A r t i s t i c...S t a t e m e n t s


170204 Spontaneous Creativity in an African Context I grew up as a white person in Apartheid South Africa, being trained as cellist and pianist in the Western Classical tradition. However, as a very young child, my first musical stimulation came from my father who played by ear with no musical training. I also spent my early years in the hills of Kwazulu Natal, surrounded by the spontaneous harmonized singing of the local black communities. While a student in philosophy and theology during the crisis years of the late eighties in Stellenbosch, the whole edifice of Eurocentric thinking came crushing down in me. This had a major impact on my musical career, which became based on spontaneous music making. To me, the notion of spontaneity goes deeper than what is referred to as "improvisation." Like traditional African music, the art form becomes a means to the end of human connectivity. What I would like to present in this session, is an interactive exploration of how we can come together as humans through sound, in a context where both Western Classicism and African traditionalism have been deconstructed. While we all retain a certain imprint of culture and conceptual paradigm, our challenge is to find means to evolve our thinking systems and art forms to not only reflect our times, but to connect the more sound roots of our common African heritage with the juggernaut of 21st century modernity. Spontaneous Creativity, as I present it, hopes to be one way of contributing to this existential process, both individually and collectively.
160120 Our story(s) as i know it (now) We both walked a path of being singled out as very gifted, often landing in positions and moments of great promise, but eventually finding ourselves at an existential sort of dead-end. My background is in music, Joke's in theatre. My father stimulated me in the direction of spontaneous expression, before my mother (a trained pianist and music teacher) took me under her formal wing to "learn the notes." I walked this parallel line - between piano and cello lessons, orchestra playing and formal composition, and improvisation, which i utilized being a church organist since age ten - all through my formative years in Johannesburg. Joke made theatre plays for her siblings as a child and excelled in various creative activities during her schooling in Kortrijk, Belgium, always relying on a good dose of direct expression and improvisation. My "dead-end" came after theological and music studies in Stellenbosch, as my creative breathing space in the formal environments dried up, and hers, after struggling to find room for her deeper feelings both in theatre school at Maastricht and having run her own theatre company in Antwerp for some years. I came through in 1992 by plunging myself on stage with raw improvised music performances and she threw herself into semi-autobiographical writing, while we both sustained other mediums of expression, including dancing and visual art. After almost a decade of hitch-hiking and street performances, plus another decade of being the "HA!Man," making use of electronics to become a kind of continent marauding one-man band, and after Joke spent six years working for a bookshop while producing a small mountain of writings in her free time, we met. Within two years, Joke left Antwerp to join me on the "HA! road" as I entered a new phase of growing a full-on collaboration with her.

But what is HA!? HA! is HA! for a lack of any better description. How can i explain the moment of being creative? How can i define something that needs the nothing to be born? How can i package a performance that has no plan, no preconceived theme, a performance that in fact relies on NOT knowing what lies ahead? HA! So we enter the stage, each time with a lifetime of real and artistic experience; we enter with rich inner worlds and deep musical, poetic and dramatic languages; I also enter with a whole library of electronic accompaniments that shoots forth orchestral, band, ethnic, ensemble and experimental styles and textures and so does Joke enter with her library of writings, characters and thematic material to dip into. But it is only with the act of being on stage on strength of carrying an urge to share with an audience, that we decide, or rather feel, what it is that we will do, moment by moment, item by item, show by show. We die and get born each time we perform. As our collaboration is in process, i still carry the bulk of the performance, with the cello at the heart of it. I have played the cello for over fourty years. I stroke it, slap it, caress it and fire it up. When it becomes too small for me, i dance. Or i go over to the keyboard. Or i play both at the same time. Or i grab little flutes or go off about some human issue lying close to my heart. At times, Joke will enter. She might read a poem, tell a story, but mostly she waits for a sound from me and then find herself creating song-like poetry - in English, French or Dutch - on anything from her most intense feelings to global warming to a blind man taking a bus to nowhere, in direct flow with me, not missing one word. (Yes, WITH me, as I go along WITH her, adding this magical interactive dimension neither of us can ever offer by ourselves). Each performance becomes a journey made unique and memorable by the specific setting (whether a garden, living room, theatre or large concert hall), the people attending and one of the many hosts around the world who makes it all happening.

