UBUNTU: A Distant Drum
Librettist Christopher Hope and composer Ralf Schmid discuss A Distant Drum, a portrait of Nat Nakasa—a brilliant, irreverent spirit of his generation, who left behind South Africa’s Apartheid of the 1960s for New York. A Distant Drum is presented as part of the UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa festival.
In the Librettist’s Own Words
In the early 1960s, a young writer named Nat Nakasa left his home in Durban, South Africa, and headed for Johannesburg, the City of Gold. He landed a job at Drum magazine, where he arrived on his first day carrying a tennis racket and a typewriter, happily admitting that he couldn’t operate either. But he was going to learn—and fast. Drum was already legendary; its young black journalists celebrated style, energy, and laughter—all in short supply in ’60s South Africa. When Nakasa began writing incisive, sardonic essays on the cruel absurdities of life under Apartheid, the security police marked him as a dangerous subversive. They were wrong, but almost everyone got Nakasa wrong.
A Distant Drum re-casts the life of Nat Nakasa as a fairy tale of sorts: Cinderella gone sadly awry. Like many in Sophiatown—that hive of young black artists on the outskirts of Johannesburg—Nakasa dreamt of America, which the music and movies of the black Jo’burg townships depicted as paradise. With the encouragement of a fairy godfather, Jack Thompson, fresh out from New York and head of the Farfield Foundation, Nat won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard.
But he was denied a passport (a sanction often applied by the Apartheid regime), so Nakasa took an exit permit, a one-way escape route. What Nat did not know was that Thompson’s charitable foundation was a CIA front, which was funding magazines, writers, composers, and painters around the world whom, it was felt, would prove useful assets in the Cold War.
While at Harvard, Nakasa found himself again out of place. He traveled down South and wrote about the Civil Rights marches and listened to Martin Luther King. He was startled when his liberal Harvard friends pitied black South Africans but seemed unaware of how things were for black Americans in their own segregated South.
After Harvard, he moved to Harlem and saw it, not surprisingly, through the lens of Apartheid. It looked, at first, about as close as he could get to his lost Sophiatown, a black enclave shut off from the surrounding city. When he wrote about Manhattan and Harlem, they seemed to stand for Johannesburg and Sophiatown, respectively—parts of the same town, but each a separate world of its own. He found out soon enough, however, that New York was not the movie he had been hoping to see and wrote wryly of those Harlemites who rounded on him for not being angry enough , black enough, or even African enough.
When the authorities in the US declined to renew his one-year visa, he became, in his words, “a native of nowhere.” There were rumors of drink and depression. The morning of July 14, 1965, Nat Nakasa jumped—or fell—from the window of Jack Thompson’s apartment near Central Park. He was 28. The South African government refused to allow him to be brought home and he was buried in upstate New York.
I never met Nat Nakasa, but we lived in the same city about the same time, we had colleagues in common, and I listened, as he did, to the music of Sophiatown, a mix of everything from Miriam Makeba songs to the penny-whistle kwela of Lemme Special. It is this distant music that haunted Nat Nakasa in his New York exile and called him home.
A Distant Drum matches Nat Nakasa against his nemesis: a young white security policeman, and his ominous, expostulating shadow. Nat’s attitude towards the cop is incredulity mixed with amusement and fear, sometimes amounting to fondness. They meet in what was a very dark time. The massacre in the black township of Sharpeville, where the police gunned down dozens of unarmed demonstrators, took place in 1960. So did the first trial of Nelson Mandela. The township of Sophiatown had been razed and its musicians, writers, musicians, and political leaders jailed and silenced. These were the granite years.
The rhymes and rhythms of A Distant Drum reflect the unreal, weird feeling of the time. Nakasa knew this when he wrote, “There must be humans on the other side of the fence; it’s only we haven’t learnt to talk …” Nat and the cop sometimes talk at each other, but more often past each other. They are voices across the void, sound signatures in a dialogue between ghosts. Sometimes one of them turns into a chorus and comments on the other. And it is very typical of South Africa, where the gods of irony have holiday homes, that it is the boorish cop who is less deceived by the arrival of the fairy-tale figure of genial Jack Thompson, who shows Nat the sacred trinity of Harvard, Harlem, and Manhattan.
A Distant Drum explores the dual strands of Nakasa’s character: a man who ruled out hatred and self-pity, but reveled in picking out the absurdities sewn into the fabric of Apartheid. The system drove 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—no wonder he baffled his friends and angered his enemies.
I also wanted to show what he could not cope with—a kind of terminal homesickness, torn between Africa and America, black and white. Towards the end of his life, Nakasa wrote, “If I can’t laugh, I can’t write ...”
It is his laughter I hear. 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. Nakasa has recently been brought home and reburied in South Africa. But then, in so many ways, I think he never really left.
In the Composer’s Own Words
The music is, in effect, rather like Nat Nakasa, a wanderer between diverging worlds. The music is not based on styles or genres, each separate and distinct. Rather, the concept merges many varieties of music and reaches across cultural boundaries, just as Nakasa moved between different worlds when he left Johannesburg for New York. This reflects Nakasa’s refusal to define himself by color or culture. And this happens playfully and lightly, without force and without conforming to the ways in which different musical worlds and instruments are supposed to sound. Music from Africa, Europe, and America may be parodied or imitated, much as Nakasa subverted and parodied the iron rules of the regime he detested. He refused to accept one sole way of doing things and preferred many worlds.
The ensemble (violin, cello, piano, bass, drums) is enhanced by live electronics that contain selected sounds (typewriter, tennis ball, heartbeat) as well as pre-recorded choirs from South Africa. The score also allows room for moments where the musicians are free to improvise.
The musical architecture of A Distant Drum mirrors the different dimensions of Nat’s transcultural identity. The composition circles around four basic themes, two of them representing the dimension of potentiality: Nat Nakasa’s projections and dreams. The other two reflect the dimension of actuality: first, his reality as a “native of nowhere,” still rooted in the vital black community of Sophiatown; and second, his longing for New York, his dream of a sane, civil society in the US, echoed in the 1960s jazz theme “American Dream.”
The piece opens with hot township music. The blind fiddler’s ghostly appearance is matched by a dreamy, quasi-naïve melody for solo violin and embodies Nakasa’s sense of loss and his near terminal homesickness. This musical motif recurs, dominated by the phrase from the choir, “wherever home may be.” When Nakasa’s sassiness and humor turn into anger, despair, and restlessness, the African ostinato theme—“Native”—takes over like a pulsating heartbeat.
The music constantly reflects Nat Nakasa’s search to know who and where he is. The story of his life is intensified, questioned, and illustrated through the narrative qualities of the music.