He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones

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TEA with Gershwin: Pianist Charl du Plessis in conversation. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

HE’S DEVASTATINGLY SUAVE but quietly spoken; he’s funny and earnest at the same time and when he sits at the piano, the world becomes a friendlier place. Meet Charl du Plessis who performs a week-long season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, this week. This Steinway artist who performs with Nataniël and has his own trio is the magic ingredient in any music line up. He recently chatted to My View about the magic of Gershwin, the vagaries of self-promotion and the wonder of straddling jazz and classics, to say nothing of the treasures you can find in a piano’s belly.

Trained classically both locally and abroad, du Plessis’s knack at improvisation is arguably the wizardry that makes his work fly. Nearly 10 years ago, he formed a jazz trio – which today comprises Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums.

“We started playing the kind of jazz you would find anywhere else in the world. And then something strange began to happen. Over the years in my repertoire, classics and jazz started to merge. More and more. Eventually, I realised I quite like taking classical music and turning it into a kind of jazzy sound, but still keeping the inherent quality of the original classical music. It sort of stimulates both markets.

“Jazz people like it, because they can understand and it opens the doors to classical music for them. And the classical music lovers recognise Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Air on a G string by Bach, and all of a sudden it’s new and fresh and they have a smile on their face. I’m not the first person to do something like this, but I have had success with it, and it’s certainly artistically gratifying for me.

“I can play Chopin or Bach, but so can hundreds of other pianists. I like to give the music my own flavour in a sophisticated way so that it is never easy. It is never rommel trommel in the corner of a restaurant kind of thing. It is something distinct, which people like.”

Born and raised in Bloemfontein, du Plessis went to Grey College. After school, he studied piano under Joseph Stanford at Pretoria University and then honed his craft in Texas and Zurich. He returned to South Africa close to 20 years ago.

“The first person who gave me a full time job, back then, was Nataniël, the singer and stage personality; I still work with him. I have learnt so much from him in terms of his unrelenting work ethic. His standards are very high in terms of what he offers his public, always.

“He once said: If you live in a country where you weren’t born, sometimes it’s difficult to really make a contribution because people see you as a foreigner. And this is so true: Even though playing piano essentially has no language, the problem is that there is a matter of being able to contribute a little more. And that’s why I am still here.”

Piano was du Plessis’s first professional instrument. But “when I was little – before my voice broke, I used to sing. So the voice was my first instrument of making music. And then I played piano as well, but not so seriously, and then my voice broke and I was like: ‘Oh hell! What am I going to do now?!’

“I tried to play a bit of organ at university, but the piano was the only thing that really tickled me.”

Being a pianist who also does his own promotion is, he says, extremely difficult, but also quite liberating. “I am not the sort of artist who sits and practises and waits for the New York Philharmonic to phone me. They’ll never phone me because they don’t know I’m alive! But if I phone them, or if I do my own thing and make work for myself, then people are likely to say: ‘Yes, I think I’ve heard of you. Or I think I’ve heard your CD.’ The truth is, these days, it’s every man for himself.”

In 2010, du Plessis was named as Africa’s youngest ever Steinway artist, a status which comes with a responsibility to shine. But du Plessis has done more than shine. He’s given pianos new life, in the most astonishing of ways.

There’s a scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliott directed by Stephen Daldry in which a piano is chopped up into firewood. It’s like watching a murder. Du Plessis concurs. “A damaged piano is like a battered or neglected wife. And the value of a bit of a makeover or a visit to the hairdresser is huge.”

His playing tours all come with a bit of a side-show in which the piano is taken apart. “This developed out of my travels to different concert halls, where sometimes the pianos are in terrible shape,” he says. “I asked Ian Burgess-Simpson, a Steinway-trained technician, to come on board as a doctor who would resuscitate pianos all across the country.”

This healing process was conducted free of charge. “It comprises a tuning – which is like putting petrol into a car – with a full service, which is about going into the machine and replacing stuff, and fixing stuff … and you know what? We’ve had such incredible response from the instruments which were okay – they were satisfactory, and then all of a sudden, they’ve become Formula One racing cars.

“The venues are very happy to have this tour because it benefits them. But how does it benefit the audience? And that is how I thought of the idea of taking the piano apart in front of the audience. When we played in Cape Town for example, one old lady came to me with tears in her eyes. She said ‘I have been a member of this concert club for maybe 15 years. I have never been allowed to see the piano close up. I’ve never even touched it. I’ve never been allowed to go on stage, let alone see the inside.’

