Sometimes epic things happen to people who least look or feel like something epic is about to happen to them. Sitting at the same table as Cito, Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro is something epic that I never, before I started this site, would ever have imagined could have happened to me.
Yet it did, and the reason we were there is even more epic – it was to talk about a show they’re all collaborating in – Born To Perform. The Born To Perform 2015 Variety Show showcases some of Johannesburg’s most talented young children and teens in a musical and dance extravaganza – working together with some of the best professionals in the industry. The show has been put together by Stageworx School of Performing Arts.
Cito needs no introduction to readers of my site, nor indeed to anyone in the music industry or fandom in South Africa. He’s well known for being a part of WONDERboom as well a for his other initiatives like Peace Starts and for being a partner of the exciting collaboration The Colab Network. His ideas and entrepreneurial spirit bring so much to the entertainment world and those in it in a quiet but sustained way every day. He’s not in it for fame – he’s in it for passion.
Nathan Ro is the lead singer of Lonehill Estate who first came to our attention as the runner up of M-Net’s Project Fame in 2004. He played the recurring role of Tim on the SABC soapie Isidingo and made a guest appearance on the MTV base comedy sketch show Stay off the Grass.
Graeme Watkins As every music fan in South Africa and a lot of international fans will know, the Graeme Watkins Project exploded onto the scene in 2011 after Graeme’s success in Idols South Africa, although as Graeme himself will tell you, every overnight success is the result of 10,000 hours of work. Matthew Marinus, a partner in Stageworx (who are producing the show) is the drummer in The Graeme Watkins Project.
We interviewed Daniel Baron separately and you can read his interview here.
Sitting across the table and holding a conversation with free thinking creative minds such as these is an opportunity one must grab if it is presented to one, because it’s in such encounters that great things can be born.
How did the actual concept come about of the show and were you involved in mentoring the kids?
Nathan: Because I sing with Graeme in Swing City and my band plays with the Graeme Watkins band quite often, we all know each other quite well. The managers asked if it was something I would be interested in. I was a high school teacher for a couple of years, and I really loved it. I loved working with the kids so I was very keen to do this.
Graeme: People always learn more from kids than we learn from them.
Nathan: They’re super talented. When I heard it was a children’s show, you kind of picture, loads of kids dressed like trees then the one talented kid dressed as a flower. But the kids are all so talented. When we went to the first rehearsal, the kids are doing backflips.
Graeme: We felt more like the kids.
Cito: Very intimidated by these kids and how talented they are.
Nathan: When I was their age I was running around with a tennis ball trying to throw it around at my friends, which seems a lot less important than what these kids are doing.
Cito: How I came to be involved was that Matt and Gemma approached me to perform. I’ve been doing a lot of projects at the Lyric Theatre, with the Joburg Big Band and all that and Matt was filming. So besides performing I’ll also be helping them out behind the scenes. The Lyric Theatre are amazing. The theatre is beautiful. The acoustics are great, the crew are amazing. We’re at the right place and with the right people and team to make it happen. We don’t have too much time for rehearsals and it’s going to be a miracle to pull off in the space of time we’ve got but for the kids it’s going to be a great experience. It’s not like you’re in some barren auditorium. It’s going to be great for us seeing the reactions, seeing how they feel. I’ve done a lot of projects there.
Graeme: Was one the Graeme Watkins project? No, seriously. The quantum leap that is a school hall vs a theatre, it’s miles.
Nathan: I think that’s also what Matt and Gemma are trying to do for the kids. Performing is a lot of smoke and mirrors but there is a glamorous side, and we want to give the kids a taste of what it is.
Graeme: There are moments of glamour. It’s not like the American standard, but it is there. There are moments where you do get stopped and asked for a photo and made to feel important then you drive to your house and your neighbour’s like don’t leave your bin on the kerb. I go to these gigs and the fans say it must be amazing to be married to a rock star and my wife says not really. You just do normal things like anyone else.
Nathan: I think everyone thinks if you’re dating a rock star you’re basically dating them on stage all the time with a bunch of screaming people. It’s not like that.
Cito: If anything the life of a rock star is a constant quest for solitude, and to live your normal life with the person you love, just to be left alone.
Graeme: The social media aspect has allowed fans to be in your world a lot more than you normally would allow people. You have to encourage that but sometimes I get messages on Facebook and they do cross boundaries I set. I’m not really allowed to say things back but sometimes I do.
Cito: One time I just wrote something like ‘oops’ as a comment, and then there was this whole reaction from fans, and in the end I took it off, it wasn’t the result I wanted from it. But I like Instagram and it’s great for photos.
