Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

When I was in Cape Town a few weeks ago, I stayed in an area of the city called the “Bo Kaap” which means “Upper Cape.” The area is noted for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and interesting history.  It is located basically on the side of  Signal Hill, which means there are steep climbs and lots of terraced houses.

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The area is also sometimes known (somewhat erroneously) as “The Malaysian Quarter” as this is the place where the former slaves (some from Malaysia, but many from elsewhere) settled after slavery was abolished.  Because they were required to wear and live drab circumstances when enslaved, after they gained their freedom, they made sure  their houses and clothing were brightly coloured.

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The Bo Kaap is the centre of Cape Town’s Muslim community, with no less than nine mosques in this one small area (less than 6,000 people.)  Some of the mosques were tiny, but there were two or three with the capacity to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers.  Although there are (I think) 5 daily “calls” only the ones at dawn, noon and sundown seemed to be broadcast.  My B & B was at the top of the Bo Kaap so I heard the calls loud and clear.  The prayers are done live – first there would be one, breaking the silence – an ancient, eerie kind of music, sung with great passion and vigour.  And then, as that one died out, another mosque would broadcast their call – with the singer doing his best to show at least as much “prayerfulness” as the first.  And then, a couple of mornings, I heard a third singer get into the act.

Since, theoretically, all the calls should be happening simultaneously, I could only assume that some kind of friendly competition was going on.  Sort of an “anything you can pray, I can pray louder” type of thing.

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The people of the Bo Kaap were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  It is not (yet) a big tourist area…and although there is some worry about gentrification, the area still retains much of its 19th century charm.  I was very happy to have stayed there – as the proprietor of my B & B said when I commented on how lovely the area was, “It’s a special place, isn’t it?”

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This is the hill I had to walk up to get to the B & B.  It was even steeper than it looks.



But THIS is the view I had from the terrace:

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On the far edge of the Bo Kaap, about halfway up Signal Hill, you can find the “Noon Gun.”  This is a very old tradition in Cape Town – they shoot a cannon off precisely at noon every day but Sunday.  They’ve been doing this since 1806.  It is somewhat of a tourist attraction. I walked around the side of the hill and up a path and some  stairs to where the armoury was.  The stairs were very much dis-used, apparently most people come up the road.  But I managed to find my way.  There were many old cannons and cannon-related items up there and the view was terrific.

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A sign informed me that this was to be the 65346th firing.  Other signs warned people to “cover their ears” and stay well
away from the firing zone.

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At about 11:30, they began to prepare to shoot the cannon.  A few people drove up in cars and there was a small tour bus.  An officer came out and gave us a bit of background history.  These are the oldest cannons still being fired in existence.  The timing is done with absolute precision – through an electrical charge that is connected to a facility in Greenwich, England!  And though they only shoot one cannon, there is a “back-up cannon” loaded that can be set off manually, in case the first cannon doesn’t work.  He raised a flag and showed us how he put the charge into the cannon.  It is a bag filled with gunpowder, tamped down into the barrel of the cannon with a wooden plunger that looked as though it may well have been in use in 1806!

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When the cannon went off, it was deafening…and pretty cool.  No doubt that everyone in Cape Town knew that it was noon!

I had planned to have lunch at this cafe called “The Noon Gun Cafe” at the bottom of the hill, but found that it had been closed for the past 8 months!  I passed another little restaurant on the way down and found it booked to capacity with a tour bus!  So, I made my way down the Bo Kaap and ended up having a wonderful lunch in a little corner Indian cafe…excellent lamb Biryani and naan.  Then I climbed back up to my B & B for a swim and a nap!

I do think that when I return to Cape Town, I will stay in the Bo Kaap once again. It felt like home.IMG_0394







A Zambian Opera…

A Zambian Opera…

Last night, I had the privilege of attending one of only three performances of “Damyna, Damyna” an original Zambian opera composed by long-time Zambian resident Peter Langmead, with an all-Zambian cast.  It may very well be the first opera ever performed in Zambia.
(All photos copyright Langmead & Baker 2014)


Opera has long been considered (by many) to be the pinnacle of musical performance.  When you do an opera, you’ve hit the height of cultural success .  And Lusaka’s emerging Zambian middle-class wants culture.  A performance of “The Magic Flute” or “La Boheme” might have sufficed – but Mr. Langmead wanted this opera to speak to contemporary Zambians, with contemporary music.  So the music was decidedly “modern” and the story explored the conflicts between life in a rural village and the attractions and challenges of living in the city.  And being a real, bona-fide opera, the story also had romance, intrigue, a big secret, mistaken identity, betrayal, jealousy, drunkenness, sexual innuendo, emotional distress and finally, resolution.

