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August 27, 2018

I’ve just returned from a trip with about fifty other members of the Minnesota Chorale to South Africa to sing with the Minnesota Orchestra on their history-making tour of that country. The occasion was the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. While the orchestra toured to several cities, the Chorale appeared at only two concerts, one in Soweto and the other in Johannesburg City Hall. At both concerts we collaborated with two South African choirs: the Gauteng Choristers, a large, all-black symphonic chorus; and 29:11, a small gospel choir, mostly living in Cape Town, who had just been on a four-month visit to Minnesota.

On the orchestra’s program was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which calls in its last movement for chorus and soloists. The text, by Friedrich Schiller, repeatedly proclaims the hope that “All men will become brothers.” I’m guessing that was a primary reason for including the Ninth on the program, and thus for inviting us to participate. Any idea, however, that our purpose was to bring great Western music to Africa quickly dissipated in a much more reciprocal exchange of skills and enthusiasms. Already in Minneapolis, rehearsing with 29:11, we had had a taste of what it means to make music in a multi-racial, multi-lingual nation in the aftermath of dramatic attempts at healing—through truth and reconciliation—from the hellish experience of apartheid. A small illustration is the South African national anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika (God bless Africa), which is in five of the country’s eleven offical languages. Unlike the American anthem, a battlefield paean to the flag as a symbol of reflexive patriotism, the S.A. anthem asks for God’s blessing on the country and its family, and sings the beauties of the land. Thus in form and content it embodies unity and love of the land itself. On top of that, during apartheid it was banned as treasonous; you could be shot for singing it. Africans sing it fervently, as if they meant it.

The balance of the choral part of the program consisted of several songs well-known to South Africans, either as folk songs, protest songs, or celebrations of Mandela. The Gauteng Choristers and 29:11 had to grapple with Schiller’s German text, while we had to try to produce some unfamiliar consonants from the Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho languages, including three kinds of clicks. I don’t know whether it was a fair trade, but the Africans ultimately produced much more convincing German than we made clicks. They were also determined to liberate us from the stand-straight-and-deliver posture that is our classical choral heritage; outside the confines of the Beethoven we were going to move. Indeed, our not-entirely-ludicrous attempts to learn and reproduce the choreography of those exuberant songs probably did as much to endear us to our audiences as any sounds we made.

On our first day in Johannesburg, in a sterile conference room of our suburban hotel, we met with Sidwell Mhlongo, the conductor of the Gauteng Choristers. A gentler, more gracious, more humane leader you will never meet. He’d had a stroke recently, which incapacitated his right arm, and had had to learn to conduct with his left. He guided us patiently into the spirit of the African songs, and we looked forward to meeting his choristers. They joined us the next day for a piano rehearsal with Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s conductor. We had been told to expect a big sound from them, but were nonetheless astonished when at last we actually heard them. They make enormously rich, full-bodied resonances. If you have heard the great African-American gospel and opera singers, you have an idea of what is possible individually; a whole chorus of such voices is overwhelming. Our bass section is no slouch, but theirs really gets an audience’s attention.

I expected some tension as Osmo took over the dynamics, timing, and pacing of the African songs, inevitably robbing them of some of the boisterous spontaneity that is their charm. But I think the Gauteng Choristers realized soon enough that it was his responsibility to coordinate the orchestra with the chorus, and while there is considerable flexibility possible with a great orchestra such as the Minnesota, spontaneous additions of extra verses and repetitions is a little harder, and dynamics have to be carefully balanced in rehearsal, or one part or another will be drowned out.

Once we started rehearsing and performing with the orchestra and the soloists for the Beethoven, we were all energized and excited. I’ll not report any more details of our music making with the orchestra. There are plenty of well-written reports of the rehearsals and concerts in Soweto and Johannesburg, notably by Scott Chamberlain (see, for example, https://www.minnpost.com/arts-culture/2018/08/minnesota-orchestras-extraordinary-experience-soweto) and the Star Tribune’s Jenna Ross (see, for example, http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-singers-join-voices-with-south-african-choir-it-s-magic-all-the-way/490839921/). *

Within and around and apart from the music making we had, of course, each our own encounter with South Africa, the land and people. The Gauteng Choristers and 29:11 are mostly (or maybe entirely) not from an economically comfortable stratum of society. Many of them, for instance, could not afford the carfare to come to every rehearsal. We from the Chorale, by contrast, were mostly those who could easily afford the expensive trip. There was also an age gap: apart from a few young adults, we were mostly a relatively aged delegation; they were mostly students or beginning career people. Nevertheless, they made us extremely comfortable. Among other things, we could take for granted their astonishing language skills. I heard a few Minnesotans using slang and making domestic American political and cultural references that were probably unintelligible to non-Americans, but by and large there were no awkward lapses of communication.

