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Cantata Recalls Wounds of Apartheid


In 1995, South Africa was emerging from decades of brutally enforced white domination. The country's new leaders decided that there could be no real peace without a commonly acknowledged history. A truth and reconciliation commission was appointed to hear testimony from thousands of victims, as well as those who tortured people and committed murder. Now South African composer Phillip Miller pays tribute to the commission with a cantata that includes wrenching taped selections from the hearings. Charlene Scott of member station WFCR caught up with Miller at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Massachusetts and filed this story.

CHARLENE SCOTT: The singers rehearsing on the stage of the museum's Hunter Center have just flown in from South Africa and are new to the music of this work in progress. The atmosphere is intense as composer Phillip Miller works with soprano Charlotte Mangani(ph) to reproduce the anguished moan of a mother whose son has been murdered by the state security police.


(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PHILLIP MILLER (Composer): Okay, for me...

Ms. CHARLOTTE MANGANI (Soprano): I'm not sure.

Mr. MILLER: Each time you do it, it's got to change. It's got to have a different - it's got to feel something else.

SCOTT: Phillip Miller is best known in his native South Africa as a composer for film and television. Last year, poet and journalist Antjie Krog asked Miller to consider putting the voices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to music. Krog had covered the hearing for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and wrote a book about the experience called Country of My Skull. Miller says he hesitated at first about making art from a still-fresh history of horror and brutality. But Krog helped him make the connection between the voices of the hearings and a musical form featuring voice: the cantata.


Mr. ANTJIE KROG (Author, Country of My Skull): Often people say, oh, the drum is the African instrument. It's not. In South Africa it's the voice. The voice is the first instrument. So there was this interesting relationship that I started to think about between the hearings and the way the hearings were a form of cantata, a form of allowing people's voices to be heard.

(Soundbite of cantata)

SCOTT: Miller says he spent months sifting through Antjie Krog's recordings. Stories from the perpetrators provide some of the most chilling testimony.

(Soundbite of cantata )

SCOTT: In his cantata, Miller interposes a description of the wet bag or asphyxiation technique used by security forces with a chorus chanting in Zulu.

(Soundbite of cantata)

Unidentified Man #1: I would take a position in the small of the person's back, put my feet between his arms...

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: And then pull the bag over the person's head and twist it closed from the neck.

SCOTT: Shards or fragments of people's stories provide the dramatic narrative throughout the cantata.

Mr. MILLER: Something about hearing the testimony as live voice working in sound makes it even more intense, to hear the inflections and nuances of the people who testified, often, I might add, mediated by translators, because in South Africa there are over 11 official languages. And you will hear the emotion in the translator's voice, or maybe not, but even when you don't, there's very interesting complexities of emotions coming through because you have three voices telling the story.

(Soundbite of cantata)

SCOTT: Miller calls the piece Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony. The title comes from the story of Eunice Maya(ph), who learned that her son, Jabulani(ph), had been killed when she saw his body on television, his death being used as propaganda by the state security police.

Ms. EUNICE MAYA (Son Murdered) One of the children was shown on TV who had a gun on his chest, only to find it's my son, Jabulani. I prayed. I said, oh no, Lord. I wish I (unintelligible)...

SCOTT: In a way, rewinding history is what Miller says he's trying to do in his cantata. He says that's especially important for a new generation of South Africans who've never heard these stories. That includes two teenage string players from Soweto who are part of an ensemble that performed an excerpt from the cantata last spring in South Africa.

Mr. MILLER: When we first asked them to be part of the project and we asked them what their knowledge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, they had no idea of what it was. They had heard - they said to us, we've heard something about it. I think it's got something to do with the time of apartheid.

Ms. MANGANI: History's something that happened in the past, and we are reviving it again.

SCOTT: Soprano Caroline Mangani(ph).

Ms. MANGANI: We need to learn from our mistakes, and if you have to learn from your mistakes, you have to go back to them again, you know, reflect on them and see what you did then. And every little bit of information that needs to be kept, it's very vital that it's kept.

SCOTT: Phillip Miller's cantata will have its world premier on December 16, South Africa's day of reconciliation at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town. The production will tour in South Africa and return to this country in the spring for its American premier at Williams College in Massachusetts. For NPR News, I'm Charlene Scott.

(Soundbite of cantata) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.