That’s life A platteland concert can seem endless…
In platteland towns, the local music school’s gala evening is a highlight on the social calendar – as long as you have sufficient liquid and edible sustenance at hand, as Julio Agrella learnt the hard way.
The platteland doesn’t have the kind of attractions that keep born urbanites happy.
Our neighbour had married a city girl – they’d met as students at university and fallen in love. And, since love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, she was determined to adapt to life on the platteland. All was indeed fine… until their second child entered school. That’s when she got restless and remembered she’d once dreamt of a singing career.
Lucretia is our town’s music teacher. Thirty years ago she was an inkommer herself, but after her husband’s untimely death she had to earn a living, so she started to teach piano, the guitar and singing to children, mainly.
The neighbour’s wife became one of Lucretia’s few adult students. ONE FRIDAY AFTERNOON, our neighbour and his wife knocked on our door. They invited us to join them as their guests at the music school’s annual gala concert. The event would be held in the primary school hall and guests had to take their own food and beverages. But we weren’t to worry about that – we were their guests and
they would provide everything. Come Friday evening, the curtains in the hall were tightly shut to keep the stage a surprise. Plastic chairs were arranged around tables covered with hessian tablecloths, and the walls were draped in metres and metres of chiffonlike fabric: bright pink and mauve and powder blue and lime green. A lot of chiffon-like fabric.
The party had already started. Cool boxes containing ice and brandy and Coke occupied the spaces among the tables, and the tables themselves were laden with Tupperware containers full of chicken drumsticks, cold cuts, sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, along with paper plates, plastic glasses and rolls of paper towel.
The neighbour’s wife hadn’t forgotten how things were done in the city. On our table there was a cutting board featuring one freshly baked loaf and a few pretty small bowls containing butter and pesto. Porcelain plates, dainty fabric serviettes, thin-stemmed glasses and two bottles of red wine… for eight people, because both his and her parents had also been invited to the event.
Almost shyly, she handed out the programme for the evening. Her name appeared next to item 37, and the song was “Diamonds are Forever” by Shirley Bassey. It was the fourthlast performance of the evening. I made a quick calculation: If each performance was 3 minutes long and it took 1 minute to change artists, and taking into account the speeches listed on the programme, we would be sitting there for at least 3 hours. Eight adults, one loaf of bread, two bottles of wine… Suddenly I was very keen to introduce myself to the guests at the nearest table. THE PROGRAMME was as broad as it was long – it covered everything from
“It’s going so well tonight,” Lucretia said, “that my skirt’s elastic band has snapped.”
“I Walk With Thee” and “Amazing Grace” to the “Drinking Song” from The
Student Prince, as well as Kurt Darren’s “Loslappie” and “Kaptein Span die Seile”. There was an American rap song or three and a couple of Xhosa numbers, and before Shirley Bassey we were to take a detour via Russia to Heidi in Switzerland, with a few classical compositions in-between.
At quarter past eight – only 15 minutes (half a glass of wine and two bites of warm bread spread with butter and a little pesto) late – Lucretia, diva, principal and only staff member of the music school, took to the stage wearing a full black skirt and a black chiffon blouse. She struggled to keep her balance on her high heels.
“Goeienaand, vriende. Good evening, friends!” she trumpeted across the hall. She said every phrase in Afrikaans and followed it immediately with the English translation. I don’t know why, because for most people in our town English doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Within minutes the commotion returned to the level at which it had been before she’d started her speech. And the people were partying. But not at our table, because there was still a quarter of the first bottle of wine left, and officially the night had not yet begun.
In the meantime, the diva addressed the chaos. She pressed a button on the microphone and it whistled like an ambulance rushing to hospital. Immediate silence. “En daarom,
dames en here; and therefore, ladies and gentlemen; welkom by die 15de galakonsert van Lucretia se Musiekskool; welcome at the 15th gala concert of Lucretia’s School of Music.”
The curtains were drawn and the first singer appeared. More chiffon. The girl of about 14 or 15 nodded at Lucretia and looked somewhat helplessly into the darkness of the hall. She cleared her throat, smiled shyly and started to sing. Someone had forgotten to cue the backing track. Her voice floated faintly over the tables. She stopped. Blushed. Appeared to be on the verge of tears. The backing track started to play. She joined in three words too late, but caught up fast. The audience clapped and whistled. The night was officially under way.
Most students sang and played the piano or the guitar. Some of them clearly had talent; many others should have rather hidden their light under a bushel. And yet, one couldn’t help but admire the chutzpah and dedication.
After every fifth number, Lucretia would ascend the stage to say something like: “Big names started out here. Some of them will be here this evening and might even help to secure a recording contract or two. And now, give a warm round of applause for…” Then she’d return to her seat, a proud mother hen clucking over her chicks. THE NOISE LEVEL INCREASED as the evening progressed. As every artist stepped onto the stage, their table of supporters would shout, “Silence!”
Lucretia was an equal-opportunities music teacher: The white boys sang Zulu songs; a black girl tried her hand at “Loslappie”; a few boys did American rap; a piano-and-guitar-playing trio experienced “Amazing Grace”.
Some of Lucretia’s students displayed exceptional talent. Others displayed exceptional determination despite a complete lack of talent.
The fourth time Lucretia ascended the stage, she was clutching her skirt in one hand. “It’s going so well tonight,” she said, “that my skirt’s elastic band has snapped.”
There was much eating and drinking and laughing and chatting at all the other tables, but at our table everyone watched the proceedings in silence. Our food was finished, our wine was finished, and we still had 15 songs to go before our singer would make her debut.
Next it was the turn of a teenager belonging to the table next to ours. “Quiet! Quiet!” they shouted, “Shhhhh!”
And the child could sing! She hit a flat note here and there, but another year with Lucretia would sort that out. Her father was so proud of his daughter’s achievement that he leant over to me and asked: “Can I pour you a drink, my larney? I see your table has been thirsty for a while.” I gratefully accepted his offer, but tasted right away that they had run out of mixer. My wife and the rest of the table shook their heads – nothing for them, thank you. I was grateful my wife had declined the drink, because I could feel it going right to my head.
At last it was the turn of the neighbour’s wife. She removed her small diamond engagement ring and her wedding band, and handed them to her husband. As she waited for her backing track to start, she put a big glass rock of a ring, probably bought at the R5 store, on her finger.
And she could sing. Her voice filled the hall, raised goose bumps and compelled everyone to fall silent. When the final notes faded away, we all jumped to our feet and gave her a standing ovation. The rest of the hall joined in.
It was after midnight when my wife and I drive home. “It was worth it,” said my wife. I nodded. The neighbour’s wife sure had a voice. FIVE MONTHS after Lucretia’s gala evening, we heard that the neighbour’s wife wanted a divorce. She yearned for the city and her singing career… Dreams tend to have a price that cannot be measured in rands and cents. She moved back to the city, and a few years later moved to the US.
Our neighbour remarried. Lovely woman without any artistic or creative aspirations. She loves raising children.
And his former wife now sings on big cruise liners sailing between Florida and the Bahamas. Every night she’s Shirley Bassey or Joan Armatrading or Amy Winehouse. She’s wearing a genuine rock of a diamond on her ring finger. Some nights the audience falls completely silent when she sings, other nights she brings them to their feet. Sometimes the talking and eating continue as if she doesn’t exist. Even though there is a real diamond on her finger, sparkling in the spotlight that is shining on her.