Twenty-five WBGO members visited South Africa this March with Midday Jazz host Rhonda Hamilton and The Checkout's Simon Rentner.
In addition to soaking up the sights and sounds of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, they enjoyed the Rainbow Nation's wildlife, culture, heritage, historical sites, golf and vibrant urban communities in Johannesburg, Soweto and Cape Town.
Rhonda, Simon, and reporter Giovanni Russonnello share insights with us in a wonderful series of photo essays, news features and interviews. Click on the links below to share their Rainbow Nation experiences. Enjoy, and hope to see you there next year!
WBGO Dispatches from South Africa
The Checkout In South Africa
Audio Features For WBGO News
Pianist Kenny Werner talks with Rhonda Hamilton about the "Effortless Mastery" institute and ensemble he leads at the Berklee College of Music. The group performs at New York's Blue Note Monday, April 20th at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Enjoy!
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt talks with Rhonda Hamilton about his CD "Tales, Musings And Other Reveries." Pelt performs with his quintet to celebrate the CD release at New York's Smoke April 17 to 19. Enjoy!
The culmination of our trip was the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, “Africa’s Grandest Gathering."
As the festival celebrated its 16th year, they chose to honor the 50th anniversary of the legendary South African mbaqanga singing group, the Mahotella Queens.
One of the original members, lead singer Hilda Tloubatla, is still with the group.
“We’ve got the spirit of the true musicians," she said, when asked what keeps the Mahotella Queens going strong. "We know how to go about a song - how to do a song.”
Well, you can believe that! From the first note, these ladies energized the crowd, which gave them a rousing reception.
Rounds of thunderous applause and loving shouts and screeches of approval echoed throughout the huge concert hall.
The concert of South African musical icon Hugh Masekela was the one that moved me most. The trumpeter is internationally revered as one of our master musicians.
More than any other artist, he has introduced the world to the music and culture of South Africa.
To be in the midst of an adoring South African audience as Hugh Masekela performed was a thrill I will never forget. You could feel the love they have for him, and he for them, his brothers and sisters.
My soul stirred as soon as I heard the familiar introduction to “Coal Train” (Stimela), Masekela’s dedication to the men who work in South Africa’s mines.
I’ve heard this song many times before, but this time, I heard it with new ears and a new understanding.
There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling
For that shiny mighty evasive stone,
Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food
into their iron plates with the iron shank.
Or when they sit in their stinky, funky, filthy,
Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see again
Because they might have already been forcibly removed
From where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night
By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin.
We are told they think about their land and their herds
That were taken away from them with a gun, and the bomb
and the teargas and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
They always curse, curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.
Thank you, South Africa. Thanks to our hosts Hema Shah of Immersion Journeys and Judy Pillay of South African Tourism, and their respective staffs.
In Hema’s words, you are “awesome!”
Thanks to my colleague Simon Rentner for your hard work and for facilitating this trip, and to the team at WBGO.
Most of all, thanks to all of the wonderful people who were part of our group, and with whom we shared this amazing journey.
Cape Town, South Africa’s “Mother City,” is a photographer’s paradise.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful – from the top of Table Mountain, you can see miles of white sandy beaches that rim the coastline, and crystal clear ocean, in every shade of blue.
More spectacular vistas can be seen from the Upper Lighthouse at the Cape Of Good Hope.
Looking out from Table Mountain, you see a small land mass in the ocean.
That’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were incarcerated under Apartheid.
I always assumed the island was named after a person, but “Robben” is the Dutch word for seal. Today, it's home to over 20 species of mammals and is a bird sanctuary with a large African penguin population.
We were privileged to have a former inmate, Jama Mbatyoti, as one of our guides.
He was arrested in 1976 for planning a march in his hometown of Port Elizabeth, and was confined for five years.
You could hear the pain in his words, and see it permanently etched in his face, as he spoke of the indignities he and his fellow prisoners suffered.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. He spent eighteen on Robben Island.
Mandela’s cell was in section B, where the leaders of political organizations were held, in isolation from the rest of the prison community.
Mr. Mbatyoti told us that Mandela liked to garden, and worked this small patch of land whenever he had the opportunity.
Yes, WBGO golfs. And when we found out we were just minutes from one of the best courses in the world - Sun City's Gary Player Country Club - the golfers on our trip couldn't pass up the opportunity to play. We were in for a few surprises, to say the least!
Look how excited Simon and I are to tee off!
We’re used to seeing deer on the fairway in New Jersey. In South Africa, that's not a deer - it's an impala.
The animal that rules the green in South Africa is the mongoose - they are too cute!
This is strictly a walking course. Since no golf carts are allowed, each of us is assigned a caddie. My caddie, London, turns out to be a jazz fan who listens to a weekly South African jazz radio show.
Lucky for me, he is also an excellent reader of the greens. Here he is, helping me avoid an ibis!
The resort has a second Gary Player-designed 18-hole course, the Lost City. It's famous for the 38 crocodiles in the water at its 13th hole.
I'm pleased to say we didn't play anywhere near those beasts.
But... playing golf in South Africa! I kept having to pinch myself.
When it comes to the wild kingdom in South Africa, everyone talks about The Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and buffalo.
On our overnight visit to Pilanesburg National Park, we got up close to them – four times!
The highlight of our first safari drive was meeting this elephant, who became quite agitated as we drew close.
Everyone held their breath, waiting to see if he was going to charge at us. Elephants have been known to tip over safari vehicles.
After what seemed like an eternity - but was really only fifteen minutes - he decided to walk away.
They say elephants never forget, and I suspect all of us will be retelling the story of our elephant adventure for the rest of our days.
