Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why is more of Joburg not with Carlo Mombelli on Wednesday evenings?

Having lived in Johannesburg for about six years now, learning to live in this so called “concrete jungle” that is often labelled as “soulless”, I deciding to find ways of making Joburg what I want it to be for me, rather than what it is labelled as. So I found my YES to Life in Johannesburg and embarked on a mission to discover what happens in town on weekends, weekday evenings and scheduled events, big and small.

On my quest to diversify my experience of Johannesburg, I came across the The Lab of Learning at the Bassline, Newtown, on Wednesdays at 8.00. I had heard of the Bassline many times and for various reasons, and I had only been there once for one event during the Joy of Jazz Festival. So reluctantly, I went to a quiet and dark looking Bassline. 

On stage was a man by the name of Carlo Mombelli, whom, as I quickly learnt, was the leader. But what caught my attention first was what he did with an ordinary 4-string guitar. 
Carlo Mombelli brings that instrument to life. He doesn't just play it. He gently beats it up. He scratches the strings with his nails. He squeezes it. He pulls, pushes and shakes it. And sometimes, he uses it with instruments made out of scrap metal to produce strange effects to makes unbelievable sounds. On stage, his relationship with an ordinary base guitar is evoking. He makes it sound alive, with ordinary and strange sounds, sending those listening to deep places of relaxation and awakening them, sometimes both at the same time. I had to remind myself several times that it was just a bass guitar in the hands of a bass guitarist.

Then I discovered that Carlo Mombelli is a legend in music and music education, mostly known around the world for what he does with a bass guitar. A lecturer of Music at Wits University and very highly educated musician, he strikes most not with his fame, skills or achievements, but his humility.

Carlo opens the show with his own original compositions, with talented musician whom he sometimes throws in the deep end on stage. Encouraging, teaching, conducting and nurturing, Carlo partners with them for a few pieces enjoyed by a rather ridiculously small audience for a performer of his caliber. But the size of the audience is evidently not his preoccupation, as he enjoys the music, giving 100% anyway! And ‘ridiculously small’…well, that is my judgement!

At the break, Carlo humorously introduces the jam session of the Lab of Learning with almost the same words every week: “All styles of music are welcome, and treated with respect in this place. This is for musicians, professional and amateurs, and anyone who wakes up in the morning and wants to be a musician. Just write in this book your name, your instrument, the style of music you want to play, we will do something with it for you” Holding up an ordinary notebook, he repeats: “Any style, any level!

He often adds that it is not an open mike karaoke session. As the break ends, he looks at the book to see who brought what for the jamming, creating a program. Then the music starts. Simple, and complex at times. Every sound is heard, processed, coloured, and complimented to fit somewhere in waves. Carlo is the cook, as he once said of himself, and all the available ingredients in the room are used. And mix them all is what he does!

Very few performing contexts are devoid of the ego. In this place, nobody is crushed! Everyone willing finds their space!

As an amateur drummer, I once offered a piece of Rwandan traditional music. Just before the preceding piece ended, Carlo came to me and whispers in my ear to bring in my beat to merge with the piece 'so that they cross somewhere'. How? I had no idea. So I went, picked up the sticks, listened a little bit, and just started at his signal. Before I knew it, an electric guitarist, two percussionists, a pianist, a violinist, two vocalists and Carlo Mombelli himself on the bass and conducting, bringing them in one by one. Then he brought in everyone else in the audience, clapping with their hands. The Rwandan tradition beat became a great piece of jazz, with the vocalists spontaneously interpreting a famous jazz song, which I felt to my core. All I had to do was offer the traditional Rwandan beat on drums, and seamlessly, both pieces with different styles merged to become one long piece of relaxing music.

