Sunday, October 29, 2006
Thursday, October 26, 2006
I think the whole experience may have fried my brain a little. I just let my dinner boil over on the stove while I was writing this post. No real damage done, though.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
There is a lot to be said for well-resourced universities. I had my easiest encounter ever with inter-library loans, today, followed by my first proper work-out in the very smart university gym (it is cold enough now that I am walking much less than before, and so I will be resorting to regular gym sessions, instead. I love being able to swim when it is 4º outside), and then a massage at my residence common room when I arrived home. I really could get used to this….
Sunday, October 22, 2006
17 October 2006
I am sitting on a step inside the box-office foyer at Carnegie Hall, waiting to buy rush tickets for tonight’s performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I arrived at 10:30, and the room was empty. Officially tickets are only sold from 11:00, and rush tickets become available at 12:00. I wanted to be here early, but I overestimated the time it would take me to get here, and so I have a bit of a wait. At about 11:55, people began gathering, but not in large numbers. At present they are selling tickets for various performances, and I think I overheard one sale for tonight. I wonder how popular it will be?
This room is small, but plush: marble tiles on the floor, brass hand-rails on the stairs and brass light fittings. There is some elaborate decorative molding at the top of the pillars and over the stairs that lead into the theatre.
More people are wondering in, milling around, looking at posters and pamphlets, and waiting for the box-office window to free up so that they can buy their tickets. I have a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism open in my lap. Ironic to be reading this here as I wait for this concert. I expect this to be a key text in my research.
I got all dressed up to come here, as I won’t be going home before the concert. I am wearing black pants and a polar neck, and a red blazer, and unfortunately, it is not far off what the ushers at the doors are wearing. I am feeling a little self-conscious about it.
Someone has just asked about tickets for tonight. She wanted to know whether Paul Simon is appearing. His in not. Sarah McLachlan? She is. This lady is buying tickets for her daughter.
Someone just asked whether I am here for the tour. Apparently a tour of the theatre is about to depart. There are more people around now. A yellow school-bus outside the door is filled up, and more children are walking past the door. There is a Carnegie Kids concert today, and that and the tour explain the increased number of people. Someone is vaccuming the stairs behind me, and the effect is an overall increase in the noise level, making the whole space feel much more busy than when I first arrived.
I hear a South African accent…. Turns out they are here for the tour. The lady is South African, and her husband is British. There are a group of people in the center of the room who look like they may also be students. Are they also waiting for the rush tickets?
I just got uprooted. The tour begins on the steps I was sitting on.
There isn’t a lot of advertising for tonight. But then again, there isn’t much advertising about at all. There is a big poster on the wall at 57th street at the underground station, and a smaller poster next to the center box-office window. The concert is also advertised on the website, and on a poster listing all concerts for this season that is available in a little box beside the box-office window. LBM have a lovely picture on this one. The concert is called Long Walk to Freedom, named, of course, for Nelson Mandela’s autobiography (though this isn’t credited on any of the advertising literature that I have encountered yet). This is also the title of LBM’s newest CD. On the Carnegie Hall season pamphlet, the group are billed as “the South African a cappella group featured on Paul Simon’s album Graceland”. They never will escape that album, will they? I wonder whether they even want to? The guest artists joining them for the concert are Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Vusi Mahlasela (all of whom appear on the album), the Mohotella Queens, and Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez Seeger (who are not on the album).
The lobby has emptied out. I am returning to my reading.
At 11:55, I finally got in line for the tickets, and was instructed to stand to the side. I got into conversation with a young high-school history teacher. This was also his first experience buying rush tickets here. I mentioned that they are partial view, and that may be a problem with LBM, as seeing them is part of the experience. While I was buying my tickets, I overheard the woman at the next window mention that there are only $21 tickets and rush tickets left. She was speaking to a lady who was buying 2 tickets, and had been hoping for better seats. I collected my ticket, greeted the teacher, and left. I am now on the subway on my way to class.
Note to self: you can only go to your seat half an hour before the start. Either come early enough to spend time in the museum, or late enough not to have to. I did neither, and landed up wondering in shocked silence through the over-priced café. Note to self #2: eat before leaving for the concert. That I got right. Some things are the same all over the world.
I am finally seated, and very very hot. It was pretty cold, and very wet outside, and so I had dressed pretty snugly. Inside, however, the temperature is more suited to glamorous evening dresses than polar necks and blazers. This place is massive! No photograph, film or written description can really prepare one for the scale of it. I am in the 4th balcony, and it feels really high! There are microphones on the stage (7 in a curve, with 1 front and center, and two somewhat different ones to the left), and a piano behind them, slightly to the left. There are three bongo drums, a suspended cymbal, and a bar stool behing that.
