South Africa: Day 12 and 13

Little did I know that on my final day I would, again, skip all planned activities and go out and do my own thing. As I said before, the trip was packed with activities from dawn to dusk. They failed to mention until the last few days that pretty much only the concerts were required events, and even if I probably would have preferred to go to our destinations it would have been nice to know that I could have relaxed if I’d chosen to. I don’t regret skipping them: I could have chosen between District 6, an historical region known for documenting the struggles of Colored people (which, again, are people of mixed race lineage), or a wine tasting tour for about $35. I would have gone on the wine tasting tour, but it left at 11 and I was so tired from the rest of the trip I decided to skip it in favor of a short nap. It was a glorious nap.

Afterwards I walked to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a beautiful tourist strip that also functions as a working port. It was a lovely mix of modern and traditional, sporting both an African market and a mall with an H & M and a McDonald’s (we may have walked through the H & M to compare prices; according to sources, they were about the same). They also had an array of food options, from fast food to $50 lunch entrees, and we decided to split it down the middle and go to a restaurant on the lower end of the upper tier price range. The food was delicious. I had a tube calamari appetizer with a lemon butter sauce; the catch of the day, fresh from the harbor; a berry pavlova (though my friend who convinced me to try it told me it was different and inferior than any he has tried before); and a light, fruity bottle of white wine for the table that complemented the seafood, all for a cool $22 per person. We even got lucky and got a little bit of Wifi. It was a relaxing, tasty meal, and we discovered the restaurant was closing 3 days after. I imagine it was bought out by a higher end chain for its prime real estate. Regardless, while unfortunate for the restaurant, I was blessed to have a good meal with good friends on the tail end of our final days in South Africa.

Here my group split: a friend and I found our gifts the day before, and the other two wanted to do some last minute shopping, so they stayed behind while we went back to the hotel searching for a café with Wifi. It was 4 pm on a Sunday and we didn’t have any luck near our hotel so we ventured off to Long St where I had perused the African Market a few days earlier, knowing it was a touristy street. We found out it was not touristy on Sundays. Everything was pretty deserted save for a few shops like the the barber and the rare liquor store, and without other foreigners it was pretty questionable. We started to head back to the hotel when a man approached us and said “I’m not a bad guy.” Well, he was.

We hastened our pace but he kept up, telling us he had a wife and child and he wanted some money to pay for some milk. People had heckled me earlier on the trip so I brushed him off and told him I couldn’t give him any money. That was when his story changed and he intimated he had a knife against his thigh. My blood ran cold. I was in a shady part of town, it was approaching night time, and it was only me and my one friend. My hands immediately became clammy as I reached into my pocket and gave him the only bill I had, a 10-rand bill. He whined that this wasn’t even enough for some bread, and I kept stuttering that I didn’t have any larger bills, pulling out all the change in my pocket and dropping it in his hand. This thankfully appeased him and he left us, literally taking all the money I had. It was only 22 rand, which is less than $2. I was lucky he didn’t ask for any cards or other valuables, and my heart didn’t stop racing until well after we reached the hotel room.

I’ve never been faced by such real danger in my life. Did he actually have a knife? Probably not. But was he a strange man threatening to hurt me in a foreign country? Yes. He was an expert at his insidious craft, because as he trailed behind us my friend called out, “Have a nice day!”, apparently hearing none of the man’s threats; those were saved only for me, even though our ears were inches apart. They always say not to dress too obviously as a tourist. And in all fairness I think it’s more because my red hair and my friend’s fair, Asian complexion make us look perpetually young. Regardless, I will never forget that experience.

I was still in shock by the time the next activity rolled around, this time being mandatory. It was our final group dinner, so the premise was we all had to be together to hear the seniors give speeches. Once we got to the restaurant it was a cool experience. We first had a drumming workshop, where we were taught how Africans learn to play drums. While I’m used to reading notes on a page, they learn to play rhythms by ear. I’m still not very good at it, but the workshop was informative. Then as the meal came out they gave us the option to get our faces painted. I obliged, however I didn’t really like my design. Each of them had a meaning, however they never told us the significance behind them. I can just imagine mine meant “pale ginger.” Once we finished dinner we realized we couldn’t stay in the restaurant for the speeches so we rented a room in the hotel and returned there, spending over 3 hours just listening to people talk. It was a necessary evil. By the time I finished packing it was past 1:30 and I fell into bed, ironically getting my first night of good sleep of the whole trip during our final night there. Our final flights were just as eventful as our flight there, and for that I am grateful.

