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There’s luck and then there’s serendipity. The latter was singer Melanie Scholtz’s fortune when she encountered poet James Matthews on a random day three years ago. The result is the amazing collaborative album Freedom’s Child: Melanie Scholtz Sings James Matthews, writes Helen Herimbi.
The first time Melanie Scholtz became aware of the work of veteran South African poet James Matthews was when her father, a teacher, taught it as a setwork.
“The first James Matthews poem I was introduced to was The Face of My Mother. It only had 10 lines, but it was so powerful.” She closes her eyes.
The lights in Artscape Theatre’s Arena dim and a handful of lamps on the stage become the only source of light as Mark Fransman plays a sombre tune on the keyboard.
The occasion is the launch of Scholtz’s fourth album, Freedom’s Child: Melanie Scholtz Sings James Matthews.
As the title suggests, it is a collection of selected Matthews poems set to song. Matthews’ Freedom’s Child poem appeared in the Cry Rage anthology (1972), which was banned by the government.
Of the 11-track album, Scholtz says: “I really tried to write compositions across the board from all his anthologies. I’d have to write 10 or 15 albums if I had to mind every poem he’s written since 1972.”
Scholtz stands in the middle of the stage with a set that’s made to look like a homely lounge, then looks at Matthews, who delivers spoken word from a red pelican chair during the performance and says: “I wish I could be like that at 84. Mr Matthews is 84 years young.”
To which Matthews pumps his fist in the air and laughs.
After that, the band, which recorded the album with Scholtz and consists of Fransman (producer and piano), Kevin Gibson (drums), Brydon Bolton (double bass) and Ronan Skillen (percussion), accompany her on I’m Slowly Becoming Accustomed to the Changing Patterns of My Face.
Before this 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist For Jazz could ask Fransman to produce the album, she had to have that serendipitous encounter that came many years after Scholtz read The Face of My Mother.
Scholtz, recalling an afternoon walking along St George’s Mall in Cape Town, says: “Everyone who knows me knows that I’m always on my phone, and about three years ago I was talking to a friend on the phone about how I wanted to collaborate with a poet for my next album.
“Then I see in front of me what appears to be James from the back. Dreadlocks poking out of a beret, and that satchel.”
Scholtz spoke to Matthews about her idea as they walked to Long Street, where the multi-award-winning Matthews, who has published eight anthologies and a novel (from 1972 to 2008), was headed to drop off books.
The singer says that right there, in the street, the poet took a flower out of his satchel, handed it to her and said: “I’m flushed with the lushness of love.”
“I was like, whaaat,” she blushes, “now Long Street will never be the same again.”
Scholtz, who says working on this project with Matthews has made her a better person, isn’t the only one who is taken with Matthews.
In the Arena, there is a strong sense of admiration for the respected poet. Someone in the audience screams “love you, James”, and he guffaws. Scholtz chimes in, “I love him too”.
At the end of the performance, Artscape Theatre’s director of audience development and education, Marlene le Roux, takes the mic.
“We want to celebrate our icons while they are still alive.” She looks at Matthews. “So we want to honour and celebrate you. Thank you, Melanie, that as a young artist you’ve seen it fit to say you under-stand and that you’ve put it into music. Mr Matthews, your books will live on for generations to come.”
• Freedom’s Child: Melanie Scholtz Sings James Matthews is available online at www.freedomschild.co.za.