Back in the fall, Brooke and I bought tickets for tonight’s concert by the Soweto Gospel Choir as a sort of birthday present to each other. Tonight we were pretty excited about going. Even though we didn’t have the greatest seats (row YY, second from the back), we settled in expectantly. Then we heard her. Behind us, in row ZZ. An obnoxious Afrikaner woman. Before the concert even started, she was crowing about how this was HER music and she wondered how North American audiences would respond.
As the concert began, I let the music wash over me and I welled up a few times. South Africa has a long-established place in my heart. Back in the 1980s, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, ANC head Oliver Tambo visited Toronto and I went to see him. He wasn’t a young man and I was impressed with his unflagging passion for his country. In fact, I was, and continue to be, deeply impressed with all black South Africans. Their pride in their country and their seemingly endless optimism are infectious, and that’s why I was enjoying the music (and dancing) so much. I was particularly looking forward to the end of the program, when they were going to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the South African national anthem. It’s a song that has made me cry ever since I first heard it in A World Apart, the little-seen film about the life of South African activist Ruth First. But something began to go horribly wrong about ten minutes into the show.
Miss ZZ began to sing. Any song where she knew even a snippet of the tune was fair game for her clumsy humming. If she didn’t know the song, she chatted loudly with her husband. Of course, by the time we got to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, she was in full voice. It was as if she thought we were at a sporting event. Needless to say, the moment was spoiled for me, and probably for a few of my neighbours.
I chose to look at the whole farce as an object lesson. Here’s a white South African, trying desperately to hang on to and participate in a culture that isn’t fully hers, even from the back row, with a lousy voice and in a way that’s entirely obnoxious. Kind of sad and funny at the same time. But also very very annoying. The fact that her one off-key Boer voice was very nearly drowning out more than twenty beautiful voices singing in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotha, Swahili and English was a chilling reminder of the situation from which South Africa is trying so hard to escape. It’s incredible that South Africa recently celebrated ten years of democracy. I find it almost inconceivable that instead of revenge and bloodbaths, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that the country is trying so hard to forge its many cultures, even the often-brutal colonial ones, into a new South Africa.
Another interesting thing about tonight was that, so soon after my “milestone” 40th birthday, it brought a few different parts of my life together. In addition to South African independence being a particularly close cause to me, there was something else. Two of the major sponsors of the event were Tyndale College (formerly Ontario Bible College) and Wines of South Africa. I graduated from Ontario Bible College in the late 1980s, and in my current job, our company represents three South African wineries in the province of Ontario. I even ran into one of my old professors from OBC, the Zulu-speaking Dr. Ebenezer Sikikane, whom I haven’t seen in almost twenty years.
So in spite of all of that, or perhaps because of it, the concert was glorious. The choir are in the midst of their first-ever North American tour. If you get the chance to see them, take it!