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VCU Jazz Students Participate in International Partnership Exchange

Recent Performance - Thursday, March 28, 2013

VCU Africa Combo and University of KwaZulu-Natal Jazz Legacy Ensemble (Durban, South Africa) performed Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 8pm at the Vlahcevic Concert Hall, W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Avenue. The performance included the western-hemisphere premiere of newly commissioned works by students and faculty from both universities.

Performers: Sakhile Simani (trumpet), Linda Sikhakhane (tenor sax), Sebastian Goldswain (guitar), Lungelo Ngcobo (piano), Ildo Nandja (bass), and Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums) with UKZN director Prof. Neil Gonsalves (piano); and Trey Sorrells (alto sax), Brendan Schnabel (tenor sax), Victor Haskins (trumpet), Chris Ryan (guitar), Justin Esposito (bass), C.J. Wolfe (drums) with director Prof. Antonio Garcia (trombone). Both ensembles will also perform with guest saxophonist Plunky Branch.

The concert was part of the international exchange program between University of KwaZulu-Natal and VCU Jazz Studies.


Victor Haskins (trumpet), Justin Esposito (bass), C.J. Wolfe (drums), Brendan Schnabel (tenor sax), Chris Ryan (guitar), Trey Sorrells (alto sax), and Prof. Antonio Garcia, Director of Jazz Studies (trombone)

The Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music’s Jazz Program has received an International Partnerships Major Initiatives Award to bring American and African citizens together in musical and personal understanding. Over the next year, the project will connect students and faculty of the Jazz Studies Programs at VCU and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban, South Africa. The grant commissions four new musical works to be recorded and released on a joint CD.

During summer 2012, six VCU students traveled to UKZN with Professor Antonio J. Garcia, head of the VCU’s Jazz Studies Program for the initial phase of the exchange. Below are reflections about experiences abroad from VCU students Victor Haskins (trumpet), Trey Sorrells (alto sax), Brendan Schnabel (tenor sax), C.J. Wolfe (drums), Chris Ryan (guitar), and Justin Esposito (bass).

Read more about VCU Music's visit to South Africa

Student Reflections

Victor Haskins

I was able to hear some amazing music made and meet some extremely beautiful people in South Africa during the VCU-KwaZulu Natal University International Exchange.

Having the chance to experience firsthand the culture and music scene in Durban, South Africa was quite special. I was blown away by how strong the spirit of jazz was; and by the end of the weeklong residency, both the VCU students and the KwaZulu Natal students were inspired by each other. Being able to see how awesome the level of performance, arranging, and composition in the jazz idiom was really stuck to me and made me feel good that such a wonderful art form which struggles to exist in its birth-country can be going so strong somewhere--anywhere else in the world. From the classes that we sat in on, it was apparent that the faculty at KwaZulu-Natal University had a wide range of knowledge, experience, and diversity to bring to the students--everything from traditional African musical heritage direct from the source all the way to modern arranging techniques.

Culturally, I was happy to experience such a wide range of things. First, we went on a safari, where it was great to get to see and hear animals living in the wild that one would usually only see in captivity in a zoo. Hearing the distinctive bird-calls (some of the calls reminiscent of laughing human voices) allowed me to make a connection with nature to music and the individualistic nature of playing jazz and "finding one's voice." Having a chance to visit a museum in Durban that told the story of apartheid as it had been in that city was humbling and put into perspective exactly how awesome of an accomplishment the University has attained with such a strong program. It has only been a few decades since the end of a time when blacks could not even go the beach as we did after our museum trip (the beach at the Indian Ocean). We had the opportunity also to play traditional African instruments--African flutes, mbiras (African thumb pianos), and other indigenous instruments that acted as precursors to the western acoustic bass and banjo. Finally, we took a bus tour of the townships--the ghettos in Durban that were less than 20 years old--and were able to play some traditional African music with Zulu guitar legend Madala Kunene. All of these experiences were beautiful and led to a clearer picture of another people's culture and history. This experience, too, has been life-changing and inspiring and acts as a reminder as to how powerful and transcendental music is to the human spirit.

In Durban I was able to have some traditional foods that were spectacular. Of greatest note was the "bunny." I actually had a mutton bunny from a few different vendors, and this misnomer of a food was something new for me. The bunny is half of a loaf of fresh bread that is hollowed out and filled with whatever you would like, and then the top is replaced to cover the hole from which the bread-innards were extracted. And then the whole thing is eaten like a sandwich. There was also a dessert I really enjoyed (I cannot recall the name) that was made from semolina and had the texture of cream of wheat after it had gotten cold and congealed. The fast food in Durban was also quite good. My favorite place was an African franchise called Nando's that specializes in chicken. I remembered Nando's from when I used to live in Zambia; and when I saw that Durban had a Nando's, I absolutely had to have the well-seasoned, spicy chicken with the soft, fluffy rolls on the side. I hope that my next visit to Durban I will be able to seek out more traditional South African foods, as I am interested in what else is there.

