The University of Pretoria brings magical history to life

Posted on September 27, 2019

On Thursday, 19 September, the University of Pretoria’s 42nd annual Principal’s Concert, which featured a solo performance by the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, crowned, in 2019, a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, offered me a remarkable experience that had my emotions flaring in every which direction.

Let me first declare upfront that I am very fond of Abdullah Ibrahim and proud of what he has achieved. Not only was Abdullah a close friend of my late uncle, Eddie Dladla, in New York, which is how I first met him in person in 1990 – at Dumile Feni’s memorial service to be specific. But growing up in the dusty streets of East Bank in East London where Johnny Mbizo Dyani first intoxicated our people with his bass, I have been an ardent follower of the legend from a very tender age. You could say, like many of my ilk, I grew up with his music.

The Principal’s Concert, organised and led by the Faculty of Humanities’ School of the Arts, was billed as a celebration of “Magical history”. Not only did it offer the audience an extraordinary and intimate experience of one of South Africa’s jazz legends, the University was also celebrating the centenary of the Faculty of Humanities, its newly established School of the Arts, and the opening its new, world-class Javett-UP Art Centre, which is intended to be the home of African art on the continent.

On this occasion, the University enabled me to applaud Abdullah Ibrahim, our master musician with our people on our campus in our land. For the first time, I had the honour of experiencing Abdullah’s oeuvre on home soil. Before that night, I had only been able to enjoy his work in foreign lands while we were exiled. By all accounts, this was a remarkable gift and experience. To me, this also confirmed the University’s bravery to expand our experience and appreciation of our humanity through the work it pioneers and champions.

While I certainly was not the most apt music critique in the audience, I was deeply moved, yes, in a magical way, to experience Abdullah taking us on a historical journey of his life’s work. Those in the audience who follow his music would have noted he offered a broad range of what he has produced in almost seven decades of music making and performing, albeit he veered more towards his later and more recent compositions. But it was quintessential Abdullah!

During the performance, Abdullah was regal, majestic, elegant, classy, a virtuoso who did not skimp on impressing, charming and enchanting. That at 84 years of age he played solo for almost 50 uninterrupted minutes is a feat that accomplished pianist, music composer and head of UP’s School of the Arts, Prof Alexander Johnson, can attest is remarkable.

As characteristic of Abdullah, he did not, like his contemporaries such as the late Hugh Masekela, play for the audience, which is what always made Hugh Masekela’s shows an energizing experience. Though this may have disappointed some of his ardent followers wishing to hear him play “Manenberg” and his other popular tunes, Abdullah remained the artist we all know him to be. He has achieved international acclaim not by pandering to popularity, but by distilling his notes to connect and reflect a depth of human experience and feeling that transcends the base urges of our being to clap our hands, stomp our feet, and applaud without inhibition, which is lovely in and of itself.

For me, he always elevated our mood, concentrated our attention, and focused our energy without rabble rousing; enabling a considered and structured engagement with our sense of self and circumstance and always ferrying us with his stark and dramatic harmonies. His cadence was always his power and his interpretation and definition of our culture as a world-class act, his definitive signature that surpasses parochial boundaries. He is an embodiment of our greatness on par with the best in the world. On the night of the performance, UP captured, articulated, and associated itself with this greatness.

As the musical show closed to a standing ovation and the audience moved from the Aula theatre to the Javett-UP Art Centre, hope and enthusiasm rang across the campus with bright lights, the sound of Ovuwa (UP’s multicultural student a cappella ensemble), Tuks Camerata (UP’s international award winning student choir), the UP Symphony Orchestra, and the UP Jazz Ensemble punctuated by the audience’s exuberance. The Principal’s concert was a real experience of what is possible when a people dare to dream and aspire.

The Javett-UP Art Centre also connected me with the greatness of the art of our people in a way I have never seen or experienced before. Behind Dumile Feni’s 1967 The African Guernica sat the majestic depiction of the circumnavigation of the African continent as imagined by Preller in 1963. Throughout the gallery are displayed artworks from all walks of life, styles and motifs, from South Africa to further afield on the continent, including an astonishing display of the Gold of Africa, which is crowned with the Mapungubwe collection. Going through the Gold of Africa display, one physically experiences a sensation akin to ascending the Mapungubwe settlement.

The paring of the solo music performance with the art exhibition, this marvellous alchemy of creativity, articulation and performance feeds the soul like no dish ever before prepared and served to us as a community. It leaves me with the singular wish for us to grow strong and wonderful through the nurturing our peopleness is enjoying even as we suffer a proverbial drought of reason and imagination.

Through offering us this magical history, the University of Pretoria nurtures a dangerous appetite and satisfies our desperate need for the redefinition of self; the experience reminds us that we are, indeed, a remarkable people and institution.

Founding Director of the Javett-UP Art Centre, Christopher Till, reports that the selection of the 101 art pieces on display at the Centre is the culmination of collaboration with curators of art institutions and collections across the country, which reduced the initial list of 300 artworks suggested to create the current exhibition intended as a conversation between collectors, curators, researchers and the public. The Centre hosted its public opening on Heritage Day and will be open to the public from then onwards.

If you wish to be moved beyond the current state of our existence, if you wish to imagine a people and continent capable of great wonders across our nations, states, ethnicities and other fabrications, visit the Javett-UP Art Centre and let its magical history give you new life.

- Author Edwin T Smith

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