Time travel

I wish I could go back in time, to different eras and places, for experiences that I wish I could have now. I’m one of those dreaded ‘Golden Age Syndrome’ sufferers that you should be familiar with if you have watched Midnight in Paris. Although since officially diagnosing myself when the film came out, I try my best to seek out the same feelings in my contemporary environment, without too much luck. However, if I could really get into a mysterious car on a lonely street in Jozi at midnight (handbag tightly tucked under arm), I would wish for the following, although not confined to Johannesburg:

  • Being one of the front row ladies lucky enough to get a kiss from Elvis while he sang Love Me Tender.
  • Having Charles Darwin discuss his thoughts and ideas with me while on Galapagos Islands.
  • Dancing with Gene Kelly to Love is Here to Stay by Gershwin at the riverside as in An American in Paris. Also joining him in that glorious Singing in the Rain scene.
  • Taking my sister along to the premiere of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony so we could both laugh together hysterically after that frightening fortissimo chord.
  • Checking out some dinosaurs, of course. And giant ammonites (did they actually move?).
  • Jazz nights in Sophiatown! Especially the illegal ones.
  • Having tea with Dorothy Parker and her giving me some outrageous writing (and life) tips.
  • Interviewing Marie Curie on what it feels like to kick male scientist butt and be the first person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.
  • Painting rocks with the Khoisan.
  • Hearing Krishna play the flute and dancing to his blissful music with the gopis.
  • Watching Beethoven conduct his shocking and horrific 5th symphony.
  • Seeing how the Pyramids really were built.
  • Going to a party in Europe when Viennese waltzes were the pop music of the time. I totally understand why Andre Rieu does what he does.
  • Meeting Arthur Conan Doyle and telling him he is the most awesome person I ever met and I want to be him when I grow up.
  • Screaming and fainting at a Beatles concert (then waking up in time to run after and touch their car while pulling other girls off by their hair).

Sigh. If only.


“Choose pieces that show off what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine - 22 February 1932

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine – 22 February 1932

This was the most valuable piece of advice that I ever got from my piano teacher. I attended a concert on Sunday afternoon where young soloists were given a chance to perform with an orchestra, and if I could have said anything to these talented musicians, that would have been it. Every teacher should instill this concept into the minds of their students, yet many are so carried away with having a little prodigy in their care that they become preoccupied with showing them off to the world. They show little regard for the child’s musical development and polishing of their technique and force them to play pieces much too advanced for them. This gets the child a lot of attention and keeps parents and teachers proud, while doing a great disservice in the long term. One day the child will grow up with this inadequate, hurried training to be an ordinary adult musician, while all the other children who have progressed slowly and steadily would have caught up, but with a more solid technical grounding. I have been observing this my whole life, and I wish that teachers would not let their egos get the better of them.

On Sunday I watched a selection of extremely talented young musicians between the ages of 9 and 16 play concertos. The most brilliant of the performers didn’t necessarily play the most difficult pieces. They played pieces that showed off their strong points. A 10-year-old girl played a most brilliant Concertino for Violin in Hungarian Style by Oskar Rieding, which was one of the most impressive performances for me. It showed an emotional maturity of an adult. Her playing was incredibly expressive and had the most beautiful tone quality. Her technique was flawless. Another excellent performance was given by a 16-year-old clarinettist, who played a slow movement of a Mozart concerto.

On the other hand, a 9-year old boy chose to play the first movement (an Allegro) of a Mozart violin concerto. Most people were very impressed by this display, however, to a musician it was clear that his little fingers could not handle that particular piece, especially at the speed at which he chose to play it. There were quite a few untidy passages, some wrong notes, and his timing sometimes went off as it was difficult to concentrate on playing the right notes at high speed while trying to keep in sync with the orchestra. There is no doubt that this little boy is highly gifted for his age, but wouldn’t it have been better to let him play something easier with absolute perfection rather than force a Mozart concerto upon him to be performed with mistakes?  Surely actual musical enjoyment is more important than the pure entertainment value of watching a little kid play a difficult concerto?

