Henco Espag: Making music, from S. African farm to Philly
by Suzi Nash
Nov 29, 2012 | 1205 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>Henco Espag</b>
Henco Espag
Sometimes I wish there was a way you could hear as well as read this column — especially when I’m interviewing people who have distinctive ways of speaking or lovely accents that could make me rethink my lesbianism (or, in the case of female interviewees, cause me to blurt out unexpected marriage proposals). This week’s interview, cutie-pie Henco Espag, is a native of South Africa. In addition to charming Philadelphians with his accent, Espag has worked as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, accompanist, music director and session musician. He has been commissioned to write music that has received international acclaim and won a scholarship for outstanding achievement in film scoring, along with two bursaries from the South African National Arts Council. And, as the artistic director of our very own Philadelphia Freedom Band, Espag will conduct the Holiday Concert Dec. 1 at The Academy of Natural Sciences. Along with the great music and a fun sing-along, you can bid on a number of fantastic gingerbread houses created by the band and its supporters. I made one last year and almost all of the candy made it onto the house. (I swear ... )

PGN: Growing up in South Africa, what kind of kid were you?

HE: I was always a bit on the quiet side. I did not grow up in a big family. I grew up with a brother and later we adopted a sister. My family lived on a small holding in the farming community, so growing up there were lots of animals around me. That was something that was hard for me to adjust to here, not having my animals around. I do miss the nature.

PGN: What was your favorite animal?

HE: I loved them all. We had eight Great Danes, hedgehogs and all the farm animals you could think of. Once we had about 20 tortoises in the yard eating my mother’s plants. We even had a little lamb that lived with us because her mother kicked her out. She wore diapers around the house.

PGN: That’s so cute! Most unusual pet?

HE: [Laughs.] Those would be the ones that I’ve acquired since I’ve been here. At the moment, I have a short-tailed possum and two degus.

PGN: Degus?

HE: Yes, they’re very similar to chinchillas, and in fact come from the same region of Chile, but they’re a little smaller. They have a very thick, soft coat and you have to give them dust baths and all of that.

PGN: What’s a fun childhood memory?

HE: Oh gosh, well the first thing that popped into my head was that we had one of those things you’d hook up to the car and a tent pops out from the back and you’d live in it. We call it a caravan but I think you call it a trailer. Anyway, we’d take random camping trips and it was great fun.

PGN: What did the parents do?

HE: My mother is a musician as well. She teaches guitar, voice and piano, and my father is a pharmacist. He used to specialize in hearing aids and acoustics.

PGN: What was a favorite class?

HE: In which school? University?

PGN: No, grade school or elementary.

HE: [Laughs.] Ah yes, we call that primary school. It seems like so long ago. I enjoyed math and biology. I always thought if I didn’t go into music I’d become a veterinarian, but I found I couldn’t stand to see animals in pain or deal with blood very well, so that didn’t work out. Fortunately, the music did.

PGN: And do you play instruments as well as conduct?

HE: Yes, my passion and training was in piano. I did play viola back in South Africa just to get more orchestral experience to help me with my composition, but at the moment I just don’t have time to play.

PGN: Where did you study?

HE: I studied composition at Berkley College of Music in Boston. That’s why I came to the States. I’ve always been intrigued by writing for movies and visual media. My degree is actually in film scoring. Berkley was the only school that offered a four-year degree in that field.

PGN: What was the biggest culture shock moving here?

HE: Oh gosh, the Boston accent was just terrible. And also the people were, I don’t know how to say it, they weren’t very open or welcoming on the East Coast. I’m used to a very warm and compassionate culture where people are very friendly. Everyone is aware of everyone’s feelings, where here in the Northeast everyone is just on a mission. You go over and past everyone to get to your path and that was hard for me, that fast, no-nonsense pace.

PGN: My cousin moved to Atlanta and was freaked out at first. People would say hello and he’d practically jump into a karate stance, “What do you want?” It took him a while to get used to strangers coming up and asking how his day was.

HE: I know. It’s the strangest thing. When I first came here, I would be in a grocery store or at a pit stop and I would always greet people and say, “G’day! How are you doing?” and they would look at me like I was totally bonkers. I finally realized, OK, I guess people don’t greet each other here. My husband is a musician also and in May we went to Nashville, Tenn., so he could study. It was so friendly, it was like being at home in some ways. My husband is from Texas and I think that’s why we get along so well, similar cultural styles.

PGN: So how did you end up in Philadelphia?

HE: After graduation, I ended up in New York City, not knowing what the heck I was going to do, and ended up meeting a South African family through a random connection in Oxford [England]. I lived with them and got a job in South Jersey, my current job. I’m an accompanist and vocal coach for the Musical Theatre Department at Westminster College of the Arts. Then through [my husband] Eric, I got involved with the Freedom Band, and when they needed a conductor I applied and got the job.

PGN: How did you meet your husband?

HE: Ha! Online, which was the strangest thing. Back home, online dating just doesn’t exist, so I never thought I’d meet anyone decent online. I still sometimes have a hard time imagining that that was really how it happened, but it did.

PGN: A few years ago there were a lot of films at Qfest from South Africa. There were two distinct types of films, some about the mostly black and lesbian community, which faced a lot of discrimination, corrective rape, etc., and some about a thriving, gay party community with amazing-looking bars and clubs, with mostly gay white men.

