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Africa

Sunday, March 24

We started our tour with a strong African experience: a Sunday service at a Catholic Church in Soweto. It was impressive. A huge church with approximately 300-400 participants.

No instruments, but with two choirs in addition to us. All the mass ordinarium parts were sung in parts, as were hymns, in what sounded to me traditional African choral music. And at the end of the service the congregation heard a lecture on tuberculosis – a real threat in South Africa.

It only got better from there. First we sang a shared concert after mass together with the local, fantastic Mzansi Youth Choir. Look them up, it a wonderful organization with a great mission – and they not only do the talk, they really do the walk!

This choir of about 40 singers has an artistic directorship group consisting of four brilliant people: an Musical director for Western music as well as one for African music, a vocal coach and a choreographer. The choir is incredibly well drilled in both music and movement and does its African music on stage with great skill and energy.

Akademen not only got to hear the choir in concert, but also had a session with the choir to learn an African song – with choreography.

The guys were at times desperate with the text and the movements, but it looked and sounded fantastic with the members of MYC leading the way.

How did our first concert go? Considering that we had got 4-5 hours of sleep the previous night after a 18-hour trip, really well. The audience was astounding: I don’t think the guys had ever had such an emotional, warm and vibrant audience. The reaction to Biebl’s Ave Maria was totally wild, the applause started to build up even before the end of the piece and erupted into a jubilation. The singers said the audience had lived the piece intently, moving, crying and smiling.

All we need to do for the next gigs is the right repertoire – more rhythm, more by heart – and some colour into our concert dress. The all-black look just does not fit this country of strong colours.

My first day on the African continent was perfect, weather included. The key words for me were emotional, physical, colourful and warm. I felt we all shed something old yesterday and were more relaxed and emotional. Can this continent do that to you in one day?

Monday, March 25

A much less arduous day. Just some animal watching (see zebra backsides below), a visit to the Finnish Embassy and a meeting with a composer-conductor. The last of these gave the greatest insights of the three.

One thing to come out of the meeting was a surprising similarity between the local choral scene and the one I come from. That is the ubiquity of and interest in new music. One explanation could be the lack of a strong tradition. I am sure there is some truth to this, but it is not a sufficient explanation. I think it is likely that more isolated and less-known choral cultures need to have a voice of their own to gain recognition – singing Brahms, or Whitacre for that matter, better than anyone else is a big ask. But if you have interesting new music to bring to the table, you just might make a splash.

Another thing to emerge from the discussion was the idea that South Africans love to meet people and collaborate with them. I think these are skills the Old World could use more of.

The weather? Still perfect with refreshening afternoon showers.

Tuesday, March 26

Time off in the morning and early afternoon. Spent like this:

A concert in the evening in a township called Kwa-Thema, about an hour from central Johannesburg, hosted by the East rand Male Symphony. Again, a real African experience. The bus took a wrong turn at some point and ended up at a standstill in a small street in Kwa-Thema. It was not the more flashy side of the township, if not the least flashy. It was  a little uncomfortable, not so much that I felt threatened, just so out of place.

We finally found the (Catholic) church and got to do a bit of a warm-up. Once we were done, our host did a sound check that continued past the scheduled beginning time of the concert. But it soon proved that no-one was in any hurry. The concert lasted three hours without intermission and featured, in addition to us and the hosts, a nice local youth choir. It was all almost too much. Just what followed ‘let us welcome our guests with a song’ at the very beginning of the concert was pretty impressive.

Our performance was pretty good and improved all throughout the concert, even if were down a few singers for different reasons. And the reception was again incredibly warm and appreciative. I wish I could take these audiences home with us. Especially the Biebl Ave Maria, this time with the guys spread all around the audience, received the most enthusiastic response I can imagine.

Perhaps the most poignant moment still came towards the end of the concert, when one of our host choir’s singers held a speech binding the celebration of human rights and the possibility of us meeting in this township church together. When he described us now as brothers, I don’t think I was the only one deeply touched. I sincerely South Africa finds a way forward in its attempts to build a working democracy and to build a more equal and balanced society, These wonderful, warm people deserve it.

