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The Chapel Choir visits South Africa

Of their twenty-six tours in recent years, College Chapel Choir's 1997 tour of South Africa was the most interesting and uplifting. So we decided to go there again.

In the middle of an area south of Johannesburg where those who don't still live a traditional life of subsistence farming are mostly unemployed, is a fine choir school of 89 boys whose excellent choirs tour the world. Remembering Clint van der Linde, who had been at Drakensberg Choir School, joined Eton for a year in 1996, and is now a noted professional counter tenor, we revisited the school for our first three days. Once again it was pouring with rain when we arrived, but cleared up for our five-hour hike in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains the next morning. Leading us over hills and wading us through streams was the house master at the school, the intrepid Pieter du Preez, quintessential South African adventurer, who had broken his neck twice and was as kind and gentle to the youngest boy in his charge as he was unequivocal in his instructions to us and seemed to be able to identify, with infectious excitement, all flora and fauna on our way. Tired but surprisingly focused we then rehearsed for two hours and joined with "Drakies" under their conductor Johann Van der Sandt for our first concert. We learnt from their discipline, commitment and joy and were energised by the choir's lively teaching to us of their unofficial National Anthem "Shosholoza", originally sung by railway working teams: "the train is coming in" symbolising the new South Africa slowly, surely, joyfully and peacefully arriving. This we then used as an encore throughout our tour. The Incognitos too went down very well wherever we went. Their presentation developed and their energy increased until their act became first-class. They always won the hearts of their listeners and often sang post-concert to other performers.

Africans sing when they are sad and sing when they celebrate. They love others' singing and long to join in or wave their arms and ululate. Right in the middle of a song they will explode with joyful shouts at a bit they like. If a foreign choir visits an event, African choirs queue up to join in too. Pretoria was the setting for the busiest day I can remember on a tour: for two of the three performances we sang with the Chamber Choir of South Africa, whose Director, Michael Dingaan, gave us a workshop of African music the next day. Our midday recital at Kwa Thema Methodist Church was received with the excited, vocal  enthusiasm peculiar to the South Africans. The third and final occasion that Sunday was in complete contrast to the ululating, calling out and waving of our early start at Regina Mundi, the huge catholic church in Soweto. We sang a big, traditional Choral Evensong in Christ Church, Arcadia, Pretoria with Howells, Elgar, Rose and Walford Davies. David Goode arrived from his organ recital in Moscow to join Andrew Maynard, Sue Young and myself as staff. Andrew had a knack of looking ahead very effectively and foreseeing organisational difficulties. At the end of that busy, tiring day and with touching spontaneity, our boys still found the voice to sing their new African songs to a girls' school choir who had attended our Evensong. During this day alone they had demonstrated that, through their teamwork, musicianship and enthusiasm, they were an outstanding touring group. Our courier, Pieter Myburgh, who had set up the tour, was exceptional, and it was clear from the outset that we were in the capable hands of a thoughtful, experienced man.

While Michael Dingaan was teaching an exuberant song to the choir, with strictness admirably tempered with a winning smile, I caught the sound of distant singing from another part of Kwa Thema Church. Curious, I wandered. The church was operating a soup kitchen, but before receiving their food, the dozen frail old people were singing a hymn in gentle, beautiful four-part harmony. Later, we entered Lesabe Primary School through groups of children lining the school drive. Choirs sang each other songs and joined in a ceremony commemorating tolerance and forgiveness. After that, we decided to ditch Wimoweh as rather patronising, and for light songs to stick to the strong African songs we had been taught along our way. For our concert with St Alban’s College (our generous hosts) we had learnt more African songs from their exuberant conductor, Ralf Schmidt.

Rosemary Nalder was a viola player with the Monteverdi Orchestra fifteen years ago when she witnessed poverty in Soweto and realised that she could make a difference by identifying musical talent amongst children there and teaching them stringed instruments. She gave up her playing career and created the Buskaid String Project, which since then has sent several African string players to UK conservatoires and given countless others a joy and purpose hitherto unimagined. Then, our fourth call of the day was on the British Deputy High Commissioner in her residence, where we sang for her guests.

Barbara Bailey had been instrumental in setting up the Johannesburg part of our 1997 tour. This time she encouraged us to visit the Refilwe "Life for All" farming and schooling project. Amused, we donated some tubs of worms to aid recycling, set off for some model tribal villages, then headed for that night's home, a children's camp in Pilanesberg game reserve.

On Wednesday we were up before the sun at 5.30 to drive in an open vehicle and stop to watch elephant, rhinoceros, springbok, vervet monkeys, hippopotamus, ostrich, waterbuck, wildebeest, umpala, antelope, giraffe, guinea fowl, hippopotamus (well, his eyes, anyway, just above the water) and (my personal favourite) warthog. The huge breakfast on our return at 9.30 was most welcome, and we spent the rest of the morning relaxing and went off on another three-hour safari in the afternoon. The day was hilariously rounded off by watching a delightfully bad thriller (which kept stopping) about lions killing and eating tourists on safari. Since we hadn't actually seen any big cats, some of the group went off at 5.30 the next morning, and were lucky enough after a long, patient wait to see two huge, impressive lions.

South Africans who are not from Cape Town tend to tell you that their town is better than Cape Town, so we knew we were in for a treat for the last leg of our trip. Having seen from the air the beautiful combination of mountains and bays that make up the area we were able to experience via cable car the peace of the top of Table Mountain in perfect weather. We also saw an extraordinary peace in the faces and in the clarity of purpose of the sisters who operated Nazareth House to look after destitute children and the dying. Some of our party still had some money, so we gave them another opportunity to part with it at the Waterfront shopping mall before singing with Leon Starker, the director of the youth choir Pro Cantu, whom I had heard five years ago when they won the Llangollen Eisteddfod. We joined them to give a concert to a packed St Georges Cathedral. It was delightful to see four Eton dames smiling in the front rows and to greet our Provost, who, as Chairman of the Rhodes Trust, had come for a meeting of the Rhodes Mandela Foundation. It was instructive to hear at dinner afterwards informed South Africans discussing their government's recent refusal, prompted by the Chinese, of a visa to the Dalai Lama. They pointed out that those who had made up the African National Congress when it had that exemplary role in the peaceful changes of recent years have now moved to the COPE (Congress of the People) party, who have no immediate prospect of forming a government.

With their new-found African energy, the choir joined with Bishops College Choir and Herschel College girls to give a concert in Bishops' beautifully resonant chapel. The Allegri Miserere, with Richard Gowers' totally reliable top C's, was particularly appreciated and received a standing ovation all of its own from the packed church. Trusty Ben-San Lau, who, with David Goode, had provided fuss-free but imaginative organ accompaniments throughout the trip, played a Schubert Impromptu. Mark Mitchell, Bishops' excellent director was a first-class host. The kindly smile never left his face as he organised, rehearsed and directed.

On our final full day we joined in the two-and-a-half hour highly charismatic service in the Baptist church in Langa township. At 11.40am, after forty-five minutes of his loud sermon, the Senior Pastor announced that, sadly, he wouldn't be able to continue, as he had a meeting to attend at 11am. They showed their appreciation of our singing more strongly than any others, but for me the most moving moment of the tour was when I left the choir to sing on their own the gentle prayer "Ukhutule", and the congregation were thrilled.

On choir tours we expect even the most junior members to look out for the tiniest opportunity to help, but our top year grew to be outstanding at taking specific jobs, led firmly by Henry Vaughan with ebullience added by his sidekick, David Wall. Those younger members of the choir who before hadn't quite understood the full concept of performance really did so by the time we finished, and I believe that every single member of our group developed his understanding of self-denying teamwork, and will return to England a little bit more watchful for the needs of others. Sue Young was a wonderful example to us of this.

This year's prize for the least answerable question by a young boy of a member of staff went to, "Sir, does that onion belong to anyone?"

Finally, a joint Choral Evensong with our friends from Bishops, hilarious in the amount going on: two choirs, two conductors, too many parents for the available seats, brass instruments hastily passed along the row from a cupboard, cross and candle-bearers apparently taking a wrong turning and giving up, three organists taking turns at the console and very enthusiastic adolescent hymn-singing. The brass arrangements really lifted the service, and the Elgar: Give unto the Lord gave it drama.

A trip to Cape Point (Cape of Good Hope/Cape of Storms) complete with recently-endangered penguins, ended College Chapel Choir's best tour yet.

Ralph Allwood

DATE POSTED: 05 April 2009

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