 is one lane heading south and one lane heading north, and essentially all traffic into the area uses the road. From place to place I would encounter a group of small children dancing by the side of the road in hopes of earning some cash.

Ardmore Arts Farm


A grandfather indicates a direction with his spear for a young Zulu.

My first stop was an impulsive one. Natasha had mentioned Ardmore as an interesting arts community with an international reputation for creative ceramic artwork. I was hungry when the sign for Ardmore appeared, and the sign indicated that they had dining options! I headed east for a visit. I was dismayed when the tar road soon became gravelly dirt. I bounced along the road and stopped at the first place that appeared to be open for business. They had an antique shop and a shop that qualified as an antique (and was now billed as a museum). I visited the antique shop, bought a ladle, and continued down the road until I had arrived at Ardmore. A woman named Fée Halsted-Berning had been “retrenched” from her position as a ceramics lecturer in 1985. She moved to her soon-to-be-husband’s farm in the Drakensberg and asked her housekeeper if she knew any local artisans who would like to be trained in ceramics. Bonnie Ntshalintshali soon became her fast friend, and others joined in to create a studio of more than one hundred ceramic artists, with worldwide sales to not only collectors but museums. Today the Ardmore Farm is owned by a new couple, but this change has led to an expansion to hand-woven fabrics, under the label African Loom. The original pottery studio has become a series of rooms for the bed-and-breakfast business; the ceramics studio has moved to a different location. I loved the light and greenery of the property, and I loved the peculiar silo-shaped multistory homes that a couple of the employees inhabit!


The original Ardmore pottery studio

Monk’s Cowl


My next stop was intended to let me touch a mountain. From Ardmore I had seen the “Champagne Castle” area dimly in the distance, but I wanted to get closer. I reached the Southern end of the R600 at the trail head for “Monk’s Cowl.” My lower left leg was still giving me troubles with a pulled muscle and a blister, but I simply gutted it out to wander down the trail toward nearby pools. I took some advice from the guards and donned my cap again and grabbed the bottle of water. I had not walked more than fifteen minutes when I encountered a lovely vista of the mountains. I snapped several photos, moved a bit further, found another view, and shot more photos. Then, looking at my watch, I realized it was time for me to turn back for my only planned event of the day!

Drakensberg Choir Boys School


I had realized that my day in the central Drakensberg was a Wednesday, and the Drakensberg Choir Boys School has weekly concerts on Wednesdays at 3:30! One of my last coherent thoughts in Durban was to purchase a ticket so I wouldn’t have to worry about the concert selling out (this Wednesday was South African Women’s Day). I arrived at the school right on time, and a school teacher gave us some orientation about the institution as we stood in the first room that the school used for these weekly performances. Since 1967, the school has been hosting boys from ages 9-15 who want to become excellent musical performers. The children have very full school days since they practice music for hours in addition to the normal school requirements. The school has three performing choirs. Their two most experienced choirs had recently been on tour in Japan, and the group we heard today had just returned while the other continued for a few more performances in that country. He estimated that the three school choirs produce a total of around 85 performances in the course of a year!

I was really happy with my seat; I was in the second row, quite close to the middle. For the first half, the boys were wearing formal outfits, with a white ruff of sorts over a blue shirt. I was close enough that I could hear individual voices. The quality of individual singers was most apparent when a boy would feature as a soloist. It makes sense to me that individual boys are able to move successfully to music careers after such intensive training. Having participated in a number of choirs throughout my life, I am a bit “judgy” on music. I wanted to know if these boys, submerged in music, rose to the level of the Tygerberg Children’s Choir, probably the best choir I have ever heard perform before. I was a bit frustrated by the show’s opening with an Eric Whitacre piece. In my view, you use the Eric Whitacre somewhere mid-show, when you are ready to wow an audience that has settled into complacency. I really appreciated the excellent showmanship on display, even by some very young boys (featuring as sopranos). It was nice to see the not-ready-for-performance-choir boys serving as ushers and stage setting. The second half opened with a special performance by the Ulm junge blaserphilharmonie (youth wind philharmonic). It was a huge group, and their play was very evocative. I learned to love a piece of which I hadn’t heard before, celebrating the “Red Rock Mountain” of Pennsylvania, and they did an amazing job with Shostakovich. The Drakensberg choir then closed the show with a multi-part paean to the receding animal life of Africa. I believe the piece spanned approximately a half hour, and the dancing, singing, and drumming on display were stunning. The boys were sweating a fair amount by the end, but I know I would have been passed out if I’d tried anything as audacious. It was quite the way to close the show!

It had been a very full day.  I returned to Winterton, and I checked into the Lilac Lodge, a bed and breakfast spanning several buildings.  I was delighted to discover eight cats occupy the property.  I could not, however, tempt any to visit me.  Actually, a few of them seemed to be locked in a titanic struggle of wills!  I sent a few messages via WiFi, standing outside to get a signal.  The room was comfortable and quiet, and off I went to Dreamland.

