This past summer, a group of Berklee and City Music faculty traveled to South Africa to conduct school music programs and give a number of performances throughout the country. City Music Boston faculty member and drummer Chris Rivelli, kept a travel journal over the course of the week. Here are a few selections. You can also read the full travel journal.
By Chris Rivelli
Friday, June 9, 2017
After a 22 hour journey, Ron Mahdi, David Alexis and myself, arrived in Cape Town on Thursday night, June 8. We had a chance to get acclimated and sleep in on Friday morning. I couldn’t stay in bed though, and went out for a run. The hotel clerk recommended a trail that was nice for running, and I soon found myself headed up a breath-taking mountain, with a view over Stellenbosch, the winery town, which we are staying in.
We were to lead a one-day program with high school musicians from all over South Africa. Some drove as long as four hours to get to Stellenbosch for an 8:00 a.m. program. The students were apprehensive at first, but soon loosened up.
By the time we had our evening performance, they took the stage with confidence and swagger. My ensemble featured a tenor sax player and trumpet player, both age 18, with huge sounds, good ears, and a profound love of jazz. All of the students in my ensemble had favorite jazz players on their instruments like John Coltrane, Blue Mitchell, and Hugh Masekela. I was particularly amused when Faith, an alto saxophonist said her favorite was, ”Kenny”.
“Kenny Garrett?” I replied.
“No sir, Kenny G” said Faith. After 15 years at City Music, that response was an absolute first for me!
After a morning run in the mountains, our crew was joined by Maxim Lubarsky, who would teach along with us. We headed out to Langa, which I believe is the oldest township in South Africa. The van ride was shocking. We saw miles and miles of houses, built out of scraps and rubbish, along the main road. Ironically theses shacks all had small satellite dishes attached to their roofs. There was a goat roaming loose on the side of the road, and some giant piles of trash in front of some of the communities. Poverty far beyond anything I’ve seen in the U.S.
Our van ride back to Stellenbosch was filled with stimulating conversation about what we do as educators, race, and class in current society, and how it all connects to what we’ve seen so far in Africa. I feel like we got to know and respect one another in a way that could only be possible in an experience like this. I’ve learned a great deal from my colleagues and enjoyed every moment of it. I really appreciate this special experience.
Tuesday, June 13
David Alexis and I got to eat dinner with Felicia and Inge from Stellenbosch University. Felicia explained to us just how historically significant our visit was. Stellenbosch was the last bastion of Apartheid strong hold in all of South Africa. Felicia, the chair of the music department, is the first woman of color to be hired by the University. For her to facilitate the Cape Town Music Academy, and Berklee City Music to bring teachers, several of whom are of color, to teach jazz to students that are almost all of color, is revolutionary. We hadn’t realized our cultural significance going in. Now we were even more dedicated to bridging American music with South African music, and celebrating the spirit, culture and humanity of all involved.
Thursday, June 15
There was a palpable feeling of excitement surrounding the concert that brought the Stellenbosch program to a close. Nico, the founder of The Cape Town Music Academy, gave heart-felt introductions where he told anecdotes about each of us. When Ron Mahdi’s ensemble took the stage, the audience knew they were hearing real jazz. Maxim Lubarsky’s crew followed suit in similar fashion, with great solos, and horn blending.
My ensemble was next. Like the others, I tried to put as much African influence in as possible. It came through many avenues, like rhythms from New Orleans, and Jamaica, as well as an African/Jazz version of Afro-Blue. We wrote our own lyrics to Blue Bossa, which spoke of unity and harmony between Africa and the U.S. through jazz. We handed out lyrics sheets so the audience could sing along.
Felicia’s thank-you speech at the end of the show brought many to tears. I never felt so appreciated or important teaching music. I was quite simply blown away. I don’t feel like the week’s success was based on any specific knowledge I shared with the students. I think it worked because the students were respectful, open-minded and ready to learn. Every person we dealt with was kind and professional. We were treated extremely well. With a giant love-fest like that happening, of course good things would happen musically.
Read Chris’s full travel journal to hear even more about the life-changing trip.