EUGENE SKEEF’S NGOMA PROJECT

Celebrating 20 Years of the Ngoma project

 

Introduction

The word ngoma can be found in many parts of Africa. It has its roots in the holistic nature of the continent’s cultural traditions, meaning, variously, drum, dance, song, anthem and divine healing energy. I was inspired by this all-encompassing image to come up with the concept of the Ngoma project.

Why the Ngoma project

I had been in exile from my native South Africa since 1980, having been involved as a cultural activist in the Steve Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s. When Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of our country, it was obvious that I needed to begin the process of my return home. What better way to orchestrate this than to take a team of artists skilled in the art of creative education in order to give back to the communities that had sacrificed so much during the struggle!

How it happened

Assisted by my colleague Denise Mellion, who acted as Project Manager, we used my high profile and good connections in the arts world in the United Kingdom to raise the necessary funds. We positively exploited the fact that the British government’s Department of Trade & Industry as well as Buckingham Palace saw my creative leadership as an ideal export product at a time when Madiba’s Reconstruction and Development Programme was looking for suitable global channels to promote its new image and vision.

The Ngoma launch at South Africa House in London in December 1994 was a historic occasion. This was the first time ever that a cultural event of such far-reaching magnitude and harnessing impact took place at the High Commission. One of the wealthiest wine families from Stellenbosch contributed the wine and paid for members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to be flown for the evening from Glasgow to perform my award-winning composition Spirit Of The Drumsong.

In January of 1995, coinciding with the official state visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to President Nelson Mandela’s new South Africa, I led the Ngoma project as Artistic Director. The Ngoma project included the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), which I led as Special Projects Leader and Director of Education Programmes; it also included a team of 17 artists, whom I brought together from across a range of nationalities and genres comprising jazz, opera, Hip-Hop, poetry, dance, carnival design and performance, classical composition and arts administration.

Our international team, which included the legendary musicians Bheki Mseleku and Thebe Lipere, spent close to 4 months in South Africa (with the LPO staying for the first three weeks). We performed and conducted workshops in many communities in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Cape, which included townships like Clermont, KwaMashu, Chatsworth, Mariannridge, Soweto, Mamelodi and Langa. We also collaborated with a host of brilliant local artists, including Sibongile Khumalo, Moses Molelekwa, Pops Mohamed, Madala Kunene, Jackie Semela and Gito Baloyi.

One of the lasting memories of Ngoma was when we took residency in the design faculty of ML Sultan Technikon (now Durban Institute of Technology) in Durban. The inspiration to choose this formerly ethnically designated institution as our base came from the worrying news of a rift that festered between students of Indian and Zulu descent, which bore insidious echoes of apartheid. It was remarkable to witness and experience the divide disintegrating during our intensively intimate design and drumming sessions, and completely vanishing once we took this colourful rhythmic healing energy to the streets of Durban. I will never forget the alarmed expressions of motorists who, on first hearing our loud drums and chanting, would lock their doors as if we posed a threat; but as soon as they realised that the intensity of our sound was in celebration of the human spirit, they would roll their windows down and blast their hooters into the gloriously blue sky in time to the gathering beat of our carnival music.

Here is a list of the core Ngoma team who travelled from the UK:

Kamal El Alaoui
Marcina Arnold
Francisco Carrasco
Oscar Carrasco
Julie Dexter
Khadijatou Doyneh
Zena Edwards
Jeff Gordon
Stephen Langridge
Thebe Lipere
Denise Mellion
Bheki Mseleku
Eugene Skeef
Mpho McKenzie
Anthony Tidd
Curtis Watt

Special thanks to Justice Skeef, Vusi Mchunu and Sandile Ngidi, our hosts with the most.

Eugene Skeef – 21 January 2015

Poetry – The Gift Of Heightened Expression

Eugene Tulani Shakur
With my children Tulani and Shakur – budding poets.

