By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
A group of more than 40 Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) music and theatre students and faculty members returned this month from a trip to Namibia after performing in a two-night sold-out performance alongside the country’s most famous pop star, Gazza, and the Namibian National Symphony Orchestra (NNSO).
The concert “Gazza Goes Symphonic: A Concert of Hope” was performed under the musical direction of ASFA Music Department Chair and global conductor Alex Fokkens. The trip was a way for students to experience what is “truly special” about arts in the African country, Fokkens said.
“We thought it’d be a wonderful opportunity to take our young people to go and be a part of a community where they can engage with artists from completely different backgrounds, from the whole orchestra and the theatre kids that they mixed up with and talked to. It ranged from ages of 14 to 60 and every possible demographic you can possibly imagine,” Fokkens said.
Amber Rocker, who graduated from ASFA this year and plans to study in Alabama State University’s Department of Music in Montgomery in the fall, agreed, saying that upon first introduction, some music students struggled to communicate with the Namibian artists but the universality of music helped them understand each other.
“There was kind of a language barrier…but when they played music, I knew exactly what to do, and I was understanding what [they were] trying to do, and it was just really cool to comprehend and communicate through music,” said Rocker, who has been playing drums since age 3.
Members of the Namibian group with which Rocker played helped her get a feel for the rhythm, she said.
“At first I wasn’t getting it…one of the drummers, he was right behind me trying to help me out. But once I got it, they were really excited and just really encouraging… ” she said.
Additionally, Rocker said the two-night concert “felt different” than anything she’d ever done. Not only was she “honored” to play drums for Gazza, but the connection over cultural lines was meaningful, she said.
“We were in another part of the world sharing music, and music is the universal language…that everybody can come together. No matter what your native language is, music brings people together,” Rocker said.
Across two weeks, students and faculty in ASFA’s music and theatre programs spent time in South Africa and Namibia, where they took in the culture, while also rehearsing and performing alongside Namibia’s most dedicated artists and musicians.
Fokkens, chair of ASFA’s Music Department, previously served as lead conductor for the NNSO for 14 years and helped organize the trip alongside John Manzelli, who chairs ASFA’s Theatre Arts program and previously worked in Namibia on a sabbatical.
The collaboration between ASFA music and theatre arts and Namibian artists came about when Fokkens and Manzelli discovered they both had extensive ties to Namibia’s classical music and theatre scenes.
Fokkens is an in-demand South African-born conductor who has worked across southern Africa and the world, while Manzelli is a nationally recognized actor, producer, and theater lecturer who did his sabbatical in Namibia while he was a university professor.
Graclyn Presswood, who will be a junior in ASFA’s theatre program in the fall, said the trip didn’t feel real until they landed in Cape Town, South Africa.
“It was just like, ‘Oh, we’re just going somewhere in the U.S.,’ but after many layovers, when we finally got to South Africa, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh…we’re really in Africa,'” Presswood said.
While South Africa served as a good “introduction” for the trip, Presswood said she found home in Namibia.
“…when we were working with the choir, I became friends with many of them, and I still talk to them today, but it was so sad to leave, and I was crying…because I don’t know when I’m ever going to see them again,” Presswood said.
The first stop in Namibia was Windhoek, the nation’s capital. At that first performance, Presswood said she and the other students were able to see some locals perform which allowed the students to see some “parallels” in the theatre world. Everybody was connected through the music, she said.
“You could feel the energy, like blowing past everybody, because while we were singing, we were also doing movements, so you could tell everybody was extremely connected with the music and genuinely understanding what they’re saying and feeling what they’re saying,” Presswood said.
Describing the impact of the trip, Manzelli said, “We got the chance to teach students that art is something bigger than ourselves. Students left Namibia with a better understanding of why we do what we do. And they connected to other artists in the world who think and create like them.”