Playing with anyone who is willing, Dr. (yes, Dr!) Carlo Mombelli is so down to earth, and so is his music. One can easily forget that it is the legend among bass guitarists who has a topnotch band in South Africa and an orchestra in Europe, and has composed for and performed with numerous household names! The vibe in the venue is deeply felt, and strangely, one doesn't even need to hear or see to have it penetrate through the skin. You just need to be there, for only ten rand at the door. 

It is not only the quality of music, but also the reality of the willingness to offer and to receive that draws one into the experience of doing with whatever is available and creating beauty with it all. A one man/woman act with a strange or ordinary instrument and an open heart soon becomes a two, three, six, nine or twelve piece band. Those who are truly awake can observe as a piece of music evolve and learn one or two lessons in quality leadership, follower-ship, facilitation, gracious ‘going with the flow’, intuitive course-correction and spontaneous endings and beginnings from all involved in the creation.

And before you know it, the evening is gone!

I have been there several times, and each time, there is something special that seems to be making it better and better. Perhaps it has to do with my increased receptivity as encourage there, opening up to more and more of what is on offer from anybody, any style, at any level.

I once randomly asked why there are not many more people of Johannesburg at the Bassline on Wednesday evenings, and one of the singers retorted – “People are busy!” Well, I put it to you, busy people of Joburg, I can’t think of a better way to unwind, chill and relax to be ready for the following day in the middle of a busy week than Carlo’s improvisations with all that makes a sound in the room!

Thank you Dr. Carlo Mombelli and those who contribute to the Learning Lab at the Bassline for making Joburg soulful!

Looking forward to next Wednesday!

For more on Carlo:
The Bassline in Newtown:
Regular opening band: Carlo Mombelli (bass), Lungile Kunene (drums), Gabriel montgomery (piano)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Remembering Horror and Learning to Live. 20 years on.

In April of 1994, Rwanda was engulfed in a war and genocide that took an estimated million lives. It was four months before my 14th birthday. On this day 20 years ago, someone had decided it was our time to die. And so they came for us.

Below is an excerpt from the book I am writing.

We hear strong steps in the corridor. I think it is the policeman coming back home. No, it is not him. It is an army officer. He quietly sneaked in by the back door and made his way to the living room where we are sitting. He is followed by another one of his colleagues. We all look at both officers with shock. We have never seen them before. 

-“Where is Bellancilla?”  The army officer who came first asks with a very harsh, loud and scary tone. “Where is she?”

My mother hears them asking. As we all keep quiet, she opens the bedroom door to come out, unaware of who is asking for her. As she steps into the living room, she freezes in shock, noticing that we are all siting quietly, the only people standing being two unknown and armed soldiers.

-Bring your identity card now!

My mother takes her handbag placed on the dinner table, brings out her identity card and gives it to the officer. He checks it, tilting her hand and head to get the light from the paraffin lamp shine on the inside pages of the folded card.

-Yes! You are the one we are looking for. You too are a cockroach from Gatonde! Come with me right now! Step forward in front and let’s go.

The soldier harshly orders, showing my mother the passage way to the back door. My mother, visibly disturbed and confused, refuses to move.

-Step forward why? Go where?

The officer abruptly steps towards her and slaps her in the face with his right hand, while his colleague watches on, keeping an eye on us. I jump out of my seat. My stomach knots, making me feel sick, and my jaws get tense. I have never seen anyone raising a finger to my mother, let alone slapping her in the face. The officer hits her in the face for a second time. I reach out to my mother, grab her arm and pull her towards the passage way as the officer continued to order her to move. I pull her hand, worried she will be hit again.

-Let’s go Ma’. Let’s go. 

At home, that evening of the 7th of April 1994 ended with two family friends dead, one of whom shot while bravely saving my mother's life; my mother's bleeding face wounded by a bullet aimed to kill her; a grenade explosion inside our house; a brutal rape in front of my then 11 year old brother; and a neighbor bruising my ribs and nearly breaking my arm while dragging me on the ground into his home to save my life. A night I can talk about for hours.