There were two other musicians who were no doubt brilliant and very advanced for their respective ages, but played pieces that they didn’t have the technical skill for. One was a 12-year-old playing the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, and the other, a 14-year-old with Liszt’s Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies. Again, as with the Mozart, it was all very cute but not good to listen to a child’s fingers struggling to play difficult passages. The Liszt was played with much style and flair, but also with some messy arpeggios and chordal passages. The girl’s dainty hands also lacked the strength that some of the heavy chords demanded. The more delicate parts of the concerto were played extremely beautifully. Here as well,  the teacher should be advising the student to choose suitable pieces that show of their skill, and to spend time perfecting their weak points before performing a piece. They should be encouraging musical excellence and discipline. In some cases, parents of unusually talented children may push them too hard to excel, however it is the teacher’s job to guide the student. Every single student at this concert had the capability of performing to perfection.

I made my concerto debut at the age of 18, which is later in life than all of these kids. I played Poulenc’s double piano concerto with my then 16-year-old sister. We knew our strengths and weaknesses, and chose to play something that we had complete control over. I am thankful that my teacher taught us to understand our musical abilities and made sure we were more than ready to play with a professional orchestra before we auditioned. We received superb reviews all round and it was well worth the wait. Music is made for enjoyment and performers of all levels should feel free to express themselves. The bringing to life of great classical works however, particularly on the orchestral stage, requires great care, a high level of  musical understanding, interpretation and attention to detail. This cannot be achieved in a hurry and by cutting corners in one’s musical education.


~ Sorry for sounding all old-fartsy; I’d been dying to say this for half my life and just had to let it out. ~



Experiencing Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim (Copyright John Edwin Mason, 2010)

On Thursday night I attended a concert given by the most successful jazz pianist to come out of South Africa, Abdullah Ibrahim. Formerly known as Dollar Brand (and born Adolph Johannes Brand) before his conversion to Islam, he is also one of the greatest composers to come out of South Africa and drove the development of the “Cape jazz” style of music. He has even recorded with the great Duke Ellington himself.

I was so excited about this concert I couldn’t contain myself; I couldn’t even concentrate properly at work during the day. I had never seen him perform before, as he is now based in New York, and being 79 years old, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have another opportunity to witness his greatness. As a classical (and aspiring jazz) pianist, it is one of the most inspirational and beautiful experiences to watch a master such as Ibrahim at work. So my (also classical pianist) sister, Meruschka and I rushed off to the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City after work for this most epic event in our musical lives.

The theatre is beautiful and small enough so that every audience member can still feel connected to the musicians during the performance. The front of the piano was also tilted relative to the stage edge, which is not normally the case, so that people on all sides of the theatre could still see the pianist’s hands. Once seated, we looked around to see if we could spot any celebrities and other musicians in the audience. The audience looked quite jazzy themselves, with a lot of people who looked like they could be famous. We did end up having our deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe sitting 3 rows in front of us, which got Advocate Mer really excited and wondering if she can take a photo with him (and then trying slyly to get pictures of him, all stalker-like). We like him even more now, for his good taste in music.

Eventually the band, Ekaya walked onto the stage, followed by the great Mr Ibrahim himself. The band consists of four wind players using a combination of alto/tenor/baritone sax, flute, piccolo, trombone and trumpet, a double bassist and a drummer. Every single musician showed extraordinary skill and discipline and the most amazing solos were heard when it was time for each one to let loose. I have to say that those were the most enjoyable bass solos I’ve ever heard.

Not one word was said during the entire concert (except by enthusiastic fans), with Ibrahim showing a humorous “time out” signal to the audience to indicate a break and the end of the show. Watching the behaviour of Ibrahim and his band made me admire them all even more. The show was all about the music, with the humble musicians themselves seeming to acknowledge the music as being far greater than they are. Ibrahim, even though the star of the show, preferred to remain in the background for much of the performance, providing a soft, solid support on the piano against which the other soloists got to shine, although he did astound the audience with his virtuosic skill during a few songs. He always thanked the band, calling them out repeatedly to take a bow and applauding them, and putting his hands together to thank the audience. It was so heartwarming.

