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The Portfolio: The piano offers Nomfundo Xaluva place to dream and become

I remember vividly the first time I laid my eyes on a piano in real life. I was eight or nine years old, visiting my best friend for a playdate. As she showed me around her home, we walked into a room wherein stood a black, shiny upright piano with an open lid. I had only ever seen one played by white people on television. In that moment, I was entranced by its majestic  appearance and its aesthetic quality which had been inadequately captured by a television screen. 

I knew then and there that I wanted to play the piano. Forever.

Looking back now, I suspect that in my young impressionable mind, I saw the piano as a totem of aspiration, a window into a world of sophistication not designed for a little black girl growing up in the vibrant township of New Brighton in Gqeberha. That weekend I learnt to play my first tune on the piano, the infamous Chopsticks. Something lifted me when I sat at the piano, a feeling that continues to engulf my body every time I sit and play. 

I was raised by my grandparents, Bulie and Sam, and when they enrolled me into a model-C boarding school, my grandfather insisted that I start piano lessons. I was 12 years old. Shortly thereafter, they surprised me with a secondhand  Zimmermann piano, which took pride of place in our home, occasionally turning our lounge into an intimate concert venue at the arrival of visitors.  

The piano, invented by Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori in the 1700s, made its way into West Africa in the mid-19th century via Christian missionaries and, through trade, it was disseminated to other parts of  the continent. The tradition of this instrument in South Africa begs closer investigation as it chafes the socioeconomic inequalities and the resultant classism encoded in its price tag. Although this may be attributed to the exorbitant costs of the materials and craftsmanship required to manufacture it, the access issue remains. 

In an article in The New Yorker, Harvard musicologist Anne Schreffler cites that in their undergraduate curriculum, they “relied on students showing up at our doorstep having had piano lessons from the age of six and that due to the systemic inequalities the majority of black children are born into, this implicit requirement served to perpetuate a covert form of racial exclusion”. This sentiment resonates with me because the difference between myself and my classmates at university who had no piano lessons at school was blindingly stark. This became fertile ground for the emergence of the “better black” mentality. 

I could play the piano before I could sing. It remains my tool of songwriting. I never create away from it. 

I have transitioned from a period of deep insecurity about my playing when compared to my highly skilled contemporaries, but, then again, age has tamed my self-criticism. Over the years, my songwriting has surrendered to the simplicity of the melodic ideas I create in my mind. Although jazz harmony is a complex discipline, the piano offers me both the joy of a single note as, well as the richness of harmonies through chord structures. I recognise now that my relationship with the piano is not rooted in competitiveness but, rather, in gratitude for the world it has opened for me as a little black girl finding a place to dream and become. 

In the words of Nina Simone, whose journey to becoming America’s first black concert pianist was interrupted by the complexities of race and classical music, “There’s a million boys and girls who are young, gifted and black.” Many of them have yet to see or touch a piano. 

Ours is to demythologise the identity of the piano and disrupt its status as a symbol of wealth. With both my grandparents now deceased, the piano at home stands as a landmark of my childhood memories. It reminds me that although I did not grow up rich, I most certainly grew up privileged.

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Nomfundo Xaluva
Nomfundo Xaluva is a recording artist and a lecturer in jazz studies at the University of Cape Town

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