Have I mentioned how huge this place is?!? Worse leg-room than an aeroplane, though. My nice new shoes don’t fit. From my partial view seat, the piano is barely visible, but if I sit well forward, I’ll see just fine. I am sitting to the left of the stage, one row in from the edge of the balcony, and one seat from the isle. Time, I think, to switch to pure observation. I’ll not take any more notes untill afterwards, unless I really think it’s necessary. Will keep the note-pad close, though.
18 October 2006
I am home. Finally. I really needed the headspace walking home from the concert gave me, though when I finally got in about a half an hour ago, wet and tired, I was beginning to regret the decision. Not to attend the concert, though. It was super. LBM began with “Hello My Baby”, which is also on the Carnegie Hall website where their concert is advertised. It was a fairly demure opening, though the dancing was, as always, energetic and exciting. I was somewhat taken aback by the amplification applied to their voices. The volume was really cranked up high, and there was a very heavy base mix, leaving Joseph’s voice sounding rather thin. They really could have been left un-amplified. They fill a space really easily, and the acoustics here are well-reputed. Instead, because of how high the volume was, whenever the dancing moved them away from the mics the silence was startling. The levels were also dropped when they danced, probably to prevent stage noise from being amplified, and it left dead spots in the sound that I found rather distracting. Aside from that, though, it was a really wonderful performance. The sound of their voices is so much a part of my familiar sound scape from home that I found myself tearing up early on, and feeling rather sentimental and home-sick during the concert. There was something really inspiring about the image that a concert like this creates of South Africa, though, and I could see it being emotional whether South Africa is home to an audience member, or not. Vusi spoke about Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the wisdom of forgiveness, in introduction to his part of the performance, and his comments drew extended applause from the audience.
I was really interested in Pete Seeger and his grandson’s participation in the program. The performed two North American folk numbers during the first half of the program. The second of these had the audience in stitches, because it involved the two men beating wooden blocks with huge long-handled hammers in time to the singing. Very typical work-song structure. They also encouraged the audience to sing along with them, though the response was tentative, to say the least. In the second half of the program, though, they joined LBM, and lead a performance of “Mbube”. After the controversey that has evoked in recent years, I am always a little surprised when it is actually performed. Nonetheless, it is enough a part of popular culture that I felt like the audience had been waiting for it, and this time, they sang along more enthusiastically. I was somewhat surprised, however, that Pete stopped when the audience began clapping along, and asked us not to, as we were “spoiling the rhythm”!
Sarah McLachlan received a particularly enthusiastic response from the audience, particularly because she peformed “Angel” during the first half, and once again, I could sense the audience waiting for that. Interestingly, she also performed “Homeless” with LBM in the second half, and that was the other piece that was tangibly anticipated. I must admit that I would have been very disappointed had it not been performed. Isn’t it funny how some pieces become so quintessentially associated with particular performers? It was a lovely performance of it.
Natalie Merchant performed a piece of her own that LBM had arranged to sing with her, and the effect, right near the end of the concert, was lovely. I am unfamiliar with her music, but I really enjoyed what I heard tonight.
The Mohotella Queens were, as always, electric, and I found it very difficult to sit still in my seat while they were dancing. I made an effort to learn to ululate several years ago, after all, and it was rather strange to not hear those types of interjections during the performance. I am usually a fairly quiet and reserved listener, but tonight I was itching to be noisy in my appreciation. I finally did whoop and ululate a bit during the ovation at the end of the show, and I got some very funny looks. It wasn’t that the audience was unappreciative. There was some whistling, and a 3 minute standing ovation and call for an encore at the end, but the audience sounded different from what they do at home. Even a concervative white audience in South Africa is familiar enough with that type of sound that it doesn’t feel out of place. I don’t want to suggest that there was anything wrong with this, but it was different, and that gave me a rather different take on the music. Perhaps it is because I always listen with the intention of vocalizing my responses, and with the very physical type of listening that comes from wanting to sing and dance along, that I usually experience this type of music as more participatory. Tonight, however, particularly during the danced sections of LBM’s music, I experienced the cyclic repetitions of much of the music, as almost meditative. I felt, at one point, like I was floating above the stage. I really had time to listen to the layers of sound, not in the sense of picking out individual lines (which is how I tend to listen ordinarily), but as a kind of complex, like a shifting block of sound in which different areas move in and out of focus. It was a really lovely personal experience that I hope I will be able to duplicate. There are more repetitions of the cyclical sections of LBM’s music in live performances than in recordings, because they dance during these sections, and that obviously doesn’t translate particularly well onto CD. It was interesting to hear the music like that.
