South African students join forces with VCU in jazz studies

Samantha Foster
Spectrum Editor

Through several grants earned last year, six VCU jazz studies students had the opportunity to learn music from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

They also returned the favor by inviting them to learn at VCU. Students from UKZN visited VCU in September and are here this week to perform the second half of the concert, which will be recorded for an album set to be released next fall.

The VCU Africa Combo and jazz musicians from the University of KwaZulu-Natal from South Africa work together as part of a $50,000 grant earned by the VCU jazz studies department. Photo by Audry Dubon
The VCU Africa Combo and jazz musicians from the University of KwaZulu-Natal from South Africa work together as part of a $50,000 grant earned by the VCU jazz studies department. Photo by Audry Dubon

Director of jazz studies at VCU Antonio Garcia applied for the International Partnerships Major Initiatives Award, which awarded the jazz studies department $50,000 to seek out one of VCU’s sister schools to partner with to expand the students’ education beyond their campus. The School of the Arts matched the grant with an additional $50,000.

After looking through the list of roughly a dozen sister schools to VCU, Garcia was excited to see UKZN on the list. Garcia had known about the music program at UKZN since his work as an editor for a jazz-based publication in 1997.

“I didn’t see any jazz programs (at the sister schools) and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make a good connection, but then I saw KwaZulu-Natal and all the bells started ringing,” he said.

The grant money allowed Garcia and a professor at UKZN, Neil Gonsalves, to have six students from each school visit the different campuses. VCU students first visited UKZN in July, and again during the first week of March, when two commissioned pieces were performed and recorded.

The commissioned pieces were a stipulation of the grant money and were composed by students and faculty of the universities.

“These commissions take into account local leanings,” Gonsalves said. “Stylistically, it’s trying to engage with the musical sound that comes from the respective parts of the world.”

The first of two concerts to be played this week was on Tuesday, March 26 at the Singleton Center. It included the students from UKZN and the VCU Jazz Orchestra II and played works written by South African composer Mike Campbell.

The second concert will be played Thursday night at the Singleton Center and included the UKZN Jazz Legacy Ensemble and the VCU Africa Combo, with guest artist Plunky Branch, a jazz saxophone musician and composer.

While in South Africa, the students were introduced to local musicians and local music which Gonsalves said is very much part of the culture in Durban. The students also discovered how similar South Africa and Virginia are, both of which have dealt with racial prejudices in the past.

“He also introduced us, as we did to them, to our cultural and historical similarities,” Garcia said. “The more you look, the more we are the same.”

Even though only six students from each school were chosen to be part of the experience, Garcia and Gonsalves wanted to be sure that the impact of the collaboration went beyond just those few students, whether the process was formal, like planned trips to museums, or infomal, like practice sessions held in student’s homes.

“We obviously want the concerts to be an opportunity for the wider campus and the surrounding community to be exposed to the music and the personalities of all these student musicians,” Garcia said.

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