This morning my 15-year-old daughter Tulani Kayani-Skeef remarked on the beauty of my poetry skills. She had spent part of last night exploring my website. When she came to the poetry page, she did not believe that the poems were by me, which made her think she had accidentally landed on another poet’s page. But then she scrolled down and saw that some of the poetry dated back to the 1970s, when I was a young man in my twenties.

Basking in her praise, I then told her that I wrote my latest poem (a tribute to the percussionist Richard Ọlátúndé Baker (http://www.richardolatundebaker.com/)) in under 15 minutes. With eyebrows raised in disbelief, she asked how I managed to do this, given that the poem is quite deep (in the words of a fellow poet). How did I find the right words, etc.? I told her that some poems just come to me like a gift from beyond, that I have very little control over them – they come through a kind of channeling, in which all I have to do is to remain open and accepting of the fortune to be chosen to receive them as a creative conduit. To which she commented that it must help that I’ve been writing poetry for many years and that I have an admirable vocabulary, which makes me perspicacious in knowing the right words to use.

i yam 2

This led to a discussion with her brother Shakur in which I encouraged them to write more poetry so that I may help them with their craft. I am very fortunate to be a part of my creative loving family.

© Eugene Skeef

Eugene Skeef’s Stuffed Butternut Squash Dish

Eugene Skeef’s Stuffed Butternut Squash

Stuffed butternut

The Source

Everything I do in my life bears the seed of my mother and father’s teachings. The first principle I imbibed from them is that of improvisation being the foundation of creativity, which, for me, means life. Naturally this ethos permeates even the way I prepare food.

When I was growing up in a township in South Africa, most of the food that my family ate grew freely in the bountiful natural environment that surrounded our home. Varieties of squashes, root vegetables, spinach, pulses and much else proliferated on the verdant slopes that gave an enriching spirit to our creative negotiation with poverty.

You would have to have been there to witness how creative my people can be with vegetables that are routinely regarded as boring. The butternut squash is a principal protagonist in this drama. So, over the years that I have been away from home, I have explored and found several ways of spicing up this fruit that is disparagingly cast into the lot of vegetables.

I have had several friends ask me to share the secret to my tasty butternut squash creations. I promised I would behave with the exemplary generosity of the natural environment – which is essentially an expression of my inherent character – and openly share my recipe with anyone who is interested.

So, here goes! Here’s one of my butternut squash dishes that I prepared for our family dinner recently.

Preparation

I start by putting on my favourite music to infuse the dish with extra vibe. In this recent case I had Bheki Mseleku’s Celebration (featuring Eddie Parker, Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Michael Bowie and Marvin Smitty Smith) and Beauty of Sunrise (featuring Graham Haynes, Ravi Coltrane, Elvin Jones and James Spaulding) adding that special African tone to the spices.

Feel free to have your personal choice of music playing while you attempt this dish. Don’t resist the dance that naturally emerges as you prepare it. If you’re doing it right you’ll find that your hips are tempted to move in directions normally confined to other areas of your expressive life. Just follow them for they will never lead you astray if you are determined to go with the flavours of your creativity.

Carefully split the butternut squash down the middle from stem to base. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp of the fruit. Place the halves in a large pot with enough water to cover them completely. Heat this until the water boils. Let it continue to bubble and keep checking the firmness of the flesh of the squash pieces by piercing them with a fork.

While the squash is being softened, heat the oil in a large pan. Peel and chop the onion finely. When the oil is warm enough add the chopped onion to the pan and gently spread the pieces throughout the pan with a wooden ladle. Do this occasionally between peeling and finely slicing the garlic. When the onion has browned slightly, add the garlic slices and mix them together with the onion. Bring the heat down and keep mixing until the garlic is brown.

Chop the tomatoes finely, making sure not to lose their juice. Add to the browned onion and garlic and stir until you have a rich sauce. Add the spices according to the measurements indicated and mix everything together.

Cover the pan with a lid and bring the temperature down to very low. If you keep a careful watch over the intensity of the heat you will not lose the juicy sauce that the tomatoes, onion and garlic release with the absorbed spices.

