Concert thrills crowd

Performing in South Africa for the first time, Aurelio Martínez explores his African roots.

"This is a special time,” enthused Aurelio Martínez, the Honduras-born singer and composer to an enthusiastic audience that had turned out to see him perform at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre on 5 April. “I am coming back to Africa, to my roots, to my home.” Martínez’s humble remark, uttered midway through his energetic performance, met with loud applause.

For his Cape Town debut, Martínez, a Rolex Arts Initiative music protégé in 2008-2009, playfully sparred and parried with Cape Town musician Neo Muyanga. The pair routinely tried to outdo one another, issuing high-pitched squeals and peculiar howls that would have made James Brown proud.

Muyanga, an able foil to Martínez’s lively showmanship, developed the evening’s musical programme at the request of Lara Foot, curator of the “Unique Gathering: Rolex Mentors and Protégés” over the weekend 5-7 April. In the spirit of multi-national collaboration, a prominent theme, Muyanga invited two professional musicians – a Mozambican drummer and Congolese bassist – to help introduce Martínez to South African audiences.

Jessica Mbangeni, South Africa’s foremost female imbongi (a praise poet), inaugurated Martínez’s high-energy performance with a series of multi-lingual incantations. Muyanga then kicked off with a galloping jazz piano piece, replete with howls. Not to be outdone, Martínez, dressed all in white, responded with an upbeat string-led vocal composition that acknowledged the influence of his Senegalese Rolex mentor, Youssou N’Dour.

“We are the voice of silence,” offered Martínez during his performance, referring to the underclass status of the Garifuna people, descendants of West African and Caribbean-Indian people. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the language, dance and music of the Garifuna people in Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize to be a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Martínez, a Garifuna and the first person of African descent to become a deputy in the National Congress of Honduras, has emerged as a chief ambassador for the culture.

However, Martínez, whose tied-up braids loosened as the evening progressed, was not in Cape Town to deliver a lecture. A versatile performer capable of markedly adapting his vocal delivery, he strummed, drummed and danced his way to a standing ovation – an impressive feat considering the quartet he performed in only had two days to rehearse.

“Look, I’m a lot calmer than him,” joked Muyanga after Martínez wrapped a freestyle jam during which he danced a jig. Taking his cue from Martínez, Anani Sanouvi, the 2006-2007 dance protégé, later joined the Honduran musician on stage and accompanied him in an unrehearsed routine. Concert finally wrapped, swamped by new admirers, Martínez was all smiles. “Thank you, thank you, I am very excited to be here,” he said.

Artists on the front line

Maya Zbib and Anani Sanouvi are interviewed by former theatre mentor Peter Sellars about their experiences as artists living in war zones.

“Who is in the room? It is the key question of the age.” This is how Peter Sellars, the 2010-2011 Rolex Arts Initiative mentor for theatre, introduced a public discussion at the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town on 6 April. Sellars, an accomplished American theatre-maker, was moderating a discussion about living and working in conflict zones with two recent protégés, Togolese dancer Anani Sanouvi and Lebanese theatre artist Maya Zbib.

Sellars began the two-hour long discussion with a provocation: “If you’re hearing a voice today, it is because there is money behind it.” How, he wondered, is it possible to encounter what is not being represented by the media? “How do we hear what is not being said?” First to respond was Sanouvi, a 2006-2007 dance protégé mentored by Belgian dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

He recounted his latest experiences in Ségou, a city located on the Niger River in south-central Mali. Recent incursions by pro-independence Malian fighters resulted in this busy administrative city becoming the front line of conflict with Malian forces. Rather than leave, Sanouvi, who was in Ségou at the request of a local arts centre, continued with his activities.

“I would wake up in the morning and go to the studio,” explained Sanouvi. “That was a privilege. Even during war we had the possibility of being in a rehearsal room.” Sanouvi, a mischievous presence throughout curator Lara Foot’s weekend programme of public events, did an impromptu demonstration. He made an expressive facial gesture. He described it as a cliché of contemporary African dance. “Don’t tell me what to do!” he remonstrated, arguing for his right to define his body’s own movements.

