Gramophone guest blog

Daniel Hope introduces his new music theatre work, A Distant Drum

Daniel HopeFri 17th October 2014

Telling the story of South African anti-Apartheid writer Nat Nakasa

There are times in South Africa when mayhem, not music, is in the air. I happen to be here just as the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius winds up. At the same time we are recreating in music and words the life of a very different South African. 

Nat Nakasa was a writer who ruled out hatred and self-pity but revelled in picking out the absurdities sewn into the fabric of Apartheid. The system sent its masters mad, he noted, and he had the temerity to sympathize. His refusal to play the race card places him in the Mandela camp, far ahead of his time and it is little wonder that he baffled his friends and angered his enemies.

In the early 1960s Nakasa landed a job on Drum magazine, where he arrived on his first day carrying a tennis racket and a typewriter, and happily admitted he couldn’t operate either. Drum was already legendary; its young black journalists celebrated style, energy, laughter – all in short supply in 1960s South Africa. When Nakasa began writing incisive, sardonic essays on the cruel absurdities of life under Apartheid, the security police marked him down as a dangerous subversive. They were wrong, but almost everyone was wrong about Nakasa.

When Carnegie Hall invited me - as a South African-born violinist - to 'create something big' this October for their UBUNTU Festival, which also marks 20 years of democracy in South Africa, I asked my father, Christopher Hope, one of the country’s most important writers, to come up with a project on which we could work together. 'Let’s bring Nakasa back to life on stage', he said and subsequently wrote the script of A Distant Drum.

A Distant Drum is a mix of music and poetry, and it re-casts the life of Nat Nakasa as a fairy tale – Cinderella gone sadly awry. Like many in Sophiatown, that hive of young, black artists, Nakasa dreamt of America, which the music and movies of the black Jo’burg townships pictured as paradise. With the encouragement of a fairy godfather, Jack Thompson, head of the Farfield Foundation, Nat won a Nieman Scholarship to Harvard. But he was denied a passport, a sanction often applied by the Apartheid regime. Instead Nakasa took an exit permit, a one-way escape route. What Nat did not know was that Jack Thompson’s charitable Foundation was a CIA front which was funding magazines, writers, composers and painters around the world who, it was felt, might prove themselves to be useful assets in the Cold War.

At Harvard, Nakasa again found himself out of place. He travelled down south and wrote about the civil rights marches. He listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was startled when his liberal Harvard friends pitied black South Africans, but seemed blissfully unaware of how things were for black Americans in their own segregated South.

When the authorities in the US declined to renew his one-year visa, Nat became, in his words, ‘a native of nowhere’. There were rumours of drink and depression and one morning, on July 14, 1965, Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa jumped or fell from the window of Thompson’s New York apartment. He was 28. Even in death, the South African government refused to allow him to return and he was buried in upstate New York.

The music in our production is rather like Nat Nakasa himself, a wanderer between different worlds, Africa and the USA, Johannesburg and Manhattan. What our composer, Ralf Schmid, has done, is to create a musical language that reaches across cultural boundaries, just as Nakasa moved between different worlds. Music from Africa, Europe and America is parodied, or imitated, much as Nakasa subverted and parodied the iron rules of the regime he detested. The ensemble is made up of piano/keyboards, violin, cello, piano, bass, drums, along with a barrage of live electronics that mimic a typewriter, tennis ball, heartbeat and even pre-recorded South African choirs. This creates an extraordinary soundscape, allowing the musicians, Ralf Schmid, Jason Marsalis, Vincent Ségal, Michael Olatuja and me the freedom to improvise. The rhymes and rhythms of the piece reflect the bizarre world of Apartheid. 

A Distant Drum is a dark comedy, like so much of South African life. You are never quite sure whether to laugh or cry, so you do a bit of both. A few months ago, Nakasa was finally brought home and reburied in South Africa. But then, in so many ways, I think he never really left. And to play Nat’s life at Carnegie Hall, in New York, where Nakasa lived and lay buried for so many years, seems fitting – and he would have loved the irony.

The world premiere of A Distant Drum takes place at Carnegie Hall in New York on October 28, visit Carnergie Hall's website for further information.


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