White Wedding in Itsoseng #11: Epilogue

After the wedding, we became typical tourists: a safari in Kruger National Park, followed by site-seeing in Cape Town and Johannesburg. A small group of us returned to Itsoseng almost two weeks later, to retrieve the luggage containing the wedding clothes which we had left there, and to celebrate the birthday of Tsholofelo’s mother, Kerileng.


Mike, Mompathi, Onnica, and Tepu

After arriving in town, we visited Dinanas, who had hosted my wife Footie and me, and then Mumpahti and Onicca, who had hosted the Potticarys.  Of course, they wanted to hear about our trip.  They were very particularly interested, pleased, that we had visited the prison at Robin Island and seen the cell where Nelson Mandela had spent so many years: we were connecting with their experience.

2015-01-29 KitchenTo celebrate the birthday, Santu and Tsholofelo cooked dinner and invited everyone who had hosted the foreign visitors for the wedding.  To a traditional South African meal of pap and grilled meat they added a pesto pasta and a salad.  I noticed that Tsholo’s father and uncle declined the vegetables, sticking to their familiar meat and starch.

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While waiting for dinner, we enjoyed time with the children.  Here is Stephen roughhousing with the kids.




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Tetlelelo, Tsholo’s nephew, was fascinated with our hair, which is of course very different from his own.  He decided to make me look like a rock star.  Here is the result:





2015-01-29 B'day Table2015-01-29 Sioto & MamphutiIt was a typical family birthday celebration.  When the cake was served, they sang “Happy Birthday” familiar to all Americans, followed by the second verse, “How old are you?”.  Then the guys who were out back came in, and we had repeat, with more baritones.

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My favorite picture from the day is this one of the two mothers, Tepu and Kerileng, one white, one black, a Finnish American and a South African talking comfortably together, like old friends.


Final Thoughts

Race matters.  One hundred and fifty years after end of slavery in America, twenty years after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, race is still a factor in daily life in both our countries.   This reality lends symbolic significance to what happened at this wedding.  However, for us, it was not the races that were different, but the cultures.  Our cultures now have a bridge between them, a bridge built on the foundation of our shared humanity.

The next day, before we left for home, Kerileng sat down and talked with me, summing it up this way: “You are just simple people.  You eat what we eat. ”  In other words, we are just like them.

When my grandparents immigrated from Denmark to America, they wanted to forget the old country, to leave it behind, to wash themselves clean of everything that was Danish and to become American.  Tsholofelo has chosen differently. Like so many immigrants today, she does not want to throw away her heritage, but to bring it with her into her new life in this new land.   The challenge she faces is one shared by many in our world today: what can you bring from your traditional culture into the modern, post-industrial world?  This wedding was a step in one family’s answer to this question, and I am blessed to have had a role in it.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #10: The Feast

This was the main event.

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 As we got near the Molale home after the wedding, the bridal party got into the back of the pickup trucks, so everyone could see the as they paraded toward the reception tent.



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Among the throng greeting them as they approached the tent were the women, still in their aprons, who had been preparing the feast.

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The wedding party paraded into the tent, dancing.

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The tent was huge. We think that there were 25 tables, with ten seats at each table.   In addition to the throne area, there were some couches for comfortable seating.  There was an extension to the main tent that for lounging that essentially occupied front yard of a neighbor.

As we entered, the master of ceremonies assured the people, that although there was not room for everyone inside the tent, all were welcome to participate in the celebration.  There were many more people in the throng outside the tent than had been explicitly invited by the Molales.  2015-01-17 13.48.28

Dinanas, who had hosted my wife and I for the week, arrived with her own little dance.  My wife Footie posed with one of ladies that she had met earlier in the week.

Once inside, there was much that Americans would find familiar.  There was a DJ with an excellent sound system blasting away, making any conversation nearly impossible.

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 As honored guests, we sat at a table in the middle, near the throne, with the parents of the groom.  This couple, a Molale cousin and his girl friend, sat down with us, and the MC tried to get him to move, saying this table was reserved for the family.  His response: “We are all one family now.”  I nodded in agreement, and they were allowed to stay.