Next, split a washed red pepper down the middle and remove its stem, seeds and excessive pith. Chop it up into small pieces and throw into the pan. Mix everything gently, making sure that nothing sticks to the pan. Use your discretion as to whether you need to add some water, but being careful not to dilute the flavours.

Then add the young spinach leaves to the pan and let this simmer, occasionally stirring the whole mix. Be careful not to overcook the pepper, otherwise it may lose its delicious succulence.

Check that the butternut squash has softened to the point where the fork requires a little bit of pressure to enter its flesh. The fruit needs to be slightly firm for it to hold the stuffing, remain intact and not collapse later when you place it in the oven. Remove the butternut squash halves from the water and place them on a chopping board. Use a sharp knife to carve out a lot of the softened flesh, making sure not to weaken the wall of the fruit. (The removed flesh can be mashed as a side dish with butter, salt and pepper added to your personal taste.)

Preheat the oven to about 230 degrees Celsius or gas mark 8. When the stuffing is ready, fill the scooped halves with it, slightly compacting the mix with the ladle. Brush all over the squash halves with olive oil and place them alongside each other in a spacious oven tray. Place the tray in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes or until the butternut squash is toned, glistening and ready.

Serve hot, enjoy and don’t stop dancing!

Note: Sometimes I add a pulse like chickpeas or black-eyed beans to this dish. If you use the canned variety, rinse these then add them to the pan right at the end and mix them in thoroughly. Otherwise soak them overnight, boil them separately for 5 minutes before draining and adding them.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon haldi (ground tumeric)

½ teaspoon graram masala

1 teaspoon dhaniya (ground coriander)

1 teaspoon jeera (ground cumin)

chilli powder – according to personal tolerance level (a tiny bit – about ¼ teaspoon is normally bearable even to those not from the southern hemisphere)

¾ teaspoon ground sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large butternut squash

2 medium sized vine tomatoes

1 red pepper

100g young spinach

100g black-eyed beans (optional)

1 medium sized onion

5 cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons red palm fruit & rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil

Special Request

Please share with me the outcome of your endeavours, your choice of music and other related stories. Peace and love.

Innocence Of The Damned

As a child in South Africa I went to a primary school that was run by European nuns. They oversaw our education with the sedimentary savagery of British colonial rule.

Eugene and Sibongile
With my cousin S’bongile.

I remember one summer’s day being pulled up in front of the whole school during assembly to receive multiple lashes for being a ringleader in raiding the newly forbidden orchards of our youth. I excelled in the art of scaling the fences that white people erected around their new homes built on my ancestors’ custodial lands. My schoolmates and I used to augment our meagre nourishment by feasting on the abundant succulent subtropical fruits on our long sun-baked journey to and from school.

The person charged with administering these lashes was the PE teacher, the strongest man in a school that was predominantly staffed by women. I will never forget the size of his forearms, which he displayed for added dramatic effect by rolling up his sleeves (My father was the only man I knew who possessed more formidable arms). As I prudently climbed up the converging stairs, trying very hard not to appear scared (because I was in charge of the safety and security of a whole township of kids whose parents placed in my care as the eldest of a tribe of my father’s own children), I would notice the teacher flexing his muscles and bending the thick bamboo cane to ascertain its resilience, but more clearly to multiply the fear factor.

I marched up the stairs that fanned out towards the assembled pupils like the gangplank to the ship of my humiliation; but even as I took each step, counting them as I do till this day as a mathematical aid to my memory, I knew that I had to be brave to inspire the entire pupil population – but mostly those in my charge – that I was worthy of their respect and trust.

It wasn’t enough that I could sprint the fastest, jump the highest, dribble the most nimbly at football or write the most eloquent poetry to gain the interest of the girls; I had to show that I could take corporal punishment like a man.