This summer has been amazing, between this trip and my earlier one to participate in the VCU Izmir International Jazz Camp in Turkey. I used to live overseas (the first 11 years of my life were spent overseas, mostly in Asia); and ever since coming the United States, I have dreamt of going back. Even though I have lived amongst many different cultures before, I felt an even deeper sense of being able to connect with those cultures while I was abroad on these trips because now I am old enough and mature enough to appreciate the people I meet and the cultures I am exposed to in any country. When I was younger and I lived amongst different cultures all the time, everything around me seemed more commonplace and "normal." Also being able to share and experience music with people anywhere in the world is one of the most profound things to be able to do. Music and food, I believe, are the heart of any culture. When you have heard the songs that people sing and tasted the essence of their lives, you can get a good snapshot into what the culture is about; and that is what I feel I have gained through this summer's activities. Truly profound.

Trey Sorrells

Durban, South Africa was an extremely beautiful place and very inspirational. From the South African food to the rich warm smiles of everyone in the country, I will never forget the culture that I have visited.

To my surprise, the music scene is happening in Durban and more specifically the University of KwaZulu-Natal. On our first day there we played an afternoon concert; and a ton of students came out to see it and support what we were doing, it really did touch my heart. Every single day after that we enjoyed three concerts (one featuring us); and they were nothing less than amazing. All of the students and alumni were amazing players who taught each and every one of us something new. Simply by watching and listening to these students I was able to comprehend what music means to them. It was inspiring and the lesson will never be forgotten. Among those students, I made a special connection with one who was not on the exchange team: Stephan Le Roux. I am honored to now work with him on a project to perform some of his arrangements in America.

The culture was really an amazing thing. Being an African American I was extremely interested to see how it differed from our culture and if I liked it. I loved everything about the African culture; they are friendly and loving people who tried to make us feel as much at home as possible. The city was beautiful and happening; I enjoyed the museum and learning about African history. The beach was beautiful: I'm so thankful to have been in the Indian Ocean at such a young age. It was so cool to see all the different types of animals that live in Africa, my favorite being ostrich: they are much bigger in person, trust me. One thing that I did not expect was what the trip did for the team's overall relationship. As we spent time together, we learned more about each other; and this was reflected in our playing throughout the week. This will come in handy for future events.

In conclusion, it was an amazing trip and I would do it all over again. I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this trip happen.

Brendan Schnabel

When I first came to VCU three years ago, I never imagined that I would be visiting South Africa. Right up to our landing in Durban, I still did not know what to expect from hosts at KwaZulu-Natal.

I think I speak for everyone when I say how impressive and inspiring the musicians were. Every player was talented, hungry, and--most importantly--excited at the opportunity to play music. There was a musical spirit inherent at the University that was refreshing to all of us. I hope that we as ambassadors can bring some of this spirit back with us to Richmond. We are all very privileged to have this opportunity, and I can think of no better way to wrap up my experience at VCU.

It is hard to believe that after a week of so much great music, cultural revelations, and bonding, both with our friends in Durban and within our own team, that this is only the beginning. Our whole academic year will relate to this exchange, and I cannot wait to see the fruits yet to come. I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Garcia, Professor Gonsalves, and the many others who have made this opportunity possible. Your hard work is greatly appreciated, and we are all ready for the next leg of our intercontinental journey.

C.J. Wolfe

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving was how different the American culture was in comparison to the culture of South Africa. In South Africa, it appears people were for the most part happy even while doing everyday tasks. For example, in the ai rport at Atlanta, people who were serving us food were extremely rude and impolite, as if they did not like their job. When we arrived in Johannesburg, the people who were serving our food were quite the opposite. They were smiling, laughing, and singing songs while they were making the food. Even when we visited the shantytowns in Durban, people were still very happy and smiling. In general, most everyone we contacted was very friendly and open.

On the first day, we saw a group of monkeys running across campus jumping into the trees. Although I was quite intrigued with these "cheeky bastards," I later learned that they were quite a nuisance. The bed and breakfast had barbed wire and metal bars on the windows to prevent unwanted monkeys from wreaking havoc in our living space.

I was surprised that the steering wheel of the van I was riding in was located on the right side of the car.

One of the unexpected pleasures was being able to meet, have a workshop, and play with Efrain Toro, who is a world-class percussionist. In talking with Efrain, I learned that one of his longtime students was Henry Cole. I have been listening to that drummer, who moved from Puerto Rico to New York City, for the past six months.

Having the opportunity to experience the Tala Game Reserve was remarkable. To see animals such as warthog, rhino, ostrich, zebra, hippo, wildebeest, and impala in their natural habitat was incredible. With each new animal we encountered came many different sounds that I have never heard before. For example, the different birds we encountered would have sounds ranging from a baby's cry to horn sounds to even cackling and laughing. When it became quiet on the reserve and the wind would blow, I could hear the breeze move the bush; and it would sound like an amazing flush of white noises. The white noise was akin to the sound of a rivet sizzling in a ride cymbal or the swish of a brush on a snare drum. Hearing all the various animal calls made me think about how the first humans developed speech based upon the sounds that each animal made.

