At rehearsal, a day before performing work that she composed for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF), Lindiwe Plaatjies is struggling to tune her uhadi. The bow and gourd instrument does not seem to want to match its C note with that of the cello being plucked and bowed by Tsepo Pooe. Lindiwe calls her uncle for help. In situations like these, it is helpful to have indigenous South African music doyen Dizu Plaatjies as your uncle and mentor.
Lindiwe Plaatjies is one of three young composers who were tasked with composing a work that would fuse the indigenous South African music and instruments with that of the European art music tradition. Each of the works they produced would be played with a string quartet- of two violins, a viola and a cello. Pianist Kingsley Buitendag and bassist Prince Bulo were Plaatjies’ compatriots. Not left completely to their own devices, the JIMF enlisted composer and performing musician Neo Muyanga to guide them through their composition process.
Muyanga, who has more than a decade’s experience in composing work that places African indigenous music and European art music on the same and equal platform, knows all too well what unforeseen technical and philosophical snags can arise in the process. “Remember how it feels when you are tuning” Muyanga advises as Dizu Plaatjies screws and unscrews the uhadi’s tuning peg. The St. Francis of Assisi church, where both rehearsals and performances took place, fills with laughter. Commenting on what the last few months of workshops with the young composers has brought, Muyanga says “What I’ve been talking to them about is the technicalities of working within three or four aesthetic languages and how it then becomes important to clarify what one means with certain directions on the score and how that might work out with people who perhaps are not able to read the score but are able to improvise with an ensemble that reads from a notated sheet.”
Kingsley Buitendag (l) und Dizu Plaatjies (r) © Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi | Kingsley Buitendag (l) und Dizu Plaatjies (r) © Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
But the composition process for all three of Muyanga’s charges has been more complicated than the conversations around the work which needed doing. There are issues of tokenism to confront, tuning hurdles to surmount, notational puzzles to be solved and a myriad of other obstacles that they have encountered. For Bulo, the challenge is not only what the audience hears, but also with the compositional practice itself. “I would like the same way that I have had to learn Italian terms, for international musicians to learn my terms. If I use a term like ukuxentsa, which is a traditional way of dancing, I should be able to put that on my score to say ‘Approach this ngokuxentsa’. ”
According to festival executive director Richard Cock, there is much more work and funding which needs to be invested in this area of music making. But as it is, the festival relies heavily on Cock’s personal investment and partnerships to stay afloat. “I couldn’t do it on my own, we have to make these partnerships and find out where all these societal things interlink also.” Says Cock, commenting on the funding and marketing advantages of partnering with the Goethe-Institut and Buskaid and various embassies among others.
A Saturday afternoon in one of the leafy suburbs that, like much of the metropolitan plastic surgery in Johannesburg, owes its trees to gold mining. SUVs with wheels high enough to match the inner city’s sky scrapers cart passengers from breakfast to the next middle class pastime. A church hall, St. Francis of Assisi is remarkable by the way it peeps onto the road, instead of announcing itself as a monument to religious fervour. Inside, the pews line up mostly white, mostly female, mostly grey heads.
Neo Muyanga © Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
After a short introductory note, the performances get underway. Bulo’s composition, entitled More ZA Tea, raises the curtain. His is a composition that fuses Mbaqanga influences with the traditional dancing influences that have become Bulo’s motif of sorts in much of the work he composes. It is delicate and stirring.
Plaatjies soon follows with a composition in three parts entitled Vuma-Ekhaya-Ndiyahamba. She plays mouth bow, uhadi and mbira respectively. The tempo at which she plays, just after the western “beat”, makes it difficult for Plaatjies and the string quartet to play at the same tempo. Cock springs into action as conductor during rehearsal and performances. It all comes together, in a way that makes one feel as though if one musician was half a beat too early or too late, it might all fall apart.
Buitendag’s When We’re Together is the curtain closer. With recognisable South African Jazz influences, it opens with a melody set by Plaatjies on uhadi and then taken up by the string quartet- which Buitendag’s composition draws into a South African musical aesthetic. In the end, air is full, there is a moment of silence; and then applause.
Muyanga, Dizu Plaatjies, festival artistic director Florian Uhlig, the young composers and the string quartet chew through the compositions with words. More words, mostly of encouragement, gnash through an unspoken appreciation from the audience for the music performed and the project which prepared the ingredients. It is almost a shame, because the music alone was enough to leave every ear and heart sated.
The Goethe-Institut is a long standing partner of the Johannesburg International Mozart festival and has in the past supported interdisciplinary work and work performed at unconventional settings that widens the boundaries of the festival.