This lion family wasn’t particularly impressed by us - but we were enthralled, especially when they crossed the road right in front of our vehicle!
Rhinos like to sleep in the middle of the road. When they do, you just have to live with their decision, and wait until they decide to make a move.
Hey - check out the giraffe in the background!
We took a break for biscuits and hot chocolate at one of the highest points in the park. They don’t have rest stops like this in New Jersey.
The man in the picture is one of our wonderful guides, François.
In the end I never saw a buffalo. But who’s complaining, when you’ve got a dazzle of zebras?
I learned today Soweto is an acronym for South West Townships. It’s a sprawling, culturally rich and economically diverse collection of communities. With well over a million people, Soweto makes up half of the population of Johannesburg.
“The Soweto Uprising” began on June 16, 1976 when Hector Peterson, only 12 years old, was killed when South African police fired into a crowd of students.
Over the next two days, perhaps as many as 1200 more black Africans were killed -- 89 under the age of 20 and 12 under the age of 7.
The students had gathered to protest the State’s declaration that Afrikaans be the official language of instruction in African schools.
This now-iconic image of Hector being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyasi Makhubo was taken by news photographer Sam Nzima, and provoked an international outcry.
Both were forced into hiding because of harassment by the police. The young girl is in the photo is Hector’s 17 year old sister, Antoinette. She later worked at this museum as a guide.
Our day includes a delicious lunch at Chez Alina, one of the many thriving businesses in Soweto.
Alina set up the restaurant in her home. The walls are covered in works of art. We dine to the sounds of a jazz trio brought in especially for our WBGO group. Good food, good music – everyone is all smiles.
Here's Alina with my friend, Brenda Raney, and our tour host from Immersion Journeys, Hema Shah.
Inside Chez Alina, we enjoy Abudullah Ibrahim’s famous South African jazz anthem “Mannenberg.”
Outside, we are treated with some traditional African drumming and dancing.
The littlest ones put on a great show!
We make the most of our first full day in South Africa, visiting the sites and meeting the people of Johannesburg and Soweto.
Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum offers stark reminders of South Africa's racially divided past – starting at the front door.
Visitors are randomly assigned tickets as “white” or “non-white,” then must enter through separate turnstiles, as was the practice under the now-defunct Apartheid laws.
The museum offers vivid and heart-wrenching details of Apartheid’s dehumanizing and violent history. It also turns the page to the new era ushered in by Nelson Mandela in 1994. Mandela was a beloved leader and is the father of the “Rainbow Nation” we see today.
There’s a wall where Apartheid Museum visitors are encouraged to write how they’re going to make a world a better place, in memory of Mandela.
WBGO's Simon Rentner asks Shirley Hatcher, a member of our group, what she wrote on the wall. She emotionally responds that “She’s home” - and that she’ll share the museum’s lessons with her children.
The memory of Mandela – or Madiba, as he was affectionately known - is everywhere. We visit the Soweto home he briefly shared with his wife Winnie after his release from prison in 1990. A few blocks away, there’s the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner - Archbishop Desmond Tutu!
Mandela gave his first speech after his release from prison at Johannesburg's FNB Stadium. In 2013, his memorial service was also held at this site.
Completed in 1989, it is also known as Soccer City, and was renovated and expanded 20 years later to accommodate the World Cup. Locals call it “The Calabash” because its shape resembles an African gourd.
You have to see this stadium in person to appreciate its massiveness. It’s the largest in Africa, and seats almost 100,000.
As we drive by, one member of our group exclaims, “It’s ginormous!!!”
Up next: the sights, sounds – and tastes – of Soweto, so stay tuned!
We did it! Rhonda Hamilton, twenty-five lucky WBGO members and I are super-excited to be in the Rainbow Nation, South Africa.
This is the first peek at our adventures, so buckle in and enjoy the ride!
Our first stop: Lesedi Cultural Village. "Lesedi" means "place of light" in Basotho, one of South Africa's main tribal languages.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is in the heart of South Africa's characteristic bushveld and rocky hills, about 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. It offers a peek into the lifestyles of the Basotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, and Ndebele tribes.
Our charismatic tour guide gives us a quick lesson in Zulu, the dominant ethnic group in South Africa - about 80 percent of the population.
He also explains that in some tribes, a man is allowed more than one wife - depending on how many cows he owns. Our WBGO group is more women than men, but we all scoff when our guide says one powerful Zulu leader had sixty wives.
One of the highlights, or should I say, “high sights” of our tour is this tall gentleman, who stands guard in front of Lesedi's Zulu village. On cue, we collectively chant a request for entry, in the Zulu tongue. He grants our request.
Some of the ladies linger and repeat this exercise; I hear one of them say, “That fine man can guard my village any day of the week.”
Our guide offers us a staple dish, which may surprise many Westerners. Caterpillars! Yes, these creepy crawlers are very high in protein, rooty, and can be delicious when sautéed with onions and peppers.
Most in our group decide to pass on this culinary adventure - but I can say these salty, chewy treats can be good - as long as you erase the image of a creepy crawler from your mind.
Our first adventure ends with a thunderous bang – a show-stopping performance of rhythm, song, and dance by the village's folkloric dance troupe. To watch a video of this, click on the image above.
The Lesedi Village shows us “the light” of how our recent, and maybe even our ancient, ancestors lived, in the Cradle of Humankind. It should be noted that this locale has produced some of the oldest hominid fossils ever found, some dating back as far as 3.5 million years.
Yes, we’ve arrived in The Motherland, indeed. And we can’t wait to see more!