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Our drumming instructors. And some guy on stilts. Purpose tbd.

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I’m bad at conclusions, so I’ll just say this: South Africa has something for everyone. I drove through a safari, experienced an unparalleled choral cultural exchange, and embraced my basic side and forged my own adventures when my appreciation for tourist sites ran thin. There’s shark-diving, wine tours, and hiking, and they have a unique history both shielded from and informed by Western influence; it just depends where you look. While I would have never chosen South Africa as my next vacation destination, I can now only vow to return and experience more of the beauty, passion, and community I found there. But until that time (and my family trip to Italy coming soon!), I bid you adieu!

South Africa: Day 10 and 11

I’m writing this in an adorable coffee shop right near our hotel called Bean There. It made me happy, and I can tell you bluntly it’s because it’s a little slice of the West, as apparent by it’s free WiFi. But you’ll hear all about that in a few minutes!

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As a conclusion to the hustle and bustle of the beginning of the trip, our final few days were pretty chill. We visited one of the wine countries in South Africa for a concert, an area called Stellenbosch. Our tour guide explained that Stellenbosch has over 140 wineries, which may help explain why the booze was so much cheaper than in America. After having an unremarkable concert at the University of Stellenbosch and seeing some of their pretty campus, we headed out for another church concert. While I haven’t mentioned it up until now, this is the third time that we were served the splendor that is bobotie, and I highly recommend giving it a try. Bobotie is basically just ground beef with some spices and a crispy crust on top. It sounds easy. However, it was just as delicious the third time as it was the second and the first, and considering it was made for a group of 88 college guys it must be easy to make in large batches. It’s sweet but savory, meaty but tender. If you can make lasagna you can probably make bobotie, and while I can’t vouch for the quality of this recipe, I’ve found one HERE that the adventurous can try.

Our set list at this concert was just as good as the last, and our Afrikaans was thankfully improving. What stood out to me at this concert was that while the other choirs were, frankly, pretty bad, they performed American pieces. From classics such as Can You Hear the Love Tonight? and Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah, we got to feel what it was like to have our music sung to us just as we sang their music to them, and it was really special. I can only describe it as feeling warm fuzzies, as only that very detailed, precise description eloquently captures the moment. But that really is the only way I can describe it. The music was stylistically poor and the artificial harmonies were sometimes painful, but knowing that they were trying to connect with us and hearing a little Americana put me in a pleasant place. I wouldn’t listen again, the musician in me would combust. But in the moment it was…well, just plain nice.

The next day I deviated from the itinerary and made my own adventure. Instead of running from dawn until dusk like almost every other day, I took off a day to sleep in, catch up on email, and explore around my hotel with a friend. Our first stop after a late hotel breakfast was a cute coffee shop called Bean There. It definitely catered to Westerners in both its extended hours and its rare, free Wifi. Wifi in South Africa was at best sketchy and most of the time simply too janky to reliably connect, and most places closed at 6 on the weekdays and all day Sunday. This small haven was open 7 days a week and had better-than-average Wifi, even if by American standards it was slow. If you want to learn to appreciate the Internet, travel to South Africa.

From there we checked out one of the many local markets in the surrounding area. It was on Long St, which was definitely a tourist site because we saw three markets within a few blocks of the hotel. You were expected to barter in these markets and I forgot to bring any cash with me so I only browsed. Regardless, my bartering skills are on par with my lion taming skills, and even with my safari sojourn earlier in the trip I can tell you I am not cut out for haggling. Some clubbers were naturals and got an original price of 1,200 rand (the local currency) down to 150. I can only stare in awe, because the one time I bought anything from a bartering shop I took the first price he gave me.

The final stop of our venture before our final, successful concert that evening was a lunch spot called Mama Africa’s Café. The name sits with me a little funny, however the food was excellent. I split a sampler of five African meats, throwing in an extra buck to add on warthog. My favorite was the crocodile meat. Crocodile meat is (somehow) white as opposed to red, and it was as tender and juicy as red meat while maintaining smoothness of white. The ostrich meat was also good, though I no longer remember the taste enough to describe it (I could never be a food critic). I do recall, however, that the warthog was disappointing. It was dry and bland, and considering the preparation of the other meats I assume that’s just the taste. But regardless, the fact that I could try these six meats (even if I don’t know what kudu is—though now I know what it tastes like!) was a really cool experience. That is, until we got the bill and realized it was over double our average meal from the trip. However, I regret nothing from that day. I may have missed some of the tourist hotspots, but I forged my own adventure and had a relaxing day that, frankly, was more interesting to experience and is probably much more interesting to read than the days about the history of South Africa. And besides I’d rather spend money trying delicacies in South Africa than at Starbucks back at home. And- for better or for worse- that’s saying a lot.