Johnny Clegg: the Spirit of the Great Heart

I would not have expected that a man born in the United Kingdom would be able to teach me about being South African, but Johnny Clegg is no ordinary man.  Last night, he kicked off his “Final Journey” tour in Cape Town, and Natasha and I eagerly acquired tickets to be part of the event.  In a sprawling three hour concert, Johnny Clegg demonstrated the depth he achieved in nearly four decades of musical performance.

johnny-clegg-valenciennes-davidata-14_07_2009In the zodiac of musical performance, I would place Johnny Clegg in a constellation with Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam).  Peter Gabriel and Clegg performed duets as part of the “46664” concert series against HIV/AIDS.  Paul Simon, of course, produced the amazing “Graceland” through his connection with South Africa, braving significant controversy to do so.  Yusuf Islam incorporated a Zulu-language chorus made famous by Clegg into his recent song, “Angel of War.”  Clegg may not have the same recognition as these artists in the United States, but in other parts of the world his star has shone more brightly.

Johnny Clegg was nicknamed the “White Zulu” for his love of the Zulu language, culture, and dance.  His mother (born in Zimbabwe) moved their family to South Africa when he was seven years old, and his South African step-father (a crime reporter) introduced him to the townships.  Johnny was taught to play guitar by the housekeeper of his neighbor, and his skills soon introduced him to Sipho Mchunu, an innovator of Zulu guitar.  When the two began performing together in the 1970s, they could only play informal venues due to Apartheid-era restrictions intended explicitly to keep people of different races estranged from each other.

A feature of Johnny Clegg’s career that fascinates me, in particular, was that he abandoned an academic career in order to pursue his musical career.  Earning his BA and Honours in Social Anthropology at U. Witwatersrand, he became a lecturer on Zulu music and dance.  When the popularity of his music with Mchunu produced the opportunity to tour, he took a sabbatical, thinking that he would be back in academia within a year.  Instead he launched on an altogether different trajectory.  He did not lose his love for anthropology, however.  In 2010, he presented a thirteen-part television series with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to explore the connection between the landscape and culture of the country.  This week I borrowed a copy of the DVDs for this series from the Stellenbosch University Library.  I can hardly wait!

The Concert


Even a bioinformaticist can take a selfie!

Natasha and I arrived at the GrandWest Casino for his concert with approximately fifteen minutes remaining before the concert, merging with a heavy flow of traffic into the parking area.  I had driven past the Casino before but had never been inside.  It is quite the place!  Besides containing a full-size cinema and some of the largest fast-foot franchises I have seen for several restaurants, its Grand Arena can seat 5,000 people.  Of course, it also features a hotel and the casino itself.  We navigated through dense crowds of pedestrians past many young people with trays of goodies for sale.  I decided to purchase a memento from the “official merchandise” table.  For R200 ($15), I acquired a DVD of Johnny Clegg’s favorite Zulu street guitar songs and two CDs full of music.

I was not sure what to expect from an opening act described as “Indie Dark Pop,” but Tailor was pretty entertaining! Natasha and I kept changing our minds about whether she was American or Australian.  When Johnny Clegg’s band took the stage, though, everyone sat forward on their seats.  Since almost every song he sings includes Zulu lyrics, one might have expected an audience that reflects South Africa’s racial diversity.  With tickets starting at R325 ($25), though, the audience was almost entirely white.  Their incomprehension of the Zulu phrases in songs and spoken word was pretty apparent (I was in the same boat).

This concert was structured autobiographically, reflecting that this is Johnny Clegg’s final tour.  He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, which his doctors treated successfully with chemotherapy.  The singer will retire from public life after this tour (and one last album, currently being mixed).  As one might have expected from his reputation as a lively performer, though, Johnny Clegg seemed driven by a restless energy.  When he spun tales from his past between musical numbers, he paced back and forth like a beast in a cage.  His footwork while dancing showed no sign of tiredness, with only a fifteen minute break mid-concert to rest!  When the concert featured pantsula dance or traditional Zulu war dance, however, most of the performance was carried by young people (who had serious skills, by the way).  Johnny Clegg did provide a powerful demonstration that he can still do the moves of the war dance, however, and the crowd roared with approval.

The appeal

What is it about Johnny Clegg that has drawn my attention so strongly during my nineteen months in South Africa?  I would have to start with the shared outsider identity.  It matters to me that South Africa could embrace someone born elsewhere.  I take real delight in what I find in this country, and I want to know that others could see me as part of South Africa’s story, too.  Being “the American” has a limited shelf-life; I want to be seen for what I can contribute instead!

As I listened to Johnny Clegg’s words from the stage last night, he solidified some other reasons I had been drawn to his music.  In introducing “Kilimanjaro,” he talked about the importance of keeping a long perspective, even as the world is convulsed with a self-destructive phase.  The strongest resonance I felt, though, was reserved for “Great Heart.”  As long-time readers will remember, I grappled with language to voice why I needed to move to South Africa.  May I borrow some words from Mr. Clegg?

I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
To hold and stand me by
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
Under African sky
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
I see the fire in your eyes
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
That beats my name inside
Sometimes I feel that you really know me
Sometimes there’s much you can show me

By coming to South Africa, I have discovered even more than I sought in coming here.  To be part of this country’s struggle touches something vital within me.  I appreciate Johnny Clegg for singing that truth!