Music columnist travels from Syracuse to South Africa to learn black musicians on each continent share strikingly similar experiences
As a longtime local musician and appreciator of live music, I have recognized that there is a large disparity between the presentation of local artists of color and white artists at many of the live music events hosted in the city of Syracuse. This statement might be a surprise for some, especially if they haven’t looked, but for many others, it will seem to be just a rehash of old news.
Our beloved Syracuse has been identified as a city where poverty and disparity exist in high numbers and has been well studied and documented. In 2016, the United States Census Bureau reported that Syracuse was the 13th poorest city in the U.S. The ranking surpasses even cities like Detroit and Buffalo. An even more depressing statistic pulled from a recent study done by Paul Jargowsky of Rutgers University reveals that Syracuse is the No. 1 city in America for “concentrated poverty” among blacks and Hispanics. Obviously, these are not statistics we are proud of, but we can’t ignore them.
The population of Syracuse is about 145,000 people. Of those, about 64,000 residents consider themselves non-white, (approximately 44 percent). So, this beast of concentrated poverty that we are speaking about negatively affects a lot of people, and it is continually growing as it is being well fed on a steady diet of neglect for people of color, which includes the disregard for opportunities for creative artists of color as well.
After the holidays, I traveled to Grahamstown, with a school group, which was a repeat endeavor for professor Steve Davis of Newhouse. He took a group there before in 2010-11. On that mission, they pursued dialogue with students and professors from Rhodes University and the people of the Grahamstown community. That effort centered on the idea that people are more similar than dissimilar, regardless of where they live.
The professor’s mission for this trip was essentially the same as it had been before: to show how people are the same everywhere. This time it carried a sub-theme related to music and art. Being one who has an interest in the equitable distribution of economic opportunities in Syracuse, I used the opportunity to learn if opportunities were equitably shared with black artists in Grahamstown. I wanted to know if things would be the same as they are here, as I suspected, or would I find them to be different? I also wanted to know what was being done to change things.
Grahamstown provided a good backdrop to make the observation. Like Syracuse, its largest employer is a wealthy university sitting high on a hillside overlooking a population made up of about 89 percent blacks and other people of color and has a poverty rate estimated at about 40 percent. Unemployment for blacks there is high, and although some are working, most are likely to be employed in low-paying retail or service-industry jobs. Some others work independently but earn as little as 100 rand a day, about $8 to $10 in U.S. currency.
Grahamstown has a few nice restaurants and bars, which are mostly situated around the Rhodes campus. They could provide nice venues for musicians and other performing artists to play. However, the establishments cater largely to the white middle class and the faculty and students of the university. That dictates any entertainment they might present, which doesn’t include many artists of color.
The city is also the home of the National Arts Festival. The NAF runs for 11 days annually in late June into July and is the largest festival of any kind on the African continent. It boasts about 600 performances and transforms all of Grahamstown’s auditoriums, bars, clubs, restaurants and open spaces into makeshift performance venues throughout its run. The number of people drawn to the NAF nearly doubles the population of Grahamstown, bringing in people from all over the world. Every available hotel and dormitory room in the area is filled with media, entertainers and festivalgoers.
There is an educational program in Grahamstown called Inkululeko. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Xhosa children become higher achievers in school. It was founded by Jason Torreano, who attended Rhodes University during an exchange program and now runs the nonprofit half-time from America and half-time in Grahamstown. Jason is very well-connected in the area and was able to put us in touch with the people we needed to connect with to tell our stories. Madoda Mkalipi works for Jason at Inkululeko and acted as one of our guides during our stay. He spoke with me briefly about the festival and the few opportunities it presented for musicians in Grahamstown.
“All of the black musicians in Grahamstown want to play at the National Arts Festival,” Madoda said. “Sometimes they can get an opportunity to play, but it’s not every year and it’s mostly at locations and times where the exposure is minimal.” Madoda graduated from Rhodes University. He is not a musician himself, but he knew and introduced us to Zandile Kila (pronounced Zon-de-lah Keelah) and Richard Nzwana, who were.
