But it's not just the club-hopping nighttime sessions that are a draw (though many of the students admit that they're a highlight of the program). Daytime speakers for this first session range from little known techno artists like British broken-beat guru Seiji to near-household names like Bob Moog, the creator of the now-ubiquitous Moog synthesizer. Also in the lineup: sampler pioneer Steinski; the German songwriter Patrice, who discusses "real" vs. "electronic" instrumentation; and reggae producer Clive Chin, who gives a history lesson on the genre.
There's also an on-site radio station that broadcasts throughout Cape Town, with every student and most presenters given a musically open-ended broadcasting slot. The station's opening night is a champagne-fueled affair spun by New York producer Jneiro Jarel, who opts for mostly underground West Coast hip-hop. Throughout the session, the station can be overheard in traffic and blaring from tenement windows -- a testament to the word-of-mouth nature of the workshop itself, and a perfect example of the academy's attempt to reach out to Cape Town's active music community.
Like many of the academy's students, Jarel says that one of the program's highlights was a community-driven session called the Party in the Park. A brainchild of the academy's organizers and hip-hop DJ Ready D, a well-respected local spinner, the event takes place in a park in Mitchell's Plain, a low-income township known for both pre- and post-apartheid gang violence. The students pass miles of aluminum shantytown suburbs on the way to the park, a far cry from the European-style villas in which they're housed in downtown Cape Town. They arrive at a graffiti-covered, barb-wired wall and a weeded park the size of a soccer field, with a solitary blue tent housing Ready D surrounded by perhaps 50 local kids.
On the outskirts of the park, a team is whitewashing a brick wall that faces the spotted grass. There's a skeletal half-finished building the size of a city block on the opposite corner, its exposed steel glistening against the noon sun. A man who appears to be in his late 20s stands on top of a building above the tent; it's not clear whether he's standing guard or getting ready to pounce.
But as the DJs arrive, a curious thing happens. Plastic sheets are placed on the ground, and some of the kids who were watching Ready D spin take turns break-dancing in the middle of the park. As academy DJs stand behind the turntables, outstretched arms seek free Red Bulls -- and the DJs' autographs. Eventually, the park fills up with parents and grandparents and teenagers and kids. Dreadlocked Rastas sit in a circle passing a pipe, nodding their heads in time with the beat. The township's gangsters make their presence known, but nonviolently; they stand by cars and walls, glaring but never making a move.
Freestyle King's big day
The day's kicker comes in the form of an "8 Mile"-style rap battle. When Jarel grabs the mike, it seems that he'll be the hands-down favorite. But he's quickly upstaged by a number of South Africans, the most impressive a 15-year-old named Elroy who prefers his stage moniker: the Freestyle King. Heavily influenced by Eminem in everything from his flow to the hoodie pulled down over his eyes, he knocks down competitors in English and Afrikaans, his jabs both high-brow and below the belt. After the King wins, Jarel approaches him with congratulations -- and an invitation to join him in the academy studio later in the week.
The promised session between Jarel and the Freestyle King, unfortunately, doesn't materialize (Elroy's classes conflict with Jarel's schedule, despite attempts to rearrange). It becomes the great regret of Jarel's experience in Cape Town. But, he says, there may be another chance. "I'm coming back," Jarel vows.
Jarel and the other participants realize that they may never get another chance to replicate this kind of experience. "Music is life for everyone here," says French DJ Guillaume Bariou. But the most enthusiastic endorsement of the Academy on Jamieson Street comes from Nicholas Wilson, a DJ from Sweden. Over a traditional African dinner, full of shared plates of oxtails, ostrich and kudu, he starts gushing -- about the Party in the Park, the club-hopping late nights, the workshops. Asked what will stay with him most from the program, he pauses and then says, "I'll always remember coming back from the club at 7 a.m., and then having tea with the man who invented the synthesizer. It doesn't get much more surreal than that."