It’s December 7, the height of the South African summer, and the excitement is palpable as the gates open at a warehouse-turned-music-venue in the popular tourist getaway of White River, Mpumalanga.
Concertgoers gravitate to the largest of three stages at the Route 40 Music Festival, as the drummer of the newly formed band Cosmic River counts off into a multi-tempo, cello-driven rock song with unique Middle Eastern influences. At the center of the stage sits the song’s original composer, 14-year-old Charlottesville native Carmen Day.
It has been less than 48 hours since the death of the iconic political leader, Nelson Mandela, but the throng of music lovers seem more interested in celebrating his legacy than mourning, and it has been announced that the concert will be dedicated to Mandela, a longtime supporter of the arts.
Colorful spotlights cut through the machine-generated fog to reveal the group, composed of Day and half a dozen students from the local Casterbridge Music Development Academy (CMDA). The unlikely international mash-up is one of several student bands born at Route 40, an event that is several months in the making and pairs talented young musicians from around the United States and South Africa through a songwriting contest.
Day saw the contest announcement posted at the Music Resource Center (MRC) in Charlottesville where she takes weekly lessons.
The CMDA is a children’s music school modeled heavily after the Music Resource Center, thanks to the influence of South African native and Charlottesville favorite Dave Matthews. In a transcontinental collaboration with several like-minded organizations, CMDA facilitated the Carnegie Hall/Rock School Scholarship/Casterbridge Music Development Academy Youth Songwriting Program. According to MRC Community Outreach Coordinator Terri Allard, the contest lined up with her organization’s mission statement. “The MRC has been inspiring and supporting young artists since 1995 by helping them learn to play instruments, write, sing, dance, and produce original music.”
This year’s songwriting competition was the first opportunity for students of both institutions to work together. “They were all really accepting and excited [that] we were coming from America,” Day said.
The road to White River began when Day picked up the cello, her primary instrument for four years, and “started plucking around.”
“I hadn’t really written anything serious before, but it just kind of fueled something,” said Day. “I was just so excited [about] getting into music more, and I just thought it was a great opportunity right in front of me.”
In time, a melody took shape around various poems Day had penned and she arranged a time to play the song for Allard, an accomplished musician and Day’s mentor for more than three years.
Allard had expected to suggest more changes, but was surprised to find little criticism necessary. “I was so impressed with her lyrics and melody, as well as with her unique arrangement on the cello,” she said. “It is a striking piece and when she performs it, your immediate response is simply, ‘Wow.’”
The only thing Day struggled with was putting a title on the song. “I’ve been thinking about it,” Day said. “But I just can’t find one because none of the lyrics repeat and it’s pulled from a bunch of different poems that all have different meanings.”
The song otherwise complete, Day took a Canon camera and filmed her performance at the MRC for submission, in hopes of becoming one of the six American finalists. And then she waited.
Day said, “I assumed I didn’t know the results because I wasn’t part of them—then I found out [I was selected] and it was just really unbelievable. It’s quite an honor!”
Nearly eight months and a 15-hour plane ride since first seeing the contest announcement, Day arrived in White River, where she joined five other teen musicians from the United States.
The finalists received a hearty welcome from the students of the CMDA, located four hours outside Johannesburg. “They were all really nice and really talented too,” Day said of her fellow finalists, ages 16 to 18. “They all had different personalities—some were really confident and others were still really shy. Everyone was really supportive of each other.”
Day’s own musical history stretches back to her fourth grade classroom at Walker Upper Elementary School where she settled on the school orchestra as an elective course. “I didn’t really want to take orchestra,” Day explained. “I wanted to take art, but they had people come and actually bring the instruments. This sounds really cheesy, but I felt drawn to the cello and I needed to play it.”
Together, Day and her assigned festival mates retooled her original submission to accommodate the instruments of the CMDA students. “It was composed mostly for a solo,” Day explained, “so we worked in different parts…because there were lots of guitars and bass.”
The resulting piece surprised even its composer. “It’s different,” said Day. “It’s more rock-y, more metal, more indie.”
According to Day, the festival organizers strongly emphasized collaboration, placing each of the American finalists in pre-formed bands of CMDA students. “Every day we’d be paired up with the other finalists and we’d have an hour or so to write a song,” she said.
The 12 student bands ultimately joined South African touring artists, including The Parlotones and Elvis Blue, for an unforgettable three days of music.
Now home from her one-of-a-kind journey, Day looks forward to a rewarding artistic career, perhaps with a few changes. “I’m not even sure I want to do music [long-term],” she said. “I might want to do photography, but [I’ll have] something to do with the arts.”
In a world of possibilities, Day’s aspirations bear a striking resemblance to her winning composition: untitled with room to grow.
~ Danielle Bricker