MUSIC / Sharing the stage: Eugene Skeef left South Africa in 1980. This month, he has been back - with the LPO

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Wednesday 28 July

We have spent three hours in a stationary aircraft at Heathrow. Dermot Crehan, three times winner of the National Irish Fiddling Competition, and his fellow London Philharmonic violinist Joseph Maher are playing Irish folk songs. I am sad that my djembe (African drum) is in the hold: Irish rhythms feel close to our own. I join in with clapping and body percussion.

Rosemary Nalden comes over to talk about Buskaid, through which she is taking a gift of instruments for the African Youth Ensemble, a string group led by Kolwane Mantu from Soweto. We have a tentative discussion about charity work. We agree that if the work is seen as sharing - if the benevolent patron does not give out of pity, but becomes involved through a commitment to changing the circumstances which render the beneficiary in need - then perhaps some real fulfilment will begin to emerge.

We are into the small hours, and the Afrikaner in my row screams at us to shut up. His politeness towards me was probably exhausted on idle conversation during the delay.

Thursday 29 July

Arrive Johannesburg Jan Smuts 8.20am to a great buzz. SABC TV and national press meet us. I smile uncomfortably at the notion of staying at the five-star Carlton Hotel, when I have family living in nearby Edenvale and Soweto. Failing to rest, I make contact with family and friends.

Friday 30 July

The orchestra goes to Pretoria. I remain with David Marcou, the London Philharmonic's chairman, for a meeting with Sibongile Khumaloe to discuss the script for the Saturday children's concert. Sibongile and I go a long way back, as friends and comrades in the cultural struggle. Her involvement in the tour reassures me of its significance. She explains that the tour nearly had to be cancelled: local organisations felt that too much money was being poured into a foreign company while local artists were left to fight among themselves over the invisible crumbs. Finally the ANC signalled the go-ahead.

Saturday 31 July

The Duncan Hall is lined with about 200 children aged nine to 14. They are accompanied by parents, teachers and the Orff Society ladies. I pace around the hall and I am relaxed by the beautiful faces of the children. The LPO players wait patiently - if a little nervously.

Without speaking a word, I begin to play my dondo (the hourglass-shaped West African 'talking' drum). The hall goes quiet. I listen to the acoustic. There is just enough echo to make the sound dramatic. I make the drum talk as I begin softly to dance around the room. They enjoy it. The drum takes its supreme position as the primary extension of the human voice. It establishes its own vocabulary, which elicits antiphonal percussive chants, hand-clapping and foot-stomping from the players and participants.

The beat intensifies and I signal the whole group to come closer. In a tight concentric group we evolve a song - 'Welcome to South Africa . . . the London Philharmonic' - over a 6/8 rhythm. I divide the 200 participants into four sections and make up a chant based on the Phrygian mode, with each group singing a different melody and rhythm, all pivoted to a basic rhythmic cycle of three. The effect of all these voices, supported by Rachel Gledhill (principal percussion) on my djembe, a young boy on the dondo, and a few of the other players playing their orchestral instruments, is beyond anything I've experienced in my years in England.

We divide into seven groups, each with three LPO players guiding the young people. After an hour of collective composition they gather in the main hall again to share what they've put together with the rest of us. Demonstrating an enthusiasm which mystifies the orchestral players, and a sense of musical awareness out of tune with their limited formal musical education, these children produce music of a quality higher than I have become used to in not-so-underprivileged schools in London.

After the evening concert we follow our plan of visiting Kippies Jazz Club. Zim Nqqawana, one of South Africa's bright new stars, is leading his band through an extended repertoire of original mbaqanga sounds and contemporary urban jazz. His rhythm section is made up of the cream of the country's young players. His saxophone creates haunting towship motifs, with the support of Dennis Mpale (ex-member of Amandla - the ANC cultural group led by Jonas Gwangwa) on trumpet.

It does not take much for me to arrange for LPO players to join the band in a few tunes. A woman in the audience, who has been at the concert tonight, offers Dermot her fiddle. My brother-in-law fetches clarinettist Martin Robertson's soprano sax and my djembe from the hotel. The small stage becomes cramped with classical and jazz musicians. Richard Bissill (principal horn) plays Dennis's trumpet over a Soweto blues. The passion of Thulani's solo on djembe transforms his energy into that of an ancestral ceremonial drummer. He and Martin receive standing ovations. We have been joined by David Marcou and Mike Middlemass from Buskaid, who cannot believe their eyes.

Thursday 5 August

Port Elizabeth: the second school today is in a poor black township called New Brighton. I discover that my uncle 'King' Jury Mpehlo, a great jazz musician in whose lap I grew, is revered in this coastal city. At the Holiday Inn this morning an old woman serving us breakfast sang one of his hits to me. I remember also, as we pass along the seafront, driving in 1973 with Steve Biko, who was taken into the Security Branch headquarters here and held for hours before they issued him with the banning order which restricted him to Ginsberg, the township of his upbringing near Kingwilliamstown.

We are met at the gate of the school by a short, stocky man, who looks like a redundant general in a borrowed suit. He wields a stark red stick reminiscent of the controversial 'cultural weapon' carried by Inkatha members. The bleakness of the low asbestos-roofed, ceilingless buildings is drowned by the vibrancy of the teachers who suddenly appear, herded by the man with the red stick - introducing himself unequivocally as the standard bearer and headmaster of the school.

During the formal deliberations I signal to David Marcou to adopt a formal demeanour in keeping with what I presume to be our hosts' expectations of the European classical idiom. But we realise the headmaster's talent for irony when he places everything we are witnessing in the context of my people's spirit of resistance. The pupils proceed to weave ribbons of melody from their many recorders, accompanied - on the loaned piano - by their music teacher Doc Mkonto, affectionately known, we are told by the headmaster, as MK (Mkonto weSizwe - military wing of the ANC). The repertoire includes a chirpy version of 'London's Burning', which goes down well with the LPO players.

Deciding to use the Phrygian piece again, I begin by playing congas to establish a rhythmic carpet for the voices. In seconds the whole space vibrates with movement and clapping. I call for 'imbongi' (a praise-poet), to volunteer some lyrics for our chant, and a young teacher steps forward to write on the blackboard these words: 'SINGA BANTU ABAMNYAM' E AFRIKA' - a simple statement affirming that we are the black people of Africa. At the end, led by the animated praise-poet, the children perform an intricate piece of music and dance, liberating the beautiful rhythms which reside in the spirit of their collective joy.

An hour after the session, the participants are still happily chanting the main theme of my Phrygian piece. One of the cleaning staff thanks us warmly, saying that music is her 'speciality'.

(Photograph omitted)