November 3, 2008

Road Trip!

We had a safe and memorable trip last Friday and Saturday to the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The sixteen members of the Itipini choir laid down about 15 tracks for a new CD. It’s not Grammy-worthy but I think we’ll be pleased with the final product.

(The final CD has not yet been produced but I have a few of the unmastered tracks in mp3 format. If anyone knows how to post audio online, let me know in the comments or via e-mail so I can post them here.)
The pictures more or less speak for themselves but there were a few highlights I wanted to note, in the order they occurred.

We had to leave at 6am and I was worried I’d be dragging people out of bed. Not to worry, as everyone was on time (by Itipini standards, which means plus or minus 30 minutes; in this case, it was only plus or minus 15) and we had a big crowd to see us off. We gave everyone some spending money for the trip and several had asked for it in advance to buy new clothes. A couple were decked out for a fashion shoot it seemed like when the time came to go.
We rented two vans for the occasion and I got pulled over on the way down for going 74km/h in a 60km/h zone, which barely counts in my book. It was modestly embarrassing to have happen in front of so many people. I talked my way out of the ticket by saying, “I’m sorry I was going fast but I am taking a very important choir to a very important recording session in Grahamstown and we need to be there soon.”

We were met on arrival by the choir at the Victoria Girls’ School, a high school in Grahamstown, and recorded two numbers with them. Their choir is larger and much better trained than ours but everyone melded pretty well. Mkuseli, our choir director, directed the first of the two songs, the South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica.” This has four verses in four different languages and when our choir sings it, they often have trouble with the Afrikaans and English verses and sing them a little tentatively. It was so fantastic to see the reaction on Mkuseli’s face when the combined choirs began singing - he was blown away by the combined power but quickly got over his shock and began waving his hands and conducting as best he could, clearly delighting in the experience of having so much musical talent at his beck and call.

After the VG choir left, we got to work on our CD. It was the first time I had ever recorded a CD and I realized how quickly frustrating it can get. But everyone endured in mostly good spirits and we were done after a few hours.A break from the rigours of recording.

We stayed in a pleasant B&B for the night. It was nothing fancy by my standards - comfortable and quiet but making no pretensions to anything beyond its two-star rating. My room smelled a bit like backed-up sewage, in fact. But for the choir members, it was like a palace. As we were the only guests (thank goodness), some of them got rooms with suites and kitchenettes and others had nice hardwood floors. More basically, of course, all the rooms had hot showers, comfortable beds, clean sheets, plenty of blankets, running water, televisions, and all that other stuff we take for granted. As I watched them get settled, there were a million tiny moments in which I got a sense of what Cinderella must have felt like. I have become so used to my daily commute between my rondavel (nothing fancy but it is certainly comfortable and my bathroom alone is larger than many of the shacks in Itipini) and Itipini that the comparison no longer shocks me. But for people going the other direction, from Itipini to comparative luxury, it was a shock and a delight.
Incidentally, everyone made their bed on Saturday morning, except me. I shared a room with Petros, the sole male member of the choir. You may recall that I’ve had my struggles with him in the past but even he made his bed.
Guess which bed I slept in?

We went out to dinner on Friday night and the menu was long and complicated with lots of options and entirely in English. Fortunately, there were lots of pictures on the menu and most of them could order by just pointing at a picture. I realized as I tried to translate parts of it that Xhosa has a lot fewer adjectives than English so all those great descriptions that usually accompany menu items (“rich and succulent”) boil down to the same one or two words in Xhosa. This was the sort of restaurant that forced the staff to sing “Happy Birthday” to its patrons. Usually I find this annoying but it was one of our choir member’s birthday on Tuesday so I told the waitress and they obliged, which was pretty exciting for all concerned.
On the walk back from the restaurant, everyone was pretty excited and upbeat and I worried about how long it would take them all to get to sleep. When we returned, I gave them a soothing night-time talk, perfected after years as a camp counselor (although those talks weren’t in Xhosa), and - lo and behold! - it worked. Everyone was quiet or asleep in a short while.

Well, I should have added something about the morning too. I was woken up at 5:45 by one of our choir members strolling the halls, singing (loudly), and pounding on my door for good measure. She had obviously been awake for a while. I later learned that people began waking up at 4. When your life is so much more in tune with daylight, it is just natural to wake up earlier. Everyone was fully awake and strolling the B&B long before I wanted to be so I struggled out of bed (my pajamas attracted a lot of notice - you have separate clothes to sleep in?) and tried to regulate the situation. But what was the point? They weren’t disturbing anyone, I was the odd one out (culturally) in the situation, and it gave them more time to enjoy the comforts of their room. Indeed, it reminded me of a time I missed a flight and the airline put me up in a five-star hotel. I was exhausted and had only a short time to sleep but I didn’t want to “waste” my time sleeping because there was so much free stuff to take advantage of.

Breakfast was quite the spread and I had to implement a no-taking-food-with-you rule or we would have cleaned out the place.
Knife? What knife?

We stopped in East London on the way back to Mthatha and everyone splashed around in the ocean for a while, which was great fun. We had lunch at the same fast-food drive-in restaurant in which I unexpectedly spent my first, long South African night. How far I have come since then.

I was playing devil’s advocate in my head on the drive home, trying to justify this expenditure of money. (It was actually quite cheap, thanks to some sweet-talking of the rental car people and the exchange rate.) As it was, the entire trip and the production of the CDs was funded entirely by money raised and donated explicitly for this purpose, including by those of you who purchased the previous CD from me in September. More than that, however, I think this sort of thing is one of the most effective uses of my time. These people have invited me into their lives and shared their presence and experience with me this last year or so and in return all I’ve been able to offer them is my limited gift of presence. But on this trip, I could turn that gift of shared presence into memories by doing something that is so natural to me (driving to Grahamstown) and sharing that with them. And I truly believe that people live off of memories for a long time. (I do.) Mkuseli will remember directing that choir for a long time and the two girls who had a kitchen in their room will remember the ease with which they could put on the kettle and make tea for themselves and the birthday girl will remember when everyone sang to her when her family couldn’t do anything to mark the occasion. I think the trip points out how a better life is possible and gives people tangible goals to strive for. Perhaps this is cruel, because those goals are effectively out of reach for so many of these people but I hope that is not the case.

On the way to dinner, we passed a KFC and one of the young women excitedly said to me, “Oh, we’re going to KFC!” I said, “Nope, we’re going someplace better.” She said, “Nothing is better than KFC!” When we arrived at our destination and she looked around, I asked her what she thought and it was clear she thought it was much better than KFC. In her universe, eating at KFC is the height of luxury. What I hope this trip showed these young women (and man) is that there are good, solid, healthy goals for them to work towards in their lives that are blatantly obvious to me but of which they can not now conceive.

For me, the trip brought back strong memories of road trips I’d been a part of as a summer camp counselor and how much I loved those. Some day I’m just going to start a tour company for high-school and early-college-age students. I love it!

4 comments:

Barbara Seiler said...

Jesse,
Your blog is a gift. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

wonderful story.
naoko

Janet said...

What a wonderful, exciting experience for all!

I cringe when I think of the students at my high school who have the money and are able to travel abroad. During this school year, alone, different groups will travel to NYC to see a broadway play, Spain, France,
Italy and Puerto Rico. Such a difference.
Janet Coyne

Breanne said...

I recognize the Nome-Beltz shirt!! :) Glad it is getting some good use. - Breezy