IOL Choir Games: A contest set to unearth talent

During the 3rd World Choir Games in Bremen, Germany, some 14 years ago, a girl from the small town of Piet Retief took the world by storm. Her name was Pretty Yende.

Feature: Ali Mpofu, IOL

One of the most costly but less acknowledged consequences of apartheid was the decades-long exclusion of South Africa from competing on the international arena, in sport or through various forms of creative expression.
Due to this racial segregation, several generations of excellent sports people and artists from various disciplines – musicians, actors, dancers and other creatives – never got to showcase their talents to the world.

Apart from being cruelly robbed of an opportunity to make a better living from lucrative deals overseas, they also never got the opportunity to write their country’s name in the history books, and themselves into the international Hall of Fame against the best that the world had to offer.

As a result, the debate over whether Jomo Sono was better than Maradona will never truly be settled because they simply never got to stand toe to toe and compete on the same stage, representing their respective countries.

Those few South Africans who did manage to scale international heights in their chosen fields in any meaningful way only did so as individuals, at great personal cost, having gone into exile.

Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya and Abdullah Ibrahim were just some of those who paid the ultimate price for this cultural boycott.

They had to turn their backs on their country of birth due to the repressive apartheid laws.

Here’s an interesting little fact: there are many more South Africans who sing choral music than those who play football. But due to repression, members of thousands of choirs across the country never got a chance to dazzle the world with their angelic voices.

But even with the international boycott long buried – our national sporting sides resumed competition in 1992 – two years before the dawn of democracy, to this day, only a tiny minority of South Africans can claim to have participated in an international choral music competition.

Thankfully, South Africa will be hosting the World Choir Games, from July 4 to 14.

Considered the Olympic Games of Choirs, it will be the first time the event will be hosted in the southern hemisphere and on the African continent.

It is quite significant that in the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth, South Africa is hosting this profoundly important cultural event, which will attract no fewer than 30000 visitors and 300 choirs to the City of Tshwane and Gauteng in general.

The event will be held under the theme “Various Voices – One Harmony.” It will resemble a kaleidoscope of colours, as participants of diverse races and cultural backgrounds will be united under one umbrella – yet another realisation of Madiba’s dream. We will also stage concerts in honour and remembrance of Madiba.

Previous hosts of the World Choir Games include Austria, Korea, Germany, China and the US.

Entries for this year’s competition have come from as far afield as the US, Jamaica, Switzerland, Lithuania, Greece, China and Singapore.

It all has the makings of a colourful, vibrant coming together of various cultures to create a true smorgasbord of Madiba’s Rainbow Nation.

For us who know the harsh reality of apartheid segregation first-hand, events such as the World Choir Games hold special significance because there was a time when we could not even dream of living as a free people – let alone being entrusted with the responsibility of hosting international visitors.

As the African Cultural Development Organisation the key driving factor behind our decision to bid for the World Choir Games was that, despite the immense popularity of choral music across the land, a lot of our choirs had never participated on the world stage. This is purely because they were disadvantaged economically.

An event of the stature and magnitude of the World Choir Games presents an opportunity not only for South Africa to once again display its world-renowned hospitality and ability to successfully host the world, but also for Africans to unite through music.

The event will also offer workshops, seminars and open rehearsal sessions. During these workshops, choirs, conductors and individuals will be introduced to international choral literature, singing styles and performance practices.

The impact that such exposure will have on the participants, especially the young ones, will be profound. For many, it will be a life-long highlight.

During the 3rd World Choir Games in Bremen, Germany, some 14 years ago, a girl from the small town of Piet Retief took the world by storm.

Her name was Pretty Yende. This lovely soprano has since won multiple awards and performed leading roles internationally at various magnificent opera houses, including La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in Italy and New York City.

Another success story that is proudly associated with the World Choir Games, is the runaway success of the Stellenbosch University Choir, who have won the competition four times and are the reigning champions.

So, it’s an immensely exciting time for South Africa, Gauteng, the City of Tshwane and the African child.

Less than two months from now, in the beautiful and liberated land of Nelson Mandela, we have an opportunity to unearth another Pretty Yende. Or 10. Or another Stellenbosch University Choir we can hardly wait to see.

Ali Mpofu is founder of the African Cultural Development Organisation and head of the local organising committee of the World Choir Games.