The thing that most impresses me is the honesty and realism in Ibrahim’s music. It’s not many people that can paint a scene with sounds, using not a single word, and bring across such strong imagery, reminding me very much of the impressionist style of Debussy. And he uses such simple, straightforward themes. There’s no way that you can compose that out of your head only; it’s straight-from-the-heart kind of stuff and when you listen with your heart you immediately know what he’s talking about. I’m sure many were disappointed that night when he didn’t perform one of his greatest compositions, “Mannenberg“, named after the township Manenberg in the Cape Flats. This piece was an apartheid anthem, the unofficial national anthem of South Africa in the 1970s, because it represented so much of the struggle and reflected clearly the personality of the townships that were destroyed by the apartheid government.

The band did, however, play my favourite Abdullah Ibrahim song, “The Wedding“, even though Ibrahim himself didn’t play a single note. I find this song so realistic, it’s unreal! It’s so simple, with such an enchanting melody. And it’s the most perfect blend of every emotion that exists at a wedding, with a typically South African vibe. How you achieve this without getting all complicated, I don’t know. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s spiritual, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s hopeful and optimistic and full of love – all created by the expressive saxophone melody over the steady “churchy” accompaniment. I can even picture the weather from the way he’s written this!

I feel so fulfilled after that experience and I’ve learnt so much about making music and about jazz. I’m so grateful to have been able to witness the bringing to life of such great music by great musicians, and to have seen a South African that has touched so many through music.

I’m an intern!

Okay, I’m still a senior scientist. But in addition to that, I now have a 3-month writing internship with All4Women online magazine! Who woulda thought? I just had my first article published yesterday titled ‘Sing Your Way to Health and Happiness’. I just thought I’d share with you the application letter that got me the internship (it also had something to do with my blog posts that were read by the editors). I had to include the details of my life so far, why I would like to write for the magazine and why I thought I’d be good at it. So here goes….

Dear Sasha and Claire,

I would like to apply to be an intern writer for All4Women. I have been a keen reader of All4Women since I started receiving the weekly newsletter 5 years ago. A friend sent me the link so that I could enter a competition to win tickets to Splashy Fen Music Festival’s 20th anniversary. I eventually ended up having to buy my own ticket but have been hooked on your magazine ever since.

I am a 28-year-old single female, having spent the first 22 years of my life living in Verulam, just north of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. My interests from childhood mostly centred on natural science and the arts, and at the age of 5 I decided that I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. Later on I learnt that I was too short to be a pilot, which somehow led me to pursue a degree in geology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I now live in Johannesburg and am employed as a mineralogist at Mintek, the South African council for mineral technology. I am also nearing the end of a part-time MSc. degree in chemical engineering that I have been working on through the University of Cape Town. I live in a big, crazy house full of women – my mother, grandmother, younger sister, cousin and dog, Banjo (yes, she’s a girl too).

My passion in life, even more so than science, is music. I started studying classical piano at the age of 6, and went on to complete two diplomas in piano performance during my university years. I also had one of my greatest dreams come true when I was given the opportunity to perform as a soloist with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra at 18. Nowadays, when I’m not analysing rocks and minerals, I enjoy performing with a contemporary jazz band around Johannesburg. I think the South African music scene is amazing and I love continually discovering new live music venues and world-class local musicians.

My desire to write has been building up slowly over the past few years. Writing scientific reports and papers is a core function of my work and for me, writing up a report can be just as (if not more) exciting as the practical part of my job, as this is where the whole story of a research project, or a technical challenge and its corresponding solution, comes together. As you can imagine, scientific writing can be very limiting in terms of style and content, and I sometimes just want to break out into something lighter and with less chemical formulae. The All4Women internship advertisements have been very tempting whenever they have appeared in the newsletter, however, my overloaded work and study schedule made it impossible for me to take on the additional responsibility during previous years. This year, with my master’s thesis nearly submitted, I have ample free time and energy to follow other dreams.