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It’s sadly blurry, but Mama Africa’s was a cool place!

South Africa: Day 7

I have lots of pictures from today but I never wrote a post while I was there. So instead of trying to recall all the facts and figures, I’m going to explain each picture as best as I can, and if you’re interested in learning more (i.e. learning about the South African equivalent of white flight) you can do some research for yourself. Enjoy!

Freedom Park

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The eternal flame is a universal symbol honoring unrecognized warriors who died in defense of their country. It is set in this peaceful park as a solemn reminder of the price of unity and freedom.
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South Africa is the in the process of collecting the names of everyone who died in the fight against apartheid. There are many empty bricks so martyrs discovered in the future can still be remembered for their sacrifice.
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Even the plants here can kill you! I thought that was in Australia?
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Memorial left for a WWI soldier.
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Lekgotla, Isivivane, Garden of Remembrance. The Lekgotla is a stone semi-circle surrounding this uMlhalankosi tree under which African leaders would traditionally meet to discuss pressing issues. The Lekogotla lies within Isivivane, which is the spiritual resting place of those who died fighting for South Africa. Finally, the Garden of Remembrance houses Isivivane. All who enter the Garden are asked to remove their shoes and wash their hands out of respect for the dead.
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Lesakaka, Isivivane, Garden of Remembrance. Each stone comes from one of the provinces of South Africa to form a burial ground honoring all who fought for South African unity and independence.
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Isivivane, Garden of Remembrance. A peaceful garden. Water holds symbolic value for cleansing the body and spirit of those who enter the Garden.

Voortrekker Monument

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Voortrekker Monument remembers the Dutch Afrikaners’ flight from British colonizers. They had lived relatively peacefully with the local Africans until the British forced them to move further inland and disrupt delicate tribal politics.
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The massive structure houses raised carvings documenting the story of the Afrikaners’ flight.
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Doggie!

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Picture from the very top of the monument

 State House

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A statue erected in honor of Nelson Mandela

South Africa: Day 5 and 6

Our trip continued on a much lighter note over the next few days because we had a blitz of concerts and other musical engagements to break up the sightseeing. We began our morning being the guinea pig for our conductor as he ran a conducting workshop at the University of Pretoria. What that means is that we basically rehearsed in-depth two pages of three different songs to demonstrate how he approached teaching us diverse genres of music. I found this workshop enlightening because it showed there really was a method to the madness. For instance, my conductor explained he never conducted over his head because he always wanted us to remember to breathe deep and connect our singing to our core. Most of it was just as heady and theoretical as this example so I won’t bore anyone with all the little details; suffice it to say, the choir geek in me found it stimulating.

Later that night we had an important concert, and I don’t exaggerate when I say it could not have gone much worse. We were the guest group and star attraction at the Mannekoor Festival, which included three other groups. The host group was a world-renowned high school South African choir, and they lived up not only to their fame but to their country’s musical tradition. There were about 60 students all up on stage, both Black and White, and the first thing I noticed was that each singer sported a unique burst of color. The boys wore a loose short-sleeved button-up with slacks and the girls wore V-neck crop tops with a skirt, and each article of clothing exuded vivid combinations of greens, pinks, blues, yellows, and every other color of the rainbow. All had colored beads around their necks and varied, simple face paint designs along with scattered accessories here and there among the singers. I unfortunately didn’t get any pictures of them. They matched their musical with their visual brilliance, and thus they set the bar very high for the evening.

We took the stage after intermission, and from there things went wrong. For starters, from where I was standing on the very end of stage right I could not hear the rest of the choir. I was fortunate in that I was near the piano so I could tune to that, however the situation reversed for the stage left singers as they could hear the choir but not the piano. Furthermore, the pianist couldn’t see the conductor well, so some of our pieces were janky, to say the least. Finally, I was in the depths of a throat illness that scrambled the timbre of my voice and stole my high notes, which I tend to need as an upper Tenor I.

