Today is my first day at the South African School of Music, The University of Cape Town, to check out the UCT Ibuyambo Orchestra. The orchestra members are college musicians at the school of music. As a student, you are required to take a certain amount of core classes, like general music history, theory, secondary piano, and traditional African music. So yes, some of these people in the ensemble are studying traditional African music; however, most of them are studying to be jazz musicians, opera singers, dancers, and classical instrumentalists. The ensemble has been nice enough to let me attend all of their classes and rehearsals for the remaining time that I am here in Cape Town, to experience how they prepare for an upcoming performance.
I arrive at the music school’s main auditorium and see a group of 15 people in a circle: 7 are women, 8 are men; 13 are of Xhosa decent, 2 are white. Xhosa is the southern Africa Bantu ethnic population that resides in Southeast Africa. They are the dominant black ethnic group in Cape Town. Most Xhosa people were raised bilingual, speaking both English and Xhosa.
So, you are probably wondering, how on earth do I pronounce Xhosa? Well, it’s taken me 2 weeks to get it, although it takes me a good ten seconds standing in a mute stance preparing to pronounce it. The “X” in Xhosa is a tongue click in the back of your mouth, then instantly pronounce a hard “O”. Then the “SA” part sounds the same. I recommend you check out the YouTube video below. As much you would like to see me make a fool of myself, I’ll spare everyone from cringing at my sad excuses for Xhosa X clicks.
Anyway, back to the rehearsal. It’s completely quiet in the auditorium, with one person leading the circle in a stretching routine. They are mostly stretching their necks and arms. There are around 12 traditional African drums in the back, complete with a couple of conch shells and a tambourine. The ensemble gets into position to dance while their drumming instructor, Paul, is in the back on a djembe ready to act as “metronome” for the group. The dance leader, Koffi, stands in front to count off the ensemble. They are dancing a little piece that they learned a couple of rehearsals back, so it’s still pretty new to them. I don’t know if any of y’all have ever been in a dance class before, but the counting is very similar to a music class, or anything you may have seen in movies. The normal: “5, 6, 7, 8! 1 and 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8” type of deal. The dance leader starts with a “5, 6, 7, 8” count; but instead of counting in numbers, he sings out rhythms of what it will sound like with the lead djembe player, or the “caller”.
All the dance moves are based on the rhythms that the caller plays. I rapidly jot down some of the rhythms, to notate what the lead dancer is saying while they are dancing without the lead djembe player calling.
As you can see from my notations (below), the lead dancer declares different calls, depending on what technique the caller will play. He says “Di” for an 8th note, open tone, in the center of the drum (called a bass tone). “Da” is for an 8thnote, open tone, on the edge of the drum. He uses “Ta Ka” for 16th notes, “Zi Zi” for slaps on the drum. A “slap” on the djembe is when you cup your hand and literally slap the edge of the djembe to make a higher pitched, abrupt sound. The open tones at the center and edge, plus the slap, comprise three main sounds that are created on the djembe.
What’s cool about the djembe and these three different tonal expressions is that it reflects the sounds of traditional, native African dance, in which the dancers are barefoot. Try this: when you stomp only with the heel of your bare foot, it makes a low-pitched sound. Now kind of slap your entire foot on the ground, it makes a notably higher-pitched sound. You have created high and low pitched tones with the sounds of your bare feet on a hard surface, as does a player with her hands on the djembe.
After rehearsal, I’m able to chat with some of the members of the ensemble (mostly the women). One of the members, Sky, has her own marimba band called the Blackroots Marimbas, just what I’ve been looking for! She said I could sit in during their next rehearsal, preparing for a gig that showcases the African woman. I feel as though I’m finally getting my footing, tapping into the traditional music scene of Cape Town.
Check out at the video in my “videos” column to see the ensemble’s dance rehearsal, with the lead dancer teaching the choreography. More rehearsal notes and other awesome interviews to come!