Gaborone, Botswana, 31st June
Gaborone is comprised of Blocks, Phases and finally Extensions. There is no logical layout to the town names – Block 5 is next to Block 1, Phase 1 and 2 never meet. As you move further out they become ‘Phases’. Gaborone is constructed as a village that grew too big – which is exactly what it is.
I am staying in Block 5, opposite a Primary School. Some kids walking past the house after school, I’m in the front yard playing soccer with a kid who lives out the back of the place I am staying. I ask one of the passing students if they study music at school. They tell me they do, so I decide to head over and ask if I can observe a class, to see and hear what is happening in the national music curriculum.
Being lead through a series of offices by various people, I eventually find myself in the Principal’s office. I explain that I’d like to see some music in the school if that is possible. She tells me that there is a rehearsal going on right now – there is a competition at the end of the week, and the students are in the final stages of preparation. She leads me over to a classroom where 40 or so students are practicing a traditional dance and song, with 20 or 30 of the prep kids acting as audience.
They sing a repetitive, hypnotic song, with their clapping hands being the only rhythmic accompaniment. A 6/8 time signature, which takes me a while to figure out, and I think back to my primary school days in Australia and the impossibility of a class full of 9-12 year olds clapping a 6/8 rhythm.
One of the teachers explains to me that the dance is about a King finding a wife among many beautiful women. After one complete run through the teacher in charge jumps up out of his chair, holds the lead boy square by both shoulders and says in to his eyes, with a husky voice,
“This is your woman! I want to see that!” I look at the 12 year old kid and wonder what he could possibly know about it. Nonetheless the teacher expects it.
The rehearsal ends and I am invited back tomorrow for a full dress rehearsal.
The next morning I return to the school and head over to the classroom. There is no one around. I ask some students if there is a rehearsal on. They say they don’t know. I wait around and begin hearing lone kids walking around the yard, clapping out the 6/8 rhythm and know that rehearsal can’t be far off. Slowly the kids file in to the classroom and a teacher shows up with a chest full of outfits and shakers to tie around their legs and ankles.
The kids run around the classroom, happy and excited to be dressed up in traditional Tswana attire. I take a seat, the whole class exits out the door and line up outside. They begin an introductory song, emerging through the door, one-by-one, singing, clapping, smiling, until they fill the entire room, with a large space for dancing in front of them.
They look glorious, wearing shakers around their legs and ankles, seeded jewelry around their necks, headdresses made from feathers and leather, glaring sunlight bursting through the windows behind them, their feet stomping into the lino floor, kicking up a mist of dust which the sunlight cuts through and illuminates.
The song lasts for 10 minutes, the hypnotic vocals and clapping shifting around, slowing down and speeding up in a dizzying manner, alternating between being dark, light, spacious and tight, depending where they were up to in the narrative. The teacher begins barking instructions in his husky voice. I hang around for a while chatting with some of them and taking photos. I leave, wishing them luck for the competition on Friday – I’m leaving on the Sunday, so I won’t be able to find out how they went.
As I walk back to the house across the road in Block 5, I think about the disparity between what happened in my Primary school music classes and what I just witnessed. We had xylophones, clav sticks, glockenspiels, recorders, pianos – yet what these kids just pulled off with a few shakers made out of native plants, their voices and their hands clapping, was infinitely more musical than anything we as a class produced, back in Primary School in Australia.
I go to sleep with the hypnotic rhythm and vocal line dancing around inside my head.