Wednesday, March 27

We were promised ‘Finnish summer weather’ for the tour. It seems to finally have arrived: it is 17 degrees and rainy today. Well, all of that tropical sunshine was getting a little boring…

A sign of the organizational skills of the choir: every tour member has a number (mine is 0:) and when we leave there is a roll call with everyone yelling their number in order. If a number is not heard, we right away know who is missing. Ingenious. We are at the moment waiting for number 5…

Our day began with a workshop with an excellent local colleague of mine, Christo Burger. He worked in an energetic and imaginative way on vocal technique. It is always wonderful to see how new words and metaphors can help singers understand something I have banging on about for ages.

Before the evening concert we had time to make a visit to the Apartheid museum, a visit that left one quite speechless. It also helped understand the complex nature of South African politics and how difficult the reconciliation process must be. It seems totally incredible that it is only 25 years from the fall of the apartheid system.

The concert was organized the Quava Vocal Ensemble that sang four songs to open the concert. The choir had a light, ’European’ sound. It had a nice soft dynamic palette, very good intonation and sang with discipline. There was no pressing whatsoever, which always pleases me.

This stylistic approach was also mirrored in their repertoire that was, for lack of a better word, quite American. One got the feeling that the main aesthetic aim was beauty and elegance. Even in the African piece, the same softness remained. I can imagine that they might get some flak for this approach, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The church this evening was again a Catholic sanctuary, albeit much more in a European cathedral style. It was a pleasure to sing in and I thought our set was solid. Funnily enough, there was a ton of individual small mistakes early on, but maybe exhaustion is to be expected after four intense days. The guys really got their act together by the third piece and after that, it was plain sailing.

I have to plead guilty to a bit of fusion cooking. I joined together two pieces that have nothing to do with one another, a movement from Poulenc’s Quattre petites prières morfed into the ending of Matthew Whittall’s Stjärnenatten. I feel a little guilty, but it worked like a dream.

The audience response was again enthusiastic, to put it mildly. The crowd favourite? You guessed it: the Biebl Ave Maria.

Thursday–Saturday, March 28-30

Our travel committee had organized a nice surprise. We were told we would fly to Cape Town, but were then taken to a train station. We boarded a ’luxury’ train (think The Orient Express with its coupés and dining cars) – the only problem was that the train did not really move that much. The first 60 kilometres took seven hours, and while we were in no hurry as such, things did not look all that promising. The reasons for the delays were either related to our train or the tracks.

We took over one of the lounges and practiced the African piece we had learned with the Mazansi Youth Choir, dance moves included. It was actually pretty good and I definitely plan on including the piece in one of the last concerts, even if I know all too well I am all at sea with the music. I trust the guys remember the phrasing and style from our Sunday session better than I do. But this is not music to be conducted, so I’ll just get out of the way and let them do their stuff.

I’m still struggling to get to grips with this country. Its extremes are simply too great to make any sense of it all. The Apartheid museum helped to see the roots of the social inequality and meeting the singers of our host choirs has given some insight to the character of the people. Three things I do know: the people are warm and hospitable; choral singing is everywhere; and it is a strikingly beautiful country.

The train ride was not quite what it was supposed to be. After leaving about an hour late, we made some progress, but after eight hours of travel, someone checked where we were on Google maps: 47 minutes by car from our Johannesburg hotel. We made up for all of it by having a pretty crazy evening – I think the train’s beer reserves had to be replenished three times on route, which was not all that difficult as we seemed to spend most of the time stationary anyway. Lots of singing, laughing, (friendly) arm wrestling and singing again.

The following morning, after 22 hours of travel, we found ourselves at Kimberley, not even half way to Cape Town. The Reiseleitung, as they are affectionately known, made the call that we would transfer to buses. And so the train stood at the station until we had had breakfast, were meant to pay our bills and hop on two buses. But once it became clear the bus ride would be closer to 12 hours, Plan B was discarded and we resumed our train ride, with hopes of a nightly arrival in Cape Town, ca. 12 hours after schedule. Everyone seemed to take it in calmly – we seem to be more and more African by the day. Christo Burger related a great way of expressing this attitude to time and planning: The sun rises and the sun sets.

The scenery on the stretch from Kimberley along the plateau was quite spectacular. Endless plains accentuated by hills here and there. Farm land, livestock (cows, horses, ostriches, sheep and even gnu) as far as you can see. Quite reminiscent of the Australia of my youth, red soil included.

