12. Under The Spell of A Capella


One of the wonderful associations I have always made with Africa is the sound of a capella music and singing. There's something about the evocative harmonies of those beautiful black African voices that lives inside me, probably inside all of us. We simply had to hear them in the flesh!

In my search, I googled South Africa gospel singing, South Africa a capella, South Africa choral. It turned up the following name: Coffeebeans Routes, an award-winning tourism organisation operating in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

It's an extraordinary company formed to create travel experiences around South African stories: contemporary, urban, experiences that provide complex and equalising insights into social justice through music, art and food. The founders feel that this is tourism’s great opportunity.

Our evening tour was to explore the choral tradition through two intimate concerts in a black township. Part one was to be dinner in a private home with an intimate choral performance. Part two, a supper and jazz experience in another private home.

Eagerness saw us waiting in the lobby at 6.45pm, with staff member Meagan remarking that if our driver didn't turn up, she'd dance for us in our room. An interesting offer!

A mini-van pulled up in front of the hotel. As he pulled back the sliding side door, the driver introduced himself as Sabelo (pronounced sah-below). Then began a lecture which lasted for our half hour drive to the township of Guguletu.

The message was this. People in the townships are tired of being lumped into the one ill-educated poverty-stricken basket. There's a full range of human society in these areas: from the common perception of extreme poverty in corrugated iron shacks, to suburban areas of well-housed respectable, sophisticated, educated people.

As we neared our destination, street lamps lit groups of people walking on footpaths and roadsides, talking and laughing. Houses appeared to be properly if roughly constructed, though all joined to each other across allotment boundaries.

Our vehicle stopped. As Sabelo pulled back the door, he said our hosts were named Sheila (he found this very amusing as he was aware of the Australian connotation) and Reginald.

We shook Reginald's hand in a lean-to garage in the driveway of the house. Call me Bracky, he said.

Inside dear Sheila gave us a warm and inclusive welcome. I'm sorry about the quality of the photographs but there wasn't sufficient light to take better.

The pale green lounge room had cardboard boxes stacked against the wall, large television in the corner, a clock on the wall stuck at 7.30, windows with Venetian blinds and behind those, steel bars.

The table in the green dining room above was already set for our dinner.

We sat on a deep sofa in front of the singers while Sheila served tall glasses of home-made ginger beer. No ginger beer bug to feed with sugar each day as she uses a mix from the supermarket.

Our surroundings faded into insignificance as our three singers for the evening introduced themselves and explained the meaning of their names.

This is Monde (pronounced Monday) Mdingi the conductor. His name means perseverance and passion. How appropriate. He did a degree in Music at the University of Cape Town and works for Cape Town Opera. His life purpose is working with musically gifted people and he conducts an award-winning twelve man choir called The Gentlemen's Ensemble.

He explained that black people in South Africa have always sung. Whether happy or sad, joyful or tragic, they've expressed themselves in song. During the darkest days of apartheid, they even used song to arrange clandestine meetings and protests, without their white oppressors being aware of what they were singing. He told us that Bracky is a musicologist who is studying the effects of music on the human psyche.

This is Lonwabo (pronounced low-nwah-boh) Mose, a nineteen year old giant in year twelve, his last year at school. His name means happiness. With twinkling eyes, he has a booming bass voice which could move mountains.

And this is the slightly-built baritone Bantu Ndika, meaning people. He left school last year but still remains passionately involved. The bond between these three was almost palpable.

During this first song Helen and I turned to look at each other. Both of us were crying with joy. To be so close to sound like this, filling the room and our hearts!

The performances were incredibly generous - twelve songs altogether, six before dinner and six afterwards. Each sang a solo. I asked permission to post their performances to youtube and all three enthusiastically agreed.

Watch your volume on this one. Lonwabo fills the room with his amazing solo!

Sheila was keen for us to serve ourselves dinner while it was hot. She'd cooked a traditional Nguni bean and corn dish called in Xhosa, umngqusho. To make it, she soaks dried speckled beans and corn kernels in salt water overnight, boils them slowly for four hours, drains them and adds a mashed potato and chicken stock. Wonderful!

She also served creamed spinach, mashed butternut pumpkin and a delicious spicy chicken dish. Chicken pieces were laid on the base of a casserole dish and covered with a sauce of chutney, mayo, curry, paprika, and chicken spice, then cooked in the oven for twenty-five minutes.

What a joy these three were. A total joy.

This is a different Xhosa click song from the one made famous by Miriam Makeba - such fun!

We said goodbye to the boys regretfully. They were ready to go home and we had other fish to fry! Sabelo appeared unfamiliar with the location of our next musical appointment, so Bracky came with us in the van to show him the way. Driving for quarter of an hour through more identical dark streets, we wondered how anyone could ever find their way.

The driveway into the next home was narrow, requiring careful negotiation. A huge black man came out to greet us warmly, introducing himself as Mncedisi Mdingi (now I realise he was probably related to Monde, although at that stage I didn't catch his surname) and Thulani Xakekile, his cousin. Mncedisi's wife was preparing supper in the kitchen.

Sabelo said he would take Bracky home. Once they had left, Mncedisi went to the door and slid home a bolt. We were locked in. Both Helen and I looked at each other. We suddenly realised how vulnerable we were. Our escort had left us, taking the vehicle, we were with three people we didn't know in an unknown location in a township late at night, and the door was locked.

Quickly we put those thoughts aside as our two entertainers began their jazz routine. Thulani played the jmbe drum almost in a trance, as if it were an extension of self, as Mncedisi sang jazz lyrics to the rhythm. It was obvious that they could play all night in their musical passion. In no time Sabelo returned.

Helen played the jmbe like a professional.

I totally scrambled my brain by singing No Colour with Mncedisi. But what beautiful lyrics to sing - imagine a world where no one sees skin colour. Then we all danced - Mncedisi's wife too.

It had been an absolutely superb evening of music, harmony, rhythm and joy and our thanks were very sincere. My fears that Sabelo may not know the way home were groundless. Although we drove through a frighteningly poor shanty township we were soon on the freeway back to the hotel, and asleep by midnight.

I hope you've enjoyed this very special evening as much as we did! And I hope your perception of a township has been changed as ours has.

Until tomorrow when I'll tell you about our Saturday in Cape Town, ndiza kubona kungekudala (Xhosa for see you soon!)