SOUTH AFRICA FOR A SONG

Philip Dick­son en­joys a visit to the home of the Drak­ens­berg Boys’ Choir as it cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ON a se­cluded 40.5ha es­tate tucked into the Cham­pagne Val­ley in the cen­tral Drak­ens­berg moun­tains of South Africa, the ac­claimed Drak­ens­berg Boys’ Choir School is cel­e­brat­ing its 40th birth­day.

In the shad­ows of tow­er­ing basalt sum­mits and flat-topped mono­liths, the school’s 600-seat au­di­to­rium rings with the sounds of Han­del’s Mes­siah and Bach’s StMatthew Pas­sion , and rocks with mighty per­for­mances in an un­ex­pected reper­toire fea­tur­ing rock, pop and jazz.

There’s stand­ing room only at this Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon con­cert; cen­tre stage in the hushed au­di­to­rium a tiered as­sem­bly of choir­boys stands mo­tion­less in tai­lored blue waist­coats and frilled white bibs.

As the mu­sic starts, the boys be­gin sway­ing and bob­bing in a rhyth­mic, en­ter­tain­ing and ul­ti­mately elec­tri­fy­ing per­for­mance that brings the au­di­ence to its feet.

The thrilling in­ter­pre­ta­tion of African folk mu­sic, for which the boys are now dressed in vi­brant vests known as madiba , and dra­matic chore­og­ra­phy evoke tra­di­tional vil­lage life set to pul­sat­ing African har­monies. As one, the au­di­ence hoots and whis­tles for more.

The in­ter­val in the cramped vestibule gives me a chance to plun­der the tray of cakes made by the boys in their cook­ing classes and grab a cup of tea.

The boys are busk­ing at the ta­bles, singing a cap­pella and min­gling with the vis­i­tors, but be­fore long they re­turn to the stage for their finale, which in­cludes an en­er­getic med­ley of tra­di­tional African songs. Start­ing with gen­tle so­los and haunt­ing har­monies, the tempo is cranked up as African drums beat out fast, in­tox­i­cat­ing rhythms.

The lights are dimmed and night ap­pears to fall on the au­di­to­rium as we tune into the per­cus­sive sounds of frogs, crick­ets, owls and even the chill­ing roar of a dis­tant lion. The sound of a steady down­pour pro­duced by a bam­boo rain stick and sud­den thump of a bass drum have me con­vinced I will be drenched when I leave.

The highly en­er­getic gum­boot danc­ing, which orig­i­nated in South Africa’s gold­mines, has me out of my seat and stomp­ing along. I learn later that the gum­boots were worn un­der­ground by black min­ers dur­ing the apartheid era. The com­plex slap­ping of the boots and stomp­ing of gummed soles al­lowed coded mes­sages to be com­mu­ni­cated.

Since the board­ing school’s in­cep­tion in 1967, this mul­ti­cul­tural choir has sung with Lu­ciano Pavarotti, toured with the Vi­enna Boys’ Choir and per­formed for pope John Paul II at Vat­i­can City in front of 25,000 peo­ple.

The choir en­rolled its first black pupil in 1988 and be­came the only mul­tira­cial choir in pre-Man­dela South Africa. The school has more than 100 stu­dents aged nine to 15 who win their places with tough au­di­tions held through­out south­ern Africa.

All to­gether now: South Africa’s Drak­ens­berg Boys’ Choir School per­forms

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