Nathan: It does the opposite as well .You get to know your fans more. You recognise their faces and you can know their names. It breaks down the glamour. They feel that they can come talk to you as well.
Cito: You have to be careful with it though. One day I took a photo of my kittens, I was on the toilet and my kittens went into my pants and they were both looking up and it was so cute and I took a photo and posted and in the photo you could see the kittens and you could see my hairy legs on the side and then Collett’s like please take that off.
The internet and social media has to be such a boost for you guys.
Graeme: I honestly think South Africa has caught up on social media. There are people that are doing very cool things. There’s a community now. Social groups of hipsters and haters and lovers. Before there was an app with a bird on it and now it’s very interactive, as to like old school interviews where you get asked to go onto a radio station, so many factors, are the audience the demographic that will listen to you. Social media offers the opportunity to filter and –
Nathan: To notify them at this time I’m going to be on the radio is amazing.
Cito: Yes I think it is. There’s a lot that can be done with it.
Can other kids become involved in the show in the future?
Cito: It’s like the first of the project and the intention is to be as inclusive as possible going forward with an annual event but what was important with the kids that they have now is they tried to be as inclusive as possible but they want to put on an amazing show. The audience members who come to the show are going to have an outstanding performance by talented kids in a beautiful theatre.
Do they do any kind of community outreach?
Cito: For this specific event they’ve gone to Diepsloot and sourced a whole bunch of talented kids and put together a choir that are going to perform.
Graeme: Some of the members of Stageworx are there on scholarship so Matt and Gem covered their costs. Lunch and stuff like that as well. I’m talking children with serious remedial disadvantages that are now wonderful. One of them had a brain disorder and now he’s part of the band. It turned out he’s actually good at music.
Where can we have a look at them?
Cito: At the moment they’re going to be working with Youtube, but they’re looking at having an on-going project not only on the stage but also through the Youtube channel. They’ve got a trailer but they’ve also been doing inserts with kids and one on ones with well-known performers, actors and all that. Which is a sort of more in-depth capturing of these interactions. They’re also going to be showing these as part of the show.
My site talks about the golden thread of humanity. Basically I like to give space to people who tweak the golden thread. Is that something you think about – I think Born to Perform ties into that. You’ll make everyone think differently. You have the power to change the world.
Cito: I think the notion of changing the world is broad. There are a lot of microcosms, but I think if you make a difference to somebody, then you’ve made a difference to that person’s world. Taking five minutes out to speak to someone who’s clearly in a flat panic that they’ve just met you is making a difference at that time. The world will always be a strange place to work around in. But we can make a difference on small platforms from day to day.
Nathan: Also, talent doesn’t have a box or a sexual preference or anything. I mean look at the 1940s in America, black people weren’t allowed anywhere, but you had people like Nat King Cole who were so talented, it transcended – the racist white people of the time forgot that when they were watching it. That’s something people coming to the show will see. It doesn’t have an age. There are kids that can do things far more talented than I can. It’s just when you see talent it’s just, it’s like seeing a beautiful sunset. It humbles you and puts you in your place.
Graeme: If you want to get kids to work hard and grow whatever talent it is, whether it’s for accounting or for music or for walking or running, there’s that that age old notion of practice makes perfect. It takes 10,000 hours to become an overnight success. They’ve been working since they were 14, to get there, and if you’re not ready for that moment, when that ball gets thrown at you, if you’re not ready to catch the moment you’re going to miss out. You have to be physically, emotionally and mentally ready for those right time right moment places. People say oh he was there at the right time.. rubbish. He was there to be able to catch it, to be able to see it and to know exactly what to do with it.
I remember when I was playing cricket at school and Jacques Kallis came and coached us. He was an old boy at my school. I remember leaving that one afternoon with him feeling like I was a Protea. I was a kid in my little white baggy shorts, in my white shirt carrying around my Bakers Cricket bat, but I felt like a Protea. And then he gave us a talk and I remember wanting to be great.
Nathan: What Matt and Gemma are doing, a lot of kids might be like I don’t care about performing on a stage, but what the reality is is that it gives you confidence. That’s an important thing, even for business. Graeme and myself find it so easy to talk to CEOs of companies and people shudder to speak to – we’re like hey dude, what’s up. We were travelling around Africa and meeting all the CEOs and we were invited to the yacht club and it just comes from performing on a stage in front of people. It gives you this attitude, to be who you are and be comfortable with that. It isn’t just for performing.
Graeme: I always get an idea and think how am I going to do this. It makes you very tenacious and very hungry. You’re in a career you’re only as good as your last performance and you’re only going to get paid if you go to work. You can’t take the day off. It makes you constantly sniffing out the next dollar or the next big thing.
How does travelling through Africa impact on you – did you see the tougher parts of Africa?
