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 his entries in full:
By Chris Rivelli
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.
Saturday, June 10
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!
Immediately after Saturday’s completion concert, we were bussed into Cape Town to hear a fusion band blending South African music and world beat jazz. The South Africans are not crazy about the “world music” title, but I don’t know a better way to describe it to American readers. The band was simply stunning. The table player knocked me out. They featured Regis Gazavo, a brilliant accordionist from Madagascar on a few tunes. Regis then played a solo set featuring his vocals accompanied by himself on accordion. His depth and expression were as deep as any live music I’ve heard in my life.
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.
We went out back to their concert hall, which was built out of stacked shipping containers with a wood roof over the top. We at a home cooked meal featuring native dishes such as, scamp, chakalaka, and some fresh killed chicken.
The first band we heard was the Joe Kunnuji Experiement. His drummer Unity Mzi knocked me out. He had touch, taste, and a lush floating sound, combined with a heavy groove. Turns out, he’s only 22, and is a post Doctoral student in Cape Town, with an interest in auditioning for Berklee.
The next group featured a great marimba player, who wouldn’t let us leave with out us getting up to jam. We all were reluctant at first, but once we heard the tune they wanted us to play on was “My Little Suede Shoes” by Charlie Parker, I felt at home. I felt like it went the way impromptu jams often go, less than perfect, but the audience sure loved it.
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.
Monday, June 12
Monday morning, we welcomed Prince Charles Alexander to join us teaching music technology. It was the first day of a four-day program, teaching music students from Stellenbosch University who are on their winter break. After a rigorous audition and theory placement test, we populated our ensembles and got to work. My students are all music performance majors at the university. They know some theory, and can read a bit. They have good ears and some technique. Most impressive is their thirst for jazz knowledge. I found them hanging on my every word and laughing at all my jokes. What impressed me most was how quickly they were able to put my advice into action. I only needed to tell them things once to see results. They never interrupted or played when I spoke, and not one had a cell phone out ever. A vastly different experience than my work in Boston.
We started planning our set for our Thursday concert. We have three tunes picked out for a theme of American and South African unity through music. We wrote some new lyrics to a popular standard and have other songs picked to strengthen our theme. I wasn’t able to get a student bassist or drummer to fill our group, but Kevin Gibson, one of South Africa’s top drummers is there to fill in. He’s the drummer in Schalk’s group, and did a few months at Berklee in the 80’s. Kevin, along with dozens of other music educators from Cape Town, is attending the week’s program for professional development. Like myself, he’s a drummer who dabbles in electric bass, so we’ll share the duties in the ensemble. The next few days should really be something great.
I’m guilty of under-praising the students at Stellenbosch University in my previous post. During the audition process, we folks from Berklee did all we could to get the students to pick their strongest material and show us what they are capable of. Despite our efforts, most of the students still played thing they “thought” we wanted to hear, like classical pieces, or jazz tunes that are above their current level. Once we all met for a couple ensemble rehearsals, we realized theses students have a strong groove, solid time, natural improv skills, and a good repertoire of South African music. The only issue is that they were not used to working on “their” music in the University environment. Bridging that gap would be our goal, for the next few days.
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.
Tuesday night’s jam session highlighted the students in a comfortable encouraging setting. Teachers, students and mentors all jammed together, and the audience loved the music. The session was topped off with a number that included every South African that wanted to get on stage. The song is called Pata Pata, and the kids from my ensemble thought it would be an excellent finale for the jam session, and also the big concert that was to take place on Thursday night. Once we saw the students sing, play, and dance to Pata Pata, we knew there would be no better way to end Thursday’s concert.
On Wednesday we rehearsed like crazy to get ready for Thursday’s performance. All of us from Boston went out for a fabulous steak dinner with Felicia and Inge. The food was incredible, and on a level of the top steak houses in Boston. We all had appetizers, a complimentary soup and sandwich course, and a couple of bottles of wine. In total, it cost us 520 South African Rands each. Thats the equivalent of $41 USD. In the states it would have cost at least triple!
Thursday, June 15
Thursday was a really long day. Our driver met us at our hotel at 4:45 AM to take us to Cape Town to perform and interview on Expresso, a morning TV show similar to Good Morning America. We played three tunes, two of which were broadcast live on TV. The third song is saved to broadcast to the whole continent. We were really impressed by both the on-air and off-air professionalism surrounding the show. We felt some performance pressure, especially because we had to play some up-tempo bebop so early in the morning. It came off great though, and everyone was pleased.
Once we got back to Stellenbosch, all of us from Berklee participated in a panel, where we got to share about ourselves, and answer questions from students and mentors. Getting the backstory on all of my colleagues was both entertaining and informative. Dr. Banfield really put together a diverse crew for this trip. It was a total pleasure working with and learning from them. Following the panel, we rehearsed all day, then broke for dinner, and got ready for the evening concert.
The pre-concert reception featured plenty of drinks compliments of local sponsors. There was a gin bar, and a winery poured reds and whites. They even outfitted the student waiting area with cases of wine, which the students were all refrained from until after the performances. Definitely a different scene than you would see at a college in the U.S.
Thursday Night’s Concert
There was a palpable feeling of excitement surrounding the concert. 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.
Luna Paige, the co-program coordinator of the week, was in the mentor track and sang beautifully with my group. Also, we had Prince Charles Alexander up to play flute with us. He had been teaching music technology all week, so we knew we needed to include him in the concert to share in the music. Prince Charles was the one Berklee team member I hadn’t worked with before, but I enjoyed every minute being around him this week. It’s very refreshing to see someone with a resume as huge as his, be so down to earth, positive, and ready for fun!
David Alexis’s ensemble brought R&B and serious energy. The finale of Pata Pata was the real highlight of the week. Almost all of the South African students and mentors were on stage. The audience rose to their feet and danced. The horn players jumped off stage and danced with the crowd. Felicia, the chair of music, was dancing in the aisles with students. This was all organized by students, and contained no influence from the Berklee folks. We just gave them permission to be themselves and they soared.
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.
Our next three days were filled with tourism led by Liz, our guide. Every stop we made was quite simply breathe-taking. I think the photos throughout these posts explain it better than words can.