Then there was their unfailing good humor and good will. These are people, after all, whose childhoods were marred by the degradation of a race-based caste system and who have no a priori reason to expect respect and deference from Americans. Yet that is the way I felt—that they were survivors, struggling for education and economic security against odds in a society that faces problems of crime, political and social instability, immigration and homelessness that dwarf ours, reaching in spite of all that to make a cultural bridge with us on our terms. It was a continual gift of time and personal capital from them to us, given with laughter and lively curiosity.

Outside our collaboration there were discordant notes. Our hotel was in well-to-do Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg to which many businesses have relocated from downtown because of the massive influx downtown of undocumented refugees from Zimbabwe. The economy of Zimbabwe is in shambles, and Western visitors, as well as business customers—our guide told us—are frightened by the squatters. Even in Sandton, the hotel personnel kept telling us we were unsafe, and they wanted us to take hotel shuttles to the nearby businesses, even in broad daylight. A few of us heeded that warning a time or two, but by and large we all walked to restaurants and malls in the vicinity without incident.

Many in the Chorale had a much richer experience of South African cultural life, shops, the jazz scene, museums, and cuisine (ostrich, crocodile, kudu, mopane worms) than I did. Mostly it was a matter of energy and organization, arranging on social media for an after-hours outing. It didn’t help that I’m uninterested in drinking in bars. I’m not squeamish about unfamiliar foods or other new sensations, and certainly not uninterested in cultural experiences, but I’m inept at organizing get-togethers—your basic wallflower personality—and certainly lower-energy these days than in earlier decades. It was all I could do to meet people in the Chorale I didn’t know very well and get to our various assignations on time, reasonably well-rested and fed. Shyness also prevented me from introducing myself to Dessa (http://www.doomtree.net/dessa/) at our farewell dinner with the orchestra—she was on the tour as a blogger—even though my son Tim went to high school with her, and she recently did some voice-over work for a documentary film on which he is the sound editor.

The tour organizers had built into our schedule several outings to places of interest in and around Johannesburg. Outstanding among these were a little walking tour of Kliptown, the oldest of the forty or so townships that make up Soweto, and Freedom Park in Pretoria. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had mixed feelings about touring in Soweto, to which hundreds of thousands of South African blacks were forcibly relocated when their original townships were razed to make room for housing for whites. Our guide assured us that the residents would appreciate outsiders coming to visit, but it was impossible to avoid the sensation of being voyeurs in a private place. The townships of Soweto stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions. Housing varies from wobbly-looking shacks with corrugated tin roofs—weighted against blowing off in the wind with cement blocks or rubber tires—all the way up to brick houses that reminded me of the sort of home that the third little pig in the cautionary tale might have built. The rubber tires are a fire hazard during the frequent thunderstorms, but they are plentiful. Unsanitary water runs down the dirt lanes where children play. Chickens cluck and peck as their owners put out laundry or go about the other tasks of daily life. For every possible commercial need there are little shops among the shacks, with hand-lettered signs advertising their wares and services.

Our guides were principals in an organization called the Kliptown Youth Program (https://www.kliptownyouthprogram.org.za), which reminded me strikingly of our Minnesota-grown organization College Possible. From among the many residents they select a small number of youngsters who show promise of strong enough motivation and ability to dream of transcending their circumstances and make the dream a reality. Those kids get homework help, computer instruction (in spite of the unreliable electric supply in the townships!), and cultural enrichment. Alumni of the program succeed at a high rate, and many come back to help the program help others. This formula works amazingly well for College Possible, and there is no reason to think it won’t work for KYP.

We went to Freedom Park after having visited the Voortrekker Monument, an enormous cube of granite—looking like nothing so much as a fascist or Stalinist mausoleum—with bas reliefs celebrating the migration in Conestoga-like wagons of Boer farmers northward and eastward from the Cape when they felt oppressed by the British empire. Being at the monument felt a bit like celebrating American pioneers on the grounds of a Native American reservation. It had a lovely acoustic inside, where we sang the American repertoire we had brought with us, but I was glad to leave.

