Often Heritage month comes and goes and sometimes turns into a kind of costume festival where everyone dusts off their traditional gear. Suddenly the workplace is bursting with colour and events are held everywhere to celebrate heritage month.
Our outlook or understanding of heritage should not be confined only to practices of the past but should also be a celebration of human culture and diversity today. In addition it should be a celebration of the very essence of humanity and our shared experience. Traditional garb and cuisine are part of this experience but it is definitely not the totality of the heritage story.
Music has always been the centre of the South African (and indeed the African) heritage. If there is one activity that the majority of South Africans participate in is music. There are indeed many genres of music; however, I would like to focus in particular on choral music.
Choral music (singing as a group of people) is the one of the longest lasting expressions of communities and indeed the nation. Whether one goes to church, or a funeral, a wedding or a cultural ritual what one finds is an outburst of music from every cultural group. Its style, its speed and lyrics indicate to any person, far or near, what kind of event is taking place.
Choral music has progressed exponentially and is still progressing. It is one genre where a person with talent – or at least one that thinks they can hold a note – is able to arrive and have their talent honed into something truly special. It is also one genre which is both formal and informal at the same time. It is formal in that there is a side of it which has formal scores of music and a certain professional tone; for example, the many choirs that compete in choral competitions.
It is also informal because in some instances music can be heard coming from a group of people working in the fields. There are no music scores, rather just beautiful lyrics and harmonies.
Interestingly, it is also one genre where the majority of participants (choristers) remain unpaid. They rehearse aggressively, over and over, be it for competitions or even a church service. The incentive in this case is not necessarily livelihood but the experience of being with each other and working hard to bring out the best interpretation of whatever music.
In recent years there has been a revisiting of this sector, especially in schools. The department of basic education has introduced the South African School Choral Eisteddfod where school choirs are able to compete with each other. In addition there is the long running National Choir Festival and the most recent, the Melting Pot Festival.
It must be said however that the disappearance of the Mass Choir Festival is a huge disappointment because that was perhaps one of the few forums where choirs where not really competing with each other.
What these festivals have produced is great youthful participation in choral music. Having said that, the number of compositions and arrangements of so many different kinds of music in this sector is in itself to be admired greatly.
However, the greatest sadness is that this sector of music is still very much neglected. It is terribly underfunded to a point where choirs have to dig deep into their own pockets in order to be able to register at some of these festivals.
Composers of choral music are perhaps among the most exploited because they do not compose with the intention to record, so many of them do not even bother to register their work. Then whatever song they have composed becomes popular in the community, especially in churches, and before you know it a gospel musician has recorded it.
That is one dimension of the conversation that is a discussion on its own. However, what we have come to know for sure is that those community and often church-based choirs have produced some of the finest voices in all genres of music today, especially classical music.
If you follow the stories of classical South African classical musicians currently somehow they all began in a church choir and (or) community choir.
This genre has produced some outstanding musicians. Pumeza Matshikiza’s latest CD Arias currently sits at number one in the Australian classical charts. Pretty Yende, another outstanding South African soprano, has her first CD very high on the iTunes charts. Njabulo Madlala and Simon Shibambu debut at the Royal Opera House in England this season.
The list of outstanding South Africans who managed cut their teeth as choristers and develop their talents into their trade points to the fact that the choral sector is indeed a seedbed for musical excellence.
There is an underlying sadness in the success of these and many other musicians in this genre from South Africa. The sadness is that even if one is successful in turning one’s talent and passion for choral music into a livelihood, there is no way that one can make a living from it in South Africa.
Granted, many of them want to sing for the world and they should. However, that should not be the only option they have. It is very strange that a country with such a deep appetite for choral music does not really have the market for it. Or rather, there seems to be an unwillingness to pay to listen to hear a good choir or soloist perform.
Almost every musician, especially classical musicians, who come out of the choral world is destined for many stages in the world but there is no stage for him or her in their own country.
It is great sadness that the Amazwi Omzansi opera initiative organised by Njabulo Madlala in Durban is discovering and training such outstanding voices from the choral circuit to become world-class opera singers yet is not supported as it should be.
Those that make it into such initiatives are lucky. Many other fine and talented young people in the rural pockets of this country, singing in a local choir somewhere, will never be found or let alone told that they can actually make a living doing what they love most.
Of course there is something to be said about how some of these choirs are managed and exploited by their own administrations and others. Yet even with these challenges, choristers keep the music alive. The ground is already fertile, let us not miss the opportunity to invest in this genre. It too is part of our heritage. DM