All4Women has appealed to me strongly because of the wide range of subjects covered, catering to a large and diverse audience, and because of its more interactive nature when compared with a printed magazine. An internship with such a magazine would provide a much desired creative challenge for me, create an ideal opportunity to learn about writing from a different perspective, give me a chance to explore different subject matter, and improve my writing skills. It would also help me gain valuable experience and insight into online writing, a field in which I am seriously considering a future career.

I believe that I would be a good candidate for the internship as I do have some writing ability that definitely can be improved upon with the right mentorship. Writing is also something I already do every day and enjoy thoroughly, and I am more than willing to adapt to writing the type of articles I read every day in All4Women. As a regular reader of the magazine, I also feel that I understand the style and topics that would be popular with fellow readers, and would fit in comfortably with current contributors.

Topics that I would most like to write about, mainly based on articles that I like to read in All4Women, are:

  • Entertainment (music, festivals, shows and events)
  • News
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Lifestyle
  • Education and careers
  • Nature and the environment

I have recently started a blog (https://bandchickchronicles.wordpress.com), and have chosen two (out of only three, so far) blog posts to provide you with samples of my writing.

Please let me know if there’s any other information you would like from me.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.



My Worsfest debut (which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with sausages)

Last night I attended my third annual ‘Worsfest’. For non-South Africans, ‘wors’ means ‘sausage’, so ‘Worsfest’ should actually be a sausage festival, right? Well, not really. In this case, Wors is a friend of mine, who is Indian and (more importantly) vegetarian, so there are definitely no sausages at this festival. How he earned the nickname Wors though, will forever remain a mystery to those who were not part of his close circle of university friends (although we did enquire, but received the answer, “It’s a long story.” and we all know what that means…).

So Wors is a musician and every year for his birthday, he gathers all his musical friends together for the most epic jam session of the year. Actually, it’s not normally held anywhere near his birthday, and we’re lucky if it makes it within the same month of his birthday, but he uses his birthday as an excuse to get all the important people in his life together. I’m told that one year the Worsfest, as it has become known over the past 17 years, was held approximately 5 months after Wors’ birthday. Many people meet up at the Worsfest, who never get to see each for the rest of the year, and it sometimes ends up feeling like an enormous family reunion. It kicks off with a dinner, followed by hours of jamming to everyone’s favourite hits. Wors’ friends and band members are mostly into old school rock, and the crowd gets to sing along to everything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Deep Purple and U2. This selection is guaranteed to entertain all age groups, with six-year-olds to senior citizens rocking out together in front of the stage (although the seniors are much more clued up with the lyrics).

This year I was lucky enough to jump out of the audience and play a few songs, as requested by Wors himself. I performed with a lovely lady named Marlini, who sings beautifully, and we were the only two females on stage for the night, kicking off the proceedings after supper. Wors wanted us to perform some piano-driven pop songs that he liked and gave us a list of (mostly to please the general audience, since he really isn’t much of a pop fan). I’m also not really into pop, but it’s always much more fun playing these songs than actually listening to them, so I gladly agreed! And anything to be a part of the epic-ness of Worsfest.

So we started off with ‘The Rose’ by Bette Midler. Wors just loves this song, and even though Marlini and I got slightly bored after the first two verses, we did it for Wors. Actually, I like listening to this song, so I think it’s one of those rare instances where the song is better to listen to than to play. ‘Heaven’ was next (not sure who was singing on the recording we were practising with, and I’m in no mood to Google it now – some girl, although we all like the Bryan Adams version), followed by ‘From This Moment’ by Shania Twain. This one was quite nice to play. Next we performed ‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan, which is such a beautiful song, but this was the first time that I had paid any attention to the lyrics, so it was really depressing and I wanted to cry and help this person stuck in the dark, cold hotel room! Luckily the next song had me making a quick recovery. This song was not chosen by Wors; he doesn’t even know it. But out of the ten songs Wors asked us to play, we only managed to learn four, as my schedule is crazy enough with the band and incomplete master’s thesis, and Marlini is heavily pregnant so the singing was tiring her out. So we decided to add one that we both knew and enjoyed, even though RnB is totally out of the scope of the Worsfest. It was ‘Save Room’ by John Legend (check out my favourite, acoustic version; I just want to eat him up here). Marlini’s husband is a big John Legend fan, and I play this song with the band, so it was a natural choice for us. I knew the chords and had already practised a really good solo (if I may say so myself – virtuosic*, but not at all classical, okay, maybe a little towards the end). It was also upbeat, a pleasant change from the preceding numbers.