The train finally arrived in Cape Town around 7 am on Saturday, almost 20 hours late of schedule. I have to say I did not really mind the trip or its length: we got to spend a lot of time together. We even had a quartet competition yesterday, in which every singer was assigned to a quartet. It was actually pretty good all round and we finally decided to share the first prize between two of the fourteen quartets.

The early arrival of the train left us with a day off. The morning was well spent trekking up to Lion’s head (a lower peak next to Table Mountain).

The afternoon was even better. One of the choristers new a local Finn through his parents, and this Finn just happened to have a small private plane and had offered to take a few people for a flight around Cape Town. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place and grabbed the possibility with both hands.

It was an hour to remember. It was spectacular to see Cape Town from a bird’s eye perspective. We saw vineyards, beaches, shining new buildings, shack towns, sports’ stadiums and the two seas.

Based on the experiences of one day, Cape Town is easy to like. The area in which our hostel is located is a mixture of New Orleans, Barcelona and Sydney. Vibrant, touristy, warm and relatively safe.

Sunday. March 30

After three days of traveling and touristing, we got back on the musical track with a concert in Paarl, a city of almost 200.000 inhabitants approximately an hour’s drive from Cape Town. Paarl is known for its wine and fruit, and for Nelson Mandela spending his last three years imprisonment in Paarl. Our host was the Winelands Chamber Choir, an ensemble of 15 singers that has its roots in a childrens’ choir in the same area. Its aesthetic values reminded me strongly of The Quava Vocal Ensemble in Johannesburg: beautiful, very even and controlled singing in a program consisting mainly of American repertoire, in this case mostly with piano accompaniment.

It is probably too early to make sweeping conclusions, but it seems that the choirs that identify with ‘Western’ choral music, juxtapose themselves with the ‘African’ sound and vocal style. For me, this singing feels a little cautious and dynamically restricted, but the basic sound is really beautiful – and not that far from a ‘nordic’ sound.

The church was not acoustically the most advantageous for choral singing, but I would attach some blame to fatigue caused by travel, lack of sleep and late nights as far our performance today goes. Funny mistakes here and there and a general lack of energy. But is all naturally within the framework of our skill level, i.e. even a less than perfect performance by the Akademen of this tour is still not at all bad. The audience seemed to embrace our performance and the choir lifted along with the reception.

Our next concert is with the brilliant Stellenbosch University Choir on Wednesday. I really have to try to keep the guys focused on that gig – I want us to be at our best then. We know all the pieces really well and the choir is well drilled. Now it is about being fresh and focused on the day.

Monday, April 1

A day of two halves. We spent around four hours at the Rust en vrede vineyard in Stellenbosch tasting their reds and eating an excellent lunch. The wines were good,  even if only a few of them really were exceptional, and the setting of the vineyard absolutely gorgeous. We had a good time, relaxed and easy.

In the evening we met a local choir called Vox in Cape Town. We made a visit to their rehearsal and sang to each other. Vox was probably the most European of the choirs we have met here and even sang some contemporary South African art music to us. Very nice, young chamber-sized ensemble.

I was a little worried how my gentlemen would do after the wine tasting and traveling, but there was no need for worry. Akademen sang probably the best on this tour so far and really was active and sensitive in the music-making. In some way, I feel the best is still to come. Let’s see if we peak on Wednesday or Thursday!

One thing that is impossible to notice is the amount of security all around us. This is really a country of fences, walls and security companies. I read up a little last evening and was a little shocked by both crime statistics and the stats on the security companies. Just as an eye-opener: the ca. 9,000 security businesses active in SA have 500,000 security officers, which is more than the combined police and armed forces. Without being all that educated on the situation, it is easy to understand that the extremes of wealth and poverty, an inefficient education system and a youth unemployment rate of 50% are conducive to crime and violence. And as the general trust in the police force has suffered badly because of rife corruption, it is understandable that people build walls and rely on private security companies. I just can’t see it being a long-term solution. There is a general election here shortly – I can only wish the legislators wisdom in their demanding task to both unite and develop this country.

Tuesday, April 2

Day off from singing. A visit to Cape Hope. Three things that I best remember: the fierce wind at the South-Westernmost point of Africa; the baboons near the lighthouse and the penguins of Simon’s Town.