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Given all of the multisyllabic Tswana names that easily roll off of the tips of their tongue, I was amused that the MC admitted how difficult he found it to pronounce “Potticary” correctly.

Here the MC is telling people to open the champaign that was on each table.  The fathers of the bride and groom each offered a toast, as did I.

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The buffet included the meat from the animals slaughtered for the occasion and plenty of vegetables.  As honored guests, we were allowed to serve ourselves and take as much as we wanted.  Others, including people outside the tent, were served.  We estimate that they fed about 400, all in all.

2015-01-17 15.09.28Wedding Day_168Of course, there was plenty of dancing.  At one point, the infirm, elderly lady that my wife Footie had talked to earlier in the week grabbed her hand and started dancing with her.  “Do you know what this song means?”, she asked.  “Stepping out together!”  She only lasted a couple of minutes, and had to sit down.  Almost immediately, someone else grabbed her to start dancing.  “You know what this song means?  Stepping out together!”

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After the meal, the wedding party and the parents left the tent to go change.  In the meantime, we were entertained by a traditional Tswana dance troupe.<video> .

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After a while, the wedding party returned in their traditional African outfits.  They had another entrance, so of course, they danced

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Tsholofelo and her mother, Kerileng

Wedding Day_171 Wedding Day_131The parents in their matching traditional African outfits. (On the way home, Tepu had this African hat attached to her carryon bag.  As we left the plane in Paris, a young South African woman came up to her and asked, “Where did you get that cute hat?”) Wedding Day_143

Lots of people wanted to have their pictures with the westerners.. Wedding Day_139




Here I am with a beautiful young woman on each arm.  (The next day at the gas station, the clerk said that she had seen me at the wedding. “You looked like you were having a good time.”)

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They cut the cake and fed each other.  Then, both bride and groom fed their in-laws.

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Presents were opened at the ceremony.




Finally, those who had represented the families in the magadi, the newlyweds, and their parents retired to the privacy of the Molale living room.  Here we all imparted our wisdom to the young couple.  Several of us discussed the inevitable conflicts that arise between husband and wife.  We spent less time on the joys of marriage.  The theme from the preacher’s sermon, that the “woman is the crown to her husband”, came up again.  The westerners did not contradict this directly.  Rather, we talked about the difficulties they were going to face in reconciling two different visions of what marriage is supposed to be, without attempting to define the western ideal.  In all, the atmosphere was congenial but serious.

When we emerged from our session, the party had broken up.

What a spectacular celebration!

White Wedding in Itsoseng #9: The Ceremony

Santeri and Tsholofelo

Santeri and Tsholofelo

The invitation clearly said the wedding was to start at 8:00 am.  However, nobody took that time seriously.  At about 8:00 am, we left the Molale home, with the wedding gown, to go to the guest house in Lichtenburg, about 20 minutes away, where the wedding party had spent the night.  When we got there, the parking attendant commented on how early we were.  Later, I met the preacher, who told me that he had never been to an African wedding that had started on time.

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The venue was a lovely guest house, one that had obviously hosted many weddings before.  It was all decked out in white, and looked very much like a setting for a non- denominational ceremony in the states.

2015-01-17 10.00.41 HDRWhile waiting for the ceremony to begin, I met a quite a few people, including Chris and Pumla.  Chris grew up in Cincinnati and married a black South African woman “before it was cool.”

The wedding began around 10:30.  For someone who grew up in the carefully crafted liturgy of the Episcopal church, this ceremony seemed a mess.  There was a hymn that I did not recognize but that most people knew well enough to sing without a book; it was in the European Protestant style, sung in Tswana.  When the bridesmaids came in, beautifully dressed in yellow, they had no idea where they were supposed to go, and when they got there they discovered that there were not enough chairs for them all to sit. When the bride and groom came in, they seemed pretty clueless as well.  The preacher directed everyone with good humor, telling the couple to continue standing, or that they could now sit.  At one point, the preacher, who knew that they were already married in the states, asked the two to say why they wanted to get married, and, it seemed they were totally surprised by the question.

