Bulawayo alive with the sound of music

SARAH HUDLESTON, writing in The Weekender, returns home to Bulawayo, from Johannesburg and finds a community united by the healing power of music.


THE road to Bulawayo is a long one. If you take the border crossing into account, which on this occasion was surprisingly quiet on both sides, the journey takes about 11 hours. It is a long time to think about the rising wave of xenophobia in SA, my adopted country, and also to reflect on the years I spent growing up in Bulawayo, a funny, quirky town with wide streets, laid out by an official in Whitehall over a period of about 40 years.

I always used to laugh at the fact that there are about six interrupted sections to more than one street. This was due to the street plans been drawn in London, without a thought for the very hilly topography.

This is the place which, despite an exile of almost 30 years, I still call home. I joked with friends and said, when asked where I came from, I came from the centre of the world.

I got this idea from a woman I met who had grown up in Vienna. As a student, hanging around the coffee bars in the ’60s, she said a popular debate was one about which place was the centre of the world. It was only much later, when she came to Bulawayo and travelled to the Matopos Hills, a rocky range outside the city, that she felt she had finally found the centre of the world.

The Bulawayo of my childhood was a gentle and civilised place, which I viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. Of course later, much later, I began to realise that was not everyone’s reality. There was no overt racism really, it was just that nobody ever mixed with people of other races on a social level. This is largely still true today.

I suppose on a much contracted scale in those days it was a bit like an African Vienna, a place full of social niceties where musicians, dancers, writers and theatre thrived. Even international theatre productions came to our not-so-sleepy town.

My parents did not have a TV . Instead, we listened to music, usually on the radio, and nearly always classical. We went to the theatre, the cinema and the ballet. We also attended concerts at the Bulawayo City Hall, conducted by Robert Sibson, a gifted musician who was also the city engineer, and later director of the conservatory, then called the Rhodesian Academy of Music.

Under his baton, famous musicians such as John Ogden and Tamás Vásáry thrilled the concert-going public. A continuous flow of the world’s top performers made sure that Bulawayo was on their concert schedule.

The famous opera singer Frances Yeend of the New York City Opera, who died in April at the age of 95, sang the role of Mimi in La Bohème in Bulawayo in 1954, following an engagement at Covent Garden.

Although concerts were performed in the Bulawayo City Hall, central to the musical life of the city was the Academy of Music, built largely thanks to a donation of £100000 given in 1957 by my cousins’ grandmother, Rebecca Kaufman, in memory of her late husband, Oscar.

This largesse had enabled the academy’s basic structure, built after 1953, to be improved. The original foundation stone was laid by world-renowned British conductor Sir John Barbirolli.

The Kaufmans had long been patrons of the performing arts in Bulawayo and in particular of the orchestra, which was first formed in 1937. To this day, it has not been officially disbanded, despite it being virtually nonfunctioning. But that does not mean the music has died.

In 1983, after my family had emigrated, a concert hall was built at the academy, a project driven by Derek Hudson, a conductor who in the 1960 s had conducted some of Britain’s leading orchestras. This concert hall is possibly the finest small concert hall in Africa, with brilliant acoustics.

Hudson was a major driving force behind the musical life of Bulawayo, and was able to attract top calibre international musicians.

In 1997, Hudson initiated the first of the Bulawayo music festivals to celebrate a handful of anniversaries including the 60th of the Bulawayo Philharmonic Orchestra; the 40th of Performing Arts Bulawayo; the 20th of the National Symphony Orchestra and the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the steam train in Bulawayo.

An even larger festival was staged two years later, followed by three more, including one put on in December 2002 to mark the total eclipse of the sun.

For the first concert in 1997, 150 music lovers boarded a steam train for the Victoria Falls and witnessed Tamsin Little, the famous violinist, playing the Bach E major Partita to an entranced hippopotamus, wrote Michael Bullivant, chairman of Performing Arts Bulawayo, in a recent article in The Daily Telegraph in London .

Hudson died in December 2005 and Bullivant, a Cambridge graduate who taught English at Milton High School for 30 years and who had worked with Hudson to organise the festival since its inception in 1997, took responsibility.

He has done an incredible job in keeping the music tradition alive in the city. He continues to raise funds internationally, attracts international talent and, more importantly, involves all sectors of the community in the musical and artistic programme.