HE: Yes, there are still very distinctive cultural differences. But things have changed so much in just the five years I’ve been here, I almost feel like I don’t know my country anymore. Certainly if you go to areas like Cape Town or Pretoria, there’s a thriving gay community. Cape Town is considered one of the gay meccas. But honestly, when I was living there I was not out yet, so I never explored any of these things. But I’ve heard about them. Hopefully after the next time I return, I’ll be able to tell you a bit more.

PGN: Are you out to the family?

HE: Yes, and like most people I thought the absolute worst was going to happen, but they were all perfectly fine with it. It was ... well, for example, I left my brother for last because he’s the most conservative of the family, yet he was the one who broke down crying, saying, “Why didn’t you tell me? It’s not a problem at all!”

PGN: When were you home last and what do you miss the most?

HE: I try to go every two years, and I miss my family of course, but outside of them, I guess the food. And nature. On the farm, you’d wake up every morning to the sound of animals and drumming and singing in the distance. I could just immerse myself in all the animals around me. And traveling through the countryside, it was amazing how the landscape could change so drastically for such a small country. South Africa is about the size of Texas and yet you could go from desert to bush to lush in one drive.

PGN: I think a lot of people think of “Africa” and pictures of shanty towns with starving kids covered in flies come to mind, not the modern cities and beauty of the country.

HE: It’s true. It’s amazing how many people won’t believe I’m from South Africa because I’m not black and then they presume I live in a hut with elephants stampeding by and that we don’t have running water. It baffles me how little people know about the country or that it even is a country. I’ll say I’m from South Africa and they’ll ask me what country that’s in. [Laughs.] I have fun with it, but it’s crazy.

PGN: I don’t know if you know the term “poverty porn,” but it’s the practice of media and organizations exploiting poor people and/or countries in order to gain sympathy to sell newspapers or increase donations or support for a given cause — i.e., using pictures of kids in wretched conditions or circumstances and letting that be the only representation shown. Kind of like showing pictures of the worst neighborhoods in Philly and letting that be the only impression that people have of the city.

HE: Yes, it’s a beautiful country but people don’t know that here. It’s an amazing array of climates, from the Kalahari Desert, where the Bushmen still live and hunt, to the Northeast where it’s almost forest-like, where the canopy of the trees is so tight the sun barely shines through. It’s amazing.

PGN: So back to the States, how long have you been with the Freedom Band?

HE: I think I’m in the second year with them. This will be my fourth concert.

PGN: Yes, you have a holiday concert coming up. What can we look forward to?

HE: A lot of fun. [PGN publisher] Mark Segal will be playing with us. Mark and Councilman Mark Squilla will do a little percussion duel-off. It’s a piece I arranged based on “The Little Drummer Boy,” and it will be quite comedic and fun. The first half will be a little untraditional because we are featuring composers that have the look of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as we call him, with photos being projected through the pieces to make it fun.

PGN: What do you think of Thanksgiving? [Laughs.] Obviously it’s not exactly a South African tradition.

HE: No, no, not at all. We don’t even eat turkey as a rule because it’s very expensive there and the turkeys are very small. I love Thanksgiving. I’d never had or known about pumpkin pie or green-bean casseroles and cranberry sauce, but I’ve discovered I really like them. When Eric came to South Africa with me for the first time, we made turkey for the family and everyone was in absolute awe.

PGN: What are some foods that someone should try when visiting South Africa?

HE: You’d definitely have to try biltong or droëwors, which are a kind of dried meat. You’d call it jerky here, but it’s not the same. I’m sorry but what I’ve had here is just ... awful. Ours is thicker and much better. It’s so common there, you can buy it at any grocery store. But we don’t have the variety of vegetables that you have here, especially since you have the root vegetables that come in from Latin America. We don’t have any of that, but we do have a lot of fruit. Guava and mangoes and papaya, lychees, that sort of thing.

PGN: What are your big holidays?

HE: We don’t have any big family gathering/eating holidays like Thanksgiving. The biggest holidays are Easter and Christmas. We also celebrate things like the end of the Anglo-Boer War or Freedom Day, which celebrates the first post-apartheid elections.

PGN: When did you first come out?

HE: In high school, I informally came out to a couple of friends for about two months and then went back in. I didn’t officially come out fully until my final year of college. I guess I knew all along but especially in my culture where it’s a big no-no, and you get oppressed and all that, I didn’t see the need when I was living there.

PGN: What was the first music you ever purchased?

HE: I think the first thing I ever bought was a soundtrack. I also used to listen to a lot of Afrikaans children’s stories. There was a famous series called “Liewe Heksie,” which means “dear little witch” in Afrikaans. She was an incompetent, forgetful witch who lived with her friends the elves in Blommeland (Flower Land) and was always getting into funny situations.

PGN: What was the historical moment that you remember best?

HE: I guess for me it was the day President Obama took office. I was in the U.S. and it was a huge deal. I was alive for the end of apartheid but I was so little I don’t remember it. But the Obama thing was big. Especially coming from a country where we were used to black leaders, to see a black president in America was great.

PGN: Biggest mishap in your musical career?

HE: Oh, well, it’s happened more than one time, but in the excitement of conducting I’ve had the baton fly out of my hand in the middle of a piece. I think I hit someone in the head once.

PGN: And what’s on the horizon?

HE: Well, my first love is composing and conducting. I’m currently working on a musical that we’re developing for Broadway. My husband Eric is writing the lyrics and I’m doing the music. It’s called “The Last Days of Pompeii,” and we have a producer in New York and a director and choreographer attached already, so it’s coming along nicely. Hopefully by this time next year we’ll be opening.

PGN: You’ll be the new Rodgers and Hammerstein!

HE: Now that would be nice.

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