The sermon started with Proverbs, Chapter 12, Verse 4: “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.”  From the point of view of women’s equality, it went downhill from there.

The preacher finally gave them permission to kiss. b2-1-l-2015-01-17 10.27.56 After the ceremony, there was a brief champaign toast, and the usual posing for pictures. b2-2-Wedding Day_43Wedding Day_53Wedding Day_51Wedding Day_59 It is hard to judge how important the Christian ceremony was to the Molales.  It was not the main event.  Unlike the dancing entrance to the feast later, it was unrehearsed.  Unlike the magadi, it started when they got around to it, in typical African time.  However, the appearance, the setting, the dress, and especially the pictures that were taken afterwards were every bit as important to Tsholofelo as they would be to a typical American bride.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #8: The Community

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The day before the wedding, preparing vegetables behind the Molale home.

There was a lot of work to do.  They were fixing a feast for hundreds, prepared not by hired professionals but by their extended family, friends, and neighbors.  And, of course, all these helpers also had to be fed.

As the week progressed, more and more relatives and neighbors gathered around the Molale home.  Whenever a new group arrived, they new would honk their horns, sometimes rev their engines, and everyone would stop whatever they were doing and greet them with singing and dancing.  At times, I started to feel that it was getting a little repetitious.  Of course, to the person who just got there, it wasn’t a repetition at all, and people wanted the new arrival to feel honored and appreciated. As Godfrey said to me, “This is how we celebrate.  Too many people.  Too much noise.”  For me, the car horns became annoying, but the singing and dancing continued to be fun and joyful.

Mapula joins in the singing and dancing while peeling an onion.

Mapula joins in while peeling an onion.

The dancing and singing was often lead by Tsholofelo’s aunt, Motshidisi, one of the few who did not have an English name.   Sometimes, it seemed to occur for no particular reason: perhaps, she finished some small task, or perhaps it would just strike her that things needed to be livened up. In any event, she would start, and others would join in.  Sometimes, they would sing in English a verse made up for the occasion, about being a long way from home in America.  Once while dancing, Motshidisi stomped her foot so hard that she broke her shoe.   Of course, that didn’t stop her.  “I could dance all night”  she proclaimed as we finished one little stint.

Like most of the Americans, I joined in.  My dancing is just an embarrassment, but I can sing.   As I sang along, Godfrey looked at me with surprise, saying “You speak Tswana?”.   No, but I have spent years in choruses singing in languages I don’t really understand, and I can imitate what I hear.

On Wednesday, the work began in earnest.  Outside, there was a pile of rocks that needed to be moved out of the way.  Some men had loaded up a wheelbarrow.  Stephen decided he could help.  To the surprise of the Africans, he took off his shoes, and, barefooted, picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and took the rocks over to where they needed to be.  (Apparently, the bottoms of his feet are used to this treatment.  The Africans probably don’t realize how unusual this behavior is for an American.)  Before the end of the week, they gave him a Tswana name, one that means “happy”.

Soon others had joined in, helping with various tasks.   Work was strictly segregated by gender.  Men took down fences, moved heavy stuff, slaughtered and butchered the animals.  Anything having to do with vegetables was women’s work. (You might notice in the picture above, the only men cutting vegetables are American.) Women did the cooking.  It seemed women had more to do.

a5-2015-01-16 17.06.28Some of the older members of the extended family came but were frustrated in that they were not really allowed to help: there were not enough knives (dull as they were) to go around.  This lady was actually not in the best of health, but, regardless of how she felt, she was not going to miss “the white wedding”.

Because of my grey beard, I was not expected to do much.  The younger adults were expected to work, and once we started to act like members of the community, a lot was asked of them. One of the young American women, acutely aware of the relative status of women in the Tswana society, felt exploited.  Another, more cognizant of the unique opportunity to get inside this culture, worked hard but enjoyed the experience.

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Of course, there were kids around.  Some were Tsholo’s nephews and nieces.  Those who were old enough, played together, largely unsupervised, but adults were always nearby. Occasionally, some Americans would join them in play.

The Molales imposed on their neighbors in a way that would be unimaginable in my neighborhood.  The street in front of their home and yards of their next door neighbors were taken over to supply space for the celebration.  Fences were taken down.  The rough gravel road was smoothed over.


The backhoe getting started on the road.

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The road all smoothed out

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The tent totally blocked the right of way.

There was some paid help.  Certainly, the people who own the tent are running a business, and hired men set it up.  However, the majority of the work was done by people offering their services as a gift.  In this, there is an implicit exchange, not the quid pro quo of a business relationship, but a mutual interdependence and indebtedness that binds the community together.  As one neighbor cleaning sheep intestines said to my wife, “If you don’t help them, then they won’t help you.”

As was evident in these days of preparation, this celebration was as much about building the community as about marrying the bride and groom.  The frequent breaks for singing and dancing kept the mood joyful, and it was in this atmosphere that work got done. It was when we started to help that we began to truly join that community.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #7: Brewing Beer


Beer foaming in the cauldrons

For a traditional Tswana feast, they brewed their traditional beer.  This was women’s work, though the men certainly helped drink it.

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They began on Wednesday, starting with a mixture of sorghum and corn meal.  They added water.  They allowed the foreigners to learn what the proper consistency was.

a4-beer2-IMG_8106Then they set it out overnight. They did not add yeast, but let the soaking grain pick up whatever was in the air.  (If you try this in America, you will probably get a different result.)

a4-beer3-IMG_8097  They cooked it the next morning. Some of it they served us for breakfast: a porridge with a pleasant, slightly sour taste.


They let the porridge cool.


Then, they poured the it into large caldrons and stirred.  They let is it sit, allowing nature took its course.


After the beer reached the foamy consistency shown at the top, they removed the solids, pouring it through a special colander with a screen the bottom.  They squeezed out any remaining juice.

The beer was ready to drink on Friday, though it continued to ferment.  I joined some men sitting in the shade, drinking beer from cans.  One went to get some of the home brew.  He had a plastic two liter coke bottle with the top ripped off which he dipped it into a vat of beer.  Frankly, it looked frightening, but when the bottle was passed around, I took a polite sip.  The others gulped it down.  It was treated as communal property.

The next day at the wedding feast, we, as honored guests, were served some of the beer. (I don’t know how much was left after Friday.)  It was stronger.  We passed the glass around, just as the Africans did, though we sipped it cautiously.  When the glass got to the  little old African lady sitting beside me, she took a huge long gulp.  Then she looked at the glass, which had a little bit left, and finished it.  There was more in the pitcher.

Even in a regular glass, the beer looks a little dangerous, or, with a different point of view, vaguely like a frothy root beer ice cream concoction.  It has a unique, rather sour flavor, which most of us Americans liked, though we were not so ethusiastic as to gulp it down like the Tswana.

Tsholofelo’s parents, Sioto and Kerileng, do not drink alcohol, and normally, the family does not drink in their presence.  We were told that they typically wait until Sioto leaves a party before they opening the liquor or beer.  For the wedding celebration, all this was put aside, and the alcohol flowed freely.  As Frank (I don’t know his Tswana name) told me, “We drink a lot, actually.”

Music Now 2015: Coda

Louis & Bryce

This year’s Music Now Festival was bigger and better than ever.  I did not make it to everything, nor did I love everything that I heard, but much of what I did hear was spectacular.  On Thursday, Jeffrey Ziggler blew me away.  At the symphony concerts on Friday and Saturday, I heard world premiers of works that I think will be played for years to come.  Personally, I am not so  excited by the The National that I would go out of my way to hear them in front of an orchestra, but I need to step outside of my comfort zone sometimes, and I am thrilled to see their fans at Music Hall, listening to the music I love.

Of course, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Louis Langrée plays with incredible technical virtuosity, beauty, and energy.

Last year, I was happy with the festival, but in truth, I thought the best thing on the two symphony programs was the nearly 100 year old Prokofiev that served as a finale. This year, the symphony concerts ended with an even better known iconoclastic favorite from Varèse, but I think I heard music from living composers was every bit as good.  This festival is rising to a new level. I commend Bryce Dessner, curator of the festival, for building this up over the years, and Louis Langrée for seizing the opportunity to incorporate this into the orchestra season.

