Its been a bit more than a month, but this is the first time that I have been able to sit down and formally document my last trip to South Africa. I was blessed to be invited to witness the 10th Annual South African Traditional Music Achievement Awards (SATMA). And in all of my sojourns to the beautiful nation of South Africa, this remains one of the most powerful and cultural experiences that I have had.
I departed Los Angeles aboard the beautiful and elegant Emirates Airlines on a 15 hour marathon flight to Dubai. The Airbus A360 is a huge aircraft that is quite modern classy and even in economy has all of the tech gadgets. The entertainment alone features 200 channels of music, movies, games and the best maps of your flight experience. We flew northeast out of Southern California exiting the North American continent over Northern Canada. The flight took us over Nova Scotia, the tip of Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and into Dubai. I was so surprised as I perused the in-flight map, because a lot of the cities we flew near were cities, in America were associated with the war on terror. wow…
Some would say, whew 15 hours is a long flight. It is. But with the state of the art entertainment system I was able to pass the time away by viewing selections form the movie menu, and the music menu. I started my entertainment delights with Ant-Man….. *sigh* So after struggling though some half of that film, I changed over to the radio channel which featured several choices of African Music. After all, I was travelling to the Continent. Let me just say that Fela Kuti is one of the most awesome artists in the entire world. Then I saw a section entitled Box Sets. This is where I found Marvin Gaye. And Stevie Wonder. You know I was in heaven. When I selected Stevie, I listened to Music of my Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life, Hotter than July, and A Time to love…. each in its entirety, back to back, chronologically. This made my flight complete Nirvana…
As I descended into United Arab Emirates airspace, I would see the miles and miles of desert. I could see the magnificent lights of Dubai, A glittering oasis in a sea of desert sand. I would disembark my plane and sit out a 12-hour layover….. As I spent the night in Terminal 1 of the Dubai International Airport, I contemplated my new experience. As big as this place is, I felt a bit confined. I did not receive a hotel voucher but rather had to wander about the terminal for half the night before settling in for a bit of sleep in a chair alongside hundreds of like travellers. This airport is huge! and it’s a major shopping destination.. The Dubai Duty Free is one of the largest shopping malls in the world and it makes the airport terminal look like a shopping mall. It’s a mall with airport gates!
The airport at Dubai is a monstrous location as Dubai is a major hub for all international destination of the east. And as I look around there are all kinds of people from the Afro-Asiatic diaspora. This is the United Arab Emirates so most of the people coming through here are Arab/Muslim. I can’t help but reflect how Malcolm X felt when he went on his pilgrimage to Mecca. I’ve seen Muslims of all races.. Arab, black, black African, what looks to be white, Asian, southeast Asian.. all kinds of people. I’m also struck by the strong African presence in the airport. It is a powerful reminder that there are 52 countries on the continent of Africa and all of those nations are seemingly travelling through his airport.
I see the Muslim women dressed in the traditional head to toe garb. It’s funny because a lot of these women’s husbands are dressed in shorts, sandals and polo shirts. This is a hodge podge of eastern society. And yes, this is a Muslim nation so I’ve heard the prayer calls. And I’ve noticed that just as there are directions to the restrooms, first aid, lost and found, etc., there are signs directing one to the prayer room. Yes. This is Dubai, gateway to the middle east. And now as I sit waiting for the flight to Durban, I grow anxious to see and hear the sights that await me in South Africa.
It is an 81/2 hour flight from Dubai to Durban. The flight departs the United Arab Emirates heading south along the eastern coast of Africa. We fly over Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique, landing in Durban, a South African coastal city that is the center of the KwaZuluNatal Province – The Kingdom of the Zulus. It was raining and dark when we arrived at the King Shaka International Airport. After passing through customs I was met by my driver Godfrey, whose African name I learned was Njinji. He took me to the Coastlands Hotel where we had dinner from a diverse buffet menu consisting of chicken, mutton, lamb, fish and steak. The next morning was drizzly but I awoke to a great view of the Durban area. After breakfast, our coordinator Sduzo took us to a mall that adjoined the hotel. Contrary to most American perceptions, South Africa’s cities are cosmopolitan or Afropolitan as they call it. In my immediate area, we have KFC – yes. A Harley Davidson dealership and the Gatewood Mall. This mall features all the top designer stores and it makes you pinch yourself because the only indicator that we are still in Africa is the amount of black people and the languages spoken. The mall was very nice, we walked around a bit before meeting our police detail who would escort us throughout the rest of the trip. After all we were part of a delegation that featured Dr. Sarah Obama, the grandmother of President Obama.