Zandile has a formal music education and teaches kids to play the piano. She plays the tenor instrument in a marimba ensemble called Laphumilanga, which means the sun comes out or sunrise. The group was founded by Richard Nzwana in 2010. They can perform as a small group of four pieces or as a large group of up to 13 musicians. Five of their musicians are blind, including Richard himself. Zandile is sighted.
I asked Zandile about the festival and the gigs that they get and whether she thought that they got as many as some of the white groups in the area.
“There are opportunities for us, namely from Rhodes,” she began, “but there aren’t as many as we would like. We could go from two gigs a month to nothing for four months then one or two. We are lucky we get called from the Department of Arts and Culture for performances and referred by the department for other performances. The difference between groups with a more predominately white presence than ours is there are more venues actively booking them.” She said that her group was more likely to be only a “feature in those venues,” occasionally. Zandile had a couple of opportunities to perform at the NAF, once in 2011 with the University of Fort Hare’s marimba ensemble, and again in 2017 with Laphumilanga.
Zandlile also builds marimbas and calabash instruments that she sells to earn extra money.
I also met Gareth Walwyn and Shiloh Marsh, who live in Grahamstown. They were a couple who had met through a mutual friend at Rhodes University. Shiloh was a classical singer and teacher who was born there and had been on a tour of foreign places when Gareth began hearing about her.
“She had a reputation,” he said, as they both then chuckled and shared a look — for her as if she’d heard this little joke one too many times; for him as if he knew the time were drawing near for it to be retired for good.
The two of them have a couple of compelling common interests: music and teaching. They said that those interests had been driving their lives and shaping their purpose for a long time. Seven years ago, they decided to use their synergy to form an NGO (non-governmental organization) through which they could fulfill their purpose together.
The organization is called Access Music Project (AMP). They use AMP to teach music to Xhosa children. The project is housed at the Joza Youth Hub in a place called “The Location,” or “Elokishini” (pronounced El-o-ka-sheen), by the Xhosa people who live there. It is situated in the township, which is just outside of Grahamstown’s city proper. To get a feel for The Location, you must first understand how it was created and how the people who live there are oppressed.
South Africa is just 26 years beyond the fall of the devastating system of oppression, segregation and corruption known as apartheid. The system of government closely resembled “Jim Crow” in America. It held a discriminatory system of laws that prohibited blacks in South Africa, many of whom were Xhosa, from participating in the political process. And through its laws of segregation, it relegated their living spaces to the most undesirable areas with undeveloped infrastructure and little to no services, such as fire and police protection, trash collection, etc. The discriminating laws also limited their employment opportunities and funding for schools and other services. There were even laws making it ‘unconstitutional’ for people of black and white races to date or marry.
Apartheid in South Africa was not by happenstance. It was deliberately designed to preempt the black majority from building power over the white minority, and also to ensure continued white existence and rule in the country. The laws have now been changed, but many musicians, such as Francois Mentoor, say things still seem the same today. Political corruption, misuse and inequitable sharing of government resources still severely devastate and oppress the people.
“Elokishini,” Francois said, “is one of those places that black people were allowed to live during apartheid.” Many are still there now living in overcrowded corrugated tin shanties with interior walls formed from a mixture of mud and donkey poop. Most do not have running water because the government has not fully extended the infrastructure, so they rely on water that is brought in and stored in tanks that are propped up beside their houses. Homes like this number in the thousands and are strewn about over square miles and miles of government lands.
‘Abhorrence of Apartheid’
Gareth is white and, as he puts it, “was born into privilege” in Johannesburg, South Africa, at a time when the system of apartheid was still constitutional. He recognizes the disparities in Grahamstown and wants to do something about it. He is a fascinatingly intelligent man who likes to share his deep-seated political views.
Gareth is the type of person who can speak very knowledgably about “black consciousness” and “responsible whiteness” and then move on to speak equally as intelligently about directing music for television or mechanical engineering — and, it seems, most any other subject. “My political views were shaped mainly because of my family’s abhorrence of apartheid,” he said.
The AMP caters to musical kids ages 14 to 18. Our group was given a tour of the program and was able to meet some of the students. The kids were being taught to play a variety of instruments, including cello, violin, marimba, saxophone, bass and piano. They all seemed a little shy but were very attentive as I spoke with them. “We teach the kids what it takes to become the best at what they are involved in,” Gareth said. “This is not a program to harness kids just to keep them off the streets, although they seem to be less involved in those activities when they are in the AMP. If they are in this program, they will be expected to work hard. There is homework involved and a lot of practice.”
Gareth believes the work ethic AMP demands will stay with the students regardless of what path they should choose. “So, even if they don’t grow up to be musicians, they will have learned what it takes to participate in whatever part of the ‘creative economy’ they choose,” he said. Gareth believes that this is the way they are going to be able to compete and command opportunity.
“Everyone has the right to access,” Shiloh said. “The schools don’t have music programs in them so creatively talented individuals don’t have a way to explore their instincts.” Through donations from the government, private corporations and individuals, the AMP provides the space, training, instruments and other equipment necessary for the kids to develop their talents.
Gareth went on. “I don’t do this out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but I do feel that we’ve inherited advantage and continue to perpetuate unfairness. At what point is wealth enough?” he asked. “I do this out of a sense of investment in their musical futures. It’s an economic concept. I want the students to have forward perspective and leave the project having learned to be self-sufficient.”
Shiloh immediately tapped in again by saying: “There is an inequality in the schools, and we want to give our students a fair chance. There is a value placed upon students reaching an elevated level in their studies, and we want to see that growth. We are both teachers, and I personally get a fulfillment out of seeing students grow into accomplished adults.”
The AMP is like Dr. Dick Ford’s program here in Syracuse called Signature Music. Dick recognized the need for poor kids in our city to receive personal attention in their musical education, so he created the program to address it. Through Signature, he was able to provide them with instruments and inexpensive private lessons. He also gave them opportunities to do limited live paid performances and helped them with preparations for college auditions.
“Education is the key,” Dick said. He believes that a career as a music educator is a fine choice. His program has worked to develop a handful of much-needed music educators, which has moved the needle some. But to date, if at all, it has worked only slightly to move the needle on the number of paid performance opportunities granted to people of color here. But we all know it takes time for a tree to yield good fruit, so time will tell.
I could see that just like Dick in Syracuse, Gareth and Shiloh were trying to fertilize the ground so opportunities would grow for these same artists in the Grahamstown area. They saw a need to level the playing field and stepped up to do something about it.
Confident in her own skin
I thought their efforts were noble, but I also needed to hear something from the artists of color themselves, so I asked Gareth and Shiloh if they could share a few names with me. They gave me the phone numbers of a few, including Nombasa and Francois.
Nombasa Makoqo was very professional in her approach to me and seemed to be confident in her own skin. She’s a very talented 29-year-old Xhosa woman and an aspiring singer-songwriter. She’s also a Grahamstown native who is currently attending Rhodes University working on a bachelor of music degree. She had begun her college career at a traditional age but has just recently returned after having left early to pursue musical opportunities on her own. Like Dick Ford, she said, “I understand that education is the key.”
When I spoke to her about live performance opportunities in the area, she said that the opportunities to perform live were slim. Francois agreed. “Grahamstown is small,” she said. “And most of the instrumentalists are students who hardly play live. Our music department at the ‘varisity’ is also small and mostly composed of classical music students.”
She spoke about a New Year’s Eve party that had been planned. “That would have been a place to see live music, but it was canceled by the cops” before it ever happened.
Many of the best musicians in Grahamstown, such as her former bassist and pianist, leave to go to bigger cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg for opportunities, she said. Nombasa hopes to go to East London next year to gather a band to record her original music.
Francois Mentoor is 45 years old. He has had his band, The Survivals, for more than 20 years. They play a typical “American Mix” of party songs like ’70s, ’80s, pop, and rhythm and blues in addition to some reggae covers and traditional African party favorites. To accommodate the varied tastes of their audiences, they have learned to flip the rhythms of the American songs to have a reggae feel. It has worked for them on a lot of gigs. “When the audience begins to feel a little more like dancing,” he began, “we don’t have to change the material, just the presentation.”