The dancing, as always, was great. The group members come across as very energetic, playful, and a bit cheeky, wiggling bottoms at the audience, overacting challenging actions, and deliberately provoking one another and Joseph, and the audience loved it, laughing out loud regularly. There were some explanations given of the type of dancing, the origins of Isikathamiya, and little fragments of Zulu culture. The costumes, as always, were beautifully colourful, and both LBM and the Mahotella Queens changed costumes during intermission.
Everyone but Sarah McLachlan returned to the stage for a Encore, performing “Amazing Grace”, and all dancing together. The effect was lovely. All in all, a great concert.
I had some excitement as I was leaving, because someone incorrectly directed a group of us down a flight of stairs that led backstage, rather than out the main entrance, and we got rather lost. When we finally found our way out, two rather surly body guards who thought we had gone snooping around looking for autographs firmly directed us to the street outside. I walked home in a gentle, soaking rain, via a surprisingly quiet Times Square and Broadway. It gave me the space I needed to think this all over. I feel like a bit of a fraud claining this as my music, because I am not Zulu. I don’t even speak the language. I have, however, been singing and listening to this type of music for years. It is familiar enough to make me feel homesick. At what point does it become mine? I am going to write a long letter to my mentor and tell her about it, and perhaps by the end of this degree I will be able to answer that question. Or perhaps not. Either way, if I get to spend the next five years doing things like tonight, I have a lot to look forward to.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
My lovely roommate, Ceridwen, has a short story in the anthology advertised below. Her first novel is coming out next year, in May. I can’t believe I am living with a published author! And she is such a nice person, too.
The second annual Oshun short story anthology, Twist, is a compilation of short fiction from South Africa's most accomplished women authors and most promising new writers. Using random tabloid headlines as a point of departure, 25 authors weave tales of myth and legend, the ordinary and the extra-ordinary, the bizarre and the unexpected.
A homely woman undergoes a transformation deeper than skin after face transplant surgery in My face belongs to a killer. A disgruntled wife comes to terms with her unsalvageable marriage in Man abandons wife for rhino , a reclusive writer inexorably turns to ink and a mysterious campsite Romeo ruffles tail feathers as a mother grieves for things unsaid. From the sublime to the absurd, Twist navigates the interface between truth and fiction, between imagination and reality.
Established South African writers Sindiwe Magona, Petra Muller, Gabeba Baderoon, Susan Mann, Marita van der Vyver, Rachelle Greeff, Pier Myburgh, Consuelo Roland, Rosamund Hayden and Joanne Fedler set the literary tone, with up-and-coming authors Ceridwen Dovey, Arja Salafrance, Karin Schimke and Alexandra Smith (among others) more than holding their own in this fresh contribution to local fiction.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
This blog is two years old today! Incredible, no? I am amazed at how much it has changed over that time. I have kept the research blogging up tangentially, and am in fact typing up some fieldwork notes at the moment, that I will post in a day or two. But really, this has become much more personal, and more practically important to me. Part of the reason for that is that I am now blogging to keep my family and friends up to date on what I am doing, but part of it is also that this has become a space for me to write, sometimes just for the fun of it, and thus maintain contact with an activity I love. I considered becoming a full-time writer, once. I guess in some ways, that is what I am doing, only the writing is non-fiction, now. I still want to be creative with it though, and I don’t mean that in terms of becoming inventive with the facts I write, but rather just with the way I present them. there is so much that is dry and boring about the type of academic writing I am reading vast amounts of, and I don’t want to go that way. At the same time, though, there is a lot of potential for creativity. One thing that I really appreciate about academic writing is that if you carefully justify what you are doing, and remain consistent in how you do it, you can pretty much do anything, in terms of style. It is recognized in the academy in a way that it isn’t always understood in creative writing, that language has its limits when it comes to portraying certain material. Music is the perfect case in point, though critical theory faces similar challenges. How do you put concepts that need to be articulated, but haven’t, usually because they are not easy to express in words, into words that neither simplify the concept, nor mask the meaning? Attempts at doing that often result in all sorts of verbal gymnastics, that can make a person feel like they are reading some sort of secretly coded language. In the case of music notation, particularly ethnographic transcription, it sometimes becomes difficult