SUITE AFRIQUE

‘Suite Afrique’ for Cello and Piano (1993) was originally commissioned for the Russian Cellist, Mark Drobinsky who premiered it in Belgium in October 1994. In 1995, a Viola transcription was made of the work which was premiered by the Composer and Prof. Walter Mony at the Dana State University Festival in Ohio, USA.

‘Suite Afrique’ consists of four “dances” depicting the spirit and mood of Africa. It explores the African indigenous and ethnic elements derived from the music of its peoples. Each dance embodies a dynamic element typical of life in South Africa. These “dances” are not abstractions. They are real physically-based living movements. The shadow of tribal life is always there. All of life’s dramas are expressed in dance e.g. birth, death and outpouring of emotions (Toyi-toying).

1. Rain Dance

This is a stamping, beating, rhythmic invocation for the ancestors to help bring the rain – the only saviour and substance of crops and life. The tone “D” is the basis of this piece as “Re” signifies the Cabbalistic attribute of strength and G-D’s judgements – hence the intense praying and dancing of the people and tribal witchdoctor.

The constant alternating of metre from 5 to 6 is typical of the irregular groupings and shifting stress of African music. Also within the metre, groupings change i.e. 3 + 2, 2 + 3, and 2 + 2 +2.

The rather violent “off the beat” string punctuations are part of the cry to the “Rain G-D” to send rain. The more primitive sounding “aggressive stamping” becomes gentler and a beautiful African folk song is introduced, however in a “transformed” way.

A traditional Sotho song “Amangwane Mpulele”, is enunciated; it also has to do with the rain, but in a more “domestic” way. A man calls to his aunt to let him in the door as it is raining – he also informs her that with 2 or 3 cows, he can ‘buy his bride’.

A central “lento ad lib” of the song follows as a gentle love song before the return of the more aggressive pounding section – a final invocation for rain.

2. War Dance

The theme of “closed” intervals i.e. semitones and tones signifies the “closing” of ranks against the enemy: G# G A G# - a tight-knit motif that revolves around itself. A history of tribal wars abounds in Africa.

The tonal centre at the beginning is C# which finally settles on C (Doh) at the end, showing the futility of war i.e. “Back to square one – Doh!”.

Like the “Rain Dance”, the style is fairly aggressive, but whereas the “Rain Dance” was constructive, this is destructive and disintegratory.

The ‘triplet’ motif features throughout this dance as a warlike fanfare. The “leg-stamping” motif here widens out of a falling major 3rd followed by a rising minor 3rd. There are different “attacks” on the viola/cello, showing the different strategies of war.

A central quieter section ensues with a mournful piano ostinato (again falling 3rds) in an irregular 7/8 metre against a plaintive string line, bewailing the losses of war and the helplessness and futility thereof.

The first motif returns briefly and winds down in triplets alternating contrapuntally until it fades out on a “C”.

3. Hypnotic Dance

The essence of this “hypnotic” style dance is a search for the spiritual connection that brings a sense of peace – a meditative introspective approach.

The opening in slow harmonics is reminiscent of a man in the veld walking along whistling quietly and peacefully to himself – a sense of introspection. A 7- note falling theme in heard:-

D C G D C E D – a mixture of pentatonic and later mixolydian mode.

The piano joins the viola/cello in a desynchronised counterpoint with the same melody and the viola/cello strums like a guitar. Gradually, the tempo accelerates and small units are repeated. These become more intense and lead to a new theme of 11 notes.

The viola/cello now joins the piano in many counter melodies derived from the same material. The downward “glissando slides” between notes is very typical of African song. Themes are repeated in different irregular patterns and polyrhythms, even in canon (strict imitation).

A mini string cadenza reminds us that we are still listening to a virtuoso piece of serious music. A jazzy pizzicato section follows before a return to the quiet “harmonics” theme. A coda follows which builds up into a frenetic hypnotic repetitive dance.

4. Afro Angst

“AFRO ANGST” is the fourth Dance in the Suite. This is not so much a dance as a mood and feeling. There is a deep anxiety in our present-day society based on fear, mistrust and violence. This is expressed musically in sudden gestures and long dotted values, followed by short notes in falling minor 3rds.

However, the tension is relieved by a melody or chant in the cello in long notes against a fluid shifting ‘ostinato’ in the piano – a Cantus Firmus of hope and redemption – a kind of supplication for peace.

The low “grumbling” section in the cello again creates “Angst” and expresses the primeval undercurrent of fear. A musical “convergence” takes place when ascending triplet figures in the piano criss-cross with descending triplet figures in the cello – a kind of optimistic “meeting of minds”.

The “PESANTE” Section predominantly in open 5ths, is a repeated bell-like figure heralding a pragmatic resignation.

A CODA of rising figures in the cello brings the piece to an end on the tonic of D, where it began.