Our first concert began on an odd note (pun fully intended) in that it didn’t begin. The church was still hosting a funeral, and our tour guide explained that Black funerals in South Africa are a longer affair than what I am used to in two ways: first, anyone can attend. This means that the culture encourages family friends to join, even if they didn’t know the deceased. He even intimated that strangers could join the mourning and get a free meal as long as they came with an empathetic spirit. The second way in which they differ is that anyone who wanted to speak was able to speak. Coupled with the size of the gathering of friends, families, and strangers, people spoke for a long, long time, which led to our delayed concert. While I’m not so sure I believe everything he said, his explanation of Black funerals, while morbid, acts as a wonderful counterpart to our own concert, as I’ll explain.
When we first entered the church, the turnout was a little bit demoralizing. The intimate crowd consisted of three groups: (a) our family/alumni supporters who travelled with us, (b) the other choirs who sang, and, finally, (if the music there is anything like the a cappella community at Michigan) (c) friends and supporters of the other choirs. We were the last group to sing so we were able to watch the others. For those who are unfamiliar with a regular Western choral concert, I’ll give an average representation for comparison with what is to come. It’s frankly about as dull as you’d imagine (a charged opinion coming from a choral singer!). The choir assembles on stage, follows the conductor, and exits at the end. Glee likes to think it’s a little cooler than the rest because it has a Walk On to gather on stage, the conductor chooses music to encourage some movement (even a piece where we all sing cross-legged on the floor), and it has a snappy Walk Off to retire. We’re a top-tier Western college choir so we can get a standing ovation or two during our concerts, and while I’m usually tired by the end, it’s always fun and satisfying. However, the atmosphere of this new environment had a completely different feel. It was…electric.
The first group casually ambled on stage and awaited the beginning note. Their first piece (and the rest, as I was to find out) was a cappella, and once the conductor began the piece he joined the choir, breaking an unspoken fourth wall and bridging the gap between the singers and him. Once they began the deceptively simple harmonies, they slowly began swaying in a naturally synchronized motion and repeated the same melody over and over, dancing and drumming to the beat until it felt right. The crowd got into the music and defied another taboo: they joined the singers in dance. Even more horrifying, they inserted their own ululations into the chaos! How could they so rudely interrupt the music, even if it was solely in genuine praise?! Of course, the South African choir was unfazed and continued to sing, and at the end of both performances I was excited, confused, and scared. The environment in the room was so foreign, so emotionally charged, so different than what I was used to. Furthermore, the second choir was markedly better than the first, so we had big shoes to fill, especially in a culture that valued an entirely different canon of music than what we were offering.
Yet once we took the stage, I realized that the audience was genuinely enthusiastic to have us there. Yes, we were different from the choirs they were used to; but we began our performance with their national anthem and when we finished the song they burst into applause and ululations in a show of friendly appreciation I have never before felt. And then I realized: while I saw the conductor joining the choir as strange, they saw it as completely normal; while I saw the audience’s ululations and dancing as disruptive, they saw it as supportive and, simply, as having a good time. South African musicians differ from Western musicians in that they employ and embrace music not as a demonstration of academic mastery or an expression of feeling, but as a show of community. The conductor and audience joined the choir in song and created a sense of community rarely, if ever, achieved in Western canon, and while the musical harmonies were simple—the entire song was a repeat of the same melody—these harmonies forged a union between choir and conductor and performer and audience that is unseen in Western choral singing. Thus, song in South African culture is a community practice connecting everyone together, and singing becomes not just performing to idle listeners but communing with a people. In that short span of 40 minutes that was what we did through our music: we communed with the small group of native South Africans and in return we were welcomed into their congregation. I left that stage feeling not drained but ecstatic, and unexpectedly charged by the energy of the crowd before me.
The point I want to get across is this: music holds similar but different value in South African communities. Sure, music is important everywhere: it is used in religious ceremonies, showings of national pride (as the Glee Club demonstrated with the South African national anthem), and, simply, in expressions of feelings. However, South African music is a community experience, an activity that unites those I’ve usually seen as separate entities—choirs, conductors, and audience—into one celebratory unit, just as the seemingly separate actions of drumming, singing, and dancing are fused into every song in their tradition. Religion, nationalism, and feelings are still expressed; however, it is that they are expressed by everyone and not just the choir that makes the South African musical experience special.
Back to the funeral, I now see the Black funeral in a different light. It’s not about mourning loss or even celebrating life (as the Irish like the believe), but connecting with each other. Funerals are for the living, not the dead, and accepting strangers to the event is embracing the community in one of your most difficult times, making you and your relationship with it stronger. Anyone can speak because it’s not about sticking to a schedule; rather, it’s about using death as an opportunity, as a means to bring together family, friends, and everyone else to strengthen communal bonds, just like my experience with their music. I will never forget the electric atmosphere and the friendliness and appreciation given to us in that room, and I will never forget South Africa.
In my heady, post-performance concoction of emotions, the MC almost brought me to tears when she said something so simple but so disarming: “I appreciate you being here.” Not “Thank you for coming” or even “We appreciate you being here,” but “I appreciate you being here.” It’s not often that someone takes the time to genuinely express their personal joy and tell you that you made a difference in their own life and, by extension of her role as spokeswoman, in the lives of everyone else in the room. This simple statement welcomed us into the congregation with an ease I’ve only ever felt in South Africa, and I, too, joined their family through my singing. Even though my time in the Boston Children’s Chorus informed me to the fact that music could be a catalyst for social change, I’d never before felt the weight that music can play in uniting people. However, after visiting South Africa, now I have.