enough to decifer as to be completely useless. But sometimes something really simple does the trick. Capitalizing the first letter of a word that wouldn’t normally be capitalized, for example, turns it into a Notable Concept, rather than just a word to be glossed over. In the title of this blog, I hyphenate South African-ness deliberately, because I want to highlight the last syllable, and emphasize that I am writing about a state of Being, and not just another adjective. It gets criticized occasionally when I use it in my formal writing, but when I justify it, it is generally accepted. This blog lets me play around with things like that. It also lets me try out a more informal tone that I sometimes have to curb a little when I am presenting something formally, later. Here I get to write as I think, and while I do self-sensor a little bit (who doesn’t, especially when you are publishing online under your own name), in general, the thoughts you get here are as they occur to me. Ocasionally I will put something in draft for a little while, and then post it only once I have had a day or two to get used to it, and decide whether I really mean what I have written. And once I have removed a post that I later decided compromised the anonymity of one of my informants too much. But those occasions are few and far between. So aside from the travel diary part of this, it all sounds a little bit personal and self-indulgent. Then again, isn’t a lot of academic writing like that? How often has someone done research because it was useful to others, but in which they personally have no interest? Surely everyone does this type of writing because they want to know about something, for whatever reason? B* wrote quite a while ago that she was reading the blog of the ex-husband of a friend of hers, in order to see how ‘the other side’ experienced divorce. She was going through a divorce herself at the time. Her post generated a lot of discussion (though her blog doesn't have an archive, so I can't link to the post in question), but ultimately, the issue that it raised for me was that part of why we read these personal writings, and perhaps part of why we want to know about the lives of our favourite celebrities, or even our favourite fictitious characters, is because we learn how to live the best lives we possibly can by reading about how others live. Someone said once that we pick friends, life partners and mentors all because they reflect something of what we would ideally like to be. I think in the blog-o-sphere, we also select bloggers to read regularly who give us a sense of who we ideally would like to be. My blogroll is quite short, because the blogs not listed specifically as music blogs are sites I visit regularly because I get something from the real lives of these people. All of them are involved in academics in some way. Some of them keep me motivated to work hard. Others help me to remember that academics are real people, too, and that we are all entitled to real lives beyond our books. But so few people write about the experience of becoming an academic, of being a graduate student, and an amateur researcher, teacher and writer, that I feel a bit deprived. I hope this blog might fill a little gap there, for other international graduate students, or other ethnomusicology students, or something along those lines. Ah well. One can only hope. Happy birthday, Blog.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Friday, October 13, 2006
Autumn is very definitely upon us. It is 7°C this morning, with a projected high of 14. Time for the polor-necks, big jerseys, thick socks and heavy boots, hats, scarves and gloves. I finally bought the prefect pair of winter shoes. There was a special on at Kmart, and to my amusement, I created great consternation by trying on, and finally buying, the smallest pair of mens shoes they had available. To be more precise, they are the smallest pair of steel toed workmens’ boots in the shop. They are really lovely, though, comfortable, and very smart. They don’t look at all like heavy-duty working shoes. They are black leather, with solid rubber soles, lots of internal padding, and lace up to well above my ankles. After trying on pair after pair of toe-squashing, ankle-chewing, budget-breaking womens’ boots, these were just too appealing to give up, even if the shop assistants now think all South Africans are mad!
Thursday, October 12, 2006
I had a somewhat different type of celebrity encounter tonight. Hélène Cixous was speaking at NYU. As befits her type of celebrity, the appreciation revolved rather more around enthusiastic applause than screaming, but as I landed up in the overflow venue, despite arriving well before the start, her significance is just as apparent. The event turned into a wonderful, enthralling and terrifying experience, as I appreciated her intensity, humour and insight without understanding much of what she said. If nothing else, the potential value of my French lessons (which I really am enjoying), comes home to me full-force when I consider the difficulty of reading her and her cohorts’ writing in translation alone.
It is so exciting to have the opportunity of hearing so many famous people, here in this city. In a fortnight, Judith Butler will be here. Could a grad student ask for anything more?
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I had my first celebrity sighting today! It was a rather bizzarre experience. There were all these huge trailers/caravans parked in the street outside my department, and as I walked to class I found myself wondering whether there was some sort of convention happening. They were too big to be ordinary holiday campers, and many of them had darkened windows, which led me to suspect that they may be connected with some sort of police operation…. After my evening walk around the United Nations, I am more than open to such possibilities. There was a particularly big, imposing trailer parked right outside the door of my department’s building, and as I reached it, the door of the caravan opened, and a man stepped out. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. I have met so many people over the past month and a half, that I was just going to dismiss him as yet another of the faces I had encountered, when someone to my left began screeming and babbling as though she was in shock. The man from the trailer reached out to her and shook her hand, and for a moment I was convinced I was going to be dealing with an unconscious stranger on a New York street. She really looked like she might pass out. But she didn’t, and just as he moved away, I recognized the cause of her agitation as none other than Will Smith! Only in New York.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Yesterday was a really fun day. A friend from my building and I caught a bus downtown, and went shopping at Century 21. It is right opposite Ground Zero, and so I saw the site briefly, but I decided not to spend much time visiting it then, as it really requires more focused attention than I could give it at that time. I’ll return there another day. Instead, I spent about an hour trying on one pair of shoes after another. Now quite unlike the stereotype, I do not find shoes particularly appealing. I like to own a pair of sandals, a pair of closed, smart shoes, and a pair of hiking boots. None of them are high-heeled, and all of them are comfortable enough for me to spend a full day in them without cursing them, or my judgement. In other words, I am a sensible shoe shopper. I have realized, however, that my hiking boots are the only shoes I own that will be suitable for the winter, and as they are hardly smart enough to wear with a skirt, or when I’m dressed for work, they alone will not do. So yesterday’s trip was for the express purpose of exploring my available options with regard to cold-weather shoes. While I didn’t buy anything this time, I did get a pretty good idea of what is available, at what cost, and I am fairly certain I know what I will be buying. There is a great pair of waterproof, fur-lined boots with my name on them….
While I may not have anything like the average woman’s passion for shoes, however, I do have a comparable fettish for hats. If they are colourful, quirky, unusual, or just plain fun, I like them. Scarves and gloves come a close second. And Century 21 has all three in abundance! I am not shy to admit that the main reason I didn’t buy the shoes I liked yesterday is because I wanted an excuse to go back to the shop on my own, for a longer time, to try on hats, too.
Anyway, from the shop, my friend and I walked up, past city hall (which is incredibly beautiful, and certainly deserves another visit, and, slowed somewhat by our mutual admiration of downtown architecture, made our way into Chinatown. The bid in Johannesburg to close down informal/street trading that has been going on for some time, is sadly misguided, if Chinatown is anything to go by. The colourful shop fronts, forming an attractive backdrop to the equally colourful street vendors, and the mass of pedestrian humanity that surges around them, make it a very exciting part of town. I have been looking for a decently priced fish shop since I arrived here, and as I haven’t yet managed to pull myself from bed at 4:00 am to make it out to the Fulton Street Fish Market during trading hours, I had encountered only the hideously expensive, rather sterile midtown fish mongers, and the fish counters in the various grocery stores I frequent. In China town, I have my pick. There were so many gorgeous fish shops, with such a massive array of produce, that I could try a different one every week, and eat all semester. And in amongst them you can buy everything from fresh produce to herbs, teapots and chinese fans, to home furnishings and some of the most beautiful clothing…. My companion even got his shoes reparied for $2 by a little man who spoke no English, and was sitting with the tools of his trade under a tarpaulin on the side of the road. We had luch at a quaint little restaurant with linoleum floors and vinyl tables, that served good green tea, cheap noodles, and soup that I’m convinced could cure anything. I had a wonderful mushroom lo mein, and learned, to my great delight, to eat it with chopsticks. My companion had lived for a few years in Japan, and so was more than competent with those unwieldy inplements that have given me grey hairs in the past. I was eating (albeit rather slowly) like the best of them by the end of it. Seems that learning the technique is practically a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to pass as a New Yorker.
We rounded lunch off with a sesame ball each at a bakery down the road from our restaurant. That too was a new experience for me. For the benefit of those who have never experienced them before, sesame balls are deep-fried balls of rice batter (kind of chewy, and very pleasant) filled with a sweet bean paste, and rolled in sesame seeds. It tasted nothing like what I had expected, and was really enjoyable.
I had a French class after lunch (I managed to hold a rather stilted conversation with one of my fellow students), and then dashed down-town for a departmental colloquium, which turned out to be an hour later than usual, and therefore gave me a bit of extra time to catch up on reading before it started. The colloquium was great, presented by a leading phenomonological musicologist who brought to mind a whole lot of half-dismissed ideas I have had at various times for more whimsical research papers linking music with everything from astronomy to cryptography. It really made me want to explore some other possibilities for future research, and got me excited all over again about potential future topics of study that I had put aside when I began to shape my career a few years ago. There really are an infinite number of possibilities ahead of me over the next few years, and that is really an exciting prospect.
There was a full moon making the dark clouds glow, as I headed home, and when it peaked out from behind some of the ornate neo-gothic high-rise buildings that characterise so much of this city, it brought to mind all those delightfully dark 1980s and earlier comic books set in cities modeled after this one. It is beginning to feel like autumn, now, and the whole character of the city is changing. I am really enjoying the contrasts as they reveal themselves.