BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — During the first two weeks of June, a group of more than 40 high school music and theater students and faculty members from the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) traveled to Namibia to perform with a Namibian pop star.
“Gazza Goes Symphonic: A Concert of Hope” was a two-night, sold out performance. It brought together the talents of ASFA Music Department Chair and global conductor Alex Fokkens, the Namibian National Symphony Orchestra and Namibia’s most famous pop star, Lazarus Shiimi, better known as Gazza. The concert also featured guest soloist, Billboard #1 Jazz Flutist and ASFA Director of Student Support Services Kim Scott, accompanied by community choirs in Namibia.
The idea for this unique collaboration came about when Fokkens and ASFA Theatre Arts Chair John Manzelli bonded over their ties to Namibian music and theater. Fokkens was born in South Africa, while Manzelli had done a sabbatical there as a professor. Together, they set out to connect ASFA with Namibian artists.
While ASFA students receive professional training and therefore due compensation for their work, they soon realized that the same was not true for their collaborators.
The 60-person Namibian National Symphony are all volunteers and Gaza does not receive the financial support there that he would in Europe and the U.S., ASFA said. Their solution: a concert to raise awareness about the value of these artists and a further awareness of the arts as a whole.
“Creative thinking has always been the epitome of any thriving nation,” Gazza said in a press release. “Therefore, arts should be recognized as an industry not only for what it can give but also for what it can receive and to be recognized as an equal contributor to any GDP and a creator of employment. With good structure and mechanisms in place, the young can thrive.”
In lieu of this goal, every artist involved volunteered their time. While in Namibia, students regularly attended rehearsals alongside the professional symphony and professional 40-person choir in preparation for the concert.
The finished product explored melding contemporary Namibian music with classical music, which had never been done on this scale before, ASFA said.
“We got the chance to teach students that art is something bigger than ourselves,” Manzelli said. “Students left Namibia with a better understanding of why we do what we do. And they connected to other artists in the world who think and create like them.”
While in Namibia, theater students performed in a showcase alongside professional Namibian actors. The showcase, “SAY WHAT: An Evening of Monologues and Musical Theatre Performances,” was led by the former head of the National Theatre of Namibia, Senga Brockerhoff. ASFA said it was the first major theatrical production produced in the country since COVID.
“This collaboration was not only important in supporting us in creating public theater events in a suffering and dormant industry but also for cross-cultural connection and sharing,” Brockerhoff said. “The Namibian theater industry is inspired by the huge talent of these young (ASFA) students.”