When I reached the threshold of the stairs, where the left-handed teacher was to perform his ritual duties on my behind, he lightly tapped his right hand with the cane as a preamble to my anticipated submission; but instead of succumbing to this unwarranted act of perennial abuse, I lifted my neatly ironed blazer and did a slow-motion anti-clockwise turn in the direction of the overweight mother superior to reveal my buttocks, giving her the false impression that I was only proving that I had not shoved my school books to pad my soft rear. It didn’t bother me one bit that she showed a sign of having detected the unequivocal disdain in my unblinking eyes.

I didn’t wait for the teacher to instruct me to bend over – I chose my position so that by turning my head slightly to the left I would be able to see my siblings and the rest of the gang from my ghetto in the front row. The first lash cut through my grey shorts and into my innocent boy’s bum like a knife of lightning, but I did not even wince or make a sound to feed the glee of the gathered nuns and their chosen muscular mascot. Instead I stayed facing my gang, managing to release a subtle smile, so as not to openly insult the teachers who stood at attention at the end of each row of children.

The lashes intensified, but so did my resolve! I noticed my brother who comes right after me starting to sob. He couldn’t take the pain of watching me humiliated in front of the whole school like this. Then one by one my family and friends joined him with their voluminous tears and soon all you could hear above the sound of the relentless cane was their crying like a chorus of inconsolable cats.

When the teacher looked towards the head nun to indicate that he had come to the end of the number of lashes allocated in accordance with the size of the crime, I slowly raised my head and adopted a fully upright stance facing the gathered children like a true hero. Applause or any other show of endorsement of my accomplishment was prohibited, but I could not miss the sparkle that replaced the tears on the faces of every child.

Eugene Skeef

hail music

hail music

the beauty of music

the only faith i subscribe to

shows me petals

of the sun

unravels mysteries

of creation

measures the pulse

of invisible cycles

protects the innocence

of a dew drop

from the ravages

of hidden agendas

melts metallic bullets

into mellifluous balletic flow

i worship

at the bidding of love

nature is my temple

the sky my cathedral

the cave of ancient wells

my altar of sacrificial vows

bled in the presence of song

i raise my head in silence

beneath the stars

the original scriptures

across heaven’s infinite page

that guide me

through the cataclysms

of our ephemeral story

in another world

i refused for angels

to kiss my feet

after my melismatic dance

of surrender

before the inhalation

of prophecies

eugene skeef 100115

Interview with Eugene Skeef by Sandile Ngidi on the death of Mido Macia during his arrest by the South African Police Service.

Emidio Josias “Mido” Macia (c. 1985 – 26 February 2013) was a Mozambican immigrant and taxi driver who was killed in the custody of the South African Police Service. He was dragged by a police vehicle in the township of Daveyton in Gauteng, South Africa a few hours earlier. A crowd witnessed the dragging incident, one of whom filmed it. Police said Macia had caused a traffic jam and then resisted arrest.
The freelance journalist Sandile Ngidi interviewed me about this incident.

Mido Macia 1 Mido Macia 2

As a South African abroad, what feelings and thoughts emerged within you as you saw that brutal video image?

Living far from my country of birth for so many years has infused my life with a peculiar kind of pain. We are born to live with pain like a grain of salt in the spice of our lives, but the pain of longing lingers longer than any other pain I have known in my life. Separation from those we love tenderises the soul. All my years away from the fragrance of the fruits of our motherland, the tranquillity of bamboo-shaded rivers, the symphony of birds harmonising with the songs of hope that I heard in the township of my youth, all these memories have served to accentuate the pain of distance from the land of my love.

I was shocked out of my wits, therefore, when I saw the image of Mido Macia being dragged through the street by that police van. I was instantly shocked out of a state of accumulated psychological complacency resulting from the assumed sanctity of our so-called democracy. For are we not the custodians of ubuntu, this collective credo of human oneness that our people gave the world? Was it not to us that the world looked for lessons on how to dissolve the prefabricated walls that separate us from ourselves, and turn them into bridges to bring us back into the sacred place of being truly human?

