March 1, 2008

Choir Director

Way back in the mists of time, when I was preparing to depart for South Africa, I wrote that one of my goals was to learn more about South African music. I anticipated that I’d be doing this as an observer, i.e. by watching and listening to South Africans sing and seeing if they are all as good as Ladysmith Black Mambazo would indicate. In the back of my mind, I admitted it might be possible – indeed, even beneficial – to learn a few South African songs in the process. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I might one day find myself directing a South African choir. Yet that is exactly what I found myself doing on Friday afternoon.

Part of the after-school program is the Itipini Community Choir. They practice a few times a week and occasionally perform around town and for visitors. Through the generosity of some donors, they’ve even recorded a CD, which sounds quite good. A long while back, I had taught the choir director, Mkuseli, a few songs I’ve picked up over the years, mainly as a camp counselor, that don’t involve English that is all that complicated and are vaguely spiritual. We had a great time singing way back when but never really got our act together to sing with anyone else.

But on Friday I happened to be around as choir practice was beginning and Mkuseli, who is rapidly becoming my partner in crime (or I his; I’m not sure how the relational arrow works), asked me to teach the choir a couple of the songs. While I try to eschew stereotypes as a general rule, I’ve resolved that pretty well every South African is a better singer than me. I’ve seen how they raise children here and they start teaching them to sing very early in life. So Mkuseli’s offer was pretty intimidating but I stepped up and we began to sing.

We worked first on a Jamaican tune, “Never a Baby Like Jesus,” that I had learned two Christmases ago at a church in North Bay, Ontario. (A Jamaican song, learned in Canada, taught to a group of South Africans – globalization at work.) The repetitive parts they got fairly well but there is some rapid English which came out mostly as a garbled mumble, much like, I imagine, my attempts to sing in Xhosa. My efforts to correct them largely fell flat as I don’t think they understood any of my English and my Xhosa music vocabulary is non-existent. This song works great with a lot of men to sing a deep bass part. Unfortunately, the choir could also be called the single mothers club so we did what we could and I told them all to bring their children’s fathers back with them next time. They definitely did not understand that. (Incidentally, I swear the babies cry in harmony.)

We moved next to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” These two songs can be sung simultaneously and they quickly picked up the idea and belted out both tunes beautifully. Indeed, the 8 or 10 choir members sounded louder than the 150 campers and staff with whom I used to sing these songs at summer camp. There are a couple of other songs that can be sung simultaneously with these two and I told them we’d try those once they got more of their friends to show up for practice.

One thing I’ve always thought is neat about music directors is how they can close their fingers together all at once and everyone stops singing. I tried that several times on Friday but no one paid me any mind. I guess I’ve still got a little learning to do.

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