Reflections from South Africa, Part 1

Posted on May 13, 2011


On Sunday night, I got back to Denver after a one and a half week performance tour of South Africa with the Colorado Children’s Chorale National Tour Choir. In case you don’t know, I’m an assistant conductor for the Chorale, which means that going to South Africa actually involved working, but intertwined with the work were cultural experiences and sight-seeing excursions that not only profoundly impacted the worldview of our kids but my own worldview as well.

I left this tour feeling older. Wiser. In two weeks I learned a lot about an incredible country, and I learned a lot about myself. I’ve struggled with what exactly I want to share with my readers about this trip. Many of you have no doubt seen the videos I’ve put together that I’ve been posting on Facebook, Twitter and on the Chorale’s blog, but what I learned and experienced in South Africa was so much more than elephant crossings and great music, and I’d love to share the rest of the story with you, as authentically as I know how.

Right off the bat, I was struck by how stunningly beautiful South Africa was. From in and around Johannesburg to the Garden Route to Cape Town, we were almost always surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. I knew almost nothing about South Africa prior to going there, and I guess it’s fair to say that I was not expecting it to be as beautiful as it is. I found my blind date with South Africa to be a really special way to experience a new place: no preconceptions, no iconic photographs of important buildings or natural landmarks etched into my brain; just experiencing everything as it came at me in real time. The only thing I really had to go on was a guide book that I bought to read on the plane and the image of what South Africa looked like on the globe that used to sit in one of my elementary school classrooms. Experiencing a new place this way made for one awesome surprise after another. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better or more beautiful or the experience couldn’t get any better, something else would happen that would take your breath away even more. I couldn’t help but think: how many other places are there like South Africa around the world that could provide us with the experience of a lifetime, but we overlook them because we’d rather see the stuff we’ve heard about our whole lives?

The kids did five concerts while we were there, averaging one every other day that we were there. The audiences were, as you might expect, very different from our traditional classical music audiences. In the areas where it was mostly black folks living, the audiences were LOUD. And when they liked something, you knew about it. They would yell, cheer, clap, and make all sorts of sounds as soon as something happened that they liked. Occasionally, they’d also put an index finger in the air and bend it really fast over and over again as a way of silently showing that they liked something. Of course we didn’t take any of this behavior as being rude…in fact, the kids fed off the energy that the crowd provided. And when we went to another part of the country that was predominantly white- a place where audience etiquette resembles what we would expect here in the states for a classical music concert- the kids definitely told us that they missed the louder, more visibly enthusiastic audiences.

Speaking of black and white, it was interesting to see how much more freely people in South Africa seem to talk about and acknowledge race compared to how we are these days in The States. Pieter, our white (Afrikaaner) tour guide gave us all sorts of information about the different ethnic groups, and made it clear that while there is such a thing as political correctness in South Africa, race is dealt with and acknowledged much more openly than our American ears were accustomed to. In fact, it really hit home when Pieter brought a black colleague of his on board to do our tour of Soweto– a black township outside of Johannesburg- and said something to the effect of, “I never think it’s right for a pale face like myself to give a tour of Soweto, so my colleague Josephine is going to be giving this part of the tour.” I was trying to imagine a white guy giving a tour of Los Angeles, then telling his bus-ful of British tourists, “You know, being a white guy, I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to give you this tour of Watts and Compton, so I’m bringin’ my colleague Shaniqua on board to give you this portion of the tour.” If you’re like me, the thought of that happening makes you cringe and feel really uncomfortable, and you’d probably guess that Shaniqua would be PISSED if someone said that to her. But you know what? Isn’t it true? Who better to give the tour of Watts: a white tour guide who grew up in the suburbs but studied and knows a lot about Watts, or the African-American or Latino person who grew up in Watts? Give me the person that grew up there any day. It was interesting to watch Pieter interact with people of different races throughout the trip. Maybe I’ll talk more about that later.

Another thing that hit me like a ton of bricks on this trip was how much the concert experiences in churches (particularly in the black townships) looked and felt almost exactly like what a black church service in the United States feels like. Consider this video:

It’s not a particularly interesting video, but around the one minute mark, I start to pan back out over the audience. Watch how everyone in the audience moves. Listen to how many of them sing along. Listen to the piano. It looks and feels like something you’d see in a black church service here in the U.S., doesn’t it? It was in moments like these and many others on this trip that I realized that I do not give enough of an acknowledgement to the African-ness of African-Americans. Sure, I think I knew in theory that there were elements of jazz, gospel music, etc that have their roots in African music, but to come face to face with that reality in South Africa is really rather jarring when you aren’t really expecting it. I think for a lot of white Americans (and perhaps some black Americans, too?), the term African-American is just a politically correct synonym for black person who lives in America. Not in a derogatory way, mind you- just in a lazy way. But to be African-American is to be so much more than just Black in America. To think that the music and the traditions of many African-American people are simply a result of their experiences here in the U.S. and have little to no connection to the thousands and thousands of years that their ancestors spent in Africa is just as ridiculous as white Americans not really considering how our European roots influence so many things about who we are and how we conduct ourselves.

Yet in spite of our cultural differences and the all-too-often sad history of poor relations between between blacks and whites around the world, a group of (mostly) affluent white kids from America and some (mostly) poor black kids from poor communities in South Africa shared music together. In addition to bringing “our” music, we sang some South African folk songs, and addition to them singing “their” music, one choir sang “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, and told us that at their competition that was coming up soon, they would be singing that old American folk song that you might have heard of, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Didn’t see that one coming…

But in addition to sharing music, these kids from different sides of the world shared meals together. They shared stories together. They exchanged contact information, hugs, and memories together. It was beautiful to watch, and it was amazing to think that while I was getting a slice of it at 29 years of age, our kids are getting this priceless experience before most of them are even teenagers. You see, it’s all well and good to learn in elementary music class (or even in a critcally acclaimed children’s choir) about certain kinds of world music; to be able to recognize the world’s musical styles and genres when you hear them and maybe sing a few bars of famous songs from other cultures (classical music included). But where world music truly has its power is within its proper cultural context; when people from two different cultures collide personally, spiritually and musically on someone’s home turf and have the guts to allow music’s Tim Tebow-like intangibles go to work on our hearts and souls. And when all is said and done, both sides discover the blessed truth in those words we’ve heard over and over again from that old, *slightly* annoying American classic: that it is indeed, a small world after all.