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South African concert pianist Petronel Malan is deep into a glittering career that’s seen her tour the world to play her music. Her work has been nominated for several Grammy awards and has been on top ten classical music lists around the globe. She regularly collaborates with the world’s top conductors. Malan’s drive to be the best remains undiminished. And it’s a passion she’s using to develop talent in Africa.
Petronel Malan has been a musical icon in South Africa for a long time. A child prodigy, she began playing piano in her home city of Pretoria when she was just four years old. At the age of 10, she debuted with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra.
She made her European debut in Rome in 1987. Numerous accolades followed, with a 12-year-old Malan winning her first international gold medal at the Third International Piano Competition in Sicily. Two years later, she was lauded as the “top South African pianist of her generation” when she became the youngest person ever to win the coveted SABC Music Prize in her homeland.
But it was Malan’s relocation to the United States that ultimately opened the world to her. In 1991, at age 15, she moved to Dallas, Texas, to further her career. She performed at prestigious international venues such as Carnegie Hall and launched her debut disc, Transfigured Bach. In 2004 she was nominated for three Grammy awards.
Lost African talent
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Malan, now 33, is undoubtedly one of the best classical musicians ever to emerge from Africa. But she bemoans the fact that much talent – talent that could possibly surpass hers – remains “hidden” on the continent, because of Africa’s widespread poverty and underdevelopment.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the talent is there (in Africa). (But lack of) the instruments would be a problem; the educators would be the problem,” she says.
Sadly, Malan adds, most countries in Africa have “more serious priorities” than to nurture classical musicians.
“There just aren’t strong foundations there to allow youngsters with great potential to develop. Other than in South Africa, there aren’t really good music schools or teachers,” she states.
Being a top classical musician demands “lifetime dedication,” says Malan. But in Africa, most people with musical talent are forced to abandon their skill in favor of mere survival.
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“If you, unfortunately in Africa, spend half your life trying to feed your family, if your basic need is food and shelter, classical music is probably not going to be high on your list and you won’t have time to practice as much as you should,” the pianist tells VOA.
Malan laments that classical music training is a “luxury” few Africans are able to afford, “and that’s why so many great African musicians – classical or not – just fall by the wayside.”
Congolese classical pianist
But on “odd occasions,” Malan says she does see “glimmers of hope” emerging from Africa, and other parts of the developing world.
“I’ve met a pianist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one time, and every once in a while you meet pianists from stranger locations. I’ve met a pianist from Nepal and one from Bali, once, I believe,” she says.
But Malan maintains that, at this stage, classical piano remains very much a “Western art, so it’s very rare to meet pianists from the developing world, other than South Africa, where infrastructure is just so much better than in most other African countries.”
In the United States, she’s friends with fellow South African classical musicians Anton Nel and Jeanne-Minette Cilliers.
“Anton and I are email buddies…. He tours a lot too,” Malan says. “So we can commiserate and empathize about airport delays and snowed out venues and things like that; he’s a sweetheart. I’m also very good friends with Jeanne…. She lives in New York – an amazing musician.”
Lots of South Africans
Malan says she’s “constantly amazed” at the number of South Africans she meets all over the world, with many studying at the best music schools.
“It’s funny how at many concerts I play, people come up to me and say, ‘Ek is Afrikaans (I am Afrikaans) and I speak Afrikaans.’ It’s wonderful,” she says.
Malan maintains that she feels “terribly African.” Even at home in Dallas, she says, she plants African flowers in her garden and experiments with traditional African food recipes.
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“I think I’m a true South African. I still travel on my South African passport – as difficult as that passport can be at times. I don’t think I’m just a transplanted South African,” she states emphatically. “I also go out of my way to defend my country and educate (people) about my country; I think that’s terribly important because people read one (negative) thing…and think that’s just how it is down there.”
Malan acknowledges that the country of her birth still has a “lot of problems” but finds it disconcerting that there are many misperceptions about South Africa in the international community.
“I go there four times a year. I’ve seen the (positive) changes over the past 15 years,” she says. Malan will not rule out a return to South Africa in the future.
“Every year when I go home to visit my parents, I usually do some guest teaching, and I enjoy that tremendously. Talk about a country with talent – there’s a lot of talent there,” she says.
“South African music students practice a lot; they’re dedicated. So it’s very satisfying to teach there. [Teaching music in South Africa is] not something I would rule out at all.”