- Published on Saturday, 11 August 2012 03:27
- Written by IMAN MANI
- Hits: 739
HAVING the opportunity to witness a short performance and presentation of the professional pianist Malcolm Braff, while he was on a visit here, is worth sharing with others.
He was in the country until Tuesday evening, as a guest of the Swiss Embassy, to help establish a project that would provide more opportunities for local musicians to express themselves and get audiences.
While in the country, he performed twice in Dar es Salaam, presented a paper at the Sixth Ethnomusicology Symposium, at the University of Dar es Salaam and gave a concert in Zanzibar, during his eight-day stay before flying back home to a small city, about four miles from Geneva in Switzerland called Vevey.
It should be stated from the offset that this fully bearded man was actually born in Brazil, the first of three children for a missionary father of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and a school teacher mother. He is followed by a sister, who is a specialised educator for problem children and a younger brother, who is a professional guitarist.
During one of the three conversations the ‘Daily News on Saturday’ had with Malcolm, as he is called by all those found around him, he spoke about being told by his parents that when he was one and a half years of age, before his siblings’ birth, the family had moved to Cape Verde, where they stayed for two years before setting-off again this time for Dakar, Senegal, from where he has his earliest memories.
His father had finished his Theology studies in France before Malcolm was born. Now this became one of the criterions used, which got the family moving to Switzerland when he was 13 years of age. At this time his parents thought him and his younger siblings should have a European education.
Now it was the Church institution in Switzerland that had arranged for his father’s studies in Europe and his being stationed to Senegal, so he asked for a transfer and they sent him to Switzerland, where they were based. Malcolm spoke of having pleasant memories of his initial view of Switzerland, although until today Senegal remains part of his memories and he tries to keep up with happens there as much as possible.
With reference to the move to Switzerland, he spoke of it always being very interesting for a child to get in touch with new plants, trees, animals and everything that they would find when moving to another place, as was the case for him and siblings in the European country, which had snow.
“I hadn’t seen snow in my whole life; so it was very exciting. And then off-course there was a culture shock because you have to adapt to manners and ways of behaving that are different from what you’re used to and this needs some time before you kind-of integrate yourself. But as a kid, I think you have a big potential of adapting yourself to new situations. It’s not been easy but I can say it has been very interesting,” he admitted.
Growing-up, as a white child in Senegal he explained meant developing an identity of being a foreigner there. So when he went to Switzerland this distinctiveness remained. Coming from Senegal meant he had different cultural traits to those there in the new country, which he had to become accustomed to.
It turned out that even though he was now in another country with different people and things, the image he had of himself, as being a foreigner continued. This feeling, he now says, remained with him until nine years ago, when he went on a sort of pilgrimage in a place called Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. This is a famous place in Europe where people go for pilgrimages.
However, he maintains, “I was not going there for religious purposes but I needed some time to think about myself and to focus back and so on. I did this trip walking about 2500 kilometres and sleeping in the woods by myself. So this was a very personal retreat experience, where by actually walking on the ground amongst those plants and sleeping in the woods, I sort of integrated myself in that land. I have a feeling now that I belonged to everything and everybody.”
This is why he now says that wherever he is, he feels at home and no longer a foreigner. As to how he started to play the piano, he told the ‘Daily News on Saturday’ that his mother told him that from when he was very young he kept on bothering them that he wanted to play this instrument.
So when he was about five years old they found a piano teacher in Dakar, who taught him and another place where there was a piano that she took him to daily, so as to get practical practice on the instrument. Today his earliest memories contain images of him playing the piano but he cannot remember exactly when he started. However, he is clear of it’s’ role in his life.
“I meditate when playing the piano and connect to the very now. I get in some kind of trance-like state, for lack of a better word and keep learning a lot. For me it’s a tool to learn about myself and maybe the world and more than that practice is like some kind of yoga or martial arts. I don’t know, where or how but through this practice I am able to put myself into a certain state of mind or brain-wave, so this is what I get from playing,” he said in a very serious and explicit tone.
He immediately goes on to say that he admits actually getting many things from playing the piano, including a living and a satisfaction when people tell him that they like what he is doing on the instrument. However, he maintains that the main thing, which keeps him wanting to play, is this personal satisfaction and meditative state of being, when he is actually playing.
Although a professional pianist today, he likes to play other instruments, like the drums, percussions, trumpet, guitar and bass but he only performs using the piano. The reason for delving on the other instruments is to help him know how something works when he has to compose and play with other musicians.
When he performs it’s strictly piano. He refers to his move from classical music to Jazz as an accident and his feeling about the genre as being “love at first sight,” which happened when he was about 18 and 19 years of age.
However, he maintains that he has always been improvising, even when he was only playing straight western classical music. But after seeing his first Jazz concert he could see that those musicians were improvising, having fun and communicating while doing it. This to him seemed more valuable than him playing classical music by himself.
This first experience of Jazz to him was an expression, which had value, a lot of freedom and something he can’t put into words. He loved playing Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederic Francois Chopin but has always had a special love for those moments when he would break away from the written score and get into his own improvisation.
Maybe the magic got from that first exposure to the Jazz group then had something to do with the Australian band being called “The Wizard of Oz”. Whatever the case, it has had a lasting affect on Malcolm, who is now married to an indigenous Swiss teacher, who takes care of children that have family or skill problems.
The couple have three children: two daughters and a young son. That is a 17-year old daughter and her younger sister by two years and their seven year-old brother. All three play a little music but not as intensely as he did when he was their age. This suites Malcolm just fine he says, because he doesn’t want to put any pressure on them.
“I think a person should do music as a main activity only if one is 100 per cent fascinated by it because otherwise it’s a tuff job. It’s hard to earn your living from it, there’s no security really and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. If any of my children want to do that, for me it’s fine but I decided not to really push them. But they listen to lots of music and like to play the guitar and piano and are teenagers enjoying their teenage life,” he said.
His last album release, “Inside” came out last October and makes a list of about 20 to his name so far. Music for him, he says is to be played and not to be heard. Most of his compositions are instrumental because he feels there is more freedom in this. Today, apart from playing music he is a board-game designer, for which he runs a publishing company.
He is also a trained Reflexologyst and enjoys walking in the mountains and remains curious about everything. In no way does he restrict his relations to the world any more in terms of strictly music. In contrast to this he talked about having won an award when he was a six-and-a-half year old, from the then President of Senegal Leopold Sedar Senghor for his presentation, which indicated that from the very beginning of his life he has been used to being applaud for playing the piano.
This he says is very dangerous because a person can get confused and think that what they are is a piano player and not a human being, who is producing the music along with the instrument. It took him many years, up to when he was an adult, to realise that he is not only a musician but music is something he does with passion, love and probably talent as well.
The fact that he spends a lot of his time playing music does mean that this is what he is. Getting this realisation opened-up a wide range of realities to him, so he allowed himself to savour other things. He admits then being aware that prior to this he might have been restricting himself to the image he had of himself. This he tried explaining further.
“You know sometimes you have this image of yourself that is much dependant on the role you’re playing. It’s a role playing game. What you really are is not that. You are really just a human being, who meets with other human beings to do what you do, in my case play music,” he proposed.
On another scale Malcolm considers himself a family man, in the sense that he likes being around his children and his wife. That is why every time he could travel with one or all of them when going to play, he always does. A few years ago he was involved with a big project in north India for a few months, recording and touring.
He had got permission from his children’s school to take them with him and his wife had taken some time off work for the purpose of being with them. Malcolm maintains that he loves seeing how his children are growing and collecting experiences along the way. This he finds beautiful to watch when he can, so any chance for them to be together is something he grabs without hesitation.