Embracing New Beginnings

As we began our trip rehearsing at the Nylsvley Nature Reserve, I heard a number of questions and concerns from our group, many of which I shared. We were attempting to learn too much music; we were learning it too quickly; we didn’t have the time or resources to acquire the appropriate knowledge and context, which could, in turn, lead us to embarrassing ourselves either by giving poor performances, or worse, by performing the music in an inappropriate and insensitive manner? All of these concerns seemed to point toward a couple of central issues: what would our performances look like and what would their purpose be? Could we really “learn” South African music to any extent? Could we give anything to our audiences beyond simply being able to say they saw a piece of the vaunted Harvard?

Answers to these questions wouldn’t come easily or uniformly for everyone, and compounding our problem the flu contracted by multiple members of the choir, myself included. The virus sidelined me for our first three performances in Limpopo province along with other members of the group, and generally decimated some of us physically. Instead, my first performance was in the mountain hamlet of Haenertsburg. I found myself in the unfamiliar position of performing with far-less-than-ideal vocal health and far-less-than-ideal preparedness. I gave my best, but I’d be lying if I said it even felt adequate. Unfortunately, the same probably went for other members of the group, some of whom were in worse health than I.

Our audience, however, didn’t seem to mind (or notice). The town was nearly all white, and the audience similar to any group of Western concertgoers. They were incredibly kind and appreciative — showering us with praise, feeding us a delicious meal in between our performance sets at the local town hall, and letting us stay in their gorgeously located and furnished hillside homes. Still, my questions remained and would stew while we took a two-day singing break. We made the day-long drive to the Drakensberg and spent the following day hiking in the mountains. We took in an entirely different facet of South Africa’s natural beauty and bonded over the challenging climb up a misty gorge while recovering some of our health.

The next day, however, provided a strange contrast: a trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg followed by a visit to a mostly-white Afrikaans school in the evening for another concert. Of course most of us knew some of the history of Apartheid, but nothing quite prepares you for the level of detail you receive. Some of the songs we had learned were freedom songs from the Apartheid era, and seeing film of parts of those songs being sung by marchers facing down guns brought some new perspective that’s impossible to get from stories. Again, our audience seemed wowed and appreciative, and again, the experience felt a bit hollow to me.

I think I (and most of us) are used to performing when we have a mastery of our material, both musically and contextually. I like to not only feel confident in knowing how to execute the music to the best of my ability but also to know the history and cultural situation of the music and be able to place the meaning of the pieces and our performances of those pieces. On this trip, however, our musical experience hasn’t been about the presentation of a finished product but more about the process of learning and discovery of new beginnings; this has come into focus in the last few concerts. These include performances at two churches in Soweto outside of Johannesburg and a church and prison (the one where Mandela was last held prior to his release) in the Cape Town area.

At each of these concerts we performed and got to listen to black and mixed South African choirs of different backgrounds perform. In each case, I was blown away by the skill of the performers and the arrangement and complexity of some of their pieces. They made the South African pieces we had learned seem quite simple in comparison. But while we may be used to performing at a much higher level, in our circumstance it all made sense. One of the South African singers at Soweto praised our South African singing, and while I commented that they were much more impressive, he was adamant not that we had given an amazing rendition of their music, but that we were the best foreign choir he’d seen give a rendition of their music. Indeed, we weren’t giving a final product; in this setting, we’re beginners. But we’re dedicating focused attention toward doing them the right way: with South African teachers, in an authentic South African vocal style, in South African languages, and with South African movements and dancing. It’s not perfect, but our audiences recognize our effort.

It’s with comments like those that I’m beginning to make sense of our journey. Our concerts thus far showcase both what our choir typically sings and is capable of — as well as the beginning of our foray into South African vocal music. Perhaps the best message we can present to our audience is that yes, we may be from Harvard — the wealthiest and most well-known university in the world — but while we have our own repertoire, we have a deep desire to learn the rich tradition of South African music. It seems like that has meant more to our audiences than anything else. And importantly, our journey will remain incomplete even after we return home. Our songs have paralleled South African history, politics, and cultural tradition, and I hope to continue to learn more of their music and read more about their history and current affairs, spreading a little of what I know back on Harvard’s campus and beyond. This tour isn’t about showcasing our abilities, but rather a journey of humbling ourselves while embracing discomfort, discovery, and new beginnings.

By Jeff Williams, a graduate student studying music theory singing Bass in the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum