Singing in Polokwane — a Lesson in Happiness

After leaving the nature reserve in the northern tip of South Africa, the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum drove South to Polokwane, where our performance awaited. The performance would mark an inauguration of the tour performances,one in which we would be able to both spread our song and show to audiences that we had indeed dedicated time and care into learning several black South African traditions.

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Arriving in Polokwane for our performance

We arrived after 10 hours of driving, passing wide plains and deep blue lakes. Upon arriving in the town, we went directly to the community church, where we were greeted through a stained-glass window by a chorus of voices singing church music in Xhosa. We walked into the chapel and marveled at the chorus singing in front of us. A warm yellow light engulfed the wooden stage, and a red carpet rolled down a center aisle separating the layers of church benches. Across the golden archway above the musicians, Matthew 28:20 was inscribed in fancy black Xhosa text. The choir before us was dressed in formal black and green attire and sang songs of praise when we entered, and the singing promptly gave way to a pastor that eventually formally welcomed us into the church.

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The Pastor with a member of the community

“Good Evening everybody! Today is a big day for this church. We have the privilege of working with village harmony to introduce Harvard University!! Harvard University is one of the top schools in the world, and was founded in 1636 — we are so privileged to have you guys here today!! Let me ask you guys a question while we are here: What is next to the U-S-A?”

Silence flowed over the crowd.

“A U-S-B!!”

Across the choir, I could see friends shaking their heads and covering their faces to disguise their smiles.

With a colossal grin on his face, the pastor pronounced, “without further adieu, let the music begin again!!”

A band sat on stage left and performed a few set pieces right before us. They started with a quiet power, their brass instruments composed and tempered. At some point, a young man in the front row got up and delivered a smooth trumpet solo, one that was met with whoopsand cheers of admiration. The saxophone player charmed the crowd, playing multiple instruments throughout the duration of a single piece.

We got up to sing immediately afterward, and one of our four conductors, Matlakala Bopape, introduced us: “The Harvard Collegium, coming directly from America. We’ve learned 25 songs in 5 days, so what you hear today may be a bit…unpolished.”

In our performance, we performed many of the American pieces we had prepared. Singing for the crowd was exhilarating. After our conductor, Andy, introduced Greg Jasperse’s, “Oh this Beautiful Finely Woven Earth”, (in classic Andy pedagogical style, Andy extended his arms and pretended to physically carry the words he listed out — as he listed a word describing the song, he would bring his arm out and into his chest, as if molding a clay ball from these ingredients), we sang the song. It was evident this was the first time the audience had heard the Jasperse piece, because the audience looked curious during our performance and cheered at the end. We also sang “I Will Wade Out,” composed by a recent 2018 Harvard alumnus. Soon, we started also singing the South African pieces. Our rendition of many of these pieces was greeted with unrestrained cheers and applause. There was a unique pride among the community that a multicultural group from America had dedicated so much time and energy to learn songs of their community.

After our performance, we continued to dance to the rhythms of the other performances as well, listening to their talented chorus sliding their voices up and down the scales. The chorus sang their way on and off the stage according to the sermons of the pastor, who would spend every open minute smiling and cracking a joke to help us make us feel at home in the foreign environment. One distinct song rings in my ears. While charismatic woman led the choir, the rest of the choir line responded with “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we are going to see the king!! Hallelujah, hallelujah, we are going to see the king!!” Hearing the song, I was struck by how much black South Africans have respected their leaders in the past and could not help but wonder if this hallelujah was written for their past president and hero, Nelson Mandela. In my head, I could not help but wonder: who was the last king we in America have sung for? Would we ever sing for our current government leaders? What sacrifices must a person make to be so beloved by a people? Here, there existed a budding interest to understand the pride and sense of sacrifice that runs deep in some black communities in South Africa.

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Citizens of Polokwane community and our choral program assistants dance to the sounds of the band

Perhaps the most beautiful part of singing in the church was that I felt palpable joy in the atmosphere. I kept thinking during the event and after, so many people hunt for true happiness. On Harvard’s campus, “Harvard Medical School”, “Google”, and “Goldman Sachs” ring loudly with untold promises of riches and prestige (perhaps an inkling of happiness too). Many in America are climbing some sort of ladder in their career, one that they believe leads the promised happiness and dream of riches and influence many of us seek. But standing in the center of the chorus of eclectic voices, I found somewhere where community could possibly bring more joy than money ever could. We were making souls dance and creating song with people we had never met. I opened my mouth and sang along to the women dancing and clapping to my right. On my far left, audiences that had come from all around the village were hollering. A band in the front jammed along to the laughing crowds. An old woman slowly danced up to the strapping young saxophonist and stuck a 100 rand bill under the weaved navy strap spanning his shoulder, before laughing and grooving with the music back to her seat. This was true happiness. This was a love of making music. This was a love of community, comprised of unrelated groups of people that shared only an open heart and mind.

Coming to Polokwane was an experience that showcased a profound intention by each group to welcome and connect with the other. Later that night, Eugene and I were assigned for our homestay to the care of an sweet older lady, Sarah. She welcomed us into her home with open arms and asked us a few brief questions about our time at Harvard, before showing us to the bedroom and kitchen. She softly opened the cabinets in the kitchen, pointing to layers of teabags and small snacks. Her home had become our own. Eugene and I gratefully went to bed in our room, thankful for the hospitality and warmed by the people of Polokwane.

By Dylan Li — Dylan is a rising junior at Harvard College studying Physics and Computer Science

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