This afternoon I took a small crew up the coast, to St. Lucia, to film a local choir rehearsal. Suffice to say whatever assumptions I had about church choirs were quickly challenged. I learned about the choir from our driver and translator, the wonderful Herman: his son and wife are both members.
We arrive at Herman’s homestead in St. Lucia, just an hour’s drive from the Lodge, and walk literally down the garden path to discover a narrow wooden shed behind the house. From inside the shed I can hear the unmistakable sound of human voices locked in a sweet and powerful major chord. I don’t understand the language. But I know they are singing about God.
Not wishing to interrupt, I wait until the song is over. Herman knocks on the shed and immediately seven singers emerge, four male and three female, each wearing traditional tunics and black trousers. Herman introduces me to the singers and right away I can tell they are nervous: this is the first time in South Africa I have not received full eye contact and a warm embrace. I like to think it has nothing to do with me personally. But I can’t be too sure.
I learn, later, the choir has never been filmed, not even a snapshot or still photography. And they most certainly have never been recorded. So I am both humbled and overwhelmed by their generosity, and courage, for letting us into their world and sharing their music. In this, and other things, it is best to approach with humility and grace.
Sound and music guru Bryan Potvin (Northern Pikes!) decides there is too much wind to record outside as originally planned. Better to film in the controlled environment of the woodshed. Which is good, musically speaking. But it’s a shame, visually, because at this very moment a low-hanging sun is casting a gorgeous and warm light over the landscape.
So Bryan gets to work setting up his gazillion-dollar microphones in the woodshed and Eric, our cameraman, begins to strap all 35 pounds of his Steadicam gear to his body. He looks like a Stormtrooper; which may not be a good thing in front of seven already skittish South African singers (Eric used to be a cop, and it shows).
But the choir isn’t paying any attention to the tech set-up. They’re quietly warming up, off to one side, perhaps to help calm their nerves. I realize the longer the guys take setting up, the more nervous the singers are likely to become. So I ask Herman to translate: tell them to come back outside, while the sun is still out, and ask them to ‘warm up’ in full voice.
What a change. Suddenly the leader of the choir sings out in perfect English:
and he is answered by the others:
‘The POWER… of Jesus’ Love…’
The shyness, or what passed for shyness, vanishes. The choir launches into an old spiritual, loud and clear, call and response; true gospel. The hymn rises to a crescendo and holds on the final chord for full ten seconds. Then silence.
Bryan pokes his head out of the shed, stunned by the last two-and-a-half minutes: what WAS that? I applaud, of course, wildly and enthusiastically, slamming my palms together. Holy Moley, Boney Maroney. My hand-clapping just might have frightened them all over again, since as a church choir they are not used to ‘applause’ as you and I know it. They are singing for their God.
But that doesn’t stop me from hooting and clapping. ‘Again!’ I say in spite of myself, almost laughing, ‘another one!’ Well, now. The ice has broken. All seven singers are smiling, making full eye contact; laughing at my laughter.
They begin to sing another hymn, this one a Zulu spiritual, just as lovely. Bryan is still checking levels in the woodshed, but Eric is now fully loaded and waiting with his camera… Ah… just do it! I ask Eric to start rolling on this ‘warm-up’ in the sun. Even though we are officially filming the sequence in the woodshed, it seems ridiculous not to capture this. Even if we never use it.
So Eric pans along the singers, bobbing his camera gently across their faces, their hands; their swaying bodies. Not once do they look into the camera, and I can’t TELL you how thrilled I am about that (try filming professional singers in North America and you’ll see just how many takes are ruined by bunny-in-the-headlights).
The Zulu spiritual is accompanied by choreographed moves, simple but powerful gestures, so Eric pulls back for a wide master shot of the entire group, moving as one.
The hymn comes to an end. I applaud again, louder this time, and now I know we’re ready to film the ‘real’ rehearsal inside. There is a glimmer in Bryan’s eye as he moves to his mixing board. He knows he’s about to capture something special.
The singing I heard today is still with me, hours later. It strikes me that 99% of the music I’ve heard since arriving in South Africa has all been in a major key. In plain terms, it’s all ‘happy’ music. Even the songs and hymns one hears at funerals, all across Kwa-Zulu Natal… they’re all in major keys. They’re not cheerful by any means…but they’re certainly not the funeral dirges you hear in most of the Western world.
You can hear a South African funeral hymn in the opening 16 bars of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’ (about the eponymous black man who was murdered by white policeman in Port Elizabeth in 1977). Wailing, crying, singing, sure… but it’s in a major key.
More interestingly, most of the music in South Africa follows the traditional 1, 4, 5 structure you hear in today’s popular music. It’s the foundation of pretty much every rock and roll song ever written! Start on the root, or tonic note – C Major. Then go to the perfect fourth – F major. Then back to the root. From there go to the major fifth – G major, then the F again, and finish back on the root – C major.
That’s it. Three chords. The basis of all rock, blues, and soul. When Bob Dylan famously said ‘all I need is three chords and the truth,’ that’s what he was talking about. Clever Bobby Zimmerman! Listen to ‘Blowin in the Wind.’ One, four, five. But it started well before him. Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger...
I get a chill thinking about it; writing about it even now. Because when people talk about the ‘roots’ of Rock ‘N Roll they’re usually referring to a specific time in American music history – namely, the Mississippi delta blues, the birth of Bluegrass, deep in the American South.
But that music had to come from somewhere. It was brought over by the slaves of wealthy American landowners and sharecroppers. Brought over, of course, from Africa.
A kind of circle has just been completed for me. The root of popular music, brought to America, from Africa. I suppose I already knew this, intellectually. But to bear witness to it, to hear the actual roots, live, in Africa... Chills. Of course many of these musical traditions stayed in Africa, and perhaps they evolved a bit. But not by much.
After we film the rehearsal, Bryan lets each member of the choir listen to the results on his AWESOME Bose headphones. And this moment, the looks on their faces as they hear themselves back for the first time their lives… This is the highlight of my trip to South Africa.
The wedding was fun. The helicopter was exciting. The scenery was and is still breathtaking. But this purely human moment, of pure human joy in each of the singers’ faces… they whoop and they holler, they high-five and they weep for joy. They simply cannot believe their ears.
We’ve wrapped for the night, and it’s dark now. But we stay for another hour, passing the earphones back and forth; reliving the musical moment until it’s time for bed.