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Charles Lazarus’ multi-layered relationship with South Africa lands in NE Minneapolis for a fundraiser

Lazarus saw some of the need in the country as the Minnesota Orchestra traveled to different townships in 2018. He also heard a very high level of music.

Charles Lazarus has been a member of Minnesota Orchestra since 2000, and also has a career as a soloist, composer and bandleader with his ensemble.
Charles Lazarus has been a member of Minnesota Orchestra since 2000, and also has a career as a soloist, composer and bandleader with his ensemble.
Courtesy of Charles Lazarus

When trumpeter Charles Lazarus traveled with the Minnesota Orchestra to South Africa in 2018 as part of its historic tour to that country, the first major American orchestra to go there, it was just one step along a journey.

He and the orchestra’s Uptown Brass Quintet are traveling back to South Africa this summer with Classical Movements, which also organized the 2018 tour. Meanwhile, Lazarus is involved with Arm in Arm in Africa (AIAIA), an organization that supports food, health care and education in African townships. On July 11, Lazarus will be helping to raise funds for their work at a performance featuring his group, the Chuck Lazarus Band, including former Prince keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, singer/actor T. Michael Rambo, and other musicians and performers. 

“It’s an exciting kind of serendipitous convergence of various relationships I’ve developed over the years,” Lazarus says. 

Lazarus has been a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2000, and also has a career as a soloist, composer and bandleader with his ensemble. The Chuck Lazarus Band has performed with the orchestra and elsewhere, playing everything from originals to reconditioned covers of older tunes. 

On Minnesota Orchestra’s tour in 2018, Lazarus traveled with his wife, Mele Willis, artistic operations manager for the orchestra, and their then-11-year-old kid, where Lazarus and the other musicians played not only in concert halls but in various townships. At the time, the Uptown Brass did a lot of outreach on their own, playing at places like the University of Pretoria, where Nelson Mandela went to college. 

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They also made connections with a South African group called 29:11 International Exchange with members from Cape Town, that helped share South African culture with the touring musicians during the trip. 

Traveling in Africa, Lazarus says he saw up close the gaps between extreme poverty and extreme wealth and how that affects society. 

While the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip was focused on cultural exchange, he saw some of the need in the country as they were traveling to different townships. “It was just amazing to see people there, particularly the children there that are just absolutely not defined by their circumstance,” Lazarus says. “I did see a lot of that poverty.” At one point, he played at a school that had been partially burned down and vandalized, with a playground covered in barbed wire. In another township, some of the homes were simply made of boards, with no plumbing or electricity. 

“And yet, these schoolchildren came and they sang for us, and they danced, and we played for them,” Lazarus recalls. “They’re really good too. Music is such a part of their culture there. The level was very high,” he says. 

Meanwhile, Lazarus has been inspired by the work of AIAIA through his connections with St. Joan of Arc Church. When he first moved to the Twin Cities from New York, he met keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, who played with Prince for about 10 years. Lazarus began collaborating with Barbarella, including producing shows at the Minnesota Orchestra and playing at St. Joan of Arc, where Barbarella is a member. “He just started bringing me in to play there and I played with the band and that relationship has grown,” Lazarus says. 

At Joan of Arc, Lazarus met Father Jim Cassidy, cofounder and board president of AIAIA, and later Pat Dawson, the organization’s executive director.

Organizing “Homecoming” with Lazarus is vocalist/actor T. Michael Rambo, who Lazarus first met when he played the role of Dvorak with the Minnesota Orchestra’s Young People’s Concert. More recently, they’ve performed together as Rambo is a regular at the orchestra’s “Merry & Bright” holiday show. 

AIAIA’s “Homecoming” event is so named because COVID-19 has prevented the organization from hosting in-person fundraisers for the past two and some years. Besides Lazarus performances by Lazarus’ ensemble (including Barbarella) and T. Michael Rambo, the program will feature African drumming group Arts-Us, Nigeria- born dancer Korma Aguh and her company Afro-Cont-Igbo, spoken word artist Brittany Delaney, percussionist, singer and member of Sounds of Blackness Daryl Boudreaux, and singer/dancer/poet Vie Boeheme.

Also attending will be Spiwo Xapile, winner of the State President Award (received from former President Mandela), and his sister and board member, Olga Xapile. 

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It takes place at 6 p.m. July 11 at Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis ($65). More information here

Oops: At the time of this writing “Homecoming” is sold out, but you can donate to AIAIA here. You can also see Charles Lazarus & the Steeles on Wednesday, July 6, at the Hilde Performance Center in Plymouth. More information here.