SASCE Choir Eisteddfod: Bloekombos, Kuilsriver, 9 & 10 May 2014

This is a little reflection on “us” and “them” thinking. I use racially-loaded terms like “Here” and “There”, “our side of town” and “their side of town”, and I put them in inverted commas, to make them stand out. How do we relate to these terms? How do we use them? To what purpose do we apply them? No offense is intended, but since this is still election week, and issues of race and identity are being debated, I felt that some of my experiences needed reflection. Here they are. I simply did not have time to collect names of all the people whose pictures I post or whom I make comments about, as I was actually on duty as official pianist for the Eisteddfod.

Ten hours of Eisteddfod Day isn’t for everyone. It is exhausting and frustrating. There could be 5 choirs in 20 categories or 20 choirs in 5. Either way, you end up listening to repeated performances of the same songs set by some committee up on high, and the days can be long. Regularly we “start” at 8.30am (the administrators are all there but the choirs aren’t, or the choirs are all there but the judges aren’t, so starting time is “flexible. And we go on into the evening usually, with winners announcements and judges’ comments around 7pm.

The music heard ranges from the excruciating to the sublime. Simultaneously an indictment on our governments, past and present, as it is a celebration of the resilience, optimism, dogged determination and pure hard work of this country’s people.

Racial segregation is still an issue, as we still deal with geographic, educational and financial divides. But there is change and progress. We’re not supposed to talk “black”, “white”, “coloured” (“Indian”never seems to come up in the Western Cape) and yet it is the subtext of a lot of what we do. There were no “white”choirs here today, this is “North sector”. This weekend, some “coloured” schools beat some “black”schools, and there was much cause for discussion and jubilation.

As long as the people of my country SING, I have HOPE for the future.

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A crowd of supporters with with Bongiwe Mapasa, one of the judges. Mapasa, a graduate of UCT Opera School, has performed in many Opera productions, locally and abroad, including the Lond Critic’s Olvier Award-winning “Magic Flute” in which she sang various roles in different revivals, from Pamina to the Queen of the Night.

Parents sing and dance support and cheer for “their”/”our” children. While the adjudicators make their notes and add up totals, “they”/”we” sing and dance.

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South African Baritone Thato Machona, already seen in productions abroad such as “Trouble in Tahiti”is another star-graduate from the UCT Opera School.

Adjudicator Thato Machona is a superb young baritone. A powerful voice, a mature presence. Catch him on stage this year in “Viaggio a Rheims” and the “Mandela Trilogy” for Cape Town Opera. — with Thato Machona at Bloekombos Secondary School.

One of the Set pieces for Junior School Choirs.

I have to play the same song for every single choir. By the end of the day the cuckoo might not be the only one crying! If the song is badly-chosen by “their” committee, there is no hope for a good performance. The High School section in particular suffers from Finales from Aida, Macbeth, La Cenorentola. “They”often have older pupils performing in the High Schools section, with matriculants often being in their early twenties and most “white” schools simply do not have such mature voices often enough to consider becoming regular participants. But today there is hope as this is Junior School day.

Doh is E flat

And so it should stay…

“They” use Tonic Sol-Fa, the French notation system designed for illiterate people. “We” use staff-notation. These are simply two different sets of notation that have been adopted over centuries, but “we” are pretty confident “ours” works better. “Our” Old South African Government also made sure there were no pianos. music posts or training for music teachers in “their”schools and colleges, so the Sol-Fa has persisted. And 20 years into democracy, the situation still persists. Most of “us” can not work accurately in Sol-Fa, making “us” either superior or of no use to “them”.

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Our hosts for the day: Bloekombos Secondary School

The tuckshop is run out of buckets next to the front door.

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Bloekombos Seconday School

Blokombos Seconday School is a lovely modern school, a bit short perhaps on the facilities “we” are used to “in town” – no sprawling lawns, swimming pool, Astroturf or any sports field for that matter, let alone a view of the Rondebosch Mountains when you look up from your Cricketfield – but here is where an Umculo Cape Festival ran a Purcell opera last year (Faery Queen). How many of “our” schools “in town” can provide this number of quality voices?

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I often hear that “they” have so much inborn talent, that “natural rhythm”. But in every Eisteddfod, rehearsal or concert, there are babies and young children around. Through cultural values of inclusion to pure practical necessity, “these children” are observing rehearsals, practices and performances virtually from birth. What magnificent training and cultural teaching! “They” give “their” children such a precious gift, a life-time relationship with music and a sense of community expressed though communal music-making.  I wish “we” had more of that on “our side” of town. “We”are so terrified that a squeal from a child would interfere with our great, sacred art, that our children are mostly kept away from “our” holy sacred rituals,  framed as they are by Steinways,  Stradivariuses (Stradivarii?) and Stern Ushers and tightlipped librarians. “Our”children, instead, have to be taught these cultural values in schools. At great expense. “We” audition children with the sole purpose of excluding them, our concerts have to be labelled child-friendly or not. Here, the training is simply “in-service” from childhood

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Dancing supporters

If “our” children’s schools don’t have a good music department “we” send our kids to Music Schools. “We” have a few of these on “our side of town”. “They”don’t really play instruments. Partly because “they” have no Music Posts in schools or Music Schools. The fact that “they” still manage to express their humanity through singing and dancing, in cross-rhythms and spontaneous multiple counterpoint and instant on-the-spot harmonisation, is extraordinary.

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Cheering mothers and Teachers

Mothers and Teachers cheer together. I sense a feeling of community “here” which I don’t feel “there”/”here” where I come from. I could not imagine “our” teachers and mothers cheering the other team with such honest and open smiles and pleasure.