Wednesday, April 3

Another day of two halves. The first was a visit to Robben Island, where many of the freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, were held captive.

The experience was made all the stronger by the fact that the guides at Robben Island are people who had themselves been incarcerated on the island before apartheid was finally abolished. One surprising piece of information was the amount of cultural activity among the political prisoners. They sang, they wrote poetry and put on political plays. These were then performed on Sundays, when the prisoners were not obliged to work.

On the whole it was again a humbling experience. Anger at the system, sadness for the unnecessary suffering and admiration for the spirit of the men who spent many of their best years on the island, all at one time. It seems miraculous that an ideology of reconciliation could grow from the seeds sown on the island. As a small sign of respect, we sang Finlandia in front of Nelson Mandela’s solitary confinement cell.

The second half was a concert in Stellenbosch with the renowned Stellenbosch University Choir. Our preparation was not ideal: we had about 15 minutes at the hotel to change clothes and head for Stellenbosch. As we had nothing to eat since breakfast, pizzas were ordered en route, but we still managed to arrive late due to traffic, which is pretty horrendous around Cape Town. A hungry choir that had been on the move since 10 am – not the recipe for a promising sound check.

The venue – Endler Hall – fortunately was a nice acoustical space and the repertoire was all stuff we had been singing almost daily on the tour, so I was fairly relaxed before the concert. We stuffed pizza in our faces and had a 10-minute warm-up in a small classroom. I decided to do the first four (fairly traditional) pieces in mixed formation to make sure the singers could have a good sense of harmony and get the program off to an energetic start.

Our hosts sang first. As always, they were excellent. The choir’s strength is not so much  in individual potential as unity (they are 120 voices strong!). Andre van der Merwe, the conductor, manages to instill a really good vocal discipline at the same time as he manages to allow the singers to express themselves with freedom and emotion. Quite a combination, say I. The choir has a lovely, soft sound, impeccable intonation and a lovely balance of the voices. They sang a nice mix of music, of which my favourite was Sean Doherty’s Snow Dance, a strong and skillful piece with a message that demands your attention.

It might have felt a little intimidating for the guys to step up onto the stage after that performance, but they did brilliantly. The feeling I got was that they had stopped asking questions and started giving answers on stage – there is a new authority in the choir after this tour. And this allows for much greater freedom in the music-making. At times the phrasing is so elegant that I have trouble believing it. The balance is excellent and the intonation is better with every performance. And above all, we are nailing the pieces both technically and expressively.

I am happy.

Thursday April 4

We had the day off until 4 pm. Most of us took an Uber – the preferred and safest means of transportation here – to the Waterfront to visit either the Acquarium or the Mocaa (Museum of contemporary African art). I took the latter alternative and enjoyed it. The forms  and techniques were familiar, but the content mirrored African life with its joys and sorrows. The history of Western exploitation was present, but in a dynamic and reflective manner. As in many museums of contemporary art, sometimes the explanations of the works seemed more interesting than the works themselves, but there were some really arresting works of art. Definitely worth a visit, even the building itself is spectacular.

The evening concert was our only solo concert on this tour. It was in the Groote kerk in the centre of Cape Town, a fairly immense space with acoustics that demanded very focused singing. The sound check was pretty dreadful, but I do not have too many complaints about the concert. Again, the audience seemed very much impressed by our singing. I guess good male choirs are quite a rare bird. We just lose sight of that living in the North where most of these choirs happen to exist.

The after-concert dinner was joyous, light and even a little emotional. The feeling in the choir is warm, relaxed and respectful. This is a pretty happy choir, at ease with itself. The last picture was taken just before the concert, I had nothing to do with this. I just suddenly noticed that the guys gathered in a group with hands on shoulders and the elder singers said a few words, in which the gist was: let’s do this well and let’s do it together. It was a rewarding and touching moment.

Friday, April 5

Time to head home. We have a long day in Cape Town as the flight is only a little before midnight. The sun is out and I just plan to walk on the beach, take in the warmth and sleep as much as I can. Tomorrow I will be home and all this will go into the bank of memories. I would say that I will look upon this trip as the best choir tour I have ever been on – and what makes it so special has been the people that we have met and the people around me. I will also take home with me something I learnt here: take things in your stride. There’s very little that can’t be fixed.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down.

 

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