Posted on 5/7/2008at 12:18 PM
I'm baaaaack! :-)

As everyone is probably singing songs about spring and going to the park with their kids, walking their dogs, and all that syrupy, corny stuff, I’m sitting here dieting on benadryl, eye drops, and preventil. I HATE SPRING!! Every May, I go through this. It’s been like this ever since college. I just have to grit my teeth (and rub my eyes) for about three weeks, then I’m cool. By my birthday, I should be singing “Spring Is Here.” In the meantime, I’m singing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”!!

As for my disappearing act on “My Thang”, I know what some of you all must be saying….

“Man, Christian went to South Africa and left us hanging!”

Yes, the last time I wrote a “My Thang” entry was back in November before I went to South Africa with Pat Metheny’s Trio. This is the longest stretch I think I’ve ever gone without writing an entry (six months). But instead of giving you the usual apology for my lack of “proficiency in print”, I’ll just give you the month-by-month, play-by-play from November until now. (If I can remember it….)

Even before I went to the Motherland, I correctly predicted that there would be no way I would be able to describe South Africa to you with words, as I’m not rich enough in vocabulary to properly convey my feelings to you. Melissa and I went a week early to go on safari – of course. We went to a resort called the Lion Sands. It’s right near the legendary Kruger National Park. I must say, I’m not quite as adventurous as my “Indiana Jones” wife, but now that I’m out of there safely, I can say that it was exhilarating. We traveled in an open-air jeep. Yes, we were much closer to these great animals than I would have like to have been. We saw four of the “big five” – elephant, buffalo, rhino, and the mighty lion. We did not see any leopard. Apparently, they’re the hardest ones to see. After a few days at the Lion Sands, we headed off to Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Through Jazz House Kids, Melissa and I were setup to work with an amazing teacher, mentor, musican, and person named Jesse Mogale. Jesse runs a music program for children of all ages in the township of Mamalodi called the CAFCA – Committed Artists For Cultural Advancement. This is an orchestra of middle and high school kids who come together on weekends to play. This is not an orchestra that is funded by Government grants, but funded by love of the music. The orchestra was absolutely INCREDIBLE!! Melissa and I spent an entire day working with them. I will tell you this – music really IS the universal language. I’ve had the opportunity to see young musicians playing on the street in Russia, Europe, Japan, and now South Africa, and I can tell you that the one thing that always bring a smile to everyone’s face is music. Not any particular kind of music, but just seeing humans creating these vibrations and soundwaves coming from an instrument is about the most healing thing we can experience as humans. Try it. Back to the kids….

After playing and talking with them, a few started to ask questions about the jazz scene in the USA. Frankly, I’m quite surprised they were even interested. A few kids asked about Berklee, the New School, Juilliard, USC, etc, etc. These kids were ON it! We loved every minute of it. I look forward to seeing and hearing them again real soon somewhere in the world. I also look forward to seeing the next crop of mighty young kids Jesse recruits.

Jesse took such great care of Melissa and I. We couldn’t have met a better friend. When it came to learning local customs, I was now confronted with the staggering diverse culture of South Africa. First of all, let’s talk about language. Did you know there are ELEVEN different languages spoken in South Africa ALONE? I said to Jesse, “Well, everyone can’t possibly speak all eleven, right?” He giggles and says, “Sure, some can.” Then again, almost every civilized nation on this earth can speak at least two languages. And we Americans think we’re so smart! There’s Setswana, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sesotho……, man. That’s all I can remember.

Jesse took us all over Pretoria and Johannesburg. I feel like we saw about as much as we could possibly see. We saw the ghettos, the rich suburban areas, the museums, everything. We experienced so much. I will tell you this, I’m a bit disappointed that there seems to have been a drop-off in interest and true awareness of what’s happening in South Africa since the early 90’s. Basically, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, there seemed to be a collective, “Oh, Mandela’s out. Everything’s cool…” type of attitude. It’s very difficult for me not to have somewhat of a cultural and/or political “aroma” to this entry, but it’s impossible NOT to have that when you’ve visited the Motherland as a black American. It’s deep. You HAVE to address it in these terms. As a child, when I was discovering all of the great black leaders of our country’s past – with particular focus on Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, I’m amazed at how much of their own views and concepts were based on what was going on in Africa. They were able to parallel the plight of black people in America with those in Africa. Throughout the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and very early 90’s, artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Manu Dibango, Fela Ransome Kuti, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Quincy Jones, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Gil-Scott Heron, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Mandrill, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and Arrested Development made music that pointed to the plight of our brothers and sisters in Africa.


