The story of a world renowned South African exile changing his life and others’ through Ovalhouse.
1980, 1990, 2000
“Everybody needs a home, somewhere we can feel safe, loved and inspired to grow more into becoming who we really are. Ovalhouse provided the environment for me to develop the creative skills I inherited at birth, so that I could go into the world with confidence and in the knowledge that I could sing my song with everyone I met on my long journey. I am still singing and the harmonies are beautiful and life affirming…”
I arrived in London in the summer of 1980, having fled from apartheid South Africa, where I was targeted because of my involvement with the work of Steve Biko and other civil rights activists.
Searching for consolation, comfort, companionship and a creative community, I discovered Oval House soon after landing on these shores. I soon developed a routine whereby I would leave my Brixton council flat, playing South African melodies on my Indian bamboo flute, and dance my way to Oval House. Once there I would head for my usual table in the corner of the cafe area, directly opposite the kitchen hatch, behind which gay men prepared delicious cross-cultural cuisine and unselfconsciously healthy salads, which, of course, I could not afford.
I would proceed to play different parts of the table, practicing my advanced palm and finger drumming techniques while inhaling the piquant flavours of the food I craved. At this stage I did not own any traditional drums, and even if I did, the sound of my playing at close quarters would have angered the neighbours, so the amiability of the kitchen staff and the resonance of the wooden tables contributed to my delight as a drummer with big dreams and an epic appetite.
I continued to trade phrases between my table and bamboo flute. It did not take me long to notice that my melodies and rhythms were imbued with a seductive quality. Oval House members and theatregoers of all ages were drawn to my improvised music; but by far the most enthusiastic audience I attracted were the wayward youths who flocked to the venue from neighbouring council flats. These young, idle people would enter the space seeking to cultivate some action with their usual loudness, but as soon as my mellifluous melodies entered their ears and coursed through their consciousness, they would immediately become silent and gently walk towards my table and take a seat around me.
The presence of the young people would inspire me to play even more beautifully. The more melodious the music that flowed from the bamboo flute, and the more lyrical the rhythms I excavated with my dancing fingers from the bare table, the more pronounced the rapture of the assembled audience. Then after fascinating them with my ability, I would offer to break it down for them. Before you knew it we would have a table with every place taken up by a young drummer, with the rest singing improvised chants made up on the spot.
A discernible atmosphere of relief and contentment permeated the space. I noticed that the faces of Oval House staff started to glow with smiles as they passed by, going about their daily duties. Then one day, after I had just sat down at my percussion table, one of the kitchen staff brought me a plate piled high with steaming chicken and vegetables and a luxuriantly leafy salad on the side. He patted me on the shoulder and thanked me for what I was doing. Without bothering to ask what exactly he meant, I dove into my gift meal.
Then one day Alphi Pritchard, who was responsible for the Oval House creative programme, came over to join me at my table. He had been watching me making music with the young people as he walked by visiting the various classes. He told me that my musical interactions with the youth had a positive effect. He said that when I engaged them creatively they stopped harassing the kitchen staff with their menacing behaviour. This had given him an idea. He asked me what I thought about doing a workshop with young people. The instant look of bewilderment on my face disturbed him and he asked me if I was all right. I told him that I didn’t do that kind of thing.
The only two experiences I had had of the word workshop were the place where cars are repaired, and the sinister practice in apartheid South Africa, whereby someone who was thought to be an informer or collaborator was panel-beaten and reconstituted. I can still hear Alphi’s laughter at the hilarity of my innocence and discovery of a new meaning of the word.
Thus began my many years of running workshops of the innocuous variety at Oval House, which led to me becoming the Director of the Oval House Music School for several years (The Music School provided the musical backbone to many political campaigns including marches protesting against funding cuts, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the marches against the Poll Tax, but also celebratory events such as carnival). During this time I enlisted the teaching and performing skills of a long list of renowned musicians from different cultural backgrounds to inspire young and adult students to use music to extend the beauty of their lives beyond the horizons within their daily vision.
At the centre of this gathering of gifted workshop leaders was a group of amazing South African artists who provided the heartbeat of the music school. The list is endless, but among these were Bheki Mseleku, Thebe Lipere, Pinise Saul, Louis Moholo, Mervyn Africa, Russell Herman, Aubrey Oaki, Sophie Mgcina, Vusi Khoza and Gcina Mhlophe.
Eugene was involved in the following productions at Ovalhouse:
Music Without Borders
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