As the video buffered on my computer screen I became aware of the pixelated spirit of Steve Biko dissolving into the body of Mido Macia. I was aghast at the sight of these uniformed gangsters shamelessly carrying out an act of such wanton brutality as on that ignominious night in September 1977. But this time the drama was significantly different. This time the principal protagonists were graduates from history’s school of resurrection, and the drama was powered by an insidiously new indifference unfolding in broad daylight and in full view of the public. Was I watching a ritual sacrifice at the altar of the new South Africa?

The narrative communicated by the video clip was a simple one for me to understand: Something is fundamentally wrong when those in whom we invest power through the mechanisms of democracy to protect the citizenry become predators of the innocent.
What in your view does this say about SA today and what we have learnt or need to learn?

We as a nation have been resting on our laurels. The intoxication of freedom and the historic emergence of our democracy from centuries of inequity and iniquity combine to make us into a people who feel the world owes us a life of glorious genuflection. It is not dissimilar to the star football striker who believes that his monetary value supersedes the need to score goals, yet is surprised when his club does not lift the trophy at the end of the season. We need to take stock of our situation and realise that we are no different to any other nation in that we need to work hard, especially in these trying economic times, to sustain our fragile democracy.

The case of Macia also highlights a worrying trend I have been observing in some parts of our country since a few years ago. I have been saddened by what I feel is an increased intolerance of difference in South Africa. In some ways this reflects our still festering history of apartheid. In particular it is important for our people to be educated to remember that a long list of other African countries gave refuge to many of our brothers and sisters who were actively engaged in opposing apartheid and promoting the advancement of the cause of our liberation into a democracy. The people of these countries fed us and educated us with pride for daring to face the monster and beat him. I despair at the xenophobic attitudes among some of our communities. I have watched with shame news reports of attacks of other Africans by some of our people; but I am also fascinated by the colour-coordinated pattern of these hostilities that appear to leave the real masters of South African capital unscathed.

I would say the most important lesson that we can learn from horrors such as the brutal murder of Macia is that a holistic education of the entire nation has to become a priority in getting us out of the cycle of violence that remains the key signature of our society.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, I “believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it”. A civilised nation should protect its people and promote their wellbeing, interests and productive aspirations as its principal asset in its quest for improvement and growth in every sense. I understand this to be the true meaning of a country’s wealth. For what are the real benefits of a country’s development if not the happiness, health, security, prosperity, peace, confidence, shelter and fulfilment of its populace?
What is the role of the poet/artist in a society clearly crying out for self-healing?

Throughout human history artists have always had the gift of unveiling the light we need as a society to find our way through life’s forest of dilemmas. Artists, then, are like healers. They hold the key to tune the strings of our souls. The poet perhaps benefits from using the medium of words, the primary tool of spoken language. The music of language in the hands of a gifted poet can sing to us and articulate our unexpressed thoughts and feelings. The music of poetry can provide intonation and amplification for our collectively dormant voice.Eugene Skeef

It is a sad irony that while the rest of the world searches for spiritual and psychic relief in the vast memory bank of our supreme traditional healing systems, we as a nation wallow in a mire of self-denial and self-hate, of which the chaotic state of our country can only be the fruits. The benefits of self-belief – as preached by Biko – to us as a people (and I include all South African communities) are beyond measure. The wealth of our health grows verdant right beneath our feet yet we trample it without due care.

I would say that the restoration of the power of the arts as a vital artery in the heart of our ailing society should be a priority if we wish to witness the healing that we desperately need for our survival as a nation. After all we all know that the arts were an indispensible component of our struggle for freedom.
How can your experiences working in Bosnia, etc., help us as a society engage more and seriously on a national agenda of self-healing and national cohesion?

Any conflict results in destruction, but I believe the more lasting damage lies buried in the cracks between the fragments that we try to glue back together afterwards. Herein lie the invisible human demons that can thrive un-thwarted. Creativity can be a very effective tool in dislodging these stubborn torments. I was amazed at the success of my creative interventions during the post-war trauma healing sessions I conducted in Bosnia. In my two years as Director of Music Development at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar I used music, movement and other creative methods to relieve the trauma suffered by young and old alike as a result of the inter-ethnic war.

