âIt was a total shock,â says composer and multi-instrumentalist Cara Stacey of her selection as a Young Artist for Standard Bank 2022 music. âAnd I feel super lucky. I never made any strategic career choices in music. I’ve been following what interests me, and compared to contexts like this, I’ve often felt like maybe I’m not mainstream enough.
“Mainstream” is definitely not the first word you would apply to Stacey. His many instruments start out quite conventionally with the piano, but also include native African bows such as umhrube, uhadi and makoyane, as well as explorations of electronica and collaborations with traditional, jazz and classical musicians and visual artists such as Mzwandile Buthelezi.
Stacey was born in South Africa but grew up in eSwatini, where she learned to play the piano and initially appeared to be engaged in a career in classical music. What she describes as the first major turning point in her musical evolution takes place at the University of Cape Town (UCT). âUntil then, I had tried to be a classical pianist, although I wasn’t sure what my future career would look like. The choices seemed to be teacher or concert pianist.
âBut during my undergraduate studies, I took courses with [Amampondo leader and indigenous instrument master] Dizu Plaatjies and with it, different parts of my musicality started to blossom.
âHis open-mindedness – the way he pushed me to bring my own creativity – gave me a playing comfort that I had never had before. I could edit and rearrange. Playing these instruments is about your own body and cannot be taught in a prescriptive way. You have to find your own space with the other players. I had never considered these ways of making music and being on stage before.
Create in collaboration
Since these lessons with Plaatjies, Stacey has studied with mbira player Tinashe Chidanyika, sabar player Modou Diouf and other teachers. Shaping creative spaces collectively with co-players, rather than pursuing success solo, has been a landmark for Stacey’s musical direction.
On a personal level this is reflected in his relationships with notable musicians, for example Lungiswa Plaatjies, Mozambican percussionist Matchume Zango, or bassist Shane Cooper offering advice on electronic remixes.
Stacey talks warmly about her work with violinist Galina Juritz, for example on recent album Like the grass. They studied together at UCT and then ended up in Europe and worked together, âand we really pushed each other creatively. I send him ideas for comments; she also accepts my contributions.
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More broadly, a collective approach characterized many of the projects in which she was involved. She was, for example, one of the first members of the Women’s Music Collective of South Africa with composer Clare Loveday, founder of the performance group Arum and member of Sarathy Korwar‘s Pergola Project, as well as Plaatjies’ Collective night light, among others. Creating collectively gave Stacey “the comfort of taking creative risks.” I’ve always surprised myself when I’ve had the courage to try something new, and part of the support structure for that is knowing that I can handle things through the people around me.
She recognizes that the dominant establishment often views collective work as a suppression of individuality, but finds the opposite result. âOf course, there were some feedbacks that were uncomfortable, but even though it’s hard to accept at first, you still learn from it and your voice grows strongerâ¦ Maybe the conventional reluctance to work in group needs to be updated? ”
This is as true for composing as it is for playing. In the classical world, the ideas of the composer as a hero working alone in his attic persist. âIt’s surprising how many people want to hang on to this idea,â Stacey says. âNeither my methods nor my aesthetic suited it, and much of my evolution towards indigenous African instruments opened up to other ways of composing. Stacey’s master’s thesis documented traditional archers in eSwatini as composers “literally.” People who create new music whether they rate it or not.
Stacey says anyone who can make musical sounds can compose, and hints at the work of American musician DinÃ© (Navajo) Raven Chacon, who took string quartets to First Nations reserve schools and asked children to compose for them. She believes similar initiatives would work in South Africa as well, were it not for narrow-minded attitudes such as “the assumption that you can’t really be a composer until you’ve earned your doctorate, preferably abroad.” “.
Questioning such attitudes, says Stacey, is essential to decolonizing the curriculum. With a few degrees in music from UCT and the School of Oriental and African Studies as well as the University of Edinburgh, and currently a lecturer in African music at North-West University, she has seen firsthand the gap between theory and practice which often prevails.
“Realize how much of a musical society South Africa is and what our students bring [to learning music] is discussed at the theoretical level. But it is often recognized in a box. It has no practical application in terms of which instruments are valued, or who teaches music. “
Conversations about identity
Certainly, however, the question of ownership arises when a white player like Stacey gets praise on native African instruments? âSurprisingly, this conversation doesn’t come up as often as it should,â she says. âBut I think about it every day when I make artistic decisions. I consider myself to be a multi-instrumentalist and needed to know what it was like to play certain instruments before I could compose for them. But I have a community and I try to draw attention to the whole community of native instrumentalists of which I am a part.
âI will never be someone like Lungiswa Plaatjies. She is rooted in her indigenous knowledge and spirituality, and I could never occupy that space. Mine is a different space, composed for the widest range of sounds and textures. As for thinking about how I can share aroundâ¦ well, that’s how the people I learned to teach me. They kicked my ass about it and I’m grateful to them. I can never be unaware of these conversations.
Another thought strikes her. âIn fact, if I was just playing Chopin in Africa today, there are some important conversations to be had about the why and how of that too …â Stacey points out how conversations about identity, race and privileges evolve even in classical music, citing the address given by George Lewis at this year’s South African Society for Research in Music conference.
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Gender also has an impact on these contexts. Stacey is a little surprised to see where this happened or not. “In part, I think in a lot of the small experimental music spaces where I work, you already find a lot more women and people of color.” But today she hears what she calls “the backward conversations” most often “on the jazz stages of the big cities of South Africa.” There seem to be new power structures emerging that are reminiscent of the old classical establishment at its worst, a slightly sociopathic view of jazz as something to be “tough” enough to do. It comes out as ‘there just aren’t enough good female players out there,’ the same thing the mainstream establishment said until very recently about composers of color.
“It’s disappointing that these conversations – many with players whose musicianship I really admire – are so defensive, rather than about what they could do to make it easier for women to participate.”
Correct the imbalances
The Standard Bank Young Artist Award holds a unique place in the South African musical landscape, and Stacey believes it has a role to play in correcting such imbalances. She takes the opportunity he offers to “embark on collaborations for which I had neither the time nor the resources before”, taking voice lessons and working with Loveday to “dust off” her composition technique. musical.
On these bases, she will create works that will bring together her three musical universes: improvisation, indigenous music and electronics, including a new collaboration with Zango. Stacey hopes her award represents part of a âtransitionâ to more openness in the music category. âUntil now, there was no room for native instrumentalists and composers. It is high time we made all this talk about recognizing indigenous knowledge systems come true.
A Cara Stacey discography
first album 2015 The things that grow with Shabaka Hutchings
2021 The Texture of Silence with Keenan Ahrends and Mzwandile Buthelezi (self-edited as Like in the sun, so in the rain)