A Choir Master

High up in the Drakensberg Mountains, there is a valley where Piet Pienaar has a farm. A few miles before one reaches his farm, the road ends abruptly in the veldt. From there on, there is but a track going though the rocky country-side, descending to the mountain streams, climbing up steep hills till it reaches his place.

The valley is long and narrow; enormous poplar trees are growing there along the banks of the river, and the strangely shaped rocks and boulders hanging and lying all around seem to protect the place from the eyes of strangers. At the end of the valley, among the pine-trees, stands an Old Dutch farm house covered with vines and climbing roses. There lives my uncle Piet.

Uncle Piet is a difficult man. He is old and set in his ways, and since the death of his wife some years ago, he became taciturn and practically recluse.

He does not like people, and on my visits here I never see any visitors, and no wonder, for who would care for the company of a complaining old man who is too wrapped in himself to understand other human beings. I am his only relative but I don't think he enjoys my visits, and neither do I. I strongly disapprove his behavior and I am quite open about it. Still, I consider it my duty to pay him an occasional visit, especially since he is getting on.

That hot summer afternoon, we sat on the porch drinking tea and gazing into the distance. The scent of the roses, the humming of the bees, and the monotonous murmur of the stream invited one to doze. All of a sudden Uncle Piet became very much awake, his eyes were alert, and he was growing agitated.

As I glanced in the direction where he looked, I saw a man on the track, pushing a bicycle. He must have been a complete stranger to these parts and Uncle Piet watched him with growing suspicion. When the man reached the path leading to the house, Uncle Piet was already waiting for him. The stranger was an elderly man with a pleasant open face. He seemed to be completely at ease, and Uncle Piet was taken aback by his attitude. In fact, he even listened to him and they walked together in the direction of the shacks where his farm workers lived.

'Who is he, and what does he want?' I asked Uncle Piet when he came back.

'He is a choir master and he is looking for some strong voices for his choir.'

'Good, we shall have some music,' I exclaimed.

'God forbid,' Uncle Piet got annoyed, 'I have told him I do not tolerate loud noise. People who work here know about it. They must not interfere with my life, and I will not bother with theirs; apart from their work output of course.

A few days later, as we sat on the porch enjoying the quietness of the evening, I heard singing. It came from the direction of the farm workers shacks. As I looked closely, I saw the silhouettes of people around their little cooking fires sitting and standing in groups. But soon they began to move closer to one another swaying to the rhythm of the music. The song grew louder and louder, silencing the croaking of the frogs and the chirping of the crickets.

Uncle Piet started getting agitated, and I was afraid he would soon do something foolish like calling for the choir master and order him off the farm.

'Listen to the song,' I called urgently. 'They sing so beautifully, as if they were trained to do it for months and months. There is music in their hearts and they know how to express it. They need to do it .They have so little apart from it.

What do you know about them? These people surely have other wants, food, drink and a place to sleep. You have separated yourself from them by the wall of indifference and they have responded to you by looking at you with blank faces, devoid of any feelings.'

After my little talk, Uncle Piet remained seated but he complained that there was no more peace and quietness in the world.

The next evening the same thing happened again. This time we heard the voices of children. Again Uncle Piet started getting restless, and complained that they sang out of tune.

And I attacked him again. 'What do you know of them, these children, this ragged crowd of 'piccanins' and their little sisters who at the age of five carried their mother's babies on their backs, these little ones who had no bed-time hours and neither toys nor nice cots to sleep in. Is it not possible that they also have dreams, but you have closed your heart to them?'

Uncle Piet was annoyed, 'What you want me to do, he shouted. I'm an old and sick man. I am entitled to live as I wish, damn you to condemn me.'

The singing continued every evening and there was a new cheerfulness on the farm. The maids sang in the garden, and I often heard laughter in the lands. Once I saw an old woman in the veldt; she was collecting some roots and plants and as she was picking them up she sang too. How could they be so cheerful? I thought with wonder. They lived in crudely-built shacks with their babies and old people crawling through the low openings to sleep, and crawling out at dawn to work. The winters must have been the worst, for there is often frost and snow in this part of the country, and what protection did they have against cold? They have a few rags, a blanket or two, the little fire on which they cooked their food, how pathetically little and yet' They could still laugh and sing.

Did Uncle Piet who had lived here all his life know nothing about it?

Strange enough Uncle Piet seemed also more cheerful these days. Now as we listened to the lovely voices of men and women singing their songs, my Uncle Piet began to reminiscence about his life. He had even admitted that he played the guitar and had a good ear for music. I nearly burst out laughing when I started imagining him as a hippie. (That's how young people were called in those days.)

One day I caught him rummaging in some old trunk, and to my surprise he pulled out a guitar covered with some old clothes. The guitar was old, but the sound board seemed fine and Uncle Piet was overjoyed. After many attempts and many wasted nylon strings Uncle Piet managed to 'catch a tune.' Now in the evenings as the singing continued, he accompanied it, from the porch, on his guitar.

Uncle Piet's musical endeavor did not remain unnoticed for long. The choir master heard it too, and decided to pay us a visit. He was a wise man and knew he had to be very careful. He came to apologize for the noise his new choir was making, and praised Uncle Piet's patience and kindness. He also asked for a new favor of my uncle. There was a shed on the farm which was seldom used; he asked if he could use it for their practice sessions. The days were getting shorter and colder. They needed a place to get away from the bad weather. Would Mr. Pienaar also spare some time to accompany them on his guitar, it would make such a difference for their singing.

I waited with suspended breath for his reply.

Uncle Piet said, 'Yes,' without hesitation and he seemed to be very pleased about it.

From that time on there was no going back for my uncle. It was a miracle how the man had changed. He played his guitar (which I soon replaced with a new one) he started building a school for the children, and had plans to erect new houses for his workers. He wanted to teach the children to play guitar, so that one day when his time was up, he would have a proper send off with choir and music at his grave. But at the moment the man is full of action and I hope he will accomplish some of his dreams.

I asked the choir master before he left the farm, how he had managed to change my uncle, he said that it was the music which did the work.

'The music has the power to unite people. It always has and always will. The music builds bridges among the people and destroys the sense of separation which throws a man into the abyss of misery. Now your uncle can spread good-will in this valley. He is a free man.    


More by :  Ola de Sas

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Views: 3370      Comments: 1

Comment A charming story, simply told. Avoids rhetoric and bombast, and uses perceptiveness, humor and wisdom, to get across its message and enrapture the reader.

Pesi Padshah
21-Apr-2011 10:12 AM

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