SOUTH-AFRICA Alexandra Youth Choir: South-African Choral (Naxos: 76025-2)
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I travelled through Johannesburg, South Africa, twice on my trip to Mozambique where I produced three CDs for Naxos World (Mozambique Relief, Timbila ta Venancio and Eduardo Durao Timbila Ensemble). For these recordings, we used South African technology and gave the finishing touches in M2 Studios in Johannesburg. Having several performances during my visit also helped to get acquainted with the musical life of Johannesburg and its surroundings. Even before my trips, I had been aware of the fine singing tradition in South Africa. But it was there, on the spot, that the magnitude of their choral music opened up to me. South Africa has innumerable choirs with their repertoire ranging from African tradition to gospel, and even to European classical expression.
I wanted to find a choir close to old African tradition. Marius Coetzee, a former employee in the Finnish Embassy in Pretoria, helped me to find one. In the spring of 2000, I went to the rehearsal of Alexandra Youth Choral Choir for the first time. I quickly realised I had found what I had been looking for: the vitality and skill of the choir and their awareness of tradition made a strong impression on me. I sent a sound sample to Naxos World, where Andrew Sun and Dolores Canavan shared my opinion.
In March 2002, together with an old co-player of mine, Concord Nkabinde, I went to another rehearsal of the choir in Alexandra. We listened to numbers where we wanted to add a rhythm section. The choir had prepared themselves well for the coming recording. I heard new arrangements and compositions, among them was a gospel number in English called "I Want To See."
Usually AYCC performs a cappella. Dancing and stamping their feet while singing gives an extra kick to the performance. South African choirs often have a rhythm section and sometimes instrumental soloists. Concord helped to find a first-class rhythm section to accompany the choir. Like Concord (bass), they all - Barry van Zyl (drums), Valencia Ferlito (piano), George Phiri (guitar) and Tlale Makhene (percussions) - are musicians much in demand in Johannesburg. With George Phiri, there is some Malawi spice in the broth, and Tlale Makhene brings in Swazi ingredients. I invited Gloria Bosman, whose brilliant skills I was familiar with, to sing solos in a few songs. We can enjoy her beautiful interpretation in the hymn called "Nkosi Sikelela," for example. We made recordings on four days in the familiar M2 Studio, with Peter Pearlson working as the engineer.
ALEXANDRA YOUTH CHORAL CHOIR
In 1988 M.A. Mangaba founded a choir called Realogile School choir. In 1996 the name was changed to its present form, Alexandra Youth Choral Choir (AYCC), and the young Mike H. Mncube became its leader. There is a great need for youth work in Alexandra Township. One important goal is to keep young people off the streets and away from crime. AYCC offers a good alternative: the choir practises almost every evening. All the members of the choir work as volunteers for an organisation called Phutadichaba Care for the Aged.
Alexandra Youth Choral Choir has been successful in competitions: first in the National Youth Choir Contest in 1996, and second in adult choirs in 1997. The same year the choir visited Denmark with the help of DanChurchAid and participated in a televised concert in the Cathedral of Copenhagen. DanChurchAid and the Danish Radio helped the choir to realise their first recording the same year. AYCC has a wide variety of songs in several African languages, such as Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa. South Africa has eleven official languages: nine African languages, English and Afrikaans.
The first Europeans in the Cape Country were Portuguese seafarers in 1488. The area has seen many tumults with the coming of the Dutch (later called Boers), the English and the French Huguenots since the 17th century. We owe the refined viticulture of today to the French.
To the vast majority of black people, the 19th century meant many bitter wars. Their lands were taken, and the whole of social infrastructure collapsed. South African Native National Congress, founded in the early 20th century and later known as African National Congress (ANC), tried to bring justice to the black population. The activities of the organisation were forbidden in 1960. It took thirty years before ANC was legal again, and in 1999 ANC won almost two thirds of the seats in the first democratic parliamentary election of the country.
Before that victory, there were the long years of the apartheid era (1948 - 1990). Although the life of non-white people had been difficult before the apartheid, they had been allowed to visit public beaches, parks, public buildings and to use public transport. It had also been possible to have interracial marriages. The apartheid laws made all this criminal. The black population was confined to live in suburbs, townships.
Many of the best-known South African musicians, such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela or Abdullah Ibrahin, lived in exile during the apartheid. They have since been able to return to their home country. The members of ANC went underground; Nelson Mandela hid in the township of Alexandra. This gloomy period in South African history is documented in the MuseuMAfricA in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela got a life sentence in 1963. His liberation on February 11, 1990, marked the final victory for ANC. Mandela, in person, was an absolute necessity for a peaceful change of power in South Africa. He was democratically elected President in 1994, and served in office until 1999.
The peaceful shifting of power enabled a huge change. South Africa is a country of many opportunities. Its infrastructure is well developed in comparison with many other African countries. Yet the gap between the rich and the poor is enormous. Visits to such neighbourhoods next to each other as the township of Alexandra and Sandton, a wealthy area inhabited by whites, only highlights this gap. Besides poverty, one of the biggest problems in todays South Africa is the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, very often connected with tuberculosis. Another big problem is unemployment in townships, and high crime in cities and townships.
The Rainbow Nation, as Archbishop Tutu has called his people, is undergoing great reforms. Despite difficulties, the atmosphere is filled with optimism. The cultural life of the country, with its music, has woken up from under the yoke of the apartheid.
The city of Johannesburg was born in the late 1800s when gold was found in the region. In the early 1900s the city was surrounded by densely populated suburbs. These townships were built for black workers. Alexandra Township - or Alex as the locals call it - is about a 20 minute drive from Johannesburg. Since its very beginning, Alexandra has been a fairly small area, with probably the highest population density in the whole of Africa. Originally it was designed for a population of 70.000; today the estimates vary between 200.000 and 750.000 inhabitants.
Despite their poverty, the inhabitants have a high self-esteem, and the feeling of togetherness is strong. In the past, the community as a whole boycotted rising bus fares by going on foot all the way to Johannesburg. They also boycotted the apartheid educational system by creating, with the help of ANC, cultural clubs to provide education for their children. This education was illegal, and could get them a prison sentence.
In search of a better life, immigrants from other African countries are flowing to Alexandra. They do not easily find jobs, and even surviving is hard. Housing conditions vary greatly; there are small brick buildings, but also shacks made of all