Students and faculty from University of KwaZulu-Nata, VCU faculty, South African artist Esther Mahlangu and her family, members of the South African embassy and museum officials at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by David Stover, courtesy VMFA.

Student exchange addresses social justice through music

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Perspective is in the ear of the beholder.

To Tony Garcia, director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, that means that jazz musicians from different parts of the world have much to learn from one another.

Therefore, three years ago, Garcia formed a partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Nata in Durban, South Africa to advance an educational exchange. Each fall since, students from the Discipline of Music in the South African university’s School of Arts come to Richmond to work with Department of Music students in the VCU School of the Arts. In turn, VCU students travel to Durban each spring.

"These are the kinds of high-impact experiences that transform lives," said R. McKenna Brown, executive director of the Global Education Office, which facilitates the student exchange. “By supporting these kinds of exchanges, VCU and UKZN are investing in the future not only of their students but of their communities.”

The students perform with each other, compose for each other and learn from each other.

"The whole purpose of this exchange is to highlight not merely music, but to explore the idea of social justice in the face of oppression," Garcia said. "And so we’re exploring that through jazz. There’s a rich history of that in Durban, South Africa — during the apartheid years and since — and there’s a rich history of that in America through the civil rights movement.”

While jazz music started in the United States, VCU students can learn a great deal from their South African counterparts.

“They can learn our style of music, our traditional style of African music,” said Rogan van den Berg, a third-year guitarist from UKZN. “It’s indigenous. We add our own cultural music with American jazz and kind of have grown our own genre of music, which is defined as South African jazz.”

Because the systems in the U.S. and South Africa are different, van den Berg said, he’s gained new ways to approach the learning of music. He collaborated with VCU guitarists and members of the jazz ensemble in sharing and playing each other’s music. While there was little difference in the actual performance here, the crowd was different from what he’s used to.

“The crowd was American,” he said, “and they’re used to a different kind of music. So it was interesting to see their reactions to our music.”

Vandenberg’s classmate Lungelo Ngcobo, a third-year pianist and composer, is writing a piece for VCU's Africa Combo to play in Durban in March. While he’s learned a lot musically, such as arranging and composing, he also says the VCU students are organized and on point.

“I think it’s really good,” he said of VCU’s jazz program. “I was really impressed with the level of the students, their level of learning. Like a first year [here] doesn’t sound like a first year in our school. Because our first year doesn’t sound as good as first years here, [it] basically says they’re definitely doing something right.”

The annual trip sometimes includes a jaunt into Washington, D.C., or to local attractions such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Making this year’s excursion even more special was the coinciding visit of Esther Mahlangu, the “most renowned artist of South Africa’s Ndebele people,” according to the museum, which commissioned Mahlangu to make two large-scale paintings as part of the permanent collection in its African gallery. The UKZN students, Mahlangu and her family and members of the South African Embassy toured the museum together.

“To have someone who uses her visual art as an expression of independence for South Africans — particularly the Ndebele tradition throughout the years of British colonialism and apartheid — is a great, unmistakable, impossible-to-ignore sign waving in our faces of how artistic expression can be a voice for change in the face of oppression,” Garcia said. “So it’s very serendipitous that this could occur during the visit and I think it also makes our South African musical visitors feel so much more at home and welcomed by realizing that Richmonders hold dear their friendship with South Africa as well as their art.”

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