Needless to say, we have no managers or agents. We share, people come forward with ideas and invitations, we communicate, relationships grow. Every year we tour South Africa twice (Feb-March, Aug-Sept), Europe during April-May and North America during Oct-Nov. This cycle is an evolving story in itself, keeping us close to the ground, stimulating the sources of our creativity. Oh yes, we also came together in eating mostly raw food.. and our creative products - cds, dvds, books and other things - come without artificial colouring and preservatives. We carry all we need to live and perform where we go and from 2017 we will be based close to nature, near a town called Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape (which is close to Hogsback, where i was previously based for nine years). Apart from performances, i am still active in giving workshops in Spontaneous Creativity, where the HA! and the NOT-knowing is thrown on anyone - from toddlers to the elderly, from high-end music students to the disabled. I also love visiting schools, where i am "allowed" to be the HA!Man for real, losing my mind in order to find it again, blowing ruffling and inspiring winds of HA! energy from assembly to assembly. (How many schools have i been to? From the Leysin American School in the Swiss Alps, to Bokoro School in the Lesotho Drakensberg - and all the plains in between!) And finally, we both are keen collaborators when meeting fellow artists with kindred spirits - whether at the Center Studios in Los Angeles or in a dusty hall in Rhini township outside of Grahamstown, not to mention my own predilection to work with choirs and orchestras. Play play play! The future from here is as open and as grounded as a HA! moment. We are ready for it. In humble thanks to all - family, friends, hosts and audience members - that keep the conversation, and our journey, alive. For more, visit hamanworld.com and hamanworld.com/jokedebaere.

141203 Life overview from cellist point of view I started taking cello lessons in Johannesburg at the age of 7. My teacher was Andre Leichner, a Hungarian Jew who came to South Africa after the second world war. During my school years, i regularly participated in Eisteddfods and completed the whole series of cello examinations through the University of South Africa, all with constant high grades. After the final examination, aged 16, i was selected to compete for a bursary to take on further cello studies in Europe. However, on the basis of an interview after the performance, i was told that while i could have received the top bursary, i did not provide them with enough confidence that i wanted to dedicate my professional career to playing the cello. They withheld it from me.

My school years also saw me performing as cellist as well as soloist with a number of youth orchestras.

Indeed, at the time i was not bent on making music my career. After school i completed two years of compulsory military service, during which time i hardly played the cello, except for being allowed to briefly join a string ensemble as leading cellist, going on a concert tour to Austria. I then went on to study to become a church minister, doing a BA degree in theology and philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch. Here i joined the university string ensemble, making concert tours to Italy and Hungary. This was also the time that i finally decided to make music my career, starting a B Mus degree through UNISA while living in Cape Town. But after two years of this i ran out of energy. I dropped the degree and threw myself into cello playing. After two months of practising eight hours a day, i realized however that i will kill my creative side continuing this way. (My creative side came to life before i took my first piano lessons from my mother at age five, as by then i already improvised and formed short pieces on the piano - thanks to my father's example, who played by ear and was never trained. I also took composition lessons during my school years).

I therefore thought that i should become a full time composer rather. Again, after two months i knew i would go crazy working so abstractedly through my mind all the time. This left me as a failure in both divinity and the arts, an existential dead-end that lasted for an agonizing year.

Finally something bolted in me: i want to walk onto stage and just play! No preparation. Just play. In this way, i would be able to combine my performing and creative abilities and do something that speaks to my existence as a whole. I spent my last savings on organizing a series of fully improvised piano recitals in and around Cape Town. turned out I hardly had an audience for this. Someone suggested i play cello on the streets to earn some money. This i did, and so my journey as an improvising cellist started. Here there was no established audience, no known genre, no accolades, no formal recognition, only the hearts and minds of people being moved in a direct way.

For eight years i survived mainly from improvising with the cello on the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg. Then, in the year 2000 i started building a stage setup of electronic accompaniments and amplification, giving performances and workshops in all sorts of venues, still driven by personal networking, the direct inspirations of of all sorts of people moved by the experience. The performances grew to be about more than music, as my creativity spilled over from the musical into the theatrical, visual and physical, as did my cello playing spill over onto the keyboard or piano, flutes and other found objects. As a result of this lack of definition, I took on the stage name of "the HA!Man."

Nevertheless, the stream of connections and opportunities kept growing over four continents and four years ago brought me to a life partner (Joke Debaere) who herself gravitated towards spontaneous expression as a core competency. With her word-art and acting, a life-long adventure of creativity in the moment lies ahead.

