Thursday, September 25, 2008


When I arrived back from Grahamstown on Friday night I originally had no weekend plans other than Saturday morning tutoring. But I was invited to the purely-Afrikaans university Stellenbosch for a music competition final. They took the category winners from Friday’s final round and had them perform in the finals concert though the judges had chosen the overall music festival winner. Even though I did not attend the first (Wed), second (Thurs), or final (Fri) rounds, I could tell who would win—it was between two people, a marimba player and a pianist—both girls. All the contestants were either high school or college age, so they were impressive (sorry there was one professional—I forgot but they didn’t give it to him I think because he was a professional or above a certain age).

The winner was the pianist and she had chosen to perform a piece that was a medley of four American Ballads: Down by the Riverside & Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues uit 4 North American Ballads by Rzewski (1938-) Uit is an Afrikaans word. The entire program and brochure and university signs were in Afrikaans. The speakers spoke in Afrikaans when announcing the results. But I wanted to talk about this girl because she highlighted what music was: an art and a craft. People talk about how it’s so right-brained and it’s such an art. But you don’t have to do anything artistic with it and you can be quite famous. You first must learn the craft: learn the notes, the technique, the placements—you must learn how to perform a piece. Once that is done (in classical music) then you can work on musicality and expressing the piece and the actual art. Personally I prefer hearing someone who says something through a piece with technical mistakes than someone who plays something perfectly that is not artistic. My friend Jose-Miguel questions what art is. Though I haven’t defined it, my words are a picture of it.

So this girl is playing these spirituals and American songs and she is dancing with it. I have NEVER seen this in a classical player (not to this degree). The rhythms are a bit complex and so you’re left and right hands need to be ok behind independent. And her head just bobs in a strange figure 8 pattern while her upper body snakes when her left hand sets up a repeating pattern before her right hand comes in. It’s like her body internalizes the beat, the meaning, the significance and the implications of the music and what it meant. She even played the piano with her elbows!! No lie. I also have never seen this in a classical piece. Now mind you, this is classical music, so it sounds like notated improvisation by the composer (like some of Gershwin’s pieces). You might think she’s making it up, but you remember it’s a fully composed piece by someone, but she plays it like it was hers, like it came from hers, and you feel somewhat silly for ever thinking that someone else could have thought of something so attached to her soul.

She spoke through the music. And she won. All eyes were glued on her. And the people sleeping woke up when she played. It was fun.

Before the competition, Some friends and I had dessert on an apple farm in Stellenbosch (vineyard-suburb of Cape Town they way you would think of a suburb in the States).

This past weekend (yesterday) I went to a fundraiser ball, a formal dance to raise money for an NGO called Vision K. They work with students grade 10-12 from a township outside of Stellenbosch. It was completely inspirational for me because you know I feel like so many more of us should be doing such work. The lives of the students are changed for the better. And the NGO has passed the two year mark!! So they actually have kids who started in the program who are in college now. And 3 spoke. It was wonderful to hear. Amazingly one of them passed ALL of his first semester courses. The reason that that is amazing because the level of education is much different. Black kids from the townships have a higher chance of doing below average in their courses. In other words it’s not a level playing field. And in all honesty, Vision K’s mission is not to get all of their kids in college. Their goal is to give them life skills to aid them to do whatever they go on to do in their lives. Grade 10 is life skills work. Grade 11 is service work. Grade 12 is academic support. And each year the groups go on camps where these people are building into their lives.

I was soo thrilled to be a part of such an event. The kids really touched me. Before the dinner and dance they performed some songs and a play. The play was the Prodigal Son and for some reason (I’ve been recently studying about Jesus, again, his significance then and now and I studied this story and what it meant) it touched me deeply. I loved it. It of course was set in South Africa.

The reason that I talk about it in the ARTS section is that they did a drama and they sang. And I’ve been told by Americans (like my friend Marissa who is a beautifully affectionate foreign service worker who is trilingual, headed to Mexico and pregnant with her first healthy baby--congrats) that South Africans have such gifted singing voices. I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that they sing closer to an American style than any other Africans I’ve seen. I think this might be it. I’ve noticed for instance that when an African tries to audition for American Idol they are placed in the first show with all the rejects because “she doesn’t know she sounds badly.” The problem is that the aesthetic/style is much different in Africa. This is especially true of the vibrato. We employ a different kind of vibrato that sounds bad to Americans. But I notice here that they tend to sing much more like Americans in South Africa—even with their own songs. I think it’s the American influence (you could say African-American influence but American works).

It’s still good and beautiful. It’s just something I noticed.

Goya’s Ghost
Interesting. If you’re into to historical fiction, this is at least the genre. I think it is more about the lives of a few people than the history of the Spanish Inquisition and Spain under France. But strange. Natalie Portman, after being in a dark dungeon for 15 years, looks emaciated, like a rotting skeleton or something. My friend thought she was overacting at this point. I’m not sure how I would have acted if the make-up artists made me look like that with a dislocated or rotted jaw.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Cute. I wasn’t in the mood for something dark and the only other thing showing was Ang Lee’s “Lust Caution.” Thunderbird something (the movie with Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Downey Jr) wasn’t until 2 hours later, so I saw this. I enjoyed it. Fun, light movie.

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