It was very fun when the KwaZulu-Natal jazz students took us to a restaurant and we were tapping out rhythms using the tables and glasses. It was interesting to speak with them on a rhythmic level. I studied these rhythms, and I called them Afro-Cuban rhythms despite the fact they were really called African rhythms. When I would say "Afro-Cuban rhythms," the cats questioned me and replied that Cuba has nothing to do with the rhythms that we were playing. The guys were impressed with my knowledge of the African rhythms and cross-rhythms, and it made me feel like I was on the right track. This was one of the most beneficial experiences because we were able to learn the most about each other in a very relaxed environment.

Another great experience was when we were able to go to Dr. Sazi Dlamini's office. There were numerous indigenous instruments from the Zulu and South African culture. We were able to play the great-grandfathers of all the instruments that we play today. Having the opportunity to hear a lecture on Madala Kunene was very insightful. The next day we were able to both meet and play with him, which exceeded my expectations completely. Sazi lent me huge seed-pods to use as shakers while playing with Madala, then gave me these seed-pods to bring home. It was amazing to see Madala's bass player playing songs on one string attached to a wooden box--and Sazi's brother, who played handmade flutes in addition to penny whistles.

Overall, it is extraordinary to now have friends who I communicate with there. I am able to share ideas on many levels through social-networking sites. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has just begun. I am looking forward to them coming to the United States and our sharing so much with them as they did with us.

I can't wait to go back to Durban. This has been a remarkable experience that I will remember for the rest of my life, and I am very fortunate.

Chris Ryan

Summing up our trip in a few paragraphs seems like a difficult challenge. We shared so many amazing experiences in one week.

One thing that struck me even from the airport Johannesburg was the sense of joy radiating from the people. People were greeting us with smiles everywhere, which felt like a stark contrast to the airports in the states. Another thing that stuck with me was the level of hospitality and generosity bestowed upon us from our hosts. From the time we arrived in Durban we were looked out for by Prof. Neil Gonsalves and his wife, Nareen, as well as our companion students--and in general the students and faculty at UKZN. I feel very grateful for the hospitality we received.

A few of the memories that stuck out for me were The Laughs! We were lucky to be traveling with such a great group on our end! We did a great amount of laughing and enjoying each other's company, which made for a good time in itself.

The Music! Where to start? There was so much good music. I particularly enjoyed the vocalist from the first concert we caught. I was impressed in general with the UKZN students' ability to perform traditional jazz music: those cats can play! The Jam Sessions! What a great time making music with that gang! The Friendships: I truly feel as though I left Africa now having friendships on two continents. The Safari! Of course, what an amazing experience--and an equally amazing guide in Dr. Jeff Robinson.

It is hard to say what the best parts of the trip were; there truly are just so many wonderful memories. For me, our interaction with Prof. Sazi Dlamini was very special. From his class on Maskandi guitar hero Madala Kunene, then Sazi's leading us in a jam session with indigenous African instruments, and perhaps the high point of the trip: going on a tour of Madala's homeland with Madala himself!

When we arrived in the shanty village, Sazi addressed the situation of poverty we were surrounded by. He said something to the effect that all though these people are poor, they are a people of hope. That message was so clear: these people had only the slightest of worldly possessions, but they had hope, hope that they could achieve. It made the smiles and sense of joy from the airport come full-circle.

Justin Esposito

Durban, South Africa is a cultural gem in the world. The different races and eleven different languages spoken definitely took me by surprise because they brought upon the realization that there were so many cultural roots I was completely unfamiliar with and unrelated to. This being my first international trip outside of the country, I didn't know what I would find out about the world and myself. This trip granted to the VCU Jazz Program has allowed the seven of us to tap into a world so unfamiliar, yet a place that we were able to grow into as musicians and individuals.

As we walked around a foreign campus, most others' eyes were fixated on our passing with a curiosity as to who we might be and why we were there: that was a common occurrence. But then I began to realize that our trip to South Africa granted by Virginia Commonwealth University was about tapping into that curiosity and finding out who _you_ are and why _your_ experiences have brought you to this point in time.

This "Cultural and Educational Exchange" broke down interaction with people from a dauntingly different background in a very beautiful and manageable way. I use the word beautiful because my interaction with the UKZN team, faculty, and other students was nothing but passionate and exciting, learning the small differences and huge similarities musicians across borders share. I have never been able to cross-compare values, morals, and ambitions on the small and grand scale. This cultural exchange taught me how to communicate to others my views of cultural representation and values that I had obtained in the United States. At the same time, I learned how to not push my values upon others who differ, but to use my characteristics of morality and student-skills to paint a portrait of whom I am developing into through my journeys in higher education.

It is not everyday that students are heavily investing into culturally exchanging their representation of a VCU student into the world. But this trip allowed my to make my mark on another place in the word with my passion: music.