Category Archives: Music

A Zambian Opera…

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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)

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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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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ISSEA Band Festival in Zimbabwe!

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“ISSEA” stands for “International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa” and they are responsible for coordinating and organising events for the various International Schools.  Previously, all the events were sporting activities – soccer, basketball, volleyball and etc…but this year, for the first time, there was a “cultural” event.  A concert band festival.

Never mind that half the schools involved don’t even HAVE bands, or that it would have been MUCH easier to start with choir or even drama.  The committee that met last year decided that starting with band would be much more spectacular and draw more of a crowd.  So, all the member schools had to scramble around to find “band members.”  Even if they didn’t have a band.

We had exactly two kids in the high school who could play an instrument and were willing to put in the practice time necessary.  Here they are!

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They joined with 70+ kids from seven different schools and more than 50 different countries to create the first-ever ISSEA Band.  And to be fair, the end result really was spectacular.

The kids were all housed with host families…and the accompanying teachers were put up at a very nice place call the Bronte Garden Hotel.  I was impressed.  The rooms were comfortable and spacious and the grounds were lovely, with a wonderful collection of Shona sculpture throughout.  Zimbabwe is known for its fine stone and many local artists create works made from it.

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There was also a restaurant and bar with excellent food and great service and a lovely pool.  It was really nice to meet up with other band/music teachers.  Next year, there will also be a drama and art festival and some of those teachers were also there to help plan the 2015 events.

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The first day, we all gathered at the Harare International School’s performing arts centre.  We got the kids situated  and (sort of) tuned and launched into the first piece.

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It was dreadful.  We wondered what we had done…had we expected too much?  Should we cut some of the selections?  Shorten some of the pieces? However, by the end of the day –  after sectionals and some rigorous rehearsal…the cacophony had started to sound like a band.  We were very fortunate in having section leaders who knew their instrument and also knew how to teach it.

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The next day, kids could take workshops from some local musicians.  They included mbira (also called kalimba – a “thumb piano”) marimba,  jazz improv and drumming.

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There were also some impromptu performances by the locals.

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There were seven selections for the concert and each music teacher had the opportunity to conduct one of them.  Here I am, rehearsing “Invocation and African Dance.”  I had a great time – I haven’t conducted a band since I left ACS in England!

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, the band was ready!  Everyone wore their ISSEA Band t-shirts (complete with the  host school “Warthog” mascot on the front playing a variety of instruments) and the superintendent made a lovely speech.  Our concert was very well-received and everyone had good reason to be proud.

ISSEA Band shirt

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There was supposed to be a live feed of the concert, but as is typical for Africa, the internet connect went out.  At some point, the entire concert is supposed to be uploaded to Facebook and when they finally work out the glitches, I will share it.  However, a video will not convey the fun, excitement and sense of accomplishment that was palpable in the room.

Meanwhile, here is a slide show put together by the media team!

There will be another Band Festival next year (probably in Johannesburg) and we are also adding Choir.  It should be a blast!

Christmastime in Zambia…no snow, but plenty of cheer!

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Christmas was “invented” (if you will) in the northern hemisphere.  The long, cold, dark nights of December cried out for light.  The pagans already celebrated the winter Solstice with great gusto (fires, candles, dancing, feasting and general revelry) and so, knowing a good thing when he saw it,  after the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion, he then decided that December 25 made a great day to celebrate the birth of Christ. 

And so we who live north of the equator tend to associate Christmas with cold and snow and candles and evergreen trees.  We have Christmas songs about “in the bleak mid-winter” and Santa’s sleigh in the the snow and dashing through the snow and “White Christmas.”

When Christianity moved south, so did the holidays associated with it.  And, as incongruous as it may be, so did the traditions.  Even though it is the height of summer here, people put up evergreen trees, hang lights, Santa arrives dressed in boots and furs, there are reindeer sleighs and songs about a “White Christmas.”  Never mind that most Zambians have never seen a single snowflake or experienced temperatures much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Christmas is irrevocably linked to the winter. 

So, the decorations go up at the malls.

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There was even a huge tree made out of green plastic bottles – a joint effort by several companies to encourage recycling.

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And the InterContinental Hotel put out a call for carolers.  I brought my 6th, 7th and 8th graders (on three separate days) to sing “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silent Night” in the lobby.  We had a great time.

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Our singing was well received….even though they didn’t give us any Christmas cookies or punch, as is supposed to be traditional for carollers!

And now…I am on my way to the airport and in 24 hours, will touch down at JFK – where I hear there is actually some snow and the temperatures are decidedly frosty. 

I’m looking forward to it!

Emmanuel Jal – child soldier to hip-hop artist for peace!

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NOTE: Please forgive the horrible picture quality…I had to use my iPhone.  Also – this guy never stood still!  Hence the blurriness!

IMG_0048“Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”

Official website of Emmanuel Jal: http://www.emmanuel-jal.webs.com

This week, we were privileged to have Emmanuel Jal as a guest artist at our school.    Jal is a South Sudanese musician and former child soldier. He is a world recognized hip-hop artist and also a humanitarian advocate for social justice and human rights. He broadcasts his message of peace and equality through his music and through various NGOs he has founded.

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Hip-Hop is far from my favourite style of music.  However, the energy in the auditorium when Jal took the stage was electrifying and unmistakably positive.

Using a mixture of singing, rap, spoken word and dance, he told his story and advocated for a more unified, peaceful world, in spite of religious and cultural differences.

