Jumping through hoops (and dragging dead elephants) to play for Madiba
The Minnesota Orchestra has to prove that all the ivory on its instruments was obtained before elephants were protected
If you thought obtaining unabridged birth certificates to satisfy South African immigration authorities was onerous, spare a thought for the Minnesota Orchestra.
Before its tour next month in honour of Nelson Mandela, it had to prove that every one of the scores of pieces of ivory on its instruments was obtained before elephants were protected by the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species.Mele Willis, the US orchestra’s artistic operations manager, told Times Select in Minneapolis last week that failure to comply with the international treaty could result in South African authorities confiscating the equipment.
“A lot of our musical instruments are made of or have details that are made of endangered species – not since they became endangered, because most of these instruments were made hundreds of years ago,” she said.
“Bassoons sometimes have ivory rings on top, bows have ivory tips; sometimes you will have an ivory end-pin housing on a cello or ivory tuning pegs on a violin.
“Rosewood has lots of different species and more recently all of them have become covered by this particular treaty. Sometimes there are things on instruments that were made long ago out of whale bone. Those can’t get permits – they are either taken off the instrument or we can’t bring it.”
Willis said she had been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service since February “to provide all kinds of information on each individual instrument. We have affidavits of legal ownership and photos. We have worked really hard with the permit office [in South Africa] to determine how all these things work.”The 90-strong Grammy-winning orchestra will embark on the 14,000km journey to South Africa on August 1, prior to a five-city tour. For now, it is in the midst of its Music for Mandela project at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, to mark Mandela’s centennial.
The orchestra will perform in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg, and its repertoire will include Harmonia Ubuntu, a specially commissioned composition for soprano and orchestra by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, from the Eastern Cape. It features Mandela’s words and rhythms of the Xhosa music the former president grew up hearing.
Kevin Smith, the president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, said the musicians will not only entertain audiences but engage with communities and impart skills.
Although the orchestra would spend more than $2-million (R26-million) on the trip, it expected to make only about $75,000 (R1-million) from ticket sales. “Touring is expensive but it is not profitable,” said Smith. “You do it for a number of reasons; there are issues of stature, sentiment, and there are mission-driven issues.”
Smith said the orchestra had received funding from the US government and a private company to ensure township audiences could attend its performances.
“We have been working on this for a year and a half. It is based around the values, identity and persona of Nelson Mandela, which is very powerful,” he said. “For our African-American community it means a lot to have a black leader of that stature and that kind of morality.”Mandela’s elder daughter, Makaziwe, spoke at the orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” concert on Friday in Minneapolis. Tickets for the concert at the 2,100-seat hall were sold out.
Makaziwe told Times Select: “I think in a period where there is an effort to revise history in South Africa, it is actually comforting and very encouraging to find that Tata is very much admired internationally.
“Basically he plays a central role in the lives of the people all around the globe. And that is very encouraging, actually knowing that five years after his passing he still is held in very high esteem for the values he stood for.”
Her daughter, Tukiwini Mandela, described the musical tribute to her grandfather as fitting. “I think I echo my mother’s sentiments in the sense that it is nice to know that my grandfather is still loved. And the people still aspire to the values that he stood for,” said Tukwini.
“As a young person, it is encouraging to know that other young people want to emulate what he achieved. Granddad used to say that South Africa’s future lies in the hands of its youth.”