Did I tell you how much I liked Caroline Shaw’s sweet “Lo”, or the power the Bjarnason’s giant “Collider”?

Music Now 2015: Saturday 3/14

Daniel Bjarnason  Saturday’s Music Now concert featured the world premiere of “Collider” by the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason.  Inspired by the the Large Hadron Collider based at the CERN laboratory, this work uses a gigantic orchestra.  It starts in the deep basement, with the low instruments giving a real sense of the huge scale of this machine. This sense of space was maintained throughout, supported by large masses of instruments, enhanced by lightly scored delicate moments.  This music flows in a way that can be easily followed on first hearing, though I am convinced that there are riches here that would reward hearing it again.  I enjoyed hearing this piece immensely: the only disappointment was that it ended so soon.

Janelle Gelfand, in her review of the concert for the Cincinnati Enquirer, said, “It was the kind of well-crafted and imaginative piece that could see life beyond this performance.”  This praise is too faint-hearted.  Though Bjarnason is not nearly as iconoclastic as Varèse, (After all, what icons are left to smash these days?), Collider sat comfortably beside Amériques on this program, and deserves a place along side it in the orchestral repertoire.  I look forward to hearing it again.

The evening began with a pre-concert performance by the innovative quartet SŌ Percussion.  They played  instruments hey had assembled themselves. These seemed to resemble electrified hammer dulcimers, though some of the strings were very low, and the raucous booming bass during the loud passages did not sound at all like the delicate sweet tones of a hammer dulcimer.  These instruments were bowed or struck with various sizes sticks, the smallest of which looked like they might be pencils. Generally, each person played relatively simple part very precisely coordinated with the others, occasionally to build something that resembled a melody, but more often a complex, coherent texture.  The piece moved from one soundscape to another, often with the players changing implements, exploring the sonic possibilities of the instruments that they had created.  At one point, I began wondering whether they would ever let loose, and soon they did.  The raucous sound prompted  a few to leave the hall, but I was delighted.

So Percussion CSOThe SŌ Percussion was also featured on the first piece of the symphony concert: “Man Made”, a concerto for percussion quartet written by David Lang.  This piece has several sections, each with a different ensemble of percussion instruments.  The work begins with the percussionists snapping sticks to make the sound, dropping the broken implements on the floor. Later they moved to pitched instruments.   In the program notes, Lang describes the difficulties in marrying the approach of these inventive percussionists with the traditional orchestra. These problems he solves successfully: sometimes, the full orchestra plays a short note simultaneously, like one giant drum.  Unfortunately, Lang did not supply much inspiration.  SŌ Percussion did much better on their own, unencumbered by the orchestra or David Lang’s clever composition.

Also before the concert, Timo Andres gave a piano recital in the Cobett Tower.  I went upstairs after the SŌ Percussion piece ended, catching the end of a Schubert piece.  I was immediately struck by the beauty of the playing.  Andres followed this with an étude by Steve Reich, which was again very nicely played.  Andres ended with a piece of his own, which I found less engaging.

In the intermission, Lanzendorf played in the lobby.  Their style worked better for this purpose than Mina Tindle the previous night because their music (at least what I heard) is more atmospheric and ambient, with fewer details to get lost in the crowd noise and echo of the lobby.

Trio with CSO  For some in the audience, the main event was after intermission: the set of five songs from the series called “The Planets”, a collaboration by Sufjan Stevens on vocals, Bryce Dessner on guitar, and Nico Muhly on keyboard, accompanied by the orchestra.  I thought it was dull.

Far from dull was the concert finale: Amériques by Edgard Varèse. This modernist monument from the post World War I era is full of Varèse’s enthusiasm for the vitality of his newly adopted country and his fascination with machines.  I have heard it in concert several times before.  In one performance, the siren was frequently allowed to dominate, transforming the piece into a concerto for annoying siren and orchestra.  Although the siren was certainly prominent in some passages, Langrée is too refined to let it take over.  Under his direction, the orchestra was both well balanced and energetic. It was a thrilling conclusion to this fine concert.