In the three months that followed, I experienced and witnessed the most horrific scenes that I wish none on earth would have endure, or even see. Certainly not a 13 year old.

20 years ago it was.

Today, looking back, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have been given to share about the pain, grieve, and lament. This was an essential part of my ongoing process of healing, through which I am gradually discovering the gifts that were delivered to me, my family and humanity even through the darkest moments we have known. And a process that certainly brought me much closer to those I thought I had lost.

Though they are gone and no longer with us as I would wish, they are with me and they have always been. When I open my heart to Life as it has been and as it is now, within me, there are eyes and ears that open and enable me to see and hear them, and a touch of heart becomes my reality.

As to those who have done the deeds I dread and wish would never have happened, now I can say...'I see you'. Well, I must admit that the dark side of humanity that lead them to do heinous and horrific actions deeply troubles and still scares me. However, I am embracing the fact that I too, in my humanity, have that side. And now I know that it is when I keep my heart closed to life as it is, and them as they are, irrespective of what they have done, that I relinquish my ability to be conscious and 'in charge' of the darkness within, inevitably leading me down to a path of separation, hatred, fear and drive for revenge. I turn into the very thing that I loathe.

I am fortunate to know that there is another way. A way I am learning live. A way that transcends the 'happened' and the 'happening'. A way that, after tears, screaming and kicking, eventually helps me to bring it all before me, and to invite them all here and now, and then take the opportunity to say YES.

YES I am alive!
YES I am who I am!
YES it is as it is!
To those I open my heart to: YES, you are who you are, and I let go of my ill will towards you.
To those I thought I had lost: YES, you are who you are, and I feel your presence. Here and now!

And here and now, in it all as it is, O' Life knows how, we are ONE!

YES, That is what I want live, as what I am longing for is the very essence of Life.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Who is Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase?

Born in Rwanda on August 21 1980, he has lived in exile in South Africa for twelve years nowWhen Pie-Pacifique was only months old, his father was arrested and spent several years in and out of prison for political reasons. Released from prison in 1985, he died in 1989 when Pie-Pacifique was only nine years old. A year later, the war and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide began. Pie-Pacifique and his family lived through the Genocide, narrowly surviving several attempts to kill them.

At  fourteen,  immediately  after  the  Genocide,  he  became  his  family's  bread-winner, before unintentionally finding his way back to school where he discovered his ability and passion for science. He completed his A Levels with distinction, despite difficult circumstances, which included the incarceration of his mother in a military camp in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and massacres that took several of his family members including his brother in 1998.

Pie-Pacifique left his country for exile in 2001, and against his wishes and plans, he ended up in South Africa, beginning his life in exile as a car guard in the busy streets of Durban and the beach front. With all the challenges, he managed to go to the then University of Natal, where he completed his degree in Physics in 2006, while playing various roles in student leadership.

Twice nominated for the Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship (2008 and 2009), Pie-Pacifique received several honours, including being elected one of the  2005  Brightest Young Minds delegates for the BYM conference, and a Mandela Rhodes Scholar i 2006. In 2007, his essay on youth, democracy and citizenship was one of the winning essays in a worldwide competition by the Centre for International and Private Enterprise based in Washington.  He was also featured as one of the 2010 Mail & Guardian 200 ‘top young South Africans’

In his spare time, he started and/or worked with several initiatives to enhance the lives of refugees in South Africa, particularly women and young people.

An occasional motivational speaker, Pie-Pacifique spent three years working at the Absa Group playing an instrumental role in the Procurement Division’s Business Performance Management team. In June 2012, he was named Trainer Candidate by the Trainer Body of the Kairos – More-to-Life Foundation, an organisation running highly acclaimed life skills training programs in many countries around the world.

Currently, Pie-Pacifique lives in Johannesburg, working as an Account Executive at Avocado Vision, a leading training and enterprisdevelopment company which offers corporate training programs  and manages projects taking  essential life skills  to   disadvantaged communities and small businesses across South Africa.