140716 personal statement i am not quite sure what to say here. the idea of a "personal" statement arose when Joke was wondering how do i write a CV about myself in the THIRD person. and of course, one does that firstly because you are not owned by a manager or agent who would do that for you and secondly because that is the going style regards CV's and "bio's." i have never opened a programme at a performance or concert or show with the cast or performers introduced in the first person. that would seem school-ish..

and yet, Joke does have a point. the moment you write in the third person about yourself, you become more objective in your own eyes, and being more of an object, you can manipulate yourself more (mani-handle). moreover, you LOOK at yourself, and so, you focus more on image rather than being. and :thus: enters the whole dynamic of image building, to the point today where image is more than substance, where those who can create the best image are those who succeed more. artists even go to the point of "branding" themselves, corporate style, where the brand becomes more than the content. people are lured (and locked) into buying brands, not products.

perhaps this point already says something about my personal journey in the arts (or on the fringe of it). i lost all Francois-"branding" at an early stage in my life (i'll get to the "HA!Man" image later). losing so much of what i have been brought up with during the time of South Africa's dismantling (and renovation), i was left with only this one inner drive: to make music on stage "with nothing," meaning, of course, that i enter that space with no conscious idea or plan or prescription what to express. that threw me immediately into the problem of definition. what do you call something that has nothing as its basis? (that problem - or opportunity - persists to this day)

my first take on it was to slim it down to just my name - "francois." no surname or extras. so my first ever improvised performances were called: "francois on piano." because, at least, "nothing" did not mean that i was not present, or that there was no instrument on stage.

what drove me to this? part of it was a real conviction that something (especially in the West) has gone wrong regards the relationship between one's inside and the external world. broadly speaking, this "wrongness" can be called Dualism. in my understanding, dualism means disconnection. what goes on inside is disconnected from what goes on outside. in a way, a performance, to me, should also partly be a "personal statement," in order to transcend this problem of duality.

when i go onstage to perform a composer's music, i am primarily dedicated to express his or her subjectivity (inspiration, creative output). there is therefore a split at work: i do the "objective" work and the composer the subjective work. one could say, yes, but there is a beautiful complimentary relationship at work between composer and performer (and overlaps too). but that did not go far enough for my own experience of what it is to be whole, to be healed. duality and healing does not go along, as the whole suffers from duality. as an artist, i wanted to be more whole. i needed to be. like the country around me, without an act of reconciliation, i would have fallen apart.

and that condition remains to this day. i want to experience a certain whole when i enter the stage. and to me, this being whole means that my inside wants to breathe as much as my outside. the content and substance i carry within me, needs to be presented as much as the way i act an look from the outside. my image, therefore, can only remains on the surface. and my branding (the HA!Man), can only remain a sticker.

there is the old strategy of "divide and rule." the truth of this is, that once you can divide a community or a body, it becomes weaker, which makes it possible for someone or some entity to exploit it. our cultural condition of dualism (yes, i believe we have hardly moved away from it) weakens us. basically , we are still in a position where there is a split between those with power and the masses. we do not have slavery or a dominant church or absolute monarchies anymore. but we have the "have's" and the "have-nots." money is the currency (or language) that divides us more sharply than ever, right to the heart of the arts.

it is my personal "statement" that i would like to represent a shift away from this. i would like to contribute to healing through my creativity. yes, therapeutic healing too, but especially a healing of self-understanding and experience.

if i walk on stage, and start with "nothing," i experience a sense of being whole that i would not like to exchange for all the money in the world. this whole, this healing, gave me my life back. i am on stage ALSO as francois. when i act as an artist, i do not become a style or a brand or a "name." i am, just as the audience, fully human. the only thing that distinguishes me from them, on a basic level, is that SPACE that i enter, a space where i can be seen more than i can see them. it concentrates me. it exposes me. it focuses me so that whatever i breathe or sound, is amplified. it is that amplification that shapes my expressions and my being as an artist. for it brings along with it the responsibility to communicate. with out communication, the link between audience and artist will fall away. and the stage (that SPACE) will be no stage anymore.

more than anything physical, it is the AUDIENCE that creates the stage, by their decision to focus on it collectively.

being an artist, to me, is primarily a form of human relating. all the skill and knowledge and talent and brilliance - or not - are only means by which the relationship is enhanced and facilitated. it STARTS with the relationship. not with the art FORM.

i called myself the HA!Man, simply to have a "sticker" by which i can be recognized. HA! is in a way a humble little word (or non-word) trying to express something of that wholeness i experience on stage. through years of experimenting, i could not settle on any RATIONAL term to describe or "label" what i do. the very point of this wholeness, is that rationality loses its pre-eminence. it is the dominance of Mind that lies at the root of our cultural Duality. going on stage with nothing (with HA!), especially means that the mind rests itself to become just another PART of the whole, and not the starting point. that is why any IDEAS need to come and go, and not be relied on, as they put the mind in the forefront. the same goes for MEMORY and PLAN.

we have become so mind-reliant (which also gives us the false sense that we have something that animals and the rest of life do not have) that our other dimensions have lost the ability to show us how shallow the mind's ecstasies really are (not bad, just shallow).

in any event, it starts with me. this sense of being creatively alive gives me so much fulfilment, that i could fill a lifetime with it. as long as there is an audience completing the communication.