Zbib, who maintains a warm relationship with Sellars, her mentor in 2010-2011, spoke about her theatre company Zakouk’s work with teachers in refugee camps along the Syrian border with Lebanon. Her project, which combined clinical psychology techniques with experimental theatre, aimed to create “a space for the acceptance” of Syrian refugees. She also showed activist work addressing the oppression of women in Lebanese society.

Conflict, and the need to creatively overcome its traumatic consequences, emerged as a strong theme in the discussions. Sanouvi, who appears in The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a new production devised by Sellars and John Adams, demonstrated a simple warm-up routine he developed during the fighting in Ségou. Rocking slowly back and forth on his front and rear foot, his movements became more insistent and animated. The demonstration elaborated his belief that even in reduced contexts, be it through lack of money or war, it is possible to make art “with what you have in your own house”. The body, he and Sellars agreed, was a valuable artistic tool and source of knowledge.

The creative spark

Mentors William Kentridge, Wole Soyinka and Peter Sellars lead a debate into the nature of creativity at the Baxter “Unique Gathering” in Cape Town.

In the week leading up to a public conversation between William Kentridge, Peter Sellars and Wole Soyinka at the Baxter Theatre Centre’s main Concert Hall on 6 April, posters appeared across the South African city of Cape Town showing portraits of the three great artists – all current or past mentors in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. The status of the speakers, all leaders in their creative fields, resulted in a jam-packed venue.

Kentridge, Sellars and Soyinka spoke expansively about the impulses and experiences that lead to the creation of a memorable piece of art. The tenor of their spirited discussion, every word of which was attentively followed by a wide cross section of Cape Town’s artistic and intellectual communities, was marked by both levity and profundity. Acknowledging the significance of the host venue, the three artists, especially Sellars, often used South African history as a point of reference.

Soyinka set the tone for the evening with his commanding baritone. Speaking first, he jokingly elaborated on the toils of facing a blank page. Don’t sit and wait for the creative spark, go to the pub, he suggested, prompting laughter from the audience. “Never underestimate the value of anger,” he added. Soyinka then shared how his daily walking route past a statue of Winston Churchill at Cambridge University in the early 1970s inspired him to write Death and the King’s Horseman, his well-known, 1975 play about colonial rule. Procrastination, he insisted, was not an option. “To wait on true inspiration is a non-occupation.”

Kentridge, who has elegantly transformed procrastination into a central subject of his animated films, explained how inspiration, for him, emerges from “the abstraction of making a muscular mark on a sheet of paper”. While constantly dogged by uncertainty and confusion as an artist, he said, the physical act of drawing represented an optimistic belief that something would emerge. Kentridge presented a short film, also shown at an open workshop the day before, in which he and his alter ego grapple with a charcoal drawing of a rhinoceros. The film concretely illustrated a key dilemma surrounding the creative act: making and viewing, doing and criticizing. It is important, Kentridge’s film underscored, for the artist to somehow embrace both positions.

Sellars spoke of the importance of South Africa’s political history as a source of inspiration. He mentioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a post-apartheid legal mechanism that linked political amnesty to full public disclosure. Sellars said, “The idea of staging a conversation where people could hear each other” – as the commission had done – embodied a critical project for theatre today.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the most heroic acts in human history,” agreed Soyinka, responding to a recurring theme – dialogue across cultures – in this public discussion.

Literature protégé Antonio García Ángel, from Colombia, asked Soyinka about the possibility of curing the world of radicalism, and the involvement of the arts in this. After joking about Ángel’s mentor, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose disciplined mentoring approach had impressed him, Soyinka spoke about various false forms of radicalism – from religious fundamentalism to nationalism. He then delivered the evening’s final, startling declaration: “I hope true radicalism is totally incurable.”