“We live in a society in which we can google everything. People don’t like not knowing. They want to open things up and find out how they work. With the piano, I invite people in. I talk, I explain the piece I play, so that it’s not all formal.”

The composer headlining the season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square this week is George Gershwin. “I love him,” Du Plessis is unequivocal. “He’s the universal standard for everyone from jazz saxophonists to opera singers to classical pianists. Gershwin’s one of those guys with one foot in the world of classics, one foot in the world of jazz, and people respect him for that.”

It’s a mixture of musical respect, intimate knowledge of the work and humour, not to mention improvisational fire that will make you fall in love with du Plessis.

How to realise you are beautiful

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MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Knocked out by King Kong

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TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.

Judge this man by his suit

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LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Blacks and Blues

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FUNEREAL energy: Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba) speaks at the burial of his friends.

THE HORROR OF hatred within a community comes firmly under the loupe in this important play, which boldly explores the underbelly and the universality of pain within a culture. Hallelujah! intertwines religious values with social bias, poetry with music and young voices with veteran ones. In short, it is an exceptional demonstration of skill on the part of its director, Fiona Ramsay.

Crisply structured, tightly engaged and beautifully rendered, this version of Hallelujah! is ingenious in its reflection on the potency of radio culture, which is the cipher for the heart of the story and the kernel of communication which forces its controversy on a public with its own views. Its set is simple and defined by clarity that conveys the retro directions in a contemporary era. From beige shoes with spats, to Brill crème, this is a work which feels like it’s the 1950s, but when you cast your eye and ear deeper into its tale and its values, you realise that it’s happening right now.

In 2000, Xoli Norman crafted this work which engages with the social monstrosity that has made so-called corrective rape (and murder) inflicted on black lesbians a real phenomenon. Horrifyingly, this phenomenon is still a part of our social fabric, almost 20 years later, and black lesbians remain vulnerable to the shards of a society broken by prejudice. This version of Hallelujah! digresses from the original production in that it has been reworked to accommodate several more characters. It also features poems written by Norman, specifically for this manifestation of the work.

Following the life of Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba), an aspirant poet, the play introduces you to his friends and his energies. One of his friends is a lesbian, named Lebo (Angelina Mofokeng). She’s also a poet and has a partner, Thandi (Mamodibe Ramodibe) and a young child. Passionately aware of the complexities her life’s realities bring, Lebo is central to the work, and carries a frisson of potency wherever she appears on stage. She’s deeply sensitive to insult, is patently aware of how bias and patronising comments slip into casual conversation and knows that her path is fraught with horror.

And it is upon the unthinkable manifestation of this horror that the play turns. Death and anger are the seeds sown in a drama that touches as sensitively on the stupid brutality of bias and hatred in a specific community as it paints a deeper image of the senselessness of baseless hatred – be it for another’s gender, skin colour or any other so-called leveller.

But the importance of this work is not only about the story it tells. In showcasing the skill of Wits student performers, alongside the pianism of the inimitable Tony Bentel, it casts a light on young talent in a way that will make you sit up and take notice. Blending very young performers with the presence of a veteran pianist brings an internal magic to the work and Bentel’s grey hair and fluency at the keyboard lends him the gravity and the universality of the eternal man at the piano keys, who is effectively an outsider in the tale, and because of this becomes a narrator of sorts. Also, the device of using one instrument, as opposed to a trio not only sketches in implied musical outlines of the bar, the Blues genre and the atmosphere, but it brings the piano muscular presence in the work, along the lines of what Makhoala Ndebele achieved in his direction of Zakes Mda’s Mother of All Eating,  a couple of years ago.

The Hallelujah! season was brief, but its impact has been significant for student repertoire, specifically as well as that of South African theatre at large. Look at this list of student performers’ names. Remember them. It’s not the last you’ll be seeing of them onstage.

  • Hallelujah! is written by Xoli Norman and directed by Fiona Ramsay. It features design by Daniel Philipson, Jemma-Clare Weil and Teneal Lopes (set) and Daniel Philipson (sound and light). It performed by Tony Bentel, Bhekilizwe Bernard, Harry Adu Faulkner, Ziphozonke Sabelo Gumede, Megan Martell, Sandile Mazibuko, Bathandwa Mbobo, Malibongwe Mdwaba, Angelina Mofokeng, Ulemu Moya, Mamodibe Ramodibe, Rose Rathaga and Kopano Tshabalala, at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University complex, Braamfontein, until May 27. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre, www.webtickets.co.za or call 011 717 1376.
  • For a comment on the social context of this play, read this.

