WRITTEN ON A PIECE of tape and stuck to the floor near my feet were the words "Rock School." No doubt, it was left over from the last session of the VERA Project's informal recording and songwriting academy that ended in late August, but the idea still applied this past Friday night, Sept. 10. Ten members of the award-winning Walmer High School Choir from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, were sound checking, and in about two hours, they would be joined onstage by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Rock School, indeed.
Molo Care, a Seattle-based partnership between members of the University of Washington College of Education faculty and school leaders and instructors from Port Elizabeth, was responsible for the choir being in Seattle; after five years of dialogue between the educators, it was time to get the students involved. Friday was the first time that the kids, who are all from impoverished villages, performed for a predominately white audience. In fact, this trip marked the first time any of them had boarded a plane. It was their first time performing and recording with an internationally known rock star, too—though because they don't have electricity in their homes, much less MTV, they had never even heard of Pearl Jam until this trip was arranged.
"We want to create a window," Walmer Headmaster Lunga Dyani told me as we listened to the kids prepare for their set. UW's Ed Taylor further explained that the mission of Molo Care is not to hand out Band-Aids. Although Molo Care does provide scholarship money for families that cannot afford school fees, they are equally, if not more, concerned with creating a cross-cultural community based on professional, yet personal, friendships—an ongoing conversation centered on democracy and education.
"You help to raise money for something or work on death-penalty issues, and you get used to not seeing the end-all," said Vedder, who had spent the days prior to the performance at his bandmate Stone Gossard's studio, where he and the choir recorded and practiced three Pearl Jam songs that the students had created new arrangements for. "But three hours into the recording session, the kids were dancing on tables, having a really good time. It was just amazing—they know the pure joy of music."
IT'S FAIR TO SAY that the students—most of whom will enter 11th grade upon returning to South Africa—experienced a fair share of the jitters, but they were visibly elated as they took the stage once Vedder warmed up the room with a few old songs and a rousing anti-Bush rant. Singing folk songs in Khosa, the language of most South Africans in Port Elizabeth, the choir members accompanied themselves beautifully by shuffling and stomping their sandaled feet. Typically, the two sopranos would begin with a line that the rest of the choir would repeat and circulate and stem off from; the songs, apart from being utterly gorgeous, were similar to three-part rounds but almost completely foreign and unfamiliar otherwise. A girl in the middle was especially ebullient; as she sang, danced, and stomped her feet, her fingers snapped out the rhythm and her face shone brightly. Given that the students' rich vocals and textured musical abilities—South Africa has a deep choral vocal tradition—aren't consistent with Western music's quarter notes and rhythm structures, and that they're strangers to American rock and pop, it was especially exciting to hear what they had done with Pearl Jam's "Better Man."
In most of their collaborations with Vedder, the choir sang in Khosa, but when they joined Vedder and his acoustic guitar for the final refrain of the 1994 hit, they sang in crisp English, "She loved him, yeah/She don't want to leave this way/She feeds him, yeah/That's why she'll be back again"; their diction and tone imbued the words with deeper meaning than they'd previously had. Vedder said he wrote the song when he was about the same age as the Walmer students and has played it thousands of times since, but that the South African teenagers gave it an entirely new sound. I asked if he would play it any differently from here on, and he answered that maybe Pearl Jam should just retire it; they could never match the energy and purity that the choir gave it.
As of yet, there aren't any plans to release the songs that Vedder and the choir recorded together, but it's certainly worth noting that when the kids heard the playback from the sessions, it was the first time they had heard their voices on tape. I imagine they were quite impressed.
"They will learn that they are good," Dyani said, summing up his central hope for the trip.
Watching the show and the knowing smiles exchanged onstage, I have few doubts that the new friendships will grow and continue. Besides, Vedder, an avid surfer, told me that he had researched Port Elizabeth and found that the beach nearby has excellent waves.
Pearl Jam play a No Vote Left Behind benefit with Smoosh and DJ Cherry Canoe at the Showbox, 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 24. 18-plus. Sold out.