Reflections from South Africa, part 2: the melody of rhythm

Posted on May 27, 2011


(To read part 1 of my Reflections from South Africa, click here.)

I shot this video of a high school choir during the second concert of our Colorado Children’s Chorale South Africa Tour in the township of Kwa Thema, Gauteng (Zulu for “gold”) Province. And each night after I did my room checks and put my kids to bed in their hotel rooms, I would come back to my room, plug my headphones into my computer and watch this video over and over and over again until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. It totally captivated me. Sometimes watching it would make me cry. Sometimes it just made me smile. And to this day, after watching it somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 times, I can’t really tell you why. But if I had to guess, I’d say that I think it has something to do with the melody of rhythm.

This just in: I’m white. In regards to my whiteness, I’m fairly stereotypical. I’m a lousy dancer, I have limited athletic ability (though I’d probably still start on your recreational softball or ultimate frisbee team), and when it comes to musical tastes, I generally find that the melodic content of a song speaks to me more meaningfully than the rhythmic content. So often in classical music (and in a lot of rock), rhythm is the unselfish role player that lets melody steal the show, but in Africa, the reverse is true. In Africa, rhythm is the 400 horsepower engine in the musical car, and melody and harmony are just along for the ride.

These high school kids that performed for us that night oozed rhythm. They embodied everything we say we love to love about music but are all to often afraid embody ourselves. The way that they drive the tempo so unapologetically was so powerful. Those kids had this uninhibited, infectious energy that just made you feel alive. Even someone as self-conscious as I am when it comes to dancing had to look themsevles in the mirror and say “When in Rome” and just bust a move from time to time. But when you’re self-conscious like me about stuff like that, you envy those who are more care-free than you. I think that’s why I watched the video so many times. I was living vicariously through them. Maybe my tears were a result of wanting to be like them. Maybe my smiles were from moments of pretending to be like them when no one else was watching.

If you’re white and you’re like me, there are times that you feel moved by music and you want to show it outwardly, but you’re almost afraid to respond with any kind of physical or verbal outburst. Too worried about what someone else will think. Too worried about how you’ll look. Not wanting to deal with whatever fallout might come as a result, whether it’s from people in a concert hall or whoever’s sitting by you at church. Indeed, we are the products not only of the music we listen to but of the hidden cultural rules that the music we cherish promotes.

But sometimes music demands that we draw on an experience that comes from outside of our typical sphere of cultural rules and experiences, and we must do our best to rise to the occasion. For example, earlier in the day before this performance, our kids did a workshop with a South African conductor named Michael Dingaan. Dingaan was energetic, funny, and in addition to being a great musician, he was also a very passionate and powerful public speaker/advocate for choral singing in his community. He taught our kids three South African folk songs, and while he made it clear that he was impressed by our kids and how quickly the learned they nuts and bolts of the songs, it seemed obvious to me that in some ways he was frustrated by them. They were too inhibited for his taste. At one point when the kids were having difficulty pronouncing a Zulu word in one of the songs he was teaching us, Dingaan told them, “Don’t try and think about how to spell it. Just do it.” A tall task sometimes for American kids (and adults) who are learning to read and write earlier and earlier, and have grown up being taught to “think before you _______ (fill in the blank)” since they busted out of the womb.

“You sing beautifully. Too beautifully, and not with enough heart,” Dingaan boldly said at one point. I suppose if I were a certain kind of musician that might have really insulted me, but in my opinion he was totally right. Keep in mind that our kids were learning three songs that they didn’t know in full 3 part harmony, in another language and with some choreography in the span of about 20 minutes. In their defense, they were processing an impressive amount of information in a very short amount of time to make this happen. But singing with heart in South Africa means something a little bit different than what it means in the States. It looks different, and it sounds different. And even in those moments when our kids were singing with heart, technically speaking, so much of what they’ve been trained to do when singing European and Euro-influenced choral literature (emphasis on lighter vocal production, beauty of tone, typically subdued rhythmic elements with an emphasis on lyrical melodic lines, a great deal of thinking, etc.) now works against them in South Africa.  They’ve basically spent the past 5-7 years in Chorale learning how to suck at performing South African folk music. It might have been possible for our kids to achieve some of what Dingaan was looking for, but I can’t help but wonder: if our kids had stayed there for 6 months and worked with him every day, would they ever really achieve what he was listening/looking for? My honest guess is no. Not because our kids are incapable, but because in my opinion, what was missing from their singing was just as much a cultural component as it was a musical one (not to mention the fact that it’s difficult to get middle-school aged kids with unchanged voices to sing with the sort of vocal power that South African folk music tends to demand). Maybe it wasn’t a matter of good vs. bad, but a matter of black vs. white, European vs. African. This is not musical racial profiling; this is dealing with cultural realities.