Me and my jazz guitar on the brink of hell

 

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Beginning like a mashup of Oskar’s shenanigans in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum and the gently crass lyrics of 1940s band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, the autobiography of Berlin-born jazz guitarist Coco Schumann reflects prosaic insight into the European Holocaust. It gives life to the adage that when the world is on fire, all you must do is carry on carrying on.

The book is a translation – it was originally published in 1997 in German and is translated into English here by John Howard – and it is written not by a writer, but by the man who lived through this historical kaleidoscope, and for this reason, it is fairly ordinary read. The dramatic context in which Schumann grew and played music is allowed to bubble on its own historical momentum rather than through the craft of description.

With each chapter named in honour of a jazz standard: How High the Moon, Summertime, Razzle Dazzle and Autumn Leaves, Schumann’s realisation of the stigma of his Jewish identity, his assignation to Auschwitz and his arrival at Theresienstadt where he was successful in starting his band, the Ghetto Swingers, are tucked away between the interstices of the music.

While Schumann’s writing style is understated and peppered with details of domesticity, living as we are, two generations from the reality of the Holocaust, something is lost in the placing of Michael H Kater’s informative afterword as an afterword.

The son of a Jewish woman and an Aryan man, Schumann was according to Jewish tradition, Jewish. According to Nazi tradition, he was not a full Jew, but Jewish enough to be killed. Having found his “grandmother” of a guitar, Schumann played music through arguably one of modern Europe’s most hateful periods, and not only did he live to tell the tale, but he played music through the war, and still does.

From an explanation of his hated Jewish identity to the horror of Kristallnacht, his entry into Theresienstadt, a ghetto moulded by the Nazis for PR, to his meeting the notorious Josef Mengele at the doors of Auschwitz, Schumann’s life story describes many circles of dreams awakening, being crushed and brought to life again. Ultimately, it is a satisfying read offering strong insight into the horrors of war, but more significantly, the fierce determination to keep one’s dreams flourishing.

  • The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers by Coco Schumann is published by Doppelhaus Press Los Angeles (2016).

Paisley, graves, some drumming and time

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REMEMBRANCE of things past: Trophee. Photograph courtesy Rudi van der Merwe.

THE SCENE IS set for something utterly extraordinary. Quietude pervades. There’s a tight row of wooden crosses, standing plunged into the ground. And the riffs of sound filter through the space, subtly at first and then with richer resonance. You’re on high alert. You don’t know what might happen. And then the corner of your eye is snagged on something that you can’t believe you’re looking at. It dances. It twirls. It looks like a giant in a Victorian frock. A faceless one. The percussion runs in tandem with its movements. And as you look, there’s another. And another. And they’re coming towards you, in their own ponderous, gestural way. Thus begins Trophée, a detailed and moving experience about loss of life, the values of trophy hunting and what war means in our world.

If you think of the opening scenes of Günter Grass’s Tin Drum – or even the 1979 film version directed by Volker Schöndorff – where a young woman dressed in several large skirts sits on the stubby field of a farm, and eats potatoes that she has just roasted over a fire, something of that earnest madness is conveyed in Trophée. Perhaps it has to do with the sweeping and searing soundscape created by Béatrice Graf, perhaps it has to do with the land so deeply invested in meaning, populated by these three dancers in their big dresses. Either way, there is an ethos of the imminence of war. The land seems thick with expectation, and suppurating with deep-seated blood. And it’s a strange thing: here you’re sitting on the roughly mown soccer field of the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. There isn’t a war going on. This land isn’t so invested in meaning. But the site specificity of this haunting and beautifully designed work takes your head and heart and simply shifts its values completely. And this land becomes any land. A place of battlefields and the spilling of blood.

As the piece unfolds, which sees some unbelievably beautiful drumming that will set you afire, conjoined with the displacement of grave markers that evokes some of the powerful scenes of poppies and grave markers in Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War, there’s an interleaving of heraldic  symbolism and metaphors of acquisition. The dancers’ gender doesn’t matter; they represent  women: The widows and mourners in the face of war. There’s an elephant evoked and World War helmets covered in thick white lace that offer a sinister and persona-less reflection. The figures wear glittery paisley over their big skirts, vessels for so much by way of gesture and movement.

Several years ago, Dance Umbrella offered platform to an extraordinary French work involving an industrial trench digger ‘dancing’ to the sound of Maria Callas singing. For many seasoned Dance Umbrella audience members, this was a pinnacle in the festival’s history thus far. It was something that became a touchstone to what Dance Umbrella could be about. The wisdom and subtlety, drama and quietude of Trophée stands alongside that trenchdigger in a gesture that touches on so many soft spots in our understanding of ourselves and this world in which we exist, and in doing so, doesn’t attempt to offer silly platitudes or crass observations. It just is. And that is what matters.

