By Steven Lang
Steeldrum rhythms and joyful laughter emanated from a small practice room next to the Graemian Centre at Graeme College on Friday afternoon, 1 September 2023. The music drew people in, and the merriment was unreservedly infectious.
What was behind such hilarity?
Members of the Graeme College Steelband were giggling while teaching a group of visitors from China how to play their Caribbean-style instruments. The guests from Jincheng in northeast China were visiting Makhanda as part of a sister city relationship between Sarah Baartman District Municipality and Jincheng City.
There were nine people in the delegation: Zhizhong Li of the Jincheng Municipal Education Bureau; Kang Xuan of the Foreign Affairs Office of Jincheng and Ruibin Zhao, principal of the Jincheng No. 2 Middle School as well as six pupils from the same school: Ruijin Wang, Youge Wu, Zhaoyi Niu, Yinuo Ren, Zihao Guo and Bohan Yang.
The Jincheng pupils, all between 17 and 18 years old, picked up the techniques of playing the steel drums in no time at all. Soon, they were playing along with the local boys as if they had months of instruction. The delegation leaders saw how much fun their wards were having and joined in to take their turn.
After the steel drums were (more or less) mastered, everyone trooped outside for a mandatory group photo.
Although the visitors and the Graemian boys seemed eager to chat, understanding each other was somewhat challenging. The Chinese visitors could all speak a smattering of English but said they struggled with South African accents. They were more accustomed to American English.
Both groups then made their way to the Band Room so the Chinese teens could change and put on make-up for their performance.
Kang Xuan, who seemed to be most proficient in English, introduced the first dance as Impression of China. She said, “Traditional Chinese dance has gradually developed into an Oriental dance art with unique form and charm. This dance mainly displays the charm of classical Chinese dance which stresses the integration of both form and spirit, physical and mental state”.
She was not wrong. All six of the dancers had unique costumes and appeared to have their own distinct movements that were somehow interconnected. The recorded music sounded as if it carried mysterious Chinese secrets from long ago but the dance motions appeared to be gorgeously modern.
Xuan introduced the second dance about horses, pronounced in Mandarin as ‘ma’. She said that horses are greatly admired for their qualities such as “loyalty, perseverance, super endurance and tenacious vitality”. She told the Graeme College boys that many phrases and idioms contain ‘ma’ for their powerful symbolic meaning.
The final number was a rendition of Jerusalema, the catchy South African tune that got the whole world dancing during the Covid epidemic.
Xuan said that in the spirit of Jerusalema, “ . . . the delegation and students of Jincheng No. 2 Middle School would like to express their hope to boost the friendly relationship between Jincheng and Sarah Baartman, to enhance the cultural exchange between China and South Africa, and to strengthen the friendship between the youth of the two countries – please dance with us”.
After showing their version of the dance, the Jincheng dancers invited the local boys to come up and join them. They did not have to ask twice.