His life story was both horrifying and uplifting.   Kidnapped when he was only 8 years old (under the guise of getting an education)  he was trained to be a soldier and to hate Arabs and Muslims…and his goal was to kill as many of them as possible.  (This admission elicited some gasps for our students, many whom are Arab and/or Muslim!)  He told of his lowest point – when some of the children were so hungry that they considered eating the corpses of their dead friends…and of how a crow appeared that he was able to capture for food before he had to resort to that himself.  He talked of poverty and slavery and greedy governments and lack of education…and engaged the students in dialogue about ways to make a better world.

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He lived as a child soldier for more than 5 years and saw many of of friends die from exposure, thirst and starvation.  Finally, he and some other children decided to run away.  Some died in the attempt, but some made it to the town of Waat.  Jal, then 11 years old, met a British aid worker (emma McClure) who adopted him and smuggled him into Kenya, where he was able to attend school for the first time.

Even though McClure died shortly afterward, Jal was aided by some of her friends and completed his education.  Although he had no musical training, he stumbled upon the hip-hop genre and felt that the music had great spiritual and political power.  He started to use his music to tell his story and lobby for political change.

Jal’s biggest passion is for Gua Africa, a charity that he founded.  The nonprofit charity builds schools, provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps, and sponsors education for children in the most deprived slum areas in Nairobi. The organization’s main mission is to work with individuals, families, and communities that have been affected by war and poverty.  His most recent project is a Global Peace campaign called We Want Peace (and he got all the kids singing and dancing along to the song.) The project is a steady effort to inform the world that peace is a possibility.

Read about Gua Africa here: http://www.gua-africa.org

More about We Want Peace: http://www.we-want-peace.com

He also got the kids up and stage and dancing.

I found Emmanuel Jal’s performance both inspiring and humbling.  Surely, if someone with such a horrific and miserable childhood, brought up in the worst possible conditions, seeing so much bloodshed and misery and sorrow…if someone like that can rise above it to create music, dance and poetry with a message of peace for the world and can work and advocate for education and health care for the world’s poorest inhabitants…then surely we who have been born into privilege, have never really known hunger or thirst or been homeless or mistreated….surely – we can do as much for our fellow residents of the world.

 

 

 

 

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The Lusaka Children’s Choir

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As I have mentioned before, Fridays at the school are a bit different.  There is a section of the day called “Global Issues.”  This is devoted to assemblies and events that (hopefully) connect the students to the wider world.  About once a month, there is an extended period of time where students take part in a service project of one kind or another.  Every student grade 6 – 12 must be involved in one of the projects.  Selected students function as leaders and organizers.  Every teacher must also be involved.

I was asked to co-lead the “Lusaka Children’s Choir” along with Geofrey, who is the manager of our Performing Arts Center and also directs a choir at his church and one of the local schools.  They started this activity last year…students from several local schools are bused in and combined with students from our school in the hopes of making music.  At the end of the year, there is a concert, which helps raise money for the local schools.  Apparently, last year, they spent almost the entire time rehearsing one song for this concert…and I got the feeling that the students had become quite frustrated with this.  Anyone who has seen me teach music knows that this really isn’t my style.  I suggested we jump right in and learn as many songs as we could…both African songs and songs from other countries.  So we started with some simple rounds – “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Music Alone Shall Live.”  I taught them Natalie Sleeth’s “Gaudeamus Hodie” and the calypso tune “Shake the Papaya Down.”  And Geof taught (or rather, reviewed, since most of them knew it!) a traditional Zambian song called “Tiyende Pamodzi” and also “Siyahamba” which we sing in the US as well.

I thought we sounded pretty good for a first attempt!  Please forgive the horrendous quality of the video…I am just learning how to use the camera on the iPad!  I also haven’t yet figured out how to embed the videos into the blog, so you’ll have to click on the links!  But please do click – it is worth hearing!

The uniformed kids are from a local school called “Appleseeds” and the younger children are from a primary school called “Open Arms.”  They were quite shy at first, but as you can see, they become more involved and expressive as we sang together.

Tiyende Pamodzi is a traditional African song that was popularized by Zambia’s first President, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who used the song in his election campaign.  For his purposes, the title would likely be translated as “Let’s move together with one heart.”

Learning Tiyende Pamodzi

Siyahamba is a South African song…some you might know it as “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”  I used to sing this with my kids at the Academy of Notre Dame and they loved it, too.  Such a great choral song.

Siyahamba – getting the alto part right!

Adding movement…

Putting all together.

I am really looking forward to working with Geof and this choir as the year goes on!  And I bet our end-of-the-year concert will be fantastic!

A traditional Zambian feast with dancing!

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IMG_0980 IMG_0986 IMG_0976 IMG_0964We had a traditional Zambian dinner last night at the home of one of the orientation leaders. She has a fabulous home, filled with artifacts and art from Africa and all over the world. She has lived in Zambia for ten years, although I think she is originally from the UK.

There was a demonstration by a Zambian dance group.  The music was that incredible close harmony you hear with songs from South Africa.  That kind of singing makes my heart feel like bursting out of my chest and feels so….organic.  Like music of the earth itself.  Grounded.

Then there was a traditional dinner, with mieli-meal as a base (like a very thick corn porridge) prepared by two women in traditional dress over a coal fire.  There were lots of “relishes” to scoop up. A relish is simply anything you put on the nsima (which is what the meal is called when it’s cooked.)   You eat it with your hands – making a sort of round ball out of the nsima with an indentation in it and using that to scoop any relish you choose.  We had individual plates, although I suppose to be truly traditional, we would all have eaten from the common pot.

There was stewed beef, beans, chicken, various kinds of greens, eggplant and deep-fried caterpillar. (I tried them…very chewy and crispy and they tasted kind of like…caterpillar.)

A wonderful evening and a great finish to our week of “new teacher” orientation. Read the rest of this entry