The opera was staged in the Lusaka Playhouse, a small theater that has seen better days, but has surprisingly good acoustics and sight-lines.  Incredibly, an long-forgotten orchestra pit was discovered under the stage, found to be still usable and opened up for this performance!

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The cast was made up of local singers and instrumentalists, a local church choir for the chorus, a dance troupe called “Team Jiva” and  several guest artists from the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Academy in Germany and was  conducted by renowned conductor Theo Bross.  It was very clear that none of the performers had ever attempted anything like this before.  Their excitement and nervousness were both evident.  The rehearsals had been going on for several months

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The story starts with the village waking up and the chorus singing about Damyna; how she was rescued from being sold to a moneylender by her aunt and raised as a sister to Por Phiri, who believes her to be his real sister.

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Damyna and Por Phiri appear and it becomes clear that they are in love with each other, but because they believe themselves to be true brother and sister, they cannot marry.  They sing about how they are “best friends.”


Por Phiri’s mother sings about why she has kept up this deception – in order to keep peace in the family and avoid difficulty.


Two farming consultants from the city arrive in the village, in a fancy car.  The villagers see them coming and sing about why these rich people might be coming to their poor village.  “Perhaps they will build us a school!”  “Definitely NOT!”  “Perhaps they will build us a swimming pool!  It would be cool to have a pool!”  Everyone is very interested in the city people and their fancy clothes…and it is clear that the woman (a white European) is attracted to Por Phiri and the man (an African) very much enamored of Damyna.  (Note how the woman is dressed in order to appear “white and European.”)  The dancers in the background dance to show how the African consultant and Damyna are falling for each other.  However, Damyna is obviously a bit jealous of Por’s attraction to the European woman, singing about how that woman has “small breasts, not as big as mine!”

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The village witch doctor, not knowing that Damyna and Por are not really siblings, decides to help things along.  He conjures some spirits, casts a magic spell and when everyone wakes, it seems his charms have worked and love has bloomed.

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The second act opens at a cafe in town.  The chorus sings “Here we are in town” as the proprietors of the cafe declare how excellent their establishment is.

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The two couples are getting to know each other, but it is clear that Por and Damyna still have feelings for each other.  The witch doctor, realizing his mistake, tries to set things right, but is foiled by Damyna’s aunt’s estranged husband showing up and declaring himself to be the father of both Por and Damyna, as he boasts of having sex with both women.  The men in the chorus sing about how they wish they could have as much sex as this guy while the women sing their disgust with his boastful drunkenness.


But the aunt has the last word, when she calls her husband a pathetic excuse for a man and tells him that he is NOT the father of Por Phiri after all.  The witch doctor undoes his spell.


Damyna and Por are not brother and sister after all and are free to marry.


I loved this opera.  I loved it because of the love and effort that went into making it.  I loved it because of the ownership of the performers and the obvious delight each of them showed in performing.  I loved it because it was done in an old, inadequate theater by nervous and excited Zambians, so proud to be performing an opera – an opera! – for fellow Zambians, many who had dressed to the nines to come to the performance.  (I saw at least one mink stole, lots of jewelry and high-heels…and suits on the men.)

And I loved the obvious joy and unaffected enthusiasm on the part of the performers.  After the last chord had been sung and the orchestra played the last cadence, the entire cast burst into wild whoops of joy and ran off the stage, pumping their fists in the air.  Not very “professional?”  Maybe.  But you know what?  They’d just performed an OPERA.  A real OPERA.  In  Zambia.  About Zambians.

(I was reminded more than once of Scott Joplin and his only known opera called “Treemonisha.”  Scott Joplin, best known for his ragtime music, was America’s first published black composer.  He wanted ragtime to be taken seriously, not just thought of as “coon music” or “jive music” and so he wrote an opera using a wide range of musical styles, including ragtime and he spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the opera published and performed.  Like “Damyna, Damyna,” the plot also dealt with superstition, romance, adopted children, betrayal and the conflict between old and new.  The opera had one concert “read-through” in 1915 and then was lost until 1970, when it was rediscovered (thanks, in part, to the movie “The Sting” which used many of Joplin’s works.)  It received its world premiere in 1972, in Atlanta and now is considered an historically significant musical work, with performances all over the world.  It would be wonderful to see “Opera Z” tackle this work for their next performance.)

After the performance, I met Peter Langmead, the composer, and told him how much I had enjoyed the performance.  I think it was a great occasion.  My hat is off to the singers, the orchestra, the dancers and everyone who helped make the show happen.