But of course, this works both ways. Later in that concert, we heard  the women of the same high school choir you heard above sing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Check it out:

All things considered, pretty good. And as you might have heard my colleague next to me say on the video, “Not expected.” But as great as it was, there was plenty to critique to the trained ear (accents aside). For one, they clearly aren’t accustomed to singing in higher registers of their voices, something American choirs do with relative ease, and do much more beautifully than the South African high schoolers did. They are accustomed to terraced dynamics (loud, suddenly soft, suddenly loud, etc.), but when it comes to shaping phrases and dynamic contrast, they either didn’t know how to do that, or they didn’t know that they should do that for “I Feel Pretty.”

But don’t we find this to be true when white choirs sing spirituals in The States, too? I used to listen to choirs of mostly white kids sing spirituals and lament how “white” they sounded. But after my experience in South Africa, I’m not so sure that’s really a fair criticism. I mean, the white kids singing spirituals are white, right? Try as they might, even if they had good rhythm, good style, and good articulation, a choir made up of mostly white kids or adults singing spirituals will still sound white; still sound slightly disingenuous. You can only do so much.

By the same token, I think that hearing that rendition of “I Feel Pretty” in South Africa was the first time I’ve ever heard an all-black choir sing music that is so unapologetically white (not that it doesn’t happen…just sayin’ I’ve never seen it live). And guess what? It sounded weird. Cool, but weird. If an all-black choir ate their Raisin Brahms every day and sang The German Requiem, to the trained ear (and probably even the untrained) it would sound weird, and I’d be willing to bet that it wouldn’t sell very well. Just like a CD of the Colorado Children’s Chorale performing South African folk songs probably wouldn’t sell well. Nor should it. And in my opinion, that’s ok.

But I’ll tell you what’s been cool to watch: as our National Tour Choir kids came back from South Africa and they taught the Regional Tour Choir kids some of the songs that we learned in South Africa, they were clearly less white-looking than they were when they first started learning the songs in the workshop. Their choreography looked less “white.” Their singing of the songs was less “proper,” and they were correcting other kids’ mistakes that looked a lot like the mistakes they were making just a week earlier. The melody of rhythm had planted a seed in their hearts, Michael Dingaan and our South African experience watered it, and by the time we got home, something new and beautiful had begun to bloom.

I think that most anyone with European roots- if they aren’t careful- grows up overrating and over-emphasizing melody and harmony and underrating the value and beauty of rhythm, whether they have any musical training or not. And by the same token, I’d hazard to guess that anyone with African roots- if they aren’t careful- overrates rhythm while underestimating the power and magic of melody. But it’s hard to chastise anyone for doing that. The results of different ethnic groups favoring one musical element over another and in varying degrees is what makes our musical traditions so spectacularly different. It’s what’s shapes everything from our vocal production to our musical histories to our personal musical identities. But that being said, if each of us took more time to plant new and different musical seeds in our hearts rather than just watering the same ones over and over again, our musical gardens would flourish like never before.

Come back in two weeks for the final installment of South Africa reflections on race, reconciliation, and hope. Thanks for reading. Stay classy, Planet Earth.

P.S. Yes, I know that there is a Triple Concerto called “The Melody of Rhythm” by Edgar Miller, Bela Fleck and Zakir Hussain. I saw it live last Saturday night in Denver, and it was incredible, so I stole the title for this blog post.