August 13, 2005
Strangely, we keep coming back to the subject of food. I am perched with a few members of the Soweto Gospel Choir on the steps of the side entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, not the most comfortable of interview venues in the sharp spring wind, after a long and exhausting rehearsal. They are due to perform in a couple of hours. Probably it is not so strange, then, that they should be feeling peckish.
But talking about food means talking about home, about family, about the hardships of being on the road for so many months a year, away from South Africa, the family dinner table and a list of foods they miss – of which the only one I recognise is biltong. Their impressive touring schedule has taken in the United States and Europe, as well as Australasia and Singapore. In December, when the summer sun has been shining at home, they have been trudging through snow in New York or Germany. Terrible food in Germany, of course.
“The junk food is all the same,” says Lucas Deon Bok, the choir’s livewire assistant musical director. Born into a musical family, he has been playing guitars since he was seven. “Nandos, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried: we’ve got all that, so sometimes you eat that because you can relate to it. Imagine eating that for two months, every day!” There is a lot of hilarity, there on the cathedral steps, about choir members who will pack away a couple of hamburgers and some fried chicken in a single sitting, given half a chance. It’s Supersize Me in action, they squeal. “No need to see that movie!” hoots one. “It’s here in real life!”
But then, almost inevitably, we find we are talking about hunger. “All that leisure to buy food,” says Thando Ngqunge, a soprano from a town near Port Elizabeth. “We always think of people who are at home, people who are hungry, people who have needs, people who don’t have anything.” The choir has set up a foundation that helps to redistribute household goods to the poor and also provides money for children affected by AIDS. A recent concert in Greece raised US$25,000 (A$32,675).
“We have been through the struggle and now, with this pandemic, we have to continue fighting and try our best to help our country,” says Lucas. “To make South Africa and Africa as a whole a better place, you know. To be part of something like that is worthwhile. For us, it makes us feel we are worth so much to our country. We not just existing. We are living.” In the end, nothing is more serious than our health and the food we eat.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed a little less than three years ago. In that time, it has sprung from a collection of church-choir hopefuls into a roof-raising spectacular whose 32 members, they all acknowledge with surprising equanimity, are effectively ambassadors for the new South Africa. “We are ambassadors,” says Lucas simply. “We are, because the way we represent the choir makes South African people proud to be associated with us.”
Audiences outside South Africa would probably be only too ready to embrace them in this capacity alone. Simply seeing them line up on the cathedral steps in their matching South African T-shirts is an inspiration to anyone who remembers the apartheid years, when their country was banned from the world stage. Before they start rehearsing inside the cathedral, they give an impromptu recital outside. City workers who usually eat their sandwiches on the steps are unusually amiable about making room for them. They beam out at passers-by, bouncing with enthusiasm, and a few people smile back. Here is a living poster for one of the few happy endings in modern politics.
The choir’s singing, however, communicates something much more immediate and visceral then any political ideal. That thing is joy. The words of these songs mean nothing to me; South Africa, as they tell me afterwards, has 11 national languages and they sing in all of them. But it doesn’t matter. Everything they sing into the bustling street is both infectious and uplifting, their style of singing exuberant to the point of abandonment. But at the same time, somehow, they keep the harmonies and the impossibly complex rhythms as tight and precise as a Bach organ prelude. I try to tap along to one song but the time signature completely defeats me. You can only keep up by dancing, as they do.
Most of the choir members came to music through singing in church. “Basically we do the songs we grew up with,” says Lucas. “They have been there all these years; we try to do it the way a gospel choir would. Gospel, he says, is probably the most popular genre of music in South Africa, where choral singing has been part of the culture “forever”. Most choir members learn and sing by ear. “That is something that in South Africa you will find anywhere, people with a good ear for music, although they are not necessarily trained.”
