I looked at my watch, having just finished eating my third meal on the same flight. I said to myself, “only three hours left until we land.” The twenty-hour journey to South Africa certainly provided me with ample time to finish Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, before landing. As I read I underlined this statement,
“Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” (Mandela 1994)
I was curious how a man who was imprisoned for 27 years could still find compassion for those who put him there. As we arrived in Cape Town, thanks to the NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship, I set out to learn more about Mandela but also to broaden my perspective. Little did I know that my life and teaching would change forever. During our stay we toured numerous landmarks, schools, communities, and museums. It is difficult to put into words the utter beauty of the landscape but also the pain and destruction caused by apartheid. Tracing Nelson Mandela's life beginning with his upbringing in Johnnesburg where he became a lawyer, to the Liliesleaf Farm where he met secretively for years with members of the ANC (African National Congress) as they planned the overthrow of the apartheid government, to the Rivonia Treason Trials that ultimately sent him to jail for 27 years. To listen to Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela's prison guard, describe his friendship with Mandela and describe how his leadership impacted not only South Africa, but he world was stunning.
On our way back to the airport our tour guide, a resident of South Africa, said to us, "Some day you will know what to do with the things you learned from this visit here. You will find a way to tell our story and to share with others the beauty of our people." After nearly five years, this is my answer -- a commission paying tribute to the life and work of Nelson Mandela. I'm grateful to the NEA Foundation for providing me with this extraordinary experience, to Kelijah Dunton for accepting this challenge and sharing with us his courage and creativity, and to Anne Vanderbloemen and the Glacier Creek Middle School Band and Choir for the upcoming World Premiere on May 30, 2023 in Cross Plains, Wisconsin.
To put it simply.. Music Saved My Life. Growing up in inner NYC, I was the kid who never had much. I lived with my father in a basement with no windows. Everything I wore was either "hand-me-downs" or counterfeit. I was the weird kid that loved anime and read comic books. I was a bit of a loner that always felt misunderstood and detached. The reason why I'm telling you all of this is because I was lucky enough to find a small light in my childhood chapters of darkness & loneliness... Fast forward to my first day of high school, .. my anxiety sky high, my social skills,.. non existent. So there I am in the cafeteria on my first day. I see this well dressed man coming up to me. I figured he must be a teacher so I made eye contact lol. It was the band director of the school I was now attending and he asked me to join his band program. In my head, I say... "bAnD?!" "You want me to be in a rock band?" ... I don't think I really look the part LOL. But I couldn't help but notice the other kids around me were signing up, so I said what the hell,.. not thinking anything of it. I finally get 4th period band on my schedule and I'm nervous because I don't know what to expect. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. But I go anyway. I feel like my band experience from highschool changed my life in so many ways. Like I said, before this, I was a loner. A nerd, a weirdo,.. or at least that's what everyone told me.. including my own family. So it goes without saying,.. I was filled with resentment at an early age. What happens when you mix resentment with the raging hormones of puberty? Nothing good lol .. NOTHING. So I was smart enough to know that I needed a change of pace and band was my way out. I knew that it was one of my only ways to create friendships, find myself, and build my self esteem. I met all kinds of people there that I still cherish to this day and I'm especially grateful to that man I met in the cafeteria that day. I know what I could've been... who I could've been, ...and where I could've been. My real passion and goal in life is show other young men & women like me that there are so many other ways out of that dark place we were raised into. Through music, I want to help us all rise out of the pain we had to endure as kids. I want to help save young peoples lives by setting an example of what's possible for an inner city kid like myself. If I could sum up my appreciation for this community in just a few words, it would be,.. YOU , yes, YOU ALL saved my life. Thank you.. - Kelijah
Host School Selected!
Congratulations to Anne Vanderbloemen and the Glacier Creek Middle School Band and Choir on their selection as the world premiere ensemble for Kelijah Dunton's new work celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. The performance of this new commission will take place on Tuesday, May 30 at 7:00 pm. More details to come!
Kelijah Dunton Video Interview (Student Questions) - Dec 20, 2022
May 30 - Kelijah will fly to Wisconsin to work with the Glacier Creek Middle School Band & Choir during the day and then be in attendance for the World Premiere Performance of the new composition that evening at 7:00 PM
May 31 - All of the bands attending the Beyond The Notes Music Festival will receive a complimentary copy of the new composition!