Tag Archives: music

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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!

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The original Ardmore pottery studio

Monk’s Cowl

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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

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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

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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!

The City Choir of Tygerberg

When I first moved to East Tennessee, I joined the choir of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church.  When I moved to Nashville, I joined the choir of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville.  A couple of years later, I was part of the Nashville in Harmony civil rights chorus.  I am a big believer in making friends through music!  It is no surprise, then, that I joined a choir in Cape Town in January, just two months after I moved to South Africa.

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Tuesday night rehearsals seem to keep the tempo moving well.

The Stadskoor Tygerberg has been performing since 1977.  The name simply means “City choir of Tygerberg.”  The irony is that Tygerberg is not a city; instead, it is a sub-district of Cape Town positioned to the south of the Tygerberg hills.  Tygerberg includes Parow, where I shopped during my first weeks here, and Bellville, where I registered for taxes and my traffic register number.  It is also home to the campus of Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences where I work.  Singing in a choir for Tygerberg keeps it all in the neighborhood!

Some of its members have been with the group for most of its history!  In 2012, Linda Claassen became the conductor for the group.  She has sought to direct the group toward greater musicality, with more challenging classical work and a cappella pieces.  Her own flair for organ performance led in the direction of this season’s premiere piece, the Messe Solennelle of Louis Vierne (1870-1937).  The group will perform this work during the Choral Festival at Bishops Diocesan College in Rondebosch (May 13-14, 2016).

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This organ console supports the organ in the church where we rehearse. We use the piano instead.

One of the key challenges for me in the choir is that the rehearsal is almost entirely conducted in Afrikaans.  I frequently sit with Don, a physics professor who moved to Durban from Canada in the 1970s.  We represent the Afrikaans-illiterate section of the choir (Durban is in KwaZulu-Natal, where Afrikaans is infrequently used).  We’ve both picked up enough of the language to recognize when the director wants only the basses to sing, but I know I struggle when she calls out a measure number from which we should start singing.  Though most other choir members are quite comfortable in Afrikaans, they are almost all completely fluent in English, as well.  They’ve been very welcoming to me, and I feel at home with the group.

Of course, every choir must have its uniforms for performance.  The outfits for men are quite simple.  We wear black pants and shoes with a white collared shirt.  We have a rainbow of neckties from which to choose on performance days.  So far, our group has contributed music for church services, but the coming performances are likely to be more demanding.  I’m hopeful that we show our best colors this weekend!

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Though many things change in another language, one can puzzle out most of the differences!

Stuck in an elevator

No, the title is no metaphor.  I spent the last half hour stuck inside an elevator of the MRB3 building.  A grad student and I had boarded on the second floor of the building.  She left on the seventh floor, and I waited a bit longer as the elevator climbed to the ninth.  The door twitched on my floor, but it didn’t open.  I hit the door open button, but nothing happened.  I punched the eighth floor button, and the elevator moved downward a floor.  The door, however, stayed shut.  I was trapped!

Happily, claustrophobia has never been a problem.  The wobbling of the elevator motion was starting to make me dizzy, though.  I looked at the control panel, and I saw lots of interesting options if I were a firefighter.  Then I looked down and realized it was time to phone a friend.  I plunked down onto the floor and swung open the telephone box.  I pressed the silver button, and in seconds I was talking to the police department.  Meanwhile, the elevator had developed a mind of its own.  It descended to the basement and paused there.  The police seemed unsure who to call, but soon I got the sense that things were happening behind the scenes.  The elevator began to rise again, stopping at the second floor.  I soon heard someone outside, messing with the door.

I started talking with the service fellow in the elevator bay.  He had tried pressing on the door to encourage it to retract, but he didn’t think he had found the “sweet spot.”  Silence descended again.  I began singing some Billy Joel.  The service fellow didn’t know his greatest hits, so I switched over to Tennessee Ernie Ford.  He joined in on the chorus of “Sixteen Tons,” and helpfully he knew the other verses.  We finished our duet as police service officers joined him.  Soon, the elevator specialists were on the scene.  One climbed on top of the elevator car and declared the the door motor was a total loss.  They opened the door, and I stepped into the elevator bay.

I took the stairs up to my office.