Dancing, he says, comes just as naturally; the group laughs when I say how unlikely it would be that a European choir could learn dance steps, even if the members were willing. “As South Africans, we always sing and dance at the same time,” says Lucas. “When we sing the choreography just comes; we always want to move when we hear something.” This has not, apparently, helped the keyboard player and tenor Vusi Shabalala, whom the others rib mercilessly for his tendency to move his left hand and foot at the same time and in the same direction. “This is very disturbing in a South African,” says Lucas, po-faced. Vusi says it is all nonsense, then admits that the choreographer, Shimmy Jiyane, stands next to him in the line-up and usually prods him when it’s time to move.
Shimmy and Thando are getting married next month, the choir’s first match. Weddings are, apparently, relatively unusual in South Africa, even among the devout, because modern men tend to baulk at paying the traditional bride-price. “He is a rich guy and he can afford me!” cries Thando, pointing at her intended, who is giggling helplessly. “I pay a lot to get a beautiful woman!” he says dutifully, spluttering at the same time.
Sipokazi Luzipo, an alto who also introduces the songs during performances, explains that the traditional payment in cattle has now been replaced with cash. “She is young and has no children, so obviously this is a higher amount; it is based on all of that,” she says seriously. Thando cuts in with talk of the wedding: the event lasts for two weeks, because a white wedding with all the trimmings, “really cheesy”, is followed a week later by a traditional wedding in African dress. “I am so worried about all the designs for the different clothes – it’s going to be a fashion I-don’t-know-what,” she says. The choir will sing at both events. How many guests will there be? “Thousands! Because the ones who are not invited are also going to come; it is like that, our culture, you know!”
Thando points at Shimmy as she describes “my soulmate”, but she rests on Vusi’s legs; Sipokazi rests her hand on my leg as she speaks. They are comfortable with themselves and each other in a way that most Europeans simply aren’t – even if, in a literal sense, sitting on these picturesque stone steps is not comfortable at all. In fact, just sitting down and getting up again is quite challenging; we are all, with the exception of wiry Lucas, generously covered. “You are built like an African woman,” says Sipokazi companionably as I struggle upright at the end of three-quarters-of-an-hour on the ground. “We were all discussing this,” she adds, “when you arrived.” I am quite elated; what better sorority could one join?
We finish discussing how the choir has changed Thando’s life: “I was a girl and now I am a woman,” she concludes with satisfaction. Everyone seems to be grinning; a bit of wedding fever has filled the air. Sipokazi, however, is ready with a more measured account of how her own life has been changed by the experience. “I think my growth would be quite personal, more in character,” she says.
“I come from a family of four girls and I had to adapt to a family of 32. Our ages range from 18 to 41, so you can imagine the different characters. And we are away from home for six months, so I had to learn how to be humble, how to respect others and how to get used to someone when they’re emotional, when they are missing family. How to know other people. I think that is helping me grow as a person.”
The choir rehearses – and, tonight, will perform – directly under the dome of St Paul’s, famous for its gallery on which a whisper on one side can be heard clearly on the opposite side. It is an abominable acoustic for singing; even Sipokazi’s introduction is muddied to incomprehensibility by the endless echo. She tries breaking up the sentences with longer and longer pauses, then the phrases, so each word can finish resonating. “Oh LORD!” she says in exasperation at one point, breaking into laughter, while Lucas rushes back and forth to different points in the church to check the sound. His face never falls; he refuses to be discouraged.
It seems strange to see them here, among the Pre-Raphaelite murals and lists of bishops going back to the Dark Ages. Tourists come here to see the tombs of painters and poets, but there are probably more monuments to military commanders who died in Benares or Khartoum, long-lost outposts of British endeavour. Below their statues are inscriptions assuring them lasting gratitude for “saving the Empire” or “defending the interests of the Sovereign”.
There must surely be a stony marquis or two here who gave up his life in Mafeking or somewhere on the veldt. What would they think now, if those stone eyes could see? What if those ears could hear? There is such a sense of wonder in this, that the world inside these four walls could have changed so miraculously, that it hardly seems to matter what the sound is like. But then, once more, the choir breaks into song and another kind of wonder takes over.