Can the Dance Umbrella possibly maintain this level of fine sophistication and engaging beauty throughout this, its 29th annual festival? So far, so good.

  • Trophée is choreographed by Rudi van der Merwe in collaboration with Susana Panadés, featuring design by Kata Tóth (costumes), music (Béatrice Graf) and Victor Roy (scenography). It was performed by Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe in the National School of the Arts Soccer Field, on February 25 and 26 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709

Visual riffs, beautiful portraits

jazzuary

SIMPLY MAGNETIC: Artist Proof Studio’s Bambo Sibiya’s portrait of jazz great Hugh Masekela.

How do you blend jazz – an abstract but very specific musical genre – with visual art? On one level, it seems natural – the idea of some cool riff being translated into a glorious autographic line – but when you think of an art audience, will this gel? Will this be meaningful to everyone who looks at the work? The project might make you think of the powerful collages of veteran artist Sam Nhlengethwa, but curator Tumi Tlhoaele clearly comes from the next generation in her competent and cool straddling of the chalky line between beautiful images and fabulous sounds, in putting together a real gem of a show that coincides with the Jazzuary Masterclass hosted by radio station Kaya fm.

The exhibition features the work of seven visual artists; the brief was premised on the work of jazz greats such as Philip Tabane, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Dyani, Letta Mbulu, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Pat Matshikiza and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, each artist was told to make work that “responds to, reflects upon and interprets the music.”

Dangerously wide, in a sense, but one that has been resolved satisfyingly, in the most part. As you enter the space, which is part white cube, part jazz venue – there are Drum covered pillowcases and a worn in leather settee, with a cat on it that is quite territorial – you are assailed in the best possible way by Bambo Sibiya’s beautiful and magnetic drawing of jazz great Hugh Masekela. Blending friendly and explorative draftmanship with paintings, different circular reflections of South Africa’s leaders and icons behind Masekela’s wise and wonderful face, this is an important work which in its ambit and reach fills the whole oblong space of the Res Gallery.

Effectively, it is such a strong work that it could easily erase the presence of everything else on show, with its captivating sense of life. You look into Masekela’s charcoal eyes and you can hear his music. From this great work, it feels like a bit of a come down to engage with the more abstract works of artists such as Palesa Mopeli who works with rubber innertube, constructing sculptural networks that slither and glide against the wall and suspended from the ceiling. They resonate with the influence of Nicholas Hlobo’s approach but relate fairly abstractly to the exhibition’s underlying theme.

Malcolm Jiyane’s reflection on jazz is about crowds of moving people, indicated with an energetic sense of visual rhythm. A multi-instrumental jazz artist, Jiyane’s small but intense pieces whorl with implied sound and jiggling bodies, but you need to stand up close to grasp their visual impact. They do not call you in from the street.

Energy is, similarly what drives and holds the painted works of Layziehound Coka and Ayanda Mabulu. The latter’s large political piece draws together many reflections from a reference to the French Revolution to complex and grotesque layers that deal with sacrifice and bloodshed. It’s a large work, too big for the position it holds in the gallery, and its loudness prevents you from looking from far enough or near enough. Further, while there’s nothing wrong with the work itself, it’s a bit of a hard-to-read anachronism in the context of this exhibition.

And if you feel nostalgic for the work of Nhlengethwa, look at that of Neo Matloga. Indulging in collage like Nhlengethwa, Matloga doesn’t run too closely to the veteran artist’s metaphors. Rather, he constructs his own in a series of relatively small, deliciously quirky collages which really make you want to dance.

But then, there’s the work of Neo Mtsoma, which answers all those unasked questions raised by Sibiya’s piece, about the portraits of the jazz performers themselves. In this body of work, you see a dignified digression from the abstract playfulness of the more autographic pieces. You see the honour and the passion, the loneliness of the performer on stage, and the ugly beauty of the effort to make great music.

  • Considering Genius is curated by Boitumelo Tlhoaele. It comprises work by Layziehound Coka, Malcolm Jiyane, Ayanda Mabulu, Neo Matloga, Palesa Mopelia, Neo Ntsoma and Bambo Sibiya. It is on show at the Res Gallery in Rosebank, until January 28. Call 011 8804054 or visit resgallery.com or www.jazzuary.fm