A more critical effect of my work in that war torn country was siphoning the residual prejudice that I found needed very little spark to re-ignite the dormant destructive energy that people carried around with them. We know that the history of South Africa is riddled with the cancer of hate, fear and insecurity. I believe many of us also know that the transformation of these destructive feelings within our society, while not an easy task, has to be pursued rigorously to uncover the love buried deep within our collective psyche.

It is the duty of any government that wears a constitutional garland of unsurpassed promise to value above all the cultivation of the wholeness of the soul of its electorate and to place it at the very centre of its shrine. Needless to say, if our leaders do not attain this level of reverence for their people, the vicious cycle of violence will continue unabated.
What is your call to all of us, South Africans and Africans in general, in the wake of such an incident? Steve Biko 1

My call as a proud South African and African to all South Africans and Africans is to cleanse ourselves of the cosmetic stain of self-hate and self-doubt. I implore my brothers and sisters, by which I mean everyone, to wash away the false identities we wear like cheap tattoos and look deeper into ourselves to locate the embedded power of knowing who we truly are in this world. We must remember that we are the inheritors of a legacy of profound dimensions. We are the sons and daughters of heroes and heroines who did not fear the sun when, driven by the hunger for knowledge, they walked onto the plains of learning. We must honour our forebears by holding our heads high and risk losing favour with those who wedge macabre commercial breaks in the digitised drama of our beautiful lives.

GOING BEYOND (Brahma Kumaris Black History Month event)

On 16 October 2014 I was invited by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in North London to give a talk and musical performance based on my life. The title of my presentation, which took the form of an interview by Romina Melwani, was Going Beyond. I was honoured to meet and share the stage with Patricia German, an 84-year-old yoga & meditation teacher who epitomises the wisdom of experience, perspicacity, resilience, activism and the embodiment of love and light.

Like music, silence does not need any language. Silence comes before language and goes beyond language. There is no music without silence.

Thanks to the beautiful Beverley Crook, who initially guided me in my preparation for the live interview.

 

How can music help people to get beyond seeing their lives and their life experiences as a result of the way they look on the outside?

Eugene in bamboo grove
Improvising music in the bamboo grove of my Peruvian dancer friend Luciana Proaño.

Music in its purest form is meditation, an alignment with deep inner vibrations of silence. But since there is no real silence, for everything vibrates, silence becomes a near still sort of vibration.

Sound is vibration. The cosmos and all of life are in a constant state of vibration. So the universe is a symphony from which we inhale rhythms, melodies and harmonies into our consciousness. This is the purest way of experiencing music. Words can be music, but the most effective music is without words – just pure sound, where the meaning is in the sound itself. So when we close our eyes and focus on music in this form, without the distractions of the materially designed world and the external appearance of all the cosmetically different peoples, we can tune in to this real essence of music.

When we tune in to music at this level we transcend our gravitational state of being and literally go beyond the temporary boundaries of gender, ethnicity, culture, age, etc.

 

How can we counter the media approach to body image?

It is a pity that people feel trapped into relating to the mainstream propagation of images that are projected as the preferred likeness of a human being. We live in a world where people’s self-image is determined and dictated by not always subtle external forms of coersion designed to achieve our acquiescence and therefore the subjugation of our self-dignity and positive self-perception. When we live a life of consciousness or heightened awareness, media bombardment of our senses ceases to matter. The media tends to succeed in controlling our sense of ourselves only because we allow it, by virtue of not having faith in our own innate sense of who we are.

Mum and kids
My mother and siblings in eNdunduma, Clermont Township, where I grew up (I am the tallest one in the back row).

Self-determination is a key to dealing with the pernicious effects of the media. In my personal experience I find refuge in music, meditation, family, true friendship and love. These contribute to making me require little else to feel whole within myself. For it is within ourselves that we need to feel complete in order for cosmetic influences not to affect us.

How do you use music to bring people together?

