Carnegie Hall Kicks Off South Africa Festival

Carnegie Hall is kicking off an ambitious, month-long festival dedicated to the music and culture of South Africa

The Wall Street Journal
Corinne Ramey


The ghost of that word—its history, injustices and the need, for some, to move beyond it—is ubiquitous in the music of South Africa, a nation for whom music and politics are inextricably linked.

This year, the 20th anniversary of South African democracy’s beginning and apartheid’s end, Carnegie Hall wrestles with that legacy in an ambitious, month-long festival dedicated to the music and culture of South Africa. The programming ranges from jazz and classical to traditional and pop, and includes both South African stars—the male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and jazz greats Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim —and music rarely heard in the U.S., like that from the Cape Malay community, based in Cape Town. Paul Simon and Dave Matthews, who was born in South Africa, will also make appearances.

The festival, whose events take place at Carnegie and partner organizations including the Paley Center and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, begins Wednesday and runs through Nov. 5.

Geographically themed festivals have been a Carnegie mainstay since 2007; recent festivals have been dedicated to Latin America and Vienna.

Africa, however, “had been conspicuously absent from the festival map,” Carnegie’s director of artistic planning, Jeremy Geffen, said in his office, which houses a menagerie of beaded South African figurines.

“We wanted to look at an African culture that had a really broad diversity,” he said. “Not just in terms of the ethnic makeup, but in terms of the stylistic diversity that would support a really in-depth examination.”

South Africa fit the bill. Carnegie dubbed the festival “Ubuntu,” a Nguni word commonly translated as “I am because you are.”

“Ubuntu is about humanity, kindness, love, compassion, respect, unity,” said the singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela. “It’s also about forgiveness.”

Photograph by Redferns / Getty Images
Vusi Mahlasela. Photograph by Redferns / Getty Images

Mr. Mahlasela, nicknamed “The Voice,” is a longtime anti-apartheid advocate. “With African democracy we say, ‘Invite everybody,’” he said. “Not just important people and business people, like other democracy outside Africa. We don’t leave anybody out.”

But concert curating, unlike democracy, must leave out somebody.

“Right now there is so much effort in South Africa in giving voice to people who didn’t have it,” said Mr. Geffen, who was born in South Africa and cast his first ballot in 1994, from Los Angeles. “So they are extremely politically correct. If we had left this in the hands of South Africans, they would have gone much more evenhandedly through to make sure that everyone was given a shot.”

He added, “that’s where as an outside curatorial voice, you have the opportunity to shape something.”

Much of what Carnegie Hall has shaped revolves around the voice, to which Mr. Geffen said South Africans are uniquely attached.

Two classical sopranos, Pretty Yende and Elza van den Heever, make their New York recital debuts. In addition to traditional Western fare, Ms. van den Heever will sing art songs by South African composers, in Afrikaans.

“When I left South Africa in 1998, I found myself really longing for South African songs, for my own language,” said Ms. van den Heever, recalling the joy of finding recordings of South African soprano Mimi Coertse. “She’s in a great way responsible for me wanting to keep these songs alive.”

Programming at other venues includes art by William Kentridge and a concert of current South African pop stars at the Apollo Theater.

The festival is unusual for bringing a broad swath of South African music onto one of the world’s most hallowed stages, and commendable for going beyond black and white and including the mixed-race choirs of the Cape Malay community, said Carol Muller, a University of Pennsylvania ethnomusicologist who was born in South Africa.

“But it is an unbelievably male perspective,” she said. “Where are all the South African women?”

Angélique Kidjo. Photograph by Redferns / Getty Images
Angélique Kidjo. Photograph by Redferns / Getty Images

Of the 18 concerts presented by Carnegie, only three are headlined by women: those of the two classical sopranos and that of the Grammy-winning singer Angélique Kidjo, who is from Benin. (A Carnegie spokesman said its festivals don’t strive to be encyclopedic.)

Ms. Kidjo’s concert pays tribute to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, a civil-rights activist and Ms. Kidjo’s personal mentor, credited with spreading African music internationally.

“Music is the most powerful tool to empower people,” said Ms. Kidjo. “How much political speech makes anybody happy? What gives people more political empowerment than music?”

“Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa” runs Wednesday through Nov. 5 at Carnegie Hall and other venues:

Photograph by Brett Rubin