The time together in South Africa before a U.S. tour is called “the bubble” and is when the fifteen or so members, mostly between the ages of 20 and 30, assemble from Cape Town, Durban, East London, the Gauteng region, and sometimes also from other places such as Minnesota and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They live together, or more accurately, undergo a process of figuring out how to live together, which is the point of 29:11’s existence. These singers and instrumentalists who have been touring the U.S. with Minnesota as a home base since February come from many tribal identities, including Zulu, two branches of the Khoi tribe (Griekwa and Quequegoab), Xhosa, Sotho, Damara, Boesman, two opposing tribes from the DRC, and two tribal mixes that are so unusual that each forms a distinct identity resulting from exclusion by both. The personnel change a little or a lot from year to year, striving to bring together varied ethnic and racial backgrounds who then return to their communities having formed relationships affecting their future interactions. True to their social media description, the aim is that “by recognizing that each of us is worthy of understanding and love, we can bridge the ideological, racial, and socio-economic gaps that divide us, and live together as citizens of the world”.
Co-founders Gaylene Adams and Brendon Adams, both based primarily in Bloomington, MN, were inspired to name this effort after a Hebrew scripture verse in which a prophet, Jeremiah, is speaking to the Jewish people exiled from their homeland to Babylon: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope”. The existence of 29:11 is both response and contribution to South Africa’s ongoing post-apartheid epic. While officially abolished with the first racially-open election of 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to leadership, South Africa continues to suffer from the discrepancy in reality that follows formal peace accords. Policy isn’t enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people”. 29:11 aims to catalyze this spiritual process.
For this past November’s bubble, Brendon specifically asked me to teach vocal music by Bach. My initial reaction to him telling me this over coffee a month or two before I arrived was Huh? Why? I never would have chosen that myself, much as I love Bach’s vocal music. Physically, his music feels good to my voice, and I love his preoccupation with symbolism and using musical figures to paint what the lyrics are doing. I felt very colonial, however, at the prospect of walking into an African environment with my European face to teach Saxon music from a time period when white faces were still routinely showing up on African shores making sweeping claims and judgments.
But Brendon wanted the challenge of doing a very foreign music, and potentially to improvise around it and develop an Africanized version as they had in previous years with hymns such as For the Beauty of the Earth and Lift Every Voice and Sing. So in the days and weeks before I got on the plane I spent some time thinking about where would be a good place to start for people who are new to Bach, but are experienced singers in gospel and have little or no exposure to German language. I made scores for two options: a three-voice motet movement transposed, and a four-part chorale.
When I got to Cape Town, I ended up going with the first: Denn das Gesetz, from Jesu, meine Freude. It teaches counterpoint, and three voice parts seemed more suitable to the group we had. The text is from the book of Romans in the Christian scriptures and speaks of an old law that brings judgment and a new law that brings freedom, which, however yet unrealized, works with the unfolding epics of both South Africa and the U.S. I was very excited to introduce Bach’s music to singers who had never encountered it: connecting German language sounds to the Afrikaans language, jostling unintuitive text underlay in relation to the musical strong beats, and watching reactions to syllables having as many as seven notes. And then there were the ideas of each voice part changing notes and words at different times, voices crossing each other, and teaching this music in a culture that learns primarily by ear. Aural practice tracks were a big part of the learning process. For a group whose center is reconciliation, there was a lot to be said for the metaphor of multiple melodies happening simultaneously, singing the same or different words at different times, breathing at different times…and still fitting together in beauty.
At the end of the first week though, I was still feeling uncomfortable every day with teaching European music in an African setting, and I told the group so and asked what their learning experience had been like. It turns out that for most of the group, for those that cared to voice an opinion, this was new, interesting, challenging music, and simply that: music.
It took a singer born well before the pivotal year of 1994 to see the generational dynamics in the room. Most of 29:11’s current members were born after 1994 to a generation called the Born Frees. They may carry the generational trauma in their DNA, but without the personal memories of legally segregated bathrooms, schools, neighborhoods, and relationships. The Born Frees seemed completely unfazed by a white person teaching them music written by one of the biggest composer-monuments in white-body history.
The other notable rehearsal process was grappling with the presence of paper. One rehearsal in particular was pretty frustrating for everyone—music that had been solidly holding together with all parts the day before was back to feeling like the second day. I left that rehearsal feeling like they were making too big a deal of the paper. 29:11 is used to moving the body and learning by ear. So the next day I asked them to put away the paper.
In doing so we realized that after seven rehearsals ranging in length from 20-60 minutes, they already knew a Bach movement in an unfamiliar language by heart. They were just too busy trying to follow notation to realize they already had it in their bodies. Their regular theory classes have made them able to follow and read, but reading was getting in the way of music. I felt a huge sense of breakthrough that morning in teaching conducting patterns as a kind of dance and having them sing their parts, feeling where words come in relation to movement, which is what they are used to doing all the time.
In the bubble it wasn’t unusual to hear someone spontaneously burst out singing, “hat mich frei gemacht!” (has made me free), a snippet from that Bach movement with the highest note on the word frei. In our lives together there is what was before. And there is what is now. And when we are listening in reconciliation, the now continually liberates us, in music and in our differences.
¹ 29:11 International Exchange (n.d.). Home [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved April 21, 2023 from https://www.facebook.com/2911intl
² New Revised Standard Version Bible. (1989). National Council of the Churches of Christ accessed via BibleGateway. https://www.biblegateway.com
³ Mandela, N. (2004). In His Own Words. Little, Brown and Company.