Playing to the Wall


I finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to see and hear a certain outstanding South African musician in performance last Wednesday (28 March) at the 1820 Settlers Monument.

Virtuoso guitarist Guy Buttery has been to Grahamstown numerous times before and he is a regular at the National Arts Festival, but somehow I have always managed to miss him. His prodigiously dexterous artistry and consummate musicianship proved well worth the wait, however, as he coaxed wondrous and astonishing qualities from not only his guitar, which seemed almost an extension of his soul, but also from an Indian sitar and even an ordinary handsaw! What a bravura musical experience.

Just a week or so previously, in the lovely new auditorium at NELM, I was privileged to attend another exceptional evening of contemporary music as two superb young Grahamstown instrumentalists, Adam Campbell (saxophone) and Peter Cartwright (piano), performed with an expertise, richness and technical brilliance that professional musicians anywhere in the world would have been proud of. Again I felt uplifted.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the annual Masicule! choral concert featuring Sibongile Khumalo, also at the Monument last week, but the Grocott’s Mail headline reporting it – ‘Raising the Roof’ – attests to just how powerful and exciting this celebration of the human voice continues to be. Next year, I hope.

Do we always appreciate, I wonder, just how fortunate we are to be surrounded by such a wealth of creative talent? Music of one kind or another is all around us.

As a poet, I am also fascinated by a different kind of music: of words and language. Indeed, my second collection (in 2004) was called The Music of Ourselves. As people, we’re not always softly melodic, of course, and sometimes we can be strident, discordant and atonal. But there does seem to be some quality in human beings that responds to the rhythmic, the lyrical, the pleasing.

Perhaps that is why I was so gratified last year when To Breathe Into Another Voice: a South African Anthology of Jazz Poetry, edited by Myesha Jenkins,  was published. Jazz, whether traditional or avant-garde, has both its fervent admirers and its equally ardent detractors. But it does seem to touch something within us that is fundamentally human.

One-time Grahamstown resident John Forbis, himself a musician, who spent many years as a monk at the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery before returning to the USA in 2016, is an admirer of the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. The ending of Brother John’s poem ‘Playing to the Wall’ in the anthology lends the book its title and emphasizes how utterly essential this music was to Coltrane.

Playing to the Wall

He comes

an hour early,

faces the wall

and blows a column of air

through furious fingers and snapping keys.

Others arrive

and he acknowledges them

with a small nod, not

breaking his endless patterns.

He clamps down on that reed

and tries to bore inside concrete,

see its own patterns and play them.

But notes bounce hard

and ricochet around

the glass and panels

containing him

like a cage.

If he finds the scale,

the harmony

that shatters the glass

he will have nothing else to play.

He will have to wrench

the sax from his mouth

and lay it down forever.

So he continues

to pelt the wall.

It caves

just enough

to give room

to breathe

into another voice.

John Forbis

(from To Breathe Into Another Voice, Real African Publishers, 2017)


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