Nathan: We saw a lot of tougher areas, but people think you must come back and be so grateful for what we have here. But I thought Africa was a lot more wild and poverty stricken than it is, but there’s also thriving business.
Graeme: The small business man in the kind of more overpopulated stricken countries is the future. It’s a sense of buzz. It’s really great. Absolutely amazing. We must be careful. Those countries have the potential to wind us over.
Nathan: Gabarone is building a new CBD which feels like Dubai. If you picture the Karoo dessert with sky scrapers and the currency is stronger than ours. They have a small population though. That would be a bit tricky to start a business, because there’s not a lot of demand.
Cito: Yes, definitely. Did you come to the last show?
I unfortunately didn’t make it, but I really would like to get to it this year.
Graeme: We were GREAT there. We made everyone feel peaceful.
Cito: They felt peaceful after you got off the stage. That’s an ongoing project, and the next will be on Sunday 20 September, at the same venue, but that’s about all I can tell you now.
Graeme you came on the scene in a big way in 2009. It was S5 and can you describe your ride since then.
Graeme: It’s been amazing. The show was this high octane – the show was a great, it was quite funny, it feels like a compressed version of my life until now. Like they took the show and spread it out over a couple of years. Every now and then I see Randall and he tells me you’re about as dynamic as an empty box of Rice Kris pies and then I say how are you doing today, and then we talk. So I’m incredibly blessed, one thing I must say moving to Joburg is the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to meet people I grew up admiring, Cito. Springbok Nude Girls. Guys like Nathan and I just managed to forge a whole bunch of friendships and made the right friendships. I’m relatively happy and successful. Idols was 10,000 hours. I think that was definitely someone throwing a ball at you and you catch up. But the hard work definitely started post that. I think you are rendered quite a disservice. You’re led to believe this is what it’s like and it’s like where did everyone go – who are all these drunk people? It’s like being pulled out of the matrix. Afterwards , it’s what you do at that moment. I worked very hard before that show. I was a singing water and during the day I was a carpet cleaner. It was one of those things, I was always playing my guitar, busking and writing songs on the spot. I kind of learnt how to engage with people from an early age until then, when the moment came I grabbed the bull by his horns and his genitalia.
You’ve mentioned your struggle with ADHD.
Graeme: IT was a tough one for me, I also had dyslexia on top of that. My remedial classes was like Reach for a Dream. I couldn’t even write my own name. You learn to overcome it and you just cover up the bad patches. I was a forerunner in predictive text. I don’t even know how I got marked. There’s a common misconception that ADHD is a disability and I don’t think so. IT’s a hyper creative state, it’s the ying to the academic yang. I’m just as academic to the next person I just show it differently. It’s a type of mind-set and it is who I am and I don’t think it’s given me a disservice. It’s given me an edge. 3G. Kids are going to show affinity to certain subjects and others they won’t be great at. A lot of the subjects at my school I never excelled at but I found them incredibly interesting. I love biology and I love history and geography. We have the longest debates about the craziest things. We understand things better, life has a way of being able to apply it but at 14 you stay at home, want to play Xbox, you don’t care about science.
Nathan: And thankfully everyone is now tweeting and texting so badly that you can’t even notice dyslexia. When I was a teacher, I learnt kids don’t want to learn something they don’t know they can apply, so if you can first teach them why they’re learning it. I was like Graeme, and now later in life I’m like oh I could have used that. I taught history, drama and computers and technology. I mostly just let them LAN game, when I was in school we would learn Turbo Pastel, it was the most pointless thing. You could make a dote move from one side to the either. There’s a core in gaming that teaches you. You learn to network, what servers are. I’d let them play games a lot. If you can get them to enjoy computers then they learn so much quicker.
Your name is Jonathan Ross, I know the British Jonathan Ross – is that why you changed your name –
Nathan: Yeah I know about that one! Jonathan Woss. There are a lot of Jonathan Rosses, I came through Project Fame, you had lessons and you had to perform every Sunday, that’s when I came into the fray and they obviously did classes on dealing with the media and web optimisation. There are so many Jonathan Rosses. You google and you get 50 different guys, whereas there’s only one Asian kid called Nathan Ro. I always wanted a name with three syllables.
Cito: And if that doesn’t work you can call yourself Joss.
How has your experience been working together?
Cito: Ja we know each other well. I’ve worked a lot with Graeme, I haven’t really worked with Nathan so much, though we spent the one day in the studio and that was fun.
All picture creds to my friend Alison Roberts!
For a wide variety of photographs of the talented youngsters involved in Born To Perform, click on this dropbox link for access:
Watch these videos to give you an idea what to expect from the youngsters on the night: