Embedded and Embodied: Learning Black South African Choral Music From the Source

Music is a universal need. But the power of musical language to reveal to distant peoples their shared humanity can depend on expert, extended efforts of “translation” and study. In this account, people from strongly separated cultures begin to experience our common humanity through musical exchange.


Last January, I led 30 DePauw University School of Music students on a three-week trip to South Africa to study and perform black South African choral music under the guidance of Village Harmony teachers Patty Cuyler, Mollie Stone, Matlakala Bopape and Bongani Magatyana.

Bopape and Magatyana, both native South Africans, brought three singers each from their choirs in Polokwane and Cape Town to embed among us as section leaders and co-travelers. We relied on these eight musicians to help us understand not only this music’s unique polyphonic and polymetric textures, but also its unifying power – so fierce that it had helped drive the popular overthrow of Apartheid.

With two Asian-American members, we were an otherwise white group. For most of us, this trip would prove our first immersion in black spaces or in regions ravaged by colonialism and poverty. We would discover that divisions of race, class, continent and political history manifest in our musical traditions as particularities, not universals; we would learn that earnest engagement with these differences was the key to developing an authentic sense of our sameness. 

The tradition we studied is an oral one. Each phrase was transmitted body-to-body through modeling and imitation, performed in unrelenting alternation until sufficient progress had been affirmed.

Although racial segregation in South Africa is no longer the law, de facto segregation – as in the U.S. – remains pervasive. For some of our section leaders, our rehearsal period marked their first interactions with white people. With history against our project of uniting in new community, we would have to build trust. Rehearsing together for six days, eight hours a day, proved a good start. 

The tradition we studied is an oral one. Each phrase was transmitted body-to-body through modeling and imitation, performed in unrelenting alternation until sufficient progress had been affirmed. Though our teachers occasionally indulged our habit of expecting, even requesting, specific corrections and clarifications, we soon grasped that we were there not only to learn this music, but also learn how to learn it. When our teachers seemed stalled in confusion over notes in a phrase, our prejudice as paper-trained musicians was to conclude that, if only they used notation, they could quickly find the right answer and stop wasting time. Later, we learned that singers coming from different provinces had brought more than one “right” version, and our leaders had been deftly negotiating a successful adaptation for our new group.

Singers from DePauw University perform “Eli, Eli” at a round-robin choral festival.

At the end of the round-robin choral festival, members of the attending choirs cram themselves onstage to perform a Tsonga song they all know, “He Wena Xihanyanomo.” In front, Village Harmony’s Patty Cuyler sings a duet with Jerry Thaba of Lebowakgomo.

In many sub-Saharan languages, a single word stands for both “singing” and “dancing:” The two complete each other and are experienced in unity. Black South African choristers use an unremittingly full-colored, full-volume sound paired with inherited dance movements executed from a deeply grounded body center. While individualities of vocal timbre and movement style are welcomed, the demand on everyone’s level of total physical commitment is uniform: all you can give, all the time. In rehearsal there is no holding back while uncertain, no “marking” when tired. I marveled whenever our teachers solicited demonstrations from section leaders. However soft-spoken these choristers, however long their section had been tacet, however late the hour or however many repetitions they had already performed, they burst out with a high-octane move and a sound to raise the dead. We began to sense the revolutionary potential of entire streets thronging with this energy.   

After a week of rehearsing and living together, our music and our friendships were on strong footing for our two-week tour. Our first performance took place at a prison in Polokwane where we shared in a round-robin with three choirs composed of different populations: prisoners, “warders” (prison employees) and police officers. Here we first witnessed the post-Apartheid prison’s stated purpose as a dignified site for the national responsibility of social rehabilitation. The warders addressed prisoners in tones of respect, encouraging them on their journey to rejoin society. Where the goals are to empower individuals, teach the joys and responsibilities of community and instill hope, choral singing is indispensable.

…the house erupted in cheers, gesticulations, ululations. This was the sound of locals’ surprise, approbation and happiness upon seeing we had respected them enough to achieve a convincing performance of their music.

Our experience that day was replicated in every black prison, church and neighborhood we visited. We might arrive to reticence, curiosity – even suspicion. But once we took the stage and raised a loud, familiar sound – once we committed together to an insistent, sexy or joyful move – the house erupted in cheers, gesticulations, ululations. This was the sound of locals’ surprise, approbation and happiness upon seeing we had respected them enough to achieve a convincing performance of their music. And so we quickly learned, too, how to receive black South African choral music. At no event was there such thing as a passive audience member: If we were not on stage, it was our job to audibly and kinetically enjoy the other performers. Commonly, an event culminated in songs known to all, everyone mixed together in a joyful celebration of connection.

In one of our few visits to white spaces, we shared a concert with an Afrikaner school choir. By this time, we had so acclimated to our exuberant, new practices that we felt oddly deflated on re-entering European-derived concert culture. And we were surprised that the locals’ performances of black South African music seemed weaker than ours. How, I wondered, given the wealth of examples within arms’ reach, had they fallen short? But then I remembered all the weak attempts at African-American music our white choirs make in the U.S. and realized that we were hearing, as usual, the absence of whites’ sustained relations of respect and mutuality with black musicians. The lesson on the persistence of acculturated differences – and the mirror held up to racial segregation in our own society – could not be missed. 

A congregant at a Gugulethu Township church and DePauw trip member Stella Green Sanderson find a common language in dance. Outside, the temperature is well into the 90s — no reason to sit still!

Congregants at a church in Gugulethu Township sing in Xhosa with students from DePauw University. You can hear different examples of full vocal tone, including vibrato.

Our company met every vicissitude of travel with patience, cooperation and playfulness, our friendships ever-strengthening. We traversed the country from game reserve to urban center, sprawling township to artisan colony, homestay to hostel. We toured historical sites and shopped in contemporary markets. Each day’s adventures in this vibrant, complex nation deepened our comprehension of choral singing’s place in it. 

On one scorching Sunday we visited a huge church congregation in Gugulethu Township. The capacious sanctuary was overstuffed with worshippers in the many hundreds. The service – underway when we arrived and still going when we exited, wilting, hours later – consisted almost entirely of singing, by choirs or the congregation, so indefatigably loud I wondered the walls didn’t come down. Understanding nary a word, my presence beneath the interest of the worshippers, I felt utterly alien … until the moment I allowed one hip to drop in sync with the swayings of the old woman next to me. Suddenly she – and the others around – beamed at me, clapping me on the back and hooting in their excitement that I had joined the one communication we could share: the bodily evocation of our togetherness in time.

Black South Africans have used choral music to seize political power, face trauma during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, confront the HIV epidemic and more. Our own transformation by this phenomenon required a “musical eco-tourism” of sorts: studying local treasures in their natural conditions through relationships that support their vitality. Learning through cultural immersion had remarkable effects: Students previously demoralized by the isolating pressures of conservatory study rediscovered their love of singing. Back at school, they showed gains in vocalism, rehearsal engagement and ensemble connection. And today, sustaining our cross-continental friendships via social media, we continue to celebrate our expanded sense of place within the universal human family.


Interested in learning more about choral music and South Africa? Kristina G. Boerger recommends the following:

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, documentary directed by Lee Hirsch
Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening by Christopher Small 
Black South African Choral Music and the Struggle Against HIV by Mollie Spector Stone
Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation by Thomas Turino

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

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Kristina G. Boerger

Kristina G. Boerger is a vocal ensembles director, a chamber soprano, and the Schwartz Professor of Choral Conducting and Leadership at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. …more 

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