The main feature of Freedom Park is a series of commemorative walls, on many bricks of which are inscribed names of people who contributed to the fight against apartheid. The surrounding park is a carefully designed artifical landscape that brings peace and tranquility through water features and such symbols as a long row of metal poles in the shape of reeds that symbolize rebirth of the nation. Our guide—who would have been classified as “coloured” under apartheid—was a splendidly erudite man who not only gave a nuanced description of the purpose, features, and symbols of the park, but also minced no words about the controversies that surround its origins and continuation. Of particular interest is the question of what names will be added to the commemorative wall, who gets to decide that and how; in short the historiography of the place—who gets to tell the story of South Africa and what it will be. For our guide, the controversies are the purpose of the place, because spirited but civil debate is the lifeblood of a thriving democracy.

After our concerts, a brief and informal but heart-tugging farewell party with the Gauteng Choristers, the more formal celebration with the orchestra, and a final night at our hotel, we boarded the bus yet again, this time for a day-and-a-half of pure tourism. We had a couple of hours in the countryside at a sort of game reserve, where we saw many of the kinds of birds and mammals you would want to see on a safari. The place was too small to allow predators and prey to reach a natural balance, so they used fences to separate them. Nonetheless, it was fun, and occasionally breathtaking, to be driven up close to species that are the stuff of legends and dreams. I think we all fell in love with the lonely, middle-aged rhino.

We spent the afternoon and evening at a sort of bushveldt resort, with circular rondavels for accommodations, plenty of walking paths, and a nearby lake impounded by a dam. Several people saw hippopotamuses at the opposite end of the lake from the dam, but I didn’t. It was a pleasure to stretch our legs and walk on dusty paths through the tall veldt grasses. We had a nice dinner, where we sang for the wait staff, a pleasant night with wonderful southern-hemisphere stars, good breakfast, and an early departure for the Museum of the Cradle of Humanity.

We were somewhat rushed through that museum, which has hokey features but also a splendidly detailed account of the many hominin species that preceded ours and a wonderful exhibit on the near-miraculous discovery of ancient skeletons in a nearby cave. After that, we drove to a large market, where we had lunch and were assaulted by dozens of high-pressure merchants eager to extract exhorbitant prices from rich Americans for their crafts. This was for me the most distasteful moment of the tour. On the one hand, I felt as though it was my duty as a rich visitor to distribute reasonably bountiful sums of money to people living under much less fortunate circumstances—I think they were mostly, if not all, immigrants from Zimbabwe. On the other hand, they were as aggressive as rug merchants in Arab bazaars, perpetually handing you off for one phase of a transaction after another: wrapping your purchases; escorting you to the payment booth; visiting yet another shop run by a “relative” to which your purchases had mysteriously migrated; imploring you to help just one more merchant for whom you would be the first sale of the day; meeting one more “relative” with a gift for you—no obligation; etc., etc., all the while refusing to admit that their tactics were high pressure. I didn’t want to leave the country angry, but that was precisely the effect. Finally I retreated to the bus for the last twenty minutes of our stop, even though it was nicer outside, just to have some refuge.

From the market we went straight to the airport for the long flight home, with highlights of our musical collaborations replaying in our minds, and just beginning to digest the whole experience. I think I speak for everyone in expressing the hope that we can somehow find a way to finance a visit by the Gauteng Choristers to Minnesota, as well as another visit by 29:11. Nothing breaks down barriers faster than artistic collaboration with people who are willing to go more than half way to meet us. And such lovely people—open, curious, affable, funny, spontaneous, demonstrative, and talented!

*I think I’d better explain the photo at the top of that Aug. 17 Star Tribune piece by Jenna Ross, in particular the expression on the face of Xolani Mootane, the remarkable tenor who sang the solo in the Mandela song Usilethela uxolo and conducted us in Bawo tixo somandla. It’s impossible to know, of course, exactly when the photographer snapped the picture, but I think you’ll agree with my guess. We were rehearsing a piece, Ruri, about the wonders of God’s creation. Sidwell, whom you see conducting in the photo, had explained to us that the contrasting middle section is about how God also made fearsome creatures, notably the crocodile, and that we should show on our faces the terror that a crocodile inspires. Clearly Xolani is doing a good job of that, while the rest of us are at best half-heartedly struggling to make any semblance of fright at all.