We got TI, Flo-Rida, Lil’ Wayne, Ray J, 50 Cent - a bunch of cartoon characters. It seems as if they mostly talk about how bad they are and how much money, bling and bitches they got. Our music used to enlighten and propel change, not simply reflect what we already see in the streets. Sadly, the very few who do make positive “message” songs, aren’t nearly as popular or as influential as the aforementioned fools.

Haven’t WE come a long way…..

I will not say that all I saw in South Africa glittered. I was surprised at how HUGE – and I do mean HUGE – smooth jazz is. Ugh. I went into a record store in Johannesburg, and the bins for certain artists (who shall remain nameless) FAR outnumbered the Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Coltrane, and even Hancock bins. Not to mention the Hargrove, Marsalis, and Redman bins. Me? I didn’t even HAVE a bin!

Gotta talk to my brothers about that! ☺

Smooth jazz notwithstanding, Melissa and I headed down to Soweto. It was there that we saw the fascinating Mandela museum (which is his old house), the Hector Pieterson museum, and Wandie’s Place. I must make special mention of the Pieterson museum and Wandie’s Place. For I never really quite understood the origins of the Soweto uprising of 1976. I know now. When the South African government decided that Afrikaans, instead of Zulu, would become the official language taught in all black schools, the students revolted. Mind you, these were kids between the ages of eleven and seventeen who had been speaking dialects other than Afrikaans. And now, by law, they would have to change up. Afrikaans is basically a language that was not created by native South Africans. It was, as Bishop Desmond Tutu described, “the language of the oppressor.” Up to 10,000 students marched in peaceful protest only to be met with, what else, police gunfire. One of the first fatalities was twelve year old Hector Pieterson. The famous photo of his body being carried in the street by a fellow student with Pieterson’s crying sister running alongside is now a symbol of that uprising. There were up to 500 fatalities in the protests. There’s much more to this story. I hope you’re inspired to do some research on your own.

On a lighter note….

“Wandie’s Place” is what you would call a South African soul food restaurant. It is one of the more legendary places in Soweto. It is one of the very, very few black businesses that stayed open during Apartheid. When you walk in, it’s very intimate, warm, and homey. You walk into the back of the place, and there are pots and pots of beef, goat, ox tails, chicken, different cooked vegetables, potatoes, mogodu, umqushu, ting, and all kinds of stuff. You grab a plate and help yourself – buffet style. That, by far, is MY kind of place! As I’m gettin’ down on almost everything in there, I noticed all of the American legends who’ve dined there. There are so many photos and signatures on the wall, you don’t have time to read all of them. Perhaps the biggest autographed photo in the restaurant was one of Quincy Jones. There was Evander Holyfield, there was Jesse Jackson, so many people. Mr. Wandie even came over and sat with Melissa and I. He told me that he dreams of opening a place in New York one day. I was so flattered when he asked me where in New York did I think he should open it. (I’m sure he asks everyone from New York that question, but nevertheless…) Of course, you know where I told him – Harlem. He said, “Really? You think I’d do well there?” I started laughing. “Are you kidding, Mr. Wandie? You’ll have the hottest place in all of New York!” And he would!! We’ll see what happens…

After we left all of our new friends in Pretoria, Jo’burg, and Soweto, we took a very quick trip to Durban. Unfortunately, we didn’t see very much while we were there. We were only there for one night, and our hotel was about 70 kilometers from the center of town. Our hotel was super-slick, though. And as for the concert, the audience was incredible.

After Durban, we traveled to one of the most beautiful places on earth, Cape Town. Two things we did in Cape Town that I must make special mention of – visitng Robben Island Prison and Cape Point. Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years. I’ve always felt that no matter what color you are, you should see this place. Much like the Pieterson museum, it’s a painful reminder of what happened to people who weren’t criminals, but who stood up for what they believed in. They questioned authority. They truly believed what was being forced on them was wrong. Therefore, you went to prison. It was a very deep trip. Most of us know the plight of Nelson Mandela, so I won’t expound too much on that, but I will say, the man is truly a hero. Just because he got out of prison and later became president doesn’t mean the fight is over, people.

The following day, we went to Cape Point – the southern most point of South Africa. You’re overlooking the split between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It’s so majestic. I usually am not the type that gets overwhelmed by stuff like that, (I’m such a incurable city boy, you know?) but I did not want to leave.

After Cape Town, we headed home.

For many, many years in our nation, we were made to think that Africa was one big jungle with senseless savages running around. Where in the world did that come from? Even black people believed that. That alone is one of the biggest crimes of our old world. Allow me, one measly bass player, to enlighten you to the fact that Africa is an amazing tapestry of people, art, culture, history, and riches. It always has been. Why would anyone want to invade it in the first place? The next time someone mentions Africa to you, and you want to make a knee-jerked, light-hearted, flippant joke, you better think twice. It is the cradle of civilization.

I’m very thankful to have a glimpse into the Motherland.

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