However, the greatest mishap of the evening was when the audience started laughing in the middle of our rendition of the South African national anthem. It’s never a good sign when the locals laugh at your language attempts, and we found out afterwards that while our African dialects were spot-on, the Afrikaans lines were apparently atrocious. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Our next concert was apparently an improvement, as we did a much smaller set so we chose our most comfortable pieces. I say apparently because I was waiting for the bathroom and missed everything but the encore. Again, it’s the thought that counts. This concert was a complete flip from the previous in that we sang for a Black congregation during their church service. The energy was really different from what I’m used to, more alive, more receptive, and more communicative. I swear, the music must make the difference in bringing the community together, because everyone was singing and everyone was involved. It was a fun change of pace from our regular concerts.

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Our final venue. Also, I just like the hummingbirds

Our final concert was with a group called the Imilonji KaNthu Choral Society. We both had two sets and we came together at the end to sing a piece in unison. They, just like the high school group, wore colorful and detailed outfits and sang South African songs, and we invited them to visit Ann Arbor as the good musical ambassadors we are. The audience was excited to see us and us them, even if over ¾ of the stadium was empty.

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The roped-off areas in front got people. That’s about it

I attribute the emptiness to our concert being broadcast on the local television station, so everyone must have been watching it from the comfort of their homes. Because everyone watches choral concerts on local television on Sunday evenings.

Regardless of the low turnout or our musical mishaps, we had three more concerts down and five days of sightseeing and bonding in front of us before the next one. This was important, because we take bonding seriously. The Glee Club is built on three pillars: tradition, camaraderie, and musical excellence. Thus, comradeship both on and off the stage is encouraged. Furthermore, because we’re not supposed to drink the night before a concert and we just had three in a row, this also meant that we had five nights of drinking before us. And most of us took advantage of this great opportunity. After all, what kind of self-respecting Glee Club doesn’t drink excessively, especially when a local bottle of wine costs $2.50? I sadly sat out most festivities, as I was still sick, however it let me rest up for our tour of beautiful Cape Town in the coming days.

South Africa: Day 4

The day after our emotional concert with the Pretoria Community Choir brought us to a different theme in South Africa, that of race. South African history is darkened by a cloud of apartheid and racial problems, with political sanctions on the country not fully lifted until 1993. It was a long day and thus it is full of information; however, given our current racial struggle in America, I think it is worth writing, because only by learning from the past can we overcome our problems in the present.

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Our day began at the national Apartheid Museum. Apartheid, or ‘apart-hood’ in Afrikaans (a hybrid language derived from Dutch and native African tongues), was the political and social segregation of whites from other races. Imagine Reformation Era United States except worse. The museum experience began when we were randomly assigned White or Non-White on our tickets. We simulated entrance into the museum according to our ticket, as South Africa had separate facilities for different races. Blacks made up the vast majority of the country with 80%. Whites and Colored folks (‘Colored’ described anyone who was mixed race, usually with some White lineage) tied at 9%, and Indians made up 2%.20160513_112343

While Dutch and British colonization generally oppressed locals decades before apartheid, legal segregation really heated up in 1950. Over the course of the decade, the White-led government of South Africa passed several racist and segregationist laws. First, the Population Registration Act made citizens carry an ID that declared their race. The government also passed the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between the races. Police enforced this by snooping on suspecting couples, with some people sent to jail because of evidence collected by spying officers. Another law passed in 1950 was the Group Areas Act which forcefully removed people from their homes and forced them into neighborhoods for Whites, Blacks, etc. This and the Land Act set aside 92% of the land for White South Africans, or Afrikaners, and another law increased the strict segregation by forcing non-White people to have a permit if they worked in White areas. The current government has implemented the Land Reclamation Act to re-appropriate stolen land to ancestors of the original owners, so slowly but surely steps are being taken to right the wrongs. One final law that silenced the voices of the Black majority in the newly-minted White polity was the Separate Representation of Voters Act, which gave native Black South Africans passports according to their tribes. This theoretically gave each tribe legislative autonomy; however, since tribal economies were so intertwined with the South African economy, in reality it only stifled the tribes’ political influence in South African politics and thus forcefully ceded Black political power to their White oppressors.