We piled into the official vehicles and with sirens and lights blazing, we rolled onto the freeway headed to the center of Zululand. It was a two and a half hour drive to our destination which was in the town of Richards Bay, home of one of the worlds largest harbors.
Once we hit town, the police escorted us to the beach. It was a hot day and understandably the beach was crowded and full of warning signs about sharks. Our lodging was located about one mile from the waves in a charming
bed and breakfast that had 12 cabins and an honesty bar. Yes, one goes to the bar and gets his own beer or wine, writes it in a book and settles up upon check out. Amazing!
We were taken to North Coast Radio – a community based station which broadcasts in Zulu and boasts a very active and responsive listener audience of about 150,000 in the immediate area. I say active because there were a few listeners standing outside when we emerged from the studio waiting to get a glimpse of these African Americans. We walked the adjoining shopping center to get a bite of lunch from Nando’s, a restaurant chain that features chicken much like our own El Pollo Loco. From there we rushed to the University of Zululand which was the site for the SATMA Awards weekend.
I must admit that I was not ready for what we witnessed as we hit the red carpet for the opening night pre-show. We were greeted by thousands of screaming fans who chanted, screamed and even rushed our policed secured vehicles. It was impressive to see the love that the Zulus have for the Obamas – and us. It was overwhelming to hear and see that they were ecstatic that we were there.
After the pre-show, we returned to the lodge and spent the warm late night at the poolside patio area. The place was humming with quiet activity as there was a party in the small events area next to the honesty bar. There were 18 of us from Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Swaziland, South Africa and South LA/Inglewood… The United Nations of Africa. It was a truly awesome experience kicking it with the diaspora. Good times, Good conversation, Good people.At the pre-show, we were escorted to the fist row of the venue. The show was a mix of award presentations that would not make the national television broadcast and a comedy show. This was a first in my life.. I sat in a two and a half hour comedy show by some of South Africa’s top comedians…. and didn’t understand a WORD of what was happening. Meanwhile the 10,000 in attendance were rolling in the aisles with laughter…. The consolation for me as a lover of music, was that I was aware and familiar of some of the artists nominated. One category struck me and has elicited an opinion. In the Best Afro Soul category the nominees were Unathi, Choko, Simphiwe Dana and Moneoa. Coko won. I have all of these CDs and while each one has its own exceptional merit, I do not feel Choko should have won. That’s not a diss. It’s an opinion.
The next day, we headed back to the venue for a day of activities and the main event. The nationally televised SATMA Awards. First, we event was ignited by a very traditional parade. The highlight of the experience , this parade featured a marching band and one thousand girls dancing and chanting in traditional Zulu garb. most were topless. yes. That’s how they get down. The sound was ROCKIN and the energy was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in life. The direct connections to what we do here in America in terms of the HBCU bands and the dances were evident. It was an exceptional experience.
The Awards show was quite a spectacle. The opening number was a representation of every culture in South Africa. All the different tribes, the white folks and the Indian folks.. It was amazing! Everyone was dressed in traditional attire. There were high ranking government officials, local officials and provincial officials. It was a tremendous gathering. And I have got to share how the huge choir in the opening number broke out in the Nay Nay during thier very traditional presentation.
I’ve been able to journal the experience and post it on this blog. If you would like to see the complete photo album, It’s here on facebook.
All in all and while I have traveled to South Africa several times, This was hands down one of the best and deeply cultural experiences. It was not a touristy experience. It was deeply cultural It was awesome. It was another level.