I don’t remember much, but I still remember that moment in Fall 2016 when a then-unknown freshman Collegiite, Hirsh Sisodia, announced in Holden Chapel the upcoming location of our international tour… *drumroll*… South Africa! This was greeted by raucous applause. Afterward, he told me “I’m so relieved you all applauded. I was stressing for months about what your reaction might be.”

It is surreal to finally be sitting here, in June 2019, after 2.5 years of planning by Hirsh, Naz, Nafisa, Andy, and tour core. We’ve been here for three days now, at the Nylsvley nature reserve just north of Johannesburg. We’re planning to spend this first week of our tour in a monastic state — no WiFi, no supermarkets, just 8 hours of rehearsal each day. We’ve been devouring new music at a ravenous pace. We’ve learned Xhosa church hymns, protest and freedom songs, love songs, and odes to Mandela and O.R. Tambo. Our repertoire now includes 11 new South African songs and 3 additional folk tunes from Corsica, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Everything about the musical experience has been radically different. We’ve been learning songs by ear, sans sheet music. Some of these songs are impossible to notate — the downbeat seems to fall in a different location on every performance. Each song has an accompanying group dance routine, so even our most uncoordinated members (see Clark, Andy) can be seen swinging their arms and hips, two-stepping, and raising fists to the air. The sound production is also different. We are singing with an uninhibited vibrato (“North-South sound”) that shakes the foundations of our rehearsal room. Matlakala talks about “popcorn vowels”: the underlying energy in our eyes and our notes; the verve; the swag. “Don’t sing like you’re chewing on a cloud!” she admonishes us, “Your eyes must be lit, and your softs must burst with potential energy.”

We’ve also had a chance to share some of our old repertoire with our South African friends. Recent Collegi-alums might remember Greg Jasperse’s “Oh How Beautiful”, or Fraser’s “I Will Wade Out”.

The hours have gone by so quickly and the days have gone by so slowly. But even with 8 hours of rehearsal a day, plus chores (cooking and cleaning), it hasn’t been all work. I’ve been using the early-morning and late-night breaks to talk to Collegiites I hadn’t talked to before. We’ve gone on birdwatching tours, observed the night sky (which looks stunningly different without the usual Northeastern light pollution), hiked to local landmarks, and learned thousands of new card games (euchre anyone?). We’ve gone on 6 am jogs and seen breathtaking animals — just today, a giraffe passed by 20 feet away from us! There’s something about being away from WiFi that instills a special joy in the patterns of a simpler, minimal lifestyle.

After our week of learning rep, we’ll be traversing the Northeast region for concerts at a choral festival, a community center, and a medium-security prison. After that, we’re off to Johannesburg!

By Elbert Gong, a tenor and part of the Harvard College class of 2019