One of the great privileges of traveling and working in South Africa has been to experience the robust diversity of the choral tradition here. Vestiges of apartheid have created a social world in which people speak of “black choirs” and “white choirs,” but the University of Pretoria Tuks Camerata clearly bucks that trend. In a bit different way, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department Choristers resist classification based on repertory as well.
The first signal of this was what we heard as we piled into the JMPD van to go and meet some of the Choristers at a police barracks in Jozi: it was a Meyerbeer opera! I came into this with as few expectations as possible, but this really did surprise me. It wasn’t a fluke, either. The director of the choir, Mofukeng, had a stack of classical CDs in the van and others in a personal vehicle that he used to take us back to our hotel later that night. Clearly there’s a fascination here with European classics.
Being rather unfamiliar with the particulars of contemporary South African choral music, I couldn’t have known that this fascination has not only been around for some time, but also heavily influenced new compositions by African composers. Much of the music we heard at the JMPD rehearsal was 21st century music composed by Africans in a European tonal style with a pretty consistently Romantic flavor. It was so interesting to see a choir of mature voices dive into this material with such gusto. The individual voices in the choir are stunning. Together, the group at its best sounds much like an opera chorus. They have similar stamina, too: when we returned from a dinner with the director, some of the choir officers, and a police administrative official, we learned that they had already been rehearsing for two hours and would continue for two more!
The end of the rehearsal revealed a different kind of repertoire diversity than that which the UP Tuks Camerata had shown us. Nearly all of the JMPD’s material is of African origin, but the end of their rehearsal consisted of traditional spirituals. The repetitive style of these tunes lends itself to dancing, so we got to see some spontaneous group choreography as well. The whole thing struck me as a tremendous opportunity to explore the notion of authenticity. The indigenization of European harmony in Romantic style creates one kind of South African choral authenticity. The longstanding tradition of African spirituals that involve no less European harmony–though in a decidedly different style–creates another. To invoke an old Lucille Clifton formulation, the combination of the two with other works expresses the soul of African variety.