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This lady is cheering on the opposition choir! How bloody marvelous! “Here”/”There” I sense something that “we” have either lost, or have yet to learn from “them”/”us”.

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When last did you see an Eisteddfod on “our side” of town, bustle with energy and excitement like this? Tell me again how it is so much better on “our side”? And the hall is PACKED. Not room for a mouse. Note the adjudicator Keith Tabisher patiently writing his re/marks and comments while the mamas form a chain dance around the table. Note how not one person is trying to see what he’s writing or to read his marks. By tonight our ears will be ringing, the stress of the noise making our tendons ache. But for now, there’s just a living breathing creature in the room. One with many hearts.

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“Christina von Karajan”. This lady has MOVES. Her choir sang so expressively and one can see why! From the piano I got the FULL WORKS.

People always ask me “Is it safe to work “out there” in the townships?” No it isn’t. If this lady says “Play softly né?” I would HATE to think what would happen to me if I didn’t.

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“Christina von Karajan”, so earnest and honest and desperate to give it her best. Not a facial muscle left unused in creating the perfect decrescendo to a soft hush.

In the 2 minute conference between conductor and pianist, who in this case – and most cases – had never met each other before, let alone rehearsed together, she said:
“Not too fast né?”
I said “No mama, not to fast.”
She said: “Not too slow né?”
I said “I wouldn’t dare.”

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“Houston Houston, prepare for Lift-off”

We are building to a climax now. The shoulders rival Toscanini in expressive nuance.



BOOM! We reach the summit of the Crescendo! WE HAVE LIFT OFF!

Before you laugh too hard, remember this is not a music-student or a music-graduate or even someone who had music at school like “we”did. This is simply your average school-teacher “on that side of town”who gives up week-end after week-end to train these kids in camps and workshops, stitching together every bit knowledge and initiative at her disposal. The resulting quilt might not be pashimina, but it warms the heart.

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I hear so many comments “in town” on “our side” about the quality of music “there” in “the townships”, the dreadful tonic sol-fa intonation, the days running late, etc. But “we” definitely do not always remember that it is about the children, their experience of music, their chance to build a dream for their own lives.

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Whispering Cherubs

The Cherub’s Secret whisper. Straight out of a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. That little one was SO EXCITED! This was the highlight of her school year so far. I don’t think she cared that the altos sang a bit out of tune.


Afrikaan set Song

Looks like we lost the altos. Never mind the rokkies, lets start with the sopranos.

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Vernacular Set Song

Hmm, the chromatics – “they” ALWAYS go wrong. That “Manhattan Transfer” effect you got going there just DOESN’T WORK. There is no “auto-tune” here.

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The Cuckoo

Some choirs sounded like they were yodeling, some sounded like apprentice coloraturas. Some flew away from the pitch like a flock of frightened hens. Enough to make you KOEKOE.

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“Early One Morning” – English Set Song
1) Early one morning,
Just as the sun was rising,
I heard a young maid sing,
In the valley below.
Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?
2) Remember the vows,
That you made to your Mary,
Remember the bow’r,
Where you vowed to be true,

An English Folksong “Early One Morning” is turned into a melodrama, a mini-opera, with a damsel in distress draped in pink.

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Pink and Grey Grannie


“Where did granny learn to play the piano?”
“Oh there other side by the nuns. But that was a very very long time ago.”
“So were the nuns very strict with granny?”
“Only the German ones”.

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Singing and dances

Dancing and singing in between. For some “white people” (we aren’t allowed to say that, right?) the “black people” (not supposed to say that either)  singing and making so much noise in between performance items seems chaotic and ill-disciplined, un-educated about concert etiquette (There is only one, right? “Ours”.) “Unvicilised.”Yes, I’ve heard it called that. Yet here we are in a hall filled to the BRIM with over a thousand people to listen to some primary school children singing primary school children’s songs. And “we” who live “in town” think we have it better on “our” side.

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Vuyo Maseti

While the government usually hires a pianist to be “on-tap” for the day, some choirs manage to provide their own. These pianists and the choirs usually would have had a chance to get used to each other, rehearse a bit and take the correct tempo  for each choir, etc. But there still is a desperate shortage of “their” pianists who live in “their” areas and speak “their” languages. “We” who are willing to come from “our side of town” to “their side of town” have to be compensated for travel and the time it takes to go to outlying areas, making “us”more expensive per hour for “their” choirs than for “our”choirs “in town”. This is the Apartheid Double-Whammy. Either the government has to pay “us” a travel fee to go there (i.e. subsidise “them”) or “they”/”we” have to provide channels of access to “our” skills. Either way, “they” are still disadvantaged. We might have had twenty years. But Khayelitsha is every centimeter as far away from Cape Town now as it was back then.


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Vuyo Maseti

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Vuyo Maseti

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Vuyo Maseti

Vuyo Maseti :A young man from the Eastern Cape who now runs a music studio in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township. Contact him on — with Vuyolwethu Maseti and Stato Music Development.

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Non-stop SMILES

After hours and hours, the audience still sings with as much passion and enthusiasm as anyone on stage.

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Those faces say it all. Mothers and teachers singing support for “their” own “teams” as much as the opposition. Competitions are hotly contested, but this excitement and energy is just wonderful.


It all started EARLY ONE MORNING and it ended EARLY IN THE EVENING – Thank goodness not LATE INTO THE NIGHT. What an exhausting day. What a rich day. What a blessing.

I love THEIRMY side of town. I pray the THEIRMY government, whomever it might be, starts to provide decent and solid music education to THEIRMY every school and THEIRMY every child in THEIRMY COUNTRY because THEIRMY PEOPLE need it on THEIRMY side of town.