The next important apartheid law was the Afrikaans Medium Decree, an offshoot of the Bantu Education Act of 1973. This selected Afrikaans—the language mostly spoken by the Afrikaners—as the national language for all education in the country. The government justified the Act by claiming that this would create a workforce with a unified language and, thus, would promote economic growth. The problem with the law is that it put non-Afrikaans speakers at a stark disadvantage. South Africa currently has 11 official national languages, which reflects the diversity of the country. By making all schooling in one language, the law effectively stifled educational potential for the non-Afrikaans speakers which, in practice, discriminated against the non-White students by setting back their education until they picked up the language. As with all apartheid law, it is now seen as purposefully discriminatory and as bolstering the White political regime.

Resistance against the Bantu education swiftly turned violent. Police forces clashed with student protestors and in one particularly tragic occasion police mistook rubber bullets with real ones and killed a 12-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson. An image from the murder quickly garnered international infamy and prompted the creation of the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum.

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Hector Pieterson’s body being carried by his step-brother, followed by his sister

The museum’s exhibits obviously put special emphasis on the educational injustice of apartheid, citing interviews that showed that the teachers themselves deplored the law and longed to teach in the students’ language. However, it also framed the tragic accident as part of the larger issue of apartheid. Hector’s sister, who has worked at the museum for over 40 years, was quoted as specifically asking visitors not to martyrize her brother’s death. I don’t think that’s possible at this point, as he’s such a strong symbol of the tragedy of apartheid; however, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We cannot escape the past and we cannot stand for injustice, as leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to present day Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza have recognized. Rather, when you remember the name of a person who died fighting against the system which keeps them oppressed—whether you choose MLK, Harvey Milk, Hector Pieterson, or John Crawford III—you keep that person’s spirit and their legacy alive. And if their spirit is alive, their political struggle is a lot harder to forget.

Political resistance to apartheid took other forms, as well. Most famous would probably be the political party of Nelson Mandela called the African National Congress, whose Programme of Action called for civil disobedience in lieu of violence. Under Mr. Mandela, the party was voted in as the first democratically-elected party in South Africa and it still retains control through legitimate democratic approval. Another movement- after which the American feminist movement partly modeled itself- was the Black Consciousness Movement. This began in universities as a way to instill Black pride and buck what they perceived as White liberal values. It was an effective means within the university system to diversify academic thought, though it faced similar issues as academic feminism today in bridging the theoretical with the people’s everyday problems.

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The world first took notice of apartheid when the newly re-formed Republic of South Africa was denied reapplication to the symbolic trading union between former British colonies, the Commonwealth of Nations. United Nations Resolution 1761 further solidified general worldwide disapproval because it condemned apartheid, though at that time no political sanctions were levied. Part of this is because the United States and United Kingdom saw South Africa as prone to a communist revolution at any moment, and as this was during the Cold War they both used their veto in the UN to stop expulsion of South Africa from the political association in order to show support for the capitalist, if not kosher, government. This mirrored their later veto of the Apartheid Convention which aimed at qualifying apartheid as a crime against humanity. A good example of how deep the sentiment ran is a quote by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling the African National Congress- again, the great Nelson Mandela’s party- a “terrorist organization.”

Political pressures finally did surface in the form of voluntary arms embargo and then cultural, educational, and sports-related exclusions of the country. Sanctions would have lasted longer if not for F.W. de Klerk, the final president of apartheid-era South Africa. Seeing how apartheid was tearing apart his country, he decriminalized and opened up negotiations with anti-apartheid political groups, released Nelson Mandela from his 27-year imprisonment, stopped the Land Act (which gave 92% of the land to the 9% of White citizens), and restored other democratic institutions like freedom of the press. His precedent led to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa and to the first democratic elections in the country. The world judged the elections to be unbiased and successful.

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Banner supporting Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress

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Overall, it is impossible to discuss South Africa without discussing apartheid. It is so recent in their history that it is my generation that is the first generation living without the practice, and they are eager to overcome their racial challenges. Throughout the whole trip I couldn’t help but think back to America and our problems swiftly bubbling to the surface. The news and social media bristle with opposing Black Lives Matter-Police Lives Matter forces and our government seems all too keen to stay silent on the issue, even when our first Black President has vocalized his dismay with our race relations. Xenophobia only corrupts the ideal of diversity for which our country stands and these issues will not simply fade away, as America has and always will be a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. It is time to open up a nationwide discussion and tackle this difficult issue head-on, because otherwise we will only have more discontent and hatred exploding from beneath the surface in years to come.

South Africa: Day 3 Evening

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.