I use rhythm as the principal tool to bring people together. Through rhythm you can find the coalescing power of music. Some rhythmic cycles and tempos are more effective than others in getting a group of people to feel like an organic whole. Having established the rhythm, I then introduce the voice, which is the human being’s first instrument of expression. Dancing follows naturally once the vocalisation of the beat starts to flow.

 

Can you tell us something about spiritual healing through music?

Granny and Grandpa
My maternal grandparents.

I often think of inspiration as being the inhalation of the spirit. This helps me to understand how when I use music in an inspirational way, participants of my music circle will naturally inhale its essence or spirit and therefore become one with it. This unity with the spirit of music, or encompassing the vibration of sound, aligns you with the spirit of your being. Another way of expressing this is that you become in tune with your inner self. To be in tune is to be healed.

Can you give us some highlights of your career in terms of how music has taken people beyond their immediate circumstances to a place of peace etc?

When I worked in Mostar, Bosnia as Director of Music Development at the Pavarotti Music Centre one of my responsibilities was to use music to reduce the effects of war trauma among the participants of my workshops. Sometimes this was attained through group workshops, but at other times I held one-to-one sessions with individuals who were in great need of elevation from the depths of post-war trauma.

In one of these sessions I remember a young man who had been one of the youngest fighters on the frontline during the inter-ethnic war. He was haunted by the sounds of bombing, which stayed lodged in his handsome head throughout the day and night. One day, at the end of a special session with him, he said that the drumming we did together helped herd these horrible sounds out of his head, leaving a clear space to be occupied by beautiful rhythmic sounds and cyclical melodies. As a result of these focussed sessions this young man stopped shaking and grimacing from his trauma – a smile returned to his face and a pendular sway showed off his relaxed tall frame.

Another young man in Mostar suffered from the inability to sleep as a result of having witnessed the horrific acts that enemy soldiers had performed on his parents after he had innocently revealed their whereabouts during the war. A colleague and I combined our skills in yoga, meditation and music therapy to return this beautiful musician to having a normal restful sleeping pattern and a fulfilling life of musical activity, which included him developing the skills to use his singing and guitar talents to extend his new-found state of peace to the young children of his damaged community.

A third experience of my music helping to transform someone’s war-damaged life involved a beautiful young woman. When I met her in my drumming sessions she wore the saddest face I had ever seen, which was like a dark veil that hid her natural beauty. We became quite close and through this I learnt that everyday she contemplated – and on a few occasions attempted – suicide. I was impelled to devote myself wholly to the diffusion of this disastrous disposition.

I am very happy to say that the sessions that I conducted ultimately led to the restoration of self-belief, confidence, wellbeing and beauty in this immensely gifted woman, who is now the charismatic and inspirational leader of creative solutions to depression, aimlessness and insecurity among the youth of her community.

The final incident I would like to share with you took place one evening on a London Underground station shortly after my arrival in the city of my exile from my native South Africa. I was exhausted and overloaded with musical instruments I had just used in a workshop with inmates serving life sentences at a London prison.

I stood over my pile of instruments and a backpack on the packed platform; and all I had in mind was arriving home to a nice cup of tea and a delicious dinner after a very successful workshop. But then the wrong train stopped, and spilled out a horde of drunken football fans waving beer cans and shouting tuneless football songs. As soon as they spotted me among the timid passengers also waiting for their train, they made a beeline for me and started to chant racist epithets and expletives. I remained calm. They got close to me and intensified their rude calls peppered with derogatory references to monkeys and the African jungle. Then they threatened me with violence, at which point I crouched and reached into my backpack. They stopped in their tracks, probably imagining that I was retrieving a weapon of some sort; but I pulled out a pair of wooden beaters tipped with African forest rubber and began to play melodiously on my pentatonic Ghanaian marimba. The acoustic of the station amplified the sweet sound of the mahogany keys vibrating over the gourd resonators as my music filled the cavernous space. I then improvised some call-and-response chant in no particular language and invited the thugs to join me; but they just stood there frozen with gaping mouths and dangling beer cans. The other passengers, who had been plastered against the platform wall with fear, now came unstuck and visibly enjoyed the music. My train approached and I gathered my instruments and danced my way through the welcoming doors…

The echo of the station as the train pulled away was audibly free of contempt.

 

What has inspired/motivated you to transform lives/communities through music?

Dad and kids
My father and my siblings (Dad is proudly placing his hand on me, his first-born child).

I have been profoundly inspired by my experience growing up in my home in a South African township that suffered the intertwined afflictions of poverty and violence.

There was music throughout the day and night in my environment. In my family home my mother’s perpetual singing formed the first concentric circle of musical consolidation of my spirit. She sang to her children as she put us to sleep, and used her mellifluous singing voice to wake us up gently in the morning.

The next musical ripple that contributed to the development of my confidence as an independent being was the music that happened in the open yard of my home, when musicians came to find safety from the dangers of the itinerant violence that plagued our township, resonating this homely refuge that absorbed all manner of vulnerable people and other creatures needing to release their subjugated voices.

The third circle, moving further outward from the nucleus of my family, was the all-night singing that took place under the giant fig tree in my community. Here, as a young man, I would witness and become a part of some of the most mesmerising singing I have ever heard. Polyrhythmic chants would dare the stars to descend from the heavenly African dome and receive more fire from my people’s transcendent voices.

The final circle was the extreme outer ripple of nature’s eternal symphony. I will never grow tired of the suffusion of song that emerges from the constant unfolding of the natural environment. As a child I lost myself in this endless fountain of enchantment. My inhalation of the essential spirit of the garden of life continues to be a lasting inspiration.

 

How can we use music to bring down walls and build bridges first with our selves and then those around us?

Joseph Shabalala Mum and Azra
Joseph Shabalala, leader of the multiple Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with my mother Nyameka, my wife Azra and daughter Tulani. Jonas, the son of BBC senior producer Roger Short is so proud to meet one of his favourite singers. In the early years of its formation, Joseph’s group used to practice in my home because of its safety from Apartheid violence.

Bringing down walls and building bridges are actually the same action. Imagine a wall. It normally stands upright, partitioning what was previously an open space. Walls enclose a space, thus separating it from other spaces. When a wall comes down it assumes a lateral form, becoming a bridge to traverse and step into the newly revealed space.

Similarly, immersion in the act of music brings about the state of being one with ourselves and with those around us.

I recently conducted a music workshop at Zu Studios in Lewes, a community initiative run selflessly by a group of people from a variety of backgrounds and faiths. The highlight and culmination of two days of creative music making was the Ugandan mbaire, the world’s largest xylophone, which could be played comfortably by up to ten people at the same time. Both the participants of the workshop and people who were preparing food downstairs from the session or going about their routine duties commented that the effect of the sound on their whole being was amazing. They felt transported beyond their sense of the present into a state of grace and transcendence. There came a point for everyone involved in the music and beyond, where they forgot about themselves and were able to enter a higher or deeper sense of being. Those playing the instrument went beyond the need to consciously know what they were playing, even though at the start of the session they might have experienced problems with co-ordinating their hands to play the polyrhythms I was guiding them to. My role as a teacher or leader became redundant. I don’t know of a better environment for sharing a space and time with others on the common theme of the unity of love.

 

What role do you think creative leadership can play in taking us beyond our differences?

Creative leadership, in the sense that I understand it, is a source of inspiration. A creative leader is an inspirational leader. In my work I believe I manage to inspire those who look to me for guidance in their pursuit of self-confidence, self-reliance and to rekindle their conviction that, like everyone else in the world, they possess the innate ability to go beyond their perceived limitations and become who they are truly meant to be. For that is all that someone in my position can really do – to rekindle that self-belief which is always there but lays dormant within most of us. Once this flame has been re-awoken from its sleep, it can brighten our lives and become the light that shows us our path in this world.

The attainment of this level of self-confidence makes cosmetic differences between us become just that – superficial, false representations of our deeper selves.

 

 

© Eugene Skeef 2014