The crowd loved it (thank goodness)! Including all the rockers, who, like the good musicians that they are, appreciate good music in all forms. The most rewarding appreciation though, came from a six-year-old, who came over to tell me that she liked my piano playing, and then ran off before I could even thank her properly! I then got to relax the rest of the night and sing along to ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Islands in the Stream’, ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Smoke on the Water’ and other timeless hits, while drinking tea (there was a bar outside, but most of us went for the tea). It was an awesome night and I can’t wait to do it all again next year. Although Marlini and I have decided to surprise Wors with more of our own choice of repertoire, which does not include anything that will make me cry. And I’ll probably get to play with the band guys too, since we were all excited to meet each other afterwards. It will be cool to broaden my band chick experience to include more rock. And to introduce the rockers to some jazz, of course! All thanks to Wors.

*I’m disappointed to note that ‘virtuosic’ is not recognised here in my WordPress dictionary as a word (okay, even ‘recognised’ is not recognised here as a word). But it is in the musical world. I even have a Grade 6 piano exam report from Trinity College to prove it!

The Roadie

As a classical pianist, who has never had to carry around much apart from some sheet music and a pair of gloves to a performance, I had never been quite familiar with the concept of a ‘roadie’. Not until I decided to join the band.

Urban Dictionary defines a roadie as ‘an individual who travels to gigs with a band and assists with setup and organization’. According to The Free Dictionary a roadie is ‘a person who loads, unloads and sets up equipment, and often runs errands for musicians on tour’. Roadies are usually recruited from friends of the band who are eager to help, and are not always paid for their services. They range from manual labour (carrying around stuff) to skilled technicians operating the sound equipment. The website HowStuffWorks contains a comprehensive article by Tim Crosby called ‘How Becoming a Roadie Works’, and gives sound advice for those wanting to choose roadie-hood as a career path. It details the different functions performed by roadies, which additionally include operating and maintaining equipment, security, driving and being a personal assistant. The article also describes a 1977 pop song by Jackson Browne called ‘The Load Out’, which was written as a tribute to roadies, who work behind the scenes to make a performance a success (“They’re the first to come and the last to leave, workin’ for that minimum wage…”).

Roadies are normally observed at gigs busily running around and setting up on stage, sitting at the sound desk, or at the door, and running errands for band members. The roadie will also organise food and drinks for the band at a gig, and communicate the musicians’ needs to organisers and sound engineers. It can be quite a demanding job at times, often needing a combination of qualities such as physical fitness, good communication and organisational skills, musical knowledge and the ability to multitask (not to mention the ability to work with crazy musician types). In addition to these generally accepted roadie duties, I have observed a number of extra tasks performed, especially by our very own roadie (who the band lovingly refers to as ‘Roadie’. Actually, this is such an endearing nickname that the said roadie has even added it as his middle name on Facebook.). And just for the record, we do pay him, sometimes as much as we pay ourselves (which is normally when we get paid really badly, then it doesn’t make a difference and nobody cares).

These are a few extra duties expected of the roadie of The Real Signature:

  • I think it goes without saying that the name Roadie suggests that he should know the roads. When the band is out-of-town and/or terribly drunk, Roadie always knows how to get us home safely. He remembers directions extremely well and always knows how to transport us successfully between accommodation – gig – dodgy bars – shops – MacDonald’s – bank – petrol station – tourist attractions. I have also learnt from this that most South African towns have a strategically positioned Adult World, which, if you locate and remember, will NEVER get you lost. Actually, the only way we made it from our little flat in Oudtshoorn to our relevant stage at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) and back everyday is because Roadie told us to turn left at Adult World from the main road.
  • Talking about being terribly drunk, you can always count on Roadie to hold your hand (literally) and help you walk through the club so that the band doesn’t lose you and have to return home without a keyboard player. He also held my hands and tried to get me to dance when I was just standing on the dance floor and staring ahead blankly. The flashing lights were too bright for me to function in my drunken state, so he also gave me a useful piece of advice and told me to dance with my eyes closed. And Roadie always stays sober enough to drive us home, and to recognise the red and yellow neon signage of Adult World.
  • While out at a festival or in a club, Roadie is always available to photograph band members when we bump into local celebrities (normally 7de Laan and Isidingo actors, and Afrikaans pop singers). Although he normally makes do quite happily with just having his picture taken with us.
  • Having the misfortune (in this case) of being rather good-looking, Roadie is also often interrupted from his roadie duties during a party gig, and dragged onto the dance floor by single, desperate, usually heavily intoxicated by this stage, women in need of someone to dance with. We don’t really mind him leaving the sound desk for short moments to entertain the guests. We find this quite entertaining ourselves, depending on the level of crazy of the women encountered at each particular gig. It also prevents (to a certain extent) the drunken grabbing of any of the musicians (normally Paul, the lead singer/rhythm guitarist).
  • Roadie normally does quite a good job at keeping weirdos away from me, the only female in the band, mostly by having long, seemingly deep conversations with them (about what, I have no idea).
  • Also, just having a roadie makes us feel cool and important. Like a real band.

These are just a few of the many functions of a roadie in a still relatively unknown South African contemporary jazz band, according to my observations. Although I haven’t seen these documented elsewhere, I am sure Roadie is not the only roadie to which they apply. Power to the roadies!


Roadie in the early morn, all packed up and waiting to head home from the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival.



I felt rather sad yesterday, for two reasons. The first is that it was the first Friday night in a long time that I didn’t get to rush home frantically from the office, shower in three minutes, dress in black and white, do my hair and makeup, and play a gig. I enjoyed our gigs at Coco Brazil restaurant thoroughly, and last Friday was our last gig there as they have now closed down and relocated out of Johannesburg. Since I joined the band earlier this year, it has been a dream come true for me to experience a completely different life after work, to suddenly transform from Keshree Pillay, Senior Scientist, Mineralogy Division to Miss K, the band babe (although I am the rather shy classical-pianist-turned-keyboard-player hiding in the background)! It’s not that my double life is, by any means, over. I will just miss the great atmosphere of Coco Brazil and our wonderful fans there, particularly the drunk Indian uncle who was always eager to express his inner breakdancer to the ladies once we had begun with the party set.

Anyway, the second reason for my mild sadness yesterday is a little pathetic, but I will blame my pathetic feelings on it being the wrong time of the month (the same time of the month that I display my psychotic tendencies – ladies, you know what I’m talking about). I was listening to the song ‘Fallen’ by Lauren Wood at work for two reasons (again!): (1) I love this song and think it’s amazingly beautiful, and (2) the more important reason – we play the song at gigs and my keyboard part still needs a bit of work. So I had it playing on repeat in my office, while writing up a report on the mineralogy of rare earth elements. It ended up having the chick-flick effect on me. First it made me extremely happy. Then, owing to the deep, romantic nature of the music and lyrics, the saxophone solo and Ms Wood’s husky voice, it made me want to think about the man I love throughout the song, and then to hold him. But there was no such person. Then I couldn’t fully enjoy the song and it changed from being a really happy song to a really sad song, which on repeat, became a really creepy song…

I still haven’t completely recovered as yet, and I am hoping to meet the man of my dreams soon, if for no other reason than to be able to hold him and listen to ‘Fallen’.