Back in the ’90s, the Survivals had a fortunate opportunity to do a tour of 18 dates on the West Coast in the U.S. It was set up by a relative in Connecticut. After the tour ended, the band went back home and became reliant on bookings from parties and weddings. “We don’t get many bookings from the clubs in the area,” Francois said, noting that the clubs are mostly white owned. “When we do, they don’t pay a lot. The most we can make at a club is about R1,500.” One U.S. dollar equals about 12 rand, so R1,500 is about $125 in U.S. dollars.
They did have one occasion, though, when they were paid well, Francois said. It was for a private gig. “We got about R15,000,” he said. “They paid us that much because they had booked us to play for only an hour. But after the time was up and the people were feeling good, they kept asking us to play more and more. We ended up playing about 6 or 7 hours straight.”
Francois spends some of his time teaching kids in the area about music. He wanted to give them an outlet. He began teaching them at his home using his own equipment, which is very old and outdated, and much of it busted. His space was also limited as he has a family at home, so he reached out to the AMP for some assistance. Francois said that he had agreed to help them teach kids down at the Youth Hub in exchange for their helping him to get funding and equipment for his own music center. He said they pay him for teaching, but it’s only a couple of hours a week for which he gets paid about R200 (about $16). He doesn’t think it is enough.
Since the help with funding and equipment for his own music center has not materialized, he reached out to the AMP to see if they would loan him some of their equipment. It didn’t happen. That caused him to feel that, although the AMP is supposed to be set up for the benefit of the Xhosa children, the people who are benefiting the most might be the people running it.
He is a bit of a cynic, but that train of thought does not come from just anywhere. Francois’ perception of these types of programs have been jaded by the whole ordeal of living life as a black male in South Africa. He was nearly a grown man when apartheid fell, and Nelson Mandela was elected president of the country. Before that, black South Africans didn’t have the rights that even animals have here in the U.S. He told me about times during apartheid when unthinkable atrocities were performed upon him and others by whites. Like the time during a police interrogation when he was 13 years old that they forcibly slammed his male-member into a desk drawer for an offense he knew nothing about, and of the times when whites would speak to blacks in any way they pleased, which was usually with high disregard for their dignity. Francois experienced a lot of unfair treatment and prejudice during the apartheid years, he said, and still finds it hard to trust a white man. Even today, he said, “I take a witness with me anytime I’m going to speak with one.”
Francois’ jaded feelings may never change, but they could begin to mellow with more time. But I think the changes that Gareth and Shiloh and others like Jason at Inkululeko are working for will have to begin to produce bigger results first. As with Dick Ford’s program in Syracuse, those results are slow moving and sometimes only show up in “onesies and twosies.”
In Syracuse, there are various organizations, some grassroots and some more formal, that have been working diligently to create better channels to success for those who have been without it here. The school district, for example, has its Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, and its Building Men, STEM and Career Technical Education programs. There are grassroots organizations like the Urban Jobs Task Force that are continuously prodding the political system so it doesn’t lose sight of the need for these programs. And there’s Joined Artists Musicians and Singers (JAMS).
JAMS has been receiving legal advice from the law department at Syracuse University and has been working from the ground up to keep visible the fact that diverse artists in our city need to eat, too.
Rhodes University has the biggest footprint in Grahamstown and the power to assist people of color there with pushing forward their own agenda. Thankfully they are working with people like Gareth and Shiloh who do understand that changes must be made and who are willing to invest their life’s careers trying to make a difference. But then there are the people of the world like Francois. He might not have the organizational skills needed to run the AMP or Inkululeko, but he feels that he needs to be taken seriously. If not, he and others like will him go on thinking that they’re really hearing the same old music and that the only thing that has changed is the approach.
Zandile knows Francois and can understand where he is coming from, but she also has the skills necessary to build change from the ground up, which can meet Rhodes’ top-down approach. She is considering starting a JAMS chapter in Grahamstown and has begun reaching out to some point people at Rhodes for legal assistance. Hopefully she will be able to manage Francois’ desires and couple them with Nombasa’s vision to create an organization that works for the people who need it most.
The people of Grahamstown are ready to dance now, so if Zandile’s JAMS is successful, Francois and his band will be able to play all new tunes.
To use a line from Francois’ way of doing things: The people feel like dancing. Has the material changed, or is it just the presentation?
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