Sowing seeds of South African culture


Grahamstown, South Africa -- Every year in the first fortnight of July, the quiet valley of this peaceful college town becomes the frenetic hub of South Africa's cultural world.

With plays, cabarets, operas, exhibitions, concerts, lectures, dances and all filling an early-morning-to-wee-hours schedule, people flock to the Grahamstown Arts Festival, clogging its streets as they search for entertainment and enlightenment.

There was a special buzz about this year's festival -- the 20th -- as it is the first in the new South Africa, coming just two months after the country's first democratic elections.

Though the arts have long been a place where the apartheid walls were breached, no one knew exactly what to expect when the final bricks came tumbling down.

Indeed, in some cultural quarters, this development was greeted with trepidation. Apartheid had provided many an artist with a convenient villain, a reliable source of emotional response.

Annleen Eins brought a possible view of the future from Namibia, which is celebrating four years of independence from South African rule. Though Namibia never had anything like the protest art industry of South Africa, Ms. Eins saw a few too many images of the country's new president and flag in art works made just after that country's first free election.

"There's a difference between what I call heraldic art and genuine protest art," says Ms. Eins, curator of Namibia's National Art Museum. "Truly good art has to be a personal statement. South Africa will now find out which of its artists can make such statements."

Johannesburg-based Sam Nhlengethwa wanted to make a statement with his exhibit of colorful collages. Though the 39-year-old has produced powerful political art, he barred any of those works from his show, which instead was filled with images of jazz.

This American musical invention has played an important role in South African culture. It provided a catalyst for bringing the races together in the famous neighborhoods of Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town, so much so that the apartheid authorities destroyed both communities.

Like any South African culture that eventually emerges in the post-apartheid era, jazz is a product of the interface between Europe and Africa. Though South Africans took their cue from America, they have made jazz their own, producing a unique township sound that is at once joyful and mournful, perfectly summarizing the life led by so many.

"I think jazz became popular because it is democratic," says Hotep Idris Galeta, a Cape Town-born keyboard player who spent two decades in Connecticut, returning to his native land two years ago.

"When you're up there playing, everyone is equal. It was the one place that was true."

Mr. Galeta was playing with fellow Capetonian Morris Goldberg, who has been based in New York for 30 years, playing what he calls SafroJazz. He is perhaps best known for his contributions on the penny whistle, a popular township instrument, to Paul Simon's "Graceland" album.

"It was bad in the old days," he says of the reasons for his departure in the 1960s. "If you played in a white area, the blacks in the band had to stand behind a curtain. If you were in a black area, it was the whites behind the curtain."

That wasn't the only way apartheid influenced the arts. Its cultural hierarchy was clear, with Europe at the top and Africa at the bottom. The government funding of the arts influenced that with elaborate ballet, opera and theater groups reflecting the prejudice.

In Grahamstown, most of the European-based works looked like imitations, perhaps technically admirable but bland and unimportant. It was only when Africa showed up that the art came alive.

It could show up in various ways, in those distinctive jazz rhythms, in the bright colors and strong graphics of a painter or ceramicist.

"I don't know how much Africa is in my work," says collagist Nhlengethwa. "I know that I am African and I made these images. How much of Africa is there is up to the viewer to decide."

The multi-cultural melange gave birth to such groups as the African Axemen, who took the guitar -- a Spanish instrument that traveled to California 50 years ago to get electrified -- and made it into Africa's own. The group displayed the distinctive styles that Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa have given this instrument.

Africa could show up at the end of an otherwise derivative program by the Bop Dance Company when, to the accompaniment of natural sounds and drums, the dancers seemed to become the animals of the bush. You could see the continent throughout the performance of Tumbuka as dancers from Zimbabwe put their distinctive, powerful stamp on the choreography of British native Neville Campbell.

You could even find it in a Randy Newman-inspired song by Johannesburg-based James Phillips, long a staple of the white protest song scene. He gave an ironic twist to the sudden transformation of South Africa's whites from the world's villains to its heroes in the song "Good People."

"Everybody loves us, everybody wants to hug us,/ 'Cause we're good, good people now."

Perhaps the most unusual place to find Africa was in opera, but it's been put there by Michael Williams. This Capetonian was inspired on a trip he took to Nepal when a local opera company contracted him to do an opera on the life of Buddha.

"I realized this is what I should be doing at home, creating operas that the community could feel they were part of," he says. He wrote four short operas based on African stories and incorporating African music.

Though they were basically audience outreach projects to bring opera to the townships, Mr. Williams saw the possibilities of such cross-cultural fertilization keeping opera an alive and vibrant art form.

At Grahamstown, he presented excerpts from a work-in-progress, his first full-length African opera, set to premiere in Cape Town in January.

Apartheid tried to deny South Africa a culture, instead maintaining a number of separate cultures that were not supposed to mix. The mixtures happened anyway but perhaps not enough at this point to say there is such a thing as a distinct South African culture.

"I hope there's not a South African culture," says Mike Van Grann, a playwright and head of the National Arts Coalition, a lobbying group. He contends that, at this point, any such national culture would be a hothouse creation, an artificial, forced blending of these many disparate pieces.

"What the government has to do now is help provide the facilities and opportunities for these different cultures to thrive and come together," he says. "Then maybe a South African culture will emerge."

Grahamstown is just such a place for two weeks every July.

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