Sitting by a double life-size statue of Nelson Mandela in prison garb, tucking into a grotesquely overfilled Panini (me, that is, not NM) and sipping a wonderfully zesty white wine (I have made a conscious decision not to advertise on this blog, so if you want to know what this spectacular wine was, you will need to drop by the Dr Marc residence during December where it will be on offer until stocks run out), I was struck by an unusually powerful sense of well-being. Sipping a nice wine in the sun always induces a sense of well-being, but this was different.Life is difficult right now; I don’t know if I’ll have any sort of job come January, I can’t see how I can afford to keep up the rent on our current and wonderful home, the Singapore government has made it clear I can’t stay much longer without a permanent and salaried position, the Malaysian Philharmonic into which I have poured so much seems determined to kill itself off and has dismissed me without so much as a simple thank you, Trinity College London, for whom I have been examining these past ten years, gives every impression of wanting to rid itself of its music examining burden, and not only Gramophone, but International Record Review and The Classical Review, for whom I have been writing for years, all seem to be struggling to keep themselves afloat in the current commercial climate. How I can manage to send my daughter to school or support her as she grows up, is beyond me at the moment. Yet, imbibing my wine and stuffing my Panini in Sandton’s Nelson Mandela Square, none of these seems to matter. Life is Good.
Perhaps it’s sitting by the Great Man’s statue that lightens the soul.I will always say, no matter how bad life becomes, that I rejoice to have been alive when those four incredible statespeople were in power. I can never forget that wonderful sense of euphoria that swept the world when Maggie (Thatcher), Ronnie (Reagan) and Mikhail (Gorbachev) were around. We may have hated a lot of what they stood for but, boy, when you look at the nonentities and ghastly self-seeking publicists that have followed (Blair – pwwwwh, Bush Jnr – pwwwwwwwwwh, Putin – aaaaaaarrrrggggh), didn’t the world just feel good when they were around? And then out of prison walked Mandela and the world was treated to the ultimate Great Statesman; Maggie (without the inhumanity), Ronnie (without the mental aberrations) and Gorby (without the Communist baggage), all rolled into one, and then some. Mandela was not without his flaws or weaknesses, but he admitted to them and brought into world politics concepts which had hitherto not been around – compassion and forgiveness. Every time I walk past a statue of Mandela (especially that one which Red Ken so perversely had erected outside the Royal Festival Hall long before anyone in the world knew what Mandela behaved like or even what he looked like) I utter a profound word of apology; as a student I objected to the elevation of what I thought of as a Terrorist Prisoner to the ranks of the Great and Good and refused point blank to offer any support to the countless demonstrations going on at the time against South Africa. Being reminded of the greatness of Mandela should make everyone feel good.
Perhaps it was the fact that, as Metal Mandela grinned happily from his plinth on to Sandton Square, playing in the fountains was a little microcosm of everything he stood for. Appropriately encircled by a rainbow made out of the sun’s rays shining through the water of the fountain, was a handful of children having a whale of a time. A tiny black boy was in the middle screaming with delight whenever a jet of water shot up through the floor and soaked him, while an Indian girl, a white boy and a couple of Afrikaans children joined in the fun. When the black boy kicked a spray of water at them and it accidentally splashed some passers-by (who clearly were not happy at their soaking), it was the Afrikaans girl who apologised. When the Indian girl slipped over and started to cry, it was the black boy who picked her up and led her back to her parents. That image certainly helped promote my sense of well-being.
But it should have been short-lved. After my lunch I tried on a 48” chest jacket in Woolworths – and it didn’t pretend to do up. I walked the 5 kilometres back to my hotel (downhill all the way) and had to stop and rest twice. I eventually made it to the hotel, took a dip in the pool, quaffed a couple of G&Ts in the bar, and settled down for a heart-destroying rib of rare beef and a pottle of Binotage (as it were!). Yet, still, that odd sense of wellbeing refused to go away. Life is Terrible – yet I feel good about it. Why?
And it was in the hotel restaurant that I had my Damascene Moment. At no point in my day had I been invaded by music.
Had Nelson Mandela Square been transported to London (it has - they call it Covent Garden!), you would have been inveigled on every side by music, be it the live jazz band busking or the sound track accompanying the performing contortionist. Had I tried on my jacket in a Singapore shopping mall, it would have been to the cacophonous accompaniment of some viciously voluminous pop music. Had I sat alone in a restaurant in Hong Kong, a barrage of quasi musical sounds would have assailed me from state-of-the-art sound systems.
In Africa music seems to be respected; as opposed to Europe where it is taken for granted or Asia where it is thrust violently and unrelentingly at you.
I cannot pretend to be a great African authority. True, I spent six months in Cape Town in 1994 and have spent short periods in 11 African countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Egypt), but that has given me nothing more than a brief taste of tourist or business Africa. But, from that shallow perspective, I have learnt that music is far more important to the African psyche than merely fulfilling the role of soundtrack or background noise to life which is its function in the perceptions of Europeans and Asians.
Certainly indigenous African music has a very special role to play in the lives of native Africans – as does indigenous music to societies the world over – but, somehow, that respect which Africans have for their native music runs through into their approach to other musics. This hit me quite forcibly the other night when I ventured into an Irish pub in Johannesburg. Sitting at the bar sipping a pint of Kilkenny and thinking of the pints of Kilkenny I used to enjoy in Delaney’s Kowloon, I was not surprised to see a trio of band boys come in and set up their electronic equipment. With one of them wearing a leather trilby and smoking a pipe while another sported a tiny leather tie and a badge declaring “Smoke The Craigh”, I assumed they were the “traditional” Irish musicians essential to any “traditional” Irish Pub. (That they were all black and were greeted by the manager with that characteristic slapping and grabbing of hands and the words “Welcome my brothers”, didn’t diminish their potential Irishness for a moment.) It was only when, a few pints later, I realised that neither traditional Irish music nor ear-splitting Karaoke had started up, that I studded these band boys more carefully; Leather Trilby sat staring at the VDU nodding his head rhythmically, while Leather Tie forever fiddled with the sound system. What they were doing was playing, at such a low level few noticed it, easy-listening tracks from Herb Alpert and that myriad other inoffensive 1960s and 70s bands. And why? Because it was Friday night, the pub was full and – get this! - it did not have any sound system of its own.
Like any true musicians, the Band Boys were ready to accept a drink in return for a chat. And what I learnt was this; Pubs and clubs do not, as a rule, play music, so they don’t have sound systems. When they want music, they hire in these boys and the instructions are the same everywhere; “Don’t let it get so loud the customers can’t hear each other speak”.
Now isn’t that the sort of attitude that engenders a lasting sense of well-being, no matter how bad life is?