Bulawayo last week hosted its sixth music festival, for which Bullivant coaxed sponsorship from Alliance Française, the British Council, The Beit Trust, MBCA Bank, a Nedbank subsidiary, and Sandvik.

The festival was essentially five days of nonstop music in about 20 concerts by some of the world’s top performing artists.

These included the pianist, composer and conductor Leslie Howard; Oliver Cox, a percussionist; Coady Green, pianist; Benjamin Nabarro, a chamber musician and soloist on the violin; Matthew Sharp, a cellist and singer; and the South African chamber group, the Odeion Quartet.

Young talents were also given an opportunity to shine — Oliver Cox, a percussionist, and Morgan Szy manski, a guitarist.

Cox, a former top scholar at the Royal College of Music and who performs regularly in London and Europe, ran special marimba workshops. He plays a concert marimba.

Marimba music attracted the attention of western orchestras in the 1960s when Robert Sibson started the Kwanongoma College of Music which for many years built marimbas and trained countless Zimbabwean musicians. The instrument that played the rich indigenous music of Zimbabwe fitted in comfortably on western stages.

Szymanski, a Mexican concert guitarist and composer who made his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London in 2007, returns to Bulawayo time and again for the festival.

He is committed to making a contribution to music education and ran a number of workshops during the festival. He wrote a new piece specially for performance by Zimbabwean guitarists and marimba players.

Zambesi Serenade, he says, is written specially for children and only pretends to be a simple song and nothing too pretentious. However, the accompaniment is designed for mass participation and he and Cox arranged a performance on Sunday afternoon with choirs, marimba and guitar students.

How such an event can be staged at a time of suffering and hyperinflation is nothing short of a miracle. Some people would question its appropriateness.

But in the foreword to the festival programme, Bullivant writes: And so in Zimbabwe, the land of contradictions, where the natural rhythm of the earth today seems sometimes to be overwhelmed by violence and need, the Sixth Bulawayo Music Festival will continue to extend boundaries and to provide the opportunity for people to experience the richness of the arts and especially the healing power of music.

He has a point, because this is the one place I observed on this trip to Zimbabwe where people are truly united with a common purpose — to rise above the pain of an environment in rapid decline.

Bullivant adds this apt quote : Music is the most essential art. For as long as humanity remains, so shall sweet Music sing her song of man.

Howard, the pianist, said he kept returning to Bulawayo for the festival because he loved the enthusiasm of the audience and the people he met . I am flat out. I have to rehearse a lot. But I love coming here, he said. It was his 12th visit in 16 years.

While, in many ways, Bulawayo has not changed in social attitudes , the one area where meaningful integration does take place is at the academy, which has evolved to serve the community .

On the opening night last Wednesday, the programme was long and varied. But the highlights were Sir Edward Elgar’s Chanson de nuit and Chanson de matin for violin and piano, and Felix Blumenfeld’s Etude for the left hand in A flat major. I also liked the Mozart Sonata, played by both Howard and Green, with the second piano part written by Grieg. The hall was pretty full and the audience highly appreciative.

And for the rest of the week, three concerts a day were offered to the music loving and playing public. A ticket for all the concerts cost just R120 — Z$6,468,824.659.

By Sunday the festival had reached fever pitch. First, Cox and Szy manski brought the marimbas, choirs and guitarists — all students — to hold sway under the trees outside the hall.

That evening the hall was filled to the rafters as Howard and Green on pianos, with five massive backing choirs, performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

This version of the work was arranged for two piano s by Liszt, and obviates the need for an entire orchestra.

Weeks of intensive rehearsal had gone into this grand finale. While the irony of the fact that the Ian Smith regime hijacked the music from this piece for Rhodesia’s national anthem did not go unnoticed, this stirring performance, with black and white Zimbabweans singing together to a thoroughly mixed audience, it became the performance that Beethoven intended, an Ode to Joy — the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

Frederich Schiller’s words to the effect that all men shall be brothers seemed particularly apt for a society that faces such an uncertain future.

When the performance drew to an end the hall erupted into tumultuous applause, shaking it almost to its foundations.

After all the activity surrounding the music festival, it would seem likely that Bulawayo’s artistic community would pause and take a breath. But there is no chance of that. A full schedule of concerts will carry on each month as usual.

And if that is not enough, the Russian Ballet is coming to town next week, to perform Giselle.

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