It’s not every day a South African artist follows in the footsteps of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
But in the past few weeks, the names Madala Kunene, Young Cape Malay Stars Choir and Kesivan Naidoo have been up in lights at New York’s Carnegie Hall – a venue that’s hosted hundreds of international superstars in its 120-year history.
The Ubuntu Festival, which celebrates 20 years of democracy in South Africa, has given Americans the chance to enjoy the country’s biggest exports and those whose star is on the rise.
Musical legends Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela, artist William Kentridge and composer Philip Miller are among those people used to being on the international stage.
But even for Miller – whose work with Kentridge has appeared at the Met and MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) – a Carnegie Hall gig is a big deal. “It’s one thing to feature in the art museums of the world, but to be on such a concert hall stage is something terribly exciting.”
Director of artistic planning, Jeremy Geffen, is a South African who has lived in the US for many years. He worked with South African consultants Josh Georgiou and Roshnie Moonsammy, as well as a team from Carnegie Hall, to compile the Ubuntu Festival line-up.
It was during a trip home that he first saw and heard the Young Cape Malay Stars Choir.
“When we heard them, we knew we had to have them perform,” Geffen said.
“That side of South African culture may be known and understood in South Africa, but not so much outside the country.
“Having them sing at Carnegie Hall was the first performance, as far as we know, of a Cape Malay choir in the US. So it’s a historic moment for that particular part of South African culture, but also for Carnegie Hall.”
That’s quite a boast for a venue that hosted Tchaikovsky’s debut and Maria Callas’ farewell concert.
“Being given a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall – the biggest stage in the world – is the best thing any artist could ask for,” choir director Moeniel Jacobs told City Press.
Geffen said it was a “calculated risk” to stage shows with music genres unfamiliar to Americans, but it paid off. “Audience attendance has been good, and the community interaction has also been successful,” he said.
“South Africans should know that New York appreciates there is world-class music being made there on a daily basis.
“It may not make it on to the news, but it’s worthy of the spotlight and for the world to see. And Americans are hungry for it.”