Monday, February 05, 2007

Singing a different South African-ness

I have had two of the most amazing days. Thank you, Jeremy.

On Sunday afternoon, I bundled up warmly (it is very cold here right now, and very windy, which makes it feel even more cold), and caught a train to Brooklyn. The ride was only mildly eventful (I got onto the train going in the wrong direction, and had to ride up to Grand Central to change without paying twice), and I walked up to Madibas. The restaurant was buzzing, and I was worried I was too late to find a table, even though I was about an hour early. I needn't have worried. People began finishing lunch, and heading home to watch the Superbowl. The crowd diminished. I was disappointed. It bothers me that Ladysmith Black Mambazo fill Carnegie Hall, and Jeremy doesn't. I want to write about that more at some point, but my quest to read more theory before then continues. Jeremy, however, said it all far more pithily that I could, by reciting a poem about smashing the television.

One of the benefits of a small audience is that we were all able to speak to Jeremy personally. What a thrill! He shook my hand, and asked my name, and we chatted a bit about St Martin's school, and living in South Africa. I asked Jeremy whether he might ever move back to South Africa. His answer was that at this point in his life, being able to take a walk in the evening without carrying a gun was more important. "If you are prepared to live behind high walls and electric fences, then it is a wonderful place," he said.

Our conversation ended there, and Jeremy picked up his guitar and moved to the microphone. The concert was an emotional rolercoaster in all the right ways. I laughed over Black and White Calypso, cried over Somewhere in Africa, and smiled with great pride when Jeremy introduced me by name as a St Martin's student before he sang Ag Pleez Deddy, which was written while he was teaching English at St Martin's. I sang along most of the way, and felt home. This is the music I grew up with.

After the performance, I got a hug and kiss from Jeremy (I felt like such a groupie), and headed back to Manhattan for church. After the service, and dinner, a group of us watched Amandla!. I recognized some of the music. I have been studying it for a while after all. But I was, to say the least, surprised to realize how completely different my reaction to that is from my reaction to Jeremy. I don't think it is just a matter of having grown up white that made the South Africa of Amandla! unfamiliar. Part of the point of the South African folk movement, of which Jeremy was a particularly important part, after all, was anti-Apartheid activism. But the sight of South African children in Soweto singing about warfare and killing in the 21st century, has quite the opposite effect on me of Jeremy's promotion of mixed-race marriage.

Part the second

This evening, after a particularly good class, I walked down town to the Shebeen. I was an hour early, and to my chagrin, was informed that the venue would only open at 18:00. Ordinarily, no problem. Park benches were made for moments like those, and I always carry course reading with me now for just such occasions. With the temperature flirting with -16 degrees centigrade, though, the thought was not appealing. I went in search of a coffee shop, and found a rice pudding shop instead. Ever tasted chocolate chip rice pudding? It wasn't hot (which in the present weather was disappointing), but it was good, and rich, and very sweet. I stretched my helping out until just before 18:00, and then bundled up to cross the street.

Shock and horror!

There was a notice on the Shebeen's door announcing that it was closed for a private function.

I was about to knock when someone opened the door, and ushered me inside.
"You here for Jeremy Taylor?" she asked
"How did you know?"
She pointed to the beaded South African flag hanging off the zipper of my coat, took the cover charge from me, and handed me a complimentary drinks token. Jeremy was talking to someone behind her, and smiled at me as I made my way inside. I settled on a bar stool, ordered my drink, and shook hands with half a dozen South Africans who were only too eager to treat me like long lost family. Their manicured nails, perfect hair and lashings of blood-red-black lipstick suggested that I would have received a somewhat different reception were we in Sandton, and not all equally displaced in New York. It occurred to me that I was experiencing first hand the diaspora effect I have read about in theory texts.
The venue was really just a longish, narrowish room, dimly lit by yellow painted florescent tubes, and candles, with a bar down the one side, and couches and coffee tables scattered around the rest of the room. It was warm and cozy, but simple, in a happy way.

Jeremy reappeared behind me, and to my delight remembered my name from the day before, and even offered another kiss. I couldn't stop grinning. I felt like I had just joined some sort of inner circle.

The performance started shortly, and once again, Jeremy was breathtaking. He had me in stiches, and fewer tears tonight as I was more prepared for the inevitable effect of certain songs on me. This time, I wasn't the only person singing along, and when he ran out of songs, we sang Sarie Marais, and If I Had A Hammer, and joked and laughed together for nearly four hours. At some point during the evening, I bought a copy of a CD based on a record my parents own, and that I remember from my childhood. Jeremy autographed it for me by the dim light of a candle, and I wondered whether to keep it with me in New York, or take it home.

By the end of the evening, I had made several new friends (among them, a folk singer, originally from Malawi, now living in New York, but formerly part of the Johannesburg folk scene), been invited to join several mailing lists for South Africans in New York (there really is something to be said for the anthropological obsession with being there. There is no other way to find out about these sorts of things), and received more hugs and kisses from Jeremy as we said good night.

Of course it has all been a lot about nostalgia. It is about an odd type of nostalgia for an experience of South Africa that I have only accessed tangentially through this music. And so it is also about a mutual imagining, and a mutual passion for a country we share a belief in, and a philosophy for its future that makes more sense to me than the white guilt model I have been negotiating for so long. My first awareness of the South African political situation happened around the 1992 referendum. I didn't know what people were voting for, but I was aware that some people were angry, and some were scared, and lots were very happy with the outcome. My awareness developed after it was practically over, and so the South Africa I know is the South Africa after. I can't yet figure out how to free it all from the hopelessly inacurate black/white dichotomy, but I guess learning to reclaim a different musical South African-ness from the one most New Yorkers see and expect, is a worthwhile step in the right direction. I sang a different type of South African-ness tonight, from the one I conceptualized when I started this blog. And I knew the words to this one.


wayne&wax said...

Wonderful post! Looks like there's no shortage of opportunities to do ethnographic work on South Africa in New York!

choirgirl said...

Thank you, Wayne. Yeah, I'm discovering more and more opportunities all the time. I feel slightly less insane for traveling 13 000 kilometers AWAY from South Africa to study music FROM South Africa. :-)

Sinudeity said...

Thank you kindly for the read and insight. Definitely entering interesting times in SA...

choirgirl said...

That we are, Sinudeity. Academically interesting, but personally a little nervewracking. My school years were